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What exactly is Doctor Who? Why is this a show we keep coming back to after decades? There are a lot of answers one can give, and a lot of different reasons, but the biggest one can be boiled down to one moment in “It Takes You Away”, where the Doctor has a conversation with a talking frog who is a sentient alternate reality that’s chilling out on a white chair where she basically has to break up with the frog with “it’s not you, it’s me”. It’s absolutely bonkers, played straight, and is exactly why Doctor Who exists as a program. There are other reasons, but this is the big one: it gives us something that absolutely nothing else on television is even thinking of doing.
This is an episode that gives us not only a magic mirror that leads into faerie land, and then into an alternate mirror universe, an orc with a magic light up balloon that attracts giant flesh-eating moths, monsters in the woods that turn out to be an illusory trick, stories of plotting sheep from dreams or nightmares, dopplegangers of dead loved ones whispering lies, and finally a frickin’ frog on a chair. This is a veritable treasure trove of wonderful, wondrous images, and we’re lucky to have each of them. There have been massive effects-laden blockbusters with hundreds of millions of dollars in budget that don’t even get close to the number of memorable images we’re treated to in “It Takes You Away”.
But the images aren’t hollow, luckily, and each supports the structure on what is unquestionably the most “Doctor-Who-y” episode we’ve had so far this year, and the episode that really clearly states what this season was about. I’ve written about the recurring themes of the series, but I’m now confident I know what it’s about, and so before we move on to picking things apart, let’s just get it out there:
Over all, this series of Doctor Who is about failed standards of masculinity.
From the toxic “you have to kill someone to be a man” of the Stenza, to Epzo forgoing teamwork for self-interest in “The Ghost Monument”, to the stoic-handsome-authoritative evil racist in Rosa, to the cowardly but power hungry Trump-stand-in in “Arachnids in the UK”, to—okay I don’t have to list everything, do I? The other themes lay into this, support it. The infringements on bodily autonomy. The need to combine organic life with technology to support power structures—we’re inhabiting a world this season where the failures of masculinity have been laid bare. It’s why Graham has been our point character, he’s not perfect, but he’s a model of a strong but caring kind of masculinity, an alternate to the ones the characters run into, while Ryan has been damaged by the same kind of toxic masculinity that’s destroying the family in this episode.
Throughout the season, we’ve been shown lots of bad parents, and in “It Takes You Away” we reach a climax on that. Ryan’s father left, and couldn’t even bother to show up for his own mother’s funeral. Epzo’s mother abused him. King James I’s mother abandoned him. All of these bad parents have left damage, and here is the challenge: we meet a man who is a bad father.
Erik is so caught up in his own wants and desires, he has boiled his brain into excusing his own selfishness. His daughter Hanne can take care of herself, after all. Or so he says. So he makes her afraid, for her own good. Or so he says. But really, he has abandoned his daughter because he’s selfish: he has the woman he loves, or so he thinks. He is blinded by his own importance. Unfortunately, this is all foreseen by Ryan. Early in the episode, Ryan says exactly what her dad has done: run off and left her. Everyone else assumes that there’s a Doctor Who monster afoot. Some menacing beastie in the woods that is hunting Hanne. Hanne wants to get her father back, she loves her father, but Ryan has been right this whole time. He lived through it before, and his experience is the most valuable here, but no one knows it.
In contrast, we have Graham. Both Graham and Erik have lost their wives, but Graham recognizes that the chance to live alone with Grace is wrong, because it means that Ryan will be alone. Graham realizes this when confronted with the reality that Ryan will be alone, while Erik only realizes it when his wife turns him down for the Doctor. For Erik, this was always selfish. It wasn’t about his wife being alive, really. It wasn’t about Hanne. It was about his own loss and longing for his wife.
The only way to end this is for the Doctor break his entire illusory mess, and she only can do this by playing against the forces of his toxic masculinity. She steals his girl. When he realizes he’s not wanted, that this wasn’t really his wife, the spell is broken. Hocus Pocus.
Because, this was all magic tricks. The fake sounds are our first clue, that this is an illusory game. The Solitract makes a world, just as Erik made a world. The Doctor constructs a lie for Hanne on the wall that she cannot see. Ryan tries his best to follow the Doctor’s lie. But all of these lies have holes: Hanne can hear that the chalk is writing, not drawing. Ryan can see the wires to the speakers, and see that Hanne’s dad has abandoned her. The Doctor can see that the Solitract isn’t really dead loved ones. On their own, each person would be trapped, but together they can see through the lies. There is strength in togetherness, something the Solitract longs for but can never find.
That togetherness brings back Father and Daughter, the Father has failed her, but he is back, and hopefully learned something from it. And Graham and Ryan are together, and family. He’s a grandfather now, after all this time. Even in our imperfections, together, humans can be amazing.
Which leads to the greatest scenes we get: the Frog on the chair. The Doctor has to convince the Solitract to let them go, and appeals to it’s better nature to do so. We have seen the tricks, but this is real magic, faerie land. The unknown too strange to be faked. The frog on the chair is the same as the orc and his light up balloons, but brighter. She is something beyond, revealing herself in her favorite form. Not death, or an illusion, but a form she trusts the Doctor to see, letting her in without the pretense of fakery. It’s a world of dreams. Mentioning the sheep at the start wasn’t just kidding around.
And of course it’s weird, anything beyond our little lives is. The Earth is just a tiny speck compared to the great celestial bodies in our universe, so small it can barely be seen next to them. And if you go in closer, there’s a girl in her bed in Norway. What does she dream of? Sheep? And in her dream, there is a frog, and in the frog’s dream, there is a world, in that world, if we zoom down, there is a girl in a bed in Norway.
We always wake up, but for that little moment, we’re in Faerie Land. Maybe there’s a frog there to. And maybe, if we’re really really lucky, someone will put that dream on our television sets, laptops, and phones. How lucky would we be then?
It could take us away.
Poet, Playwright, Game Designer, Writer, Freelancer for hire.