Saturday, May 18, 2024

Nordic Noir Turns Into a Love and Loss on Doctor Who

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The Doctor and team go to Norway, 2018 in the penultimate episode of the series, “It Takes You Away”. What begins as an atmospheric Nordic noir soon turns on its head with anti-zones and…frogs? Well, that’s one way to explore what it means to grieve and to not want to be alone.

That’s not normal…even for Norway

Let’s start where the episode began, in the Norwegian fjords. The first half of the episode builds up an atmosphere of Nordic noir, complete with the scenery and the suspense. It almost felt like we would get as close as DW can to horror. It became complete with the house in the middle of nowhere with just a girl inside. Hanne, played by Eleanor Wallwork is alone in the house because her dad’s been gone for days and she’s been told not to go outside. She’s also blind (played by a blind actor, the first in the show’s history) but that doesn’t stop her from trying to find her dad.

Team TARDIS’s investigation is brief but shows how well they work together. Through their interactions with Hanne and growing suspicions, the episode only gets more intense as we get closer to the first reveal. Even the anti-zone scenes keep the tone despite the sci-fi elements. We have a potential villain in Ribbons (Kevin Eldon), who’s creepy and slimy and just the kind of distraction we need. By the time the Doctor and co. crosses into the Solitract plane, it came as a real twist that it’s not a big bad monster haunting Hanne and her house.

The scenes between Ryan and Hanne grow just like their relationship and it was nice to see Ryan bond with someone, especially someone younger. Initially, it was Yaz who comforted Hanne but it was better to let her go with the Doctor. Ryan staying behind is logical from the plot’s perspective not only because that leaves Graham to deal with Grace. Sure, that’s part of it, and we’ll get back to that. But part of it is also that Ryan gets to be the empathetic and protective one, a role that usually falls on the others. He could have used more screentime with Hanne and he could have mentioned his own dad to her but it was a nice dynamic regardless. Plus it might have contributed to Ryan finally calling Graham at the end of the episode.

There’s also Erik, the dad himself. Again, the episode does a great job of leading us to believe that something terrible has happened to him, even if we were expecting a twist. The reveal that he Village-d Hanne into staying in and near the house is pretty messed up and sadly unexplored in its implications. Sure, Erik does get called out for being a shitty dad and Graham and Yaz’s outrage at him is great. Still, he gets away with abandoning and tricking her way too easily. There is the start of a conversation about him doing all this out of grief and Hanne gets that. This is at the core of the episode thematically but this particular moment gets interrupted straight away. Shame, really.

You wanted to be with us

Speaking of love and grief, the Solitract. The Solitract, this week’s big bad is another misunderstood soul. Well, you could argue that the real “bad guys” were the flesh moths and maybe Ribbons. The Solitract was responsible for creating the mirror universe, all because it was lonely. Because of this we get some very interesting scenes with Erik and Trine regarding loss and letting go, and even more so with Graham and Grace.

About 10 minutes before Grace appeared on screen I was thinking: “I wish they would bring Grace up again and discuss Graham’s grief, “Arachnids in the UK” lay a pretty good groundwork for that.” And what do you know, Grace herself came back in “It Takes You Away”. Except that it wasn’t Grace as such, even if Sharon D Clarke did return for the role. This Grace still had the memories of the real and certainly acted like the Grace we knew from “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”. All the harder this made it for Graham to let go.

See, I have one problem with all this: the problem of fridging Grace back in the first episode comes back to haunt the story. Not so much the fact that she did die, that was always meant to be in the script. But the way she died makes these otherwise beautiful and heartbreaking interactions less impactful. I loved the scenes Graham had with Grace but it was almost more than what we had when it really was Grace. We feel Graham’s pain because we’ve grown to like him as a character but we’ve never had the chance to really get to know Grace. This is not on Ed Hime, by the way, this episode’s writer. He could only work with what Chibnall put into the that first script, and for this to work that just wasn’t enough.

The theme of the episode still comes across very strongly but it’s mostly up to the actors and especially Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor to do that. It’s not through Erik or even Graham that it all comes together but through the Doctor. Another thing I was hoping would happen this episode was that the Doctor would react to this idea of manipulating people’s grief. Whittaker’s Thirteen has been very upbeat and lovable so far and I love that, but every one in a while it’s good to see that she’s more than capable of portraying other sides of the Doctor. “It Takes You Away” demonstrated that perfectly by giving her a speech that was reminiscent of Matt Smith’s “The Rings of Akhaten” one. It was much shorter and with less angst but for a moment the Doctor’s hurt was evident and Whittaker proved yet again how perfect she is for the role.

Even better was the scene that followed, between the Doctor and the Solitractor. Many, including myself, expected the Solitract to take on the form of someone the Doctor has loved and lost. The possibilities for this are truly endless, but popular fan choices include Clara, River, Missy, Rose or even Susan. And yes, I thought that would have been quite cool too, but this was the one point where the episode proved me wrong and I’m glad for that. Getting any of the actors back to do a quick scene would have been difficult logistically and it was better for the story way. Thirteen is very much a Doctor who is now willing to let go of the past and not agonize over it, which is something that all the New Doctors had been doing. More than that, Thirteen didn’t need to be lured in by the promise of a loved one because she was willing to stay with the Solitract anyway.

