Janine Rivers (@janinemrivers on Twitter) is a writer, script editor, and musician. She spends her days working in a library, and is the head-writer and editor behind her passion project, The Twelfth Doctor Adventures. Her favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi.
Tom Marshall is a postgraduate working in the field of Norse mythology and ecocriticism. He has written about Doctor Who and other TV shows for CultBox, the Outside In book series, You and Who Else, and You and 42. His favourite Doctor is … also Peter Capaldi.
Header picture by Esterath (@finlay_hs)
Janine: For the first time since the Matt Smith era, we’re back to a one-part finale. Regardless of how we feel about that (and any villains which may or may not be making an appearance), it means that rather than a suspenseful high-concept opening half, the penultimate episode of the series is… a standalone Doctor Who adventure. Coming off the back of “Dark Water”, “Heaven Sent”, and “World Enough and Time”, I was expecting that to feel strange. But rather than a “Closing Time” or a “Nightmare in Silver”, we got “It Takes You Away” — which is, in itself, something worth talking about; both new territory for the show, and perhaps the most ‘Doctor Who’ this series has been so far. Which says a lot about how Doctor Who works: it’s truest to itself when it’s trying new things. And whilst I’m a bit upset at the loss of two-part finales, I’m really glad that we got this.
Tom: Yes, I don’t find myself missing the almighty cliff-hanger leading into the big finale too much when what we get instead is a story that is quite this, well, ‘Doctor Who’, as you say. I’d go so far as to say its absurdism and its ability to juggle various different worlds and aesthetics make it the most Doctor Whoish Doctor Who episode episode since at least the Series 10 finale, and perhaps longer. It does experimental things the show just hasn’t been doing this year, and it has a richness and a lyricism we’ve not been seeing too much of lately, coupled with high-concept ideas, wit, and genuine pathos. In short I’m very pleased that this late-season stealth hit came along to surprise us before Chibnall takes the pen back next week.
Janine: What I find interesting, and very surprising, is that we actually get two major bits of pay-off here: Graham getting a sort of closure with Grace (though I think there’s more to come there), and Graham and Ryan finally healing their rift. Which I also find beautiful. Playing that beat in the finale would have been the obvious (and so predictably boring) thing to do, but letting those moments play out within an ordinary adventure just adds something inexpressibly wonderful to that moment.
Tom: Definitely, and although the Graham-Grace material could perhaps have hit harder if it was following off the back of more substantive engagement with his grief throughout the season, it was done well here, and it feels churlish to blame Ed Hime for the sins of earlier episodes. More impressive, for me, was the Ryan-Graham reconciliation; as you say, they’re healing their rift, and the character work behind it justifies it completely. Ryan has spent the episode in the company of a teenager with a missing father figure, which of course is going to remind him of himself; more to the point, he’s been forced to ‘perform’ the father figure role, and so I read the scene as him both coming to understand the heavy lifting Graham has had to do in his life, but also having the emotional intelligence to perceive that Graham needs this kind of validation right now. It’s really lovely stuff.
Janine: Oh, absolutely. I think the mirrors were a very big thematic signpost — “look, this episode is about seeing reflections of yourself in others!” But that’s okay: I’m increasingly convinced that we’re growing up media illiterate, and maybe need that sort of thing pointing out to us. Because there are definite parallels between this week’s guest characters and the leads: the grieving parent figure, the dead wife asserting agency from beyond the grave, the lost child… and we can learn about ourselves through those reflections. You don’t need high stakes to develop interpersonal relationships, and this episode demonstrates that well. Sometimes we have epiphanies when we look at other people’s lives and think “Maybe this says something about me”.
Tom: I was surprised, given that the season has struggled with this balance at times, that the psychology of all the characters felt fairly rich, from the guest cast to the companions to the Doctor herself. Pairing Hanne and Ryan for much of the episode is the obvious inspired choice, but I also liked what we saw of Yaz here – building on her instinctively sympathetic way of dealing with younger and/or more vulnerable people, from consoling Angstrom or Willa Twiston to her treatment of Hanne. Although “good with children” is a relatively generic companion trait, we’ve not seen it come up in the context of someone having been trained in precisely that skill before. That feels unusual and distinctive.
