The Nerdist Review
DOCTOR WHO Tells Us a Scary Bedtime Story About Grief
The following recap contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode “It Takes You Away”
As we near the end of Jodie Whittaker’s first season as the Doctor, we find our TARDIS team landing near a mysterious cottage in an isolated Norwegian forest. The house, boarded up and occupied by a blind teenage girl, Hanne (Eleanor Wallork) whose father has mysteriously vanished, is also seemingly under siege by an unseen growling monster that lurks in the woods. But the real threat lingers not outside, but inside, through a strange mirror that leads to a bizarre world.
If all that sounds like a fairy tale, it’s no wonder. One of the many tricks up Doctor Who’s sleeve is taking familiar elements of storytelling and twisting them around into the sci-fi plots in which it treads. Often these basic types of tales are used as a way of exploring some deeper, emotional theme. The most recent that springs to mind, “Listen,” turned the simple fear of something under the bed into a meditation on the way that fear changes us. “It Takes You Away” instead focuses on grief.
Almost every detail of the Coraline–esque story, right down to the title “It Takes You Away,” is representative of ways in which we try to deal with grief. Hanne’s father, Erik (Christian Rubeck) has sought refuge from his pain. He’s done this first in a very real world sense, withdrawing from his life and taking his daughter with him to an isolated cabin in the woods, inventing monsters outside to justify staying there. Now he’s vanished completely, hiding himself away in another universe, neglecting his own daughter in the process. In trying to solve the mystery, the Doctor and her companions bargain with a hostile creature who claims to be leading them to their goal, but truly only aims to draw them deeper and deeper into a dark cave.
The “villain,” of the episode, a sentient pocket universe straight out of a Gallifreyan bedtime story, is pitch-perfect for the depths of mourning. It’s the worlds that we create within ourselves, the realities we imagine where the things that have broken us haven’t occurred, where the people we lost are still alive and well. Even the fact that it’s found on the other side of a mirror is no small detail; who among the grieving hasn’t lost time to our own gaze into the looking glass?
Graham, who has taken a backseat in the past few episodes, is brought back to the forefront. On the other side of the mirror, Erik has hidden himself away with his reversed Slayer T-shirt and the reflection of his late wife Trine (Lisa Stokke). Here, Graham also comes face to face with Grace, (Sharon D Clarke), who died in the season’s premiere, “The Woman Who Fell To Earth.” We’ve seen Graham run from his grief before, unable to deal with the lingering ghosts of Grace in their shared home when he first returned in “Arachnids in the U.K.” But here he can’t just run; he’s got to make the decision of whether he wants to live within his guilt forever or move forward. While it’s been refreshing these last couple of weeks to have evil villains that must be stopped, I’ll always appreciate when Doctor Who makes us approach things in other directions. The poignancy of the solution — that Graham has to want to be let go in order to be set free — is the stuff the best Who stories are made from. That this leads to Ryan finally calling him grandad was a well-earned payoff for how their relationship has grown since the season began.
The Doctor, as usual, doesn’t get off quite so easy. She bargains again, this time to protect others. This is also a thing grief makes us do. We convince ourselves that to keep others’safe, we must dig our heels in and face the pain alone. This is a recurring theme for the Doctor throughout the modern revival series, first carrying the burden of the Time War, and later simply for those people the Doctor has lost along the way. It was this sense of loss that led the Twelfth Doctor to question if he even wanted to regenerate in “Twice Upon a Time.” We saw that referenced in “Woman Who Fell to Earth,” as well, when Jodie’s Doctor told her new friends that she carries with her the memories of everyone she’s ever loved.
That ties in here so nicely because she does exactly that. Recognizing that if she remains within this other universe it will destroy her and it in the process, she instead offers to make it her friend. She will carry its memory with her, make it a part of her that she takes with her. It’s a bargain not unlike that of