If not for the threat of the universe collapsing, the Doctor would have stayed. And isn’t that such an accurate portrayal of the Thirteenth Doctor? She stays not only because she’s willing to sacrifice herself but because she wants to. She shows the Solitract compassion and is genuinely excited to learn about it and teach it what she knows. Her pure admiration for its frog form (which I’ll get to in a bit) is such a Doctor-y thing. Thirteen is precious and Twelve would be so proud of this future self.

So, about that frog. I wasn’t gonna ignore the fact that instead of an old face we got a frog speaking in Grace’s voice. “Me and a conscious universe masquerading as a frog. BFFs.” Is it ridiculous? Completely. Yet somehow it makes perfect sense for the show to do this in the episode’s most crucial scene. Initially it did feel a bit too ridiculous for the overall tone of the episode and like we’ve been robbed of an alternative Solitract form. Thinking of it now, I’m fine with the frog. It doesn’t make any sense but it still manages to work.

It even looked cheap, come on DW

At least we got each other

In terms of everyone getting their chance to shine, “It Takes You Away” might be the best episode for Team TARDIS yet. We had scenes of them working as a team and as individuals everyone had something going for them. For Graham, it’s obviously the illusion of Grace’s presence. Like I said, it would have had more effect if we had more time with the two and a “better death” for Grace, but their scenes still worked and Bradley Walsh truly outdid himself. He also proved how much he cares for Ryan by wanting to save him instead of living out the fantasy of Grace still being alive. He deserved to be called Granddad.

As for Ryan, his main focus was Hanne, like I said before. This was a great chance to see another side of him, though it’s a shame he didn’t even get to see Grace. His pain is not compared to Graham’s which is appreciated; suffering is not a competition. It also means that he doesn’t even get the chance to explore how much he misses his Nan, though, expect in during a quiet moment with Graham. Still, his exclusion from that part of the story meant that he had his own shenanigans with Hanne and that he finally called Graham Granddad. Their moment, if not perfect, feels earned and shows how much Ryan has grown to love and respect Graham. And the other way around, don’t forget that episode 1 Graham was kind of a jerk to Ryan.

Yaz’s moments come when she’s working with the Doctor. The two make a rather nice duo and Yaz is already showing signs of picking up the Doctor’s way of thinking. Not in the Rose “you even sound like him” or the Clara “the Hybrid” kind of way, it’s more… healthy. Scenes like the Doctor explaining her fifth Granny’s stories or Yaz suggesting that she reverses the polarity really make this pairing for me. All the emerging dynamics within the Team TARDIS fam are exciting to watch but if I had to pick one these two would probably be my favourite.

Closing thoughts

“It Takes You Away” is undoubtedly a strange episode. Halfway through it gets flipped on its head—literally, it gets mirrored vertically. But also in another sense, it goes from being Doctor Who‘s version of a Nordic noir to the anti-zone and then ends up being a thoughtful yet bonkers piece on grief. Despite the strong themes it doesn’t always follow up on the scenes with the potential to explore these themes, but we still get an overview and a pretty nuanced portrayal. Bradley Walsh and Jodie Whittaker are exceptional in the episode and bring out the most of their scenes. Sharon D Clarke’s return to the show as Grace is a welcome one, though her pointless death from the first episode is not erased. Not that it should be, and “It Takes You Away” did the best it could by dealing with Graham’s grief.

Guest stars Christian Rubeck (Erik) and Lisa Stokke (Trine) didn’t have an awful lot to work with but did a good job anyway. Eldon’s Ribbons was a creeper gone within a few scenes, but Eleanor Wallwork’s Hanne was the true guest star of the episode. Considering that she’s British and that the TARDIS would have translated Hanne’s Norwegian anyway, I felt like the accent was a bit too much but the character worked well.

Something that also needs a mention is the Doctor’s humour. Not just in “It Takes You Away” but the whole series, really, Thirteen has so many good lines. This week’s two big favourite’s were the sheep being “off plotting somewhere” and Granny Two being an agent for the Zygons. When you least expect it, Whittaker’s Doctor will come up with something ludicrous. Most of it is probably scripted but her delivery is what makes the punchlines work.

“It Takes You Away” is weird in how it changes itself and the ways in which it chooses to deal with its topic. This makes for a very enjoyable episode with suspense and emotional payoff, though some of its scenes could have used more time. The Doctor’s final scene with the Solitract still drives the point home and does so by having her talk to a frog. An entire conscious universe manifesting itself as a frog. Oh, how delightful it is to be a fan of this show.

Thirteen’s first season comes to an end with the next episode, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos”, guest starring Mark Addy and Phyllis Logan.

Images courtesy of the BBC

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