Janine: Seeing more of Yaz’s police skills is definitely something I’m hoping for as we move forward. And, in fact, seeing an arc for her at all. I think Series 11 has very much been Ryan and Graham’s series — I wouldn’t even be surprised if Yaz is there purely to make up the numbers on a 50/50 gender dynamic. So as great as Ryan and Graham are — and they’re genuinely lovely characters — it’s Yaz who primarily interests me from here. Not because she’s necessarily my favourite, but because we’ve yet to see what she’s made of.
Tom: I have a sneaking suspicion, based on nothing at all, that Ryan and Graham may leave in the New Year’s special and we’ll have much more of Yaz next year. But time will tell… it always does!
Janine: A big highlight of the Graham/Grace scenes was Graham’s weary, solemn resignation as he is confronted by the evidence that Grace is the Solitract. It’s a beat that’s been played before with fake duplicates, revealing their motives by confronting them about the people they should care about, but it does work particularly well with Graham and Grace: in the end, Graham almost does communicate with Grace. By identifying the flaws in the Solitract representation, he hears the real Grace’s instruction to go and save Ryan. In that capacity, I think we still see Grace acting with some agency, getting some sort of legacy in the people she’s left behind. It reminds me of Mary Watson in Sherlock Series 4, and how — as problematic as her fridging was — she still manages to retain control of Sherlock and John’s narratives long after her death.
Tom: That’s a really interesting point; I hadn’t thought of the “real Grace” being positioned behind the Grace avatar in that way. Her fridging in the opener has been one of this series’ great mixed bags – it’s granted Ryan and Graham some decent character work, but it’s rooted in disposing of an elderly woman of colour (and a vibrant character!) when there are so few positive such representations in British drama. But that’s a redemptive reading I hadn’t considered, and also seems a distinctively Moffatesque trope: death doesn’t call time on agency. The narrative tyranny of finality is another hurdle, not a closed door.
Janine: Exactly! Then we come to the Solitract, which is a delightful concept, and very Doctor Who — not just in its absurdity or scale, but in the way it casually redefines the origins of the universe in a science-fantasy show that’s been running for (almost exactly) fifty-five years. Absolutely nothing is sacred, not even Time Lord/Zygon lore. But that’s what’s so wonderful!
But it uses that scale and weirdness to do what Doctor Who does best with scale: make these cosmic interactions reflective of the intimate; as above, so below. Yes, this is, on the face of it, a story about a sentient universe exiled away from our universe for the rest of oblivion. But it’s also about doomed or unhealthy relationships — about knowing when something is unsustainable, when trying to maintain a connection will jeopardise the very core of our being. Just like Graham and Grace, Erik and Trine: pursuing a relationship with your late wife isn’t going to be healthy, and at some point you have to let go. The Doctor loves the Solitract, of course she does. But love can consume you when the conditions are wrong. Sometimes we have to let go.
Tom: Dealing with isolation by constantly trying to draw others in, whether by honey-trap or manipulation, and then growing up by no longer doing that, accepting that you’re enough and do not need to depend on other people (“brilliant on your own”). So, yes, on a literal level it seems cruel, but as a metaphor and counterpoint to Erik it’s superb.
Janine: Definitely. It’s also something we just don’t see from Doctor Who that often: the implication that there are some places even the Doctor can’t go. Not terrible places — beautiful ones, in fact. But places which her very presence would disrupt the nature of things. Schrodinger’s universe, if you like. There’s quite a rich tragedy to that notion; the traveller who can never reach the most beautiful places of all, because she just isn’t compatible with them. But again, it’s rooted in the real world. There are some places on Earth that our presence would jeopardise, certain remote habitats where either we’d be killed, or we’d cause endless damage to the delicate workings of a harmonious ecosystem. Every traveller has to step back eventually.
Tom: The dialogue between the Doctor and the Solitract is so nuanced, so deftly written – the way they both get across joy and delight, curiosity and melancholia, in a few lines. And it fits Jodie’s Doctor perfectly that she would befriend this strange new creature so quickly: after all, she declared to Yaz within minutes of meeting her “I’m calling you Yaz, ’cause we’re friends now.”
Janine: She’s quite a romantic, isn’t she? And Jodie just soars in this script, so much so that I’ve seen a lot of people claiming that this was when she finally became the Doctor for them. One of my previous guests pointed out that he loved her scientific curiosity most of all, and I can see why that would be — there’s such an honesty to Thirteen; she just wants to learn, and see new things, and make new friends.
Tom: She certainly gets her “Rings of Akhaten” moment here, offering up her all to the Solitract – and how marvellous, in a season that is still thin on the ground when it comes to LGBT representation, that we get to see her effectively seducing a woman (the Trine-avatar) away from her husband (“you don’t need him, I can give you everything”). She also gets to be a shade more devious than we’ve seen her so far; the thing with the map is almost McCoy/Smith manipulation, albeit one rooted in kindness and concern for another.
That fascination with deception runs throughout the story, though – Ryan lying to Hanne, Erik lying to Hanne, the Doctor and co lying to Hanne about the map, Erik lying to himself but also constructing visual tricks way beyond what he needs to do for Hanne (lying to the viewers?), the Solitract lying to Erik and Graham, a fake monster in the woods, a monster in the wardrobe that’s actually Hanne, a cut string, a “nice fjord, that is a fjord, innit?” that we all know is CGI, sheep that are really revolutionaries, the “frilly bits” nod to Hitchhikers‘ Slartibartfast and thus the ‘artificiality’ of Norway itself, a TV-Norway where accurately portraying Arctic winter doesn’t matter in the slightest…
Janine: Everybody wants to protect Hanne, but they do so by exploiting the fact of her disability. Which only leads to Hanne rebelling, entering the Antizone on her own, just like the child entering the forest in every fairy story; or just like every teenager ever, who is sick of being protected from the harsh realities of the world. The intentions are admirable, but if Hanne were treated as a grown-up from the start, they probably wouldn’t have run into half the problems they did. Sometimes we should confront the monsters with our children, rather than hiding those monsters away — and we definitely shouldn’t create new monsters just to protect them from!
Tom: Absolutely. Here if I may I’ll bring in a peculiarly Scandinavian idea, though it’s a popular export to the UK – hygge. It’s more of a Danish concept but the word does exist in Norwegian as well. Broadly speaking, it means cosiness, comfort, contentment. Its impulses are quite anti-modern, rooted in nostalgia (note there is no WiFi in this cottage and the story could be set at any point in the last few decades). But there’s also a bit of a dark side to it, among concerns that it’s a way of skimming over darkness/trauma/absence, seeking cosiness that is maybe a bit illusory (reminding me somewhat of “Last Christmas”). Regrettably, it’s become a bit of a right-wing symbol, too… and in a Scandi setting, with the problematic blue-eyed blonde-haired mythology behind it, that’s a big deal. “Hygge excludes,” one critic has said; “you have all these ideas of kindness on the inside, but for our solidarity to function, you need pretty tall walls.” So the darkness ends up being within, not without. This is the tale of Beowulf and Grendel but if Grendel were in the hall the whole time.
But there was less connection with Norse mythology in this than I was expecting, actually (although I’m glad of that because after seeing this I think a story of a troll wandering through woods would have felt very old hat). I saw more Greek – in the labyrinth with the string – whilst the frog comes from a more fairytale backdrop, what with a princess blowing it a kiss and all. I’m also delighted that the frog gets reworked as a beautiful, surrealist symbol of friendship crossing borders, given the history of frogs being abused as symbols – from Aristophanes’ The Frogs (“old ways good, new ways bad”) to Pepe the Frog and the Cult of Kek the Egyptian frog deity in our Internet age.
Reclaiming the frog from the alt-right, if you will!
Janine: I feel like I shouldn’t dig too far into the imagery of the frog, because the whole appeal is consciously surface level. A whole universe is a frog! And why? Because Grace loved frogs! Why did Grace love frogs? Well, why not?! There’s nothing like revelling in those questions, in how this is the ending we get just because we do: because Grace happened to like those daft little creatures, and the Solitract happened to use Grace.
All the same, I do find the choice of animal interesting. It’s ostensibly not as loaded with baggage as, say, a Raven or a butterfly — but frogs have their place in the stories we tell. Is this a subtle retelling of the oldest love story there is; the young maiden who falls in love with the frog and turns it into a handsome prince? As you point out, perhaps, especially with the pointed blowing of a kiss. And as we said last week, Thirteen both encapsulates and rejects all aspects of the maiden/mother/crone neopagan Triple Goddess, and we know that the frog conceals a great, inconceivable beauty.
But I also think there’s a more simple reading; that, as the story establishes, Thirteen sees a frog because the Solitract had to take a form she’d understand. She never really enters the Solitract, only scratches the surface. In that way, she finds herself in what we might call a liminal space between universes (and we see an even larger, dark liminal space in the Antizone). And what’s a frog, but the most liminal of creatures? A being torn between water and earth? Of course it’s natural to get a story about crossing borders out of one.
Maybe the ambiguity is what makes this work. The frog could be a relevant symbol, or it could be an arbitrary form — the very arbitrariness of which is, itself, the point. The most important thing is that it isn’t Pepe.
Tom: Your mentioning the ‘choice of animal’ reminds me that Ed Hime has form when it comes to writing about animals taking powerful actions against humans – past plays of his include a revolution in a zoo and something called the Overland Vegetarian Resistance, whilst here we get lots of animal imagery and lots of thematic stuff to do with hunger as well… from Graham’s sandwich to the dead rats and birds, from the devouring Flesh Moths to Erik and Trine’s brunch, from bears outside to a stuffed moose head on the wall, it’s a fascinating and potentially quite large bit of subtext. Is grief the ultimate hungry monster that devours us when we’re at our lowest? “Heaven Sent” might suggest that it is. Or is the Solitract’s hunger for friendship, companionhood at all costs, itself a problem?
Janine: “Hardly anything is evil, but most things are hungry.”
Tom: Right. The sort of enlightenment we realise when we look at monster stories long and hard enough.
Janine: Doesn’t Ribbons introduce himself as ‘Ribbons of the Seven Stomachs’? It’s almost as if the Antizone is pure hunger, a primal state of nature where everything is predator, waiting to become prey, where intelligence is delicious, flesh is reduced to meat, and tragedy can make you hungry?
Tom: You mentioned the mirror imagery earlier, Janine – I was very impressed with what the episode did with mirrors, how did that work for you?
Janine: As I said before, I think they do the simple but rewarding task of signposting what the episode is going to do on a thematic level, but they also add interesting complications to the interior space of Hanne’s home. The mirrors almost transform what was a three-dimensional space into a four-dimensional one: create an axis of time, of history, in the house, such that you can navigate family tragedy like you’d normally navigate bedrooms.
And they reinforce the idea that, as you suggested, evil can come from within, even when ‘within’ seems to be a warm, cosy personal space.
Tom: Yes, it’s an episode that looks to the subconscious. If we think of Lacan: when you look into a mirror, you see the moi and become aware of the je looking at it. In the mirror in Erik’s bedroom, you can’t see yourself in the literal sense, but you certainly see deeper inside. So Erik is wrong. There aren’t worse things out there than people, really. This whole season, toxic masculinity has so often been the villain, and so this episode invites viewers to start with themselves by looking in the mirror and making the change. Mirrors can show us the way out of tragic labyrinths: rich stories that unfold beyond the truest mirror Doctor Who has in its arsenal – the TV screen. The black mirror, if you like, but it’s not bleak as Charlie Brooker would have it. It’s a way of fixing things. A process of healing. It takes you away… in order to bring you back to yourself. Much as “listen” goes from symbol of fear to symbol of hope, so does this episode’s title.
Janine: Altogether, I really loved that. It was a pleasant surprise on first viewing, and an absolute delight to deconstruct on rewatch. This is the sort of Doctor Who I wish we’d had more of this year: symbolically rich, emotively-driven, witty, mad, and beautiful. Boldly unafraid to throw a sentient universe masquerading as a northern frog at its audience. Ed Hime’s been a treasure, and though his background (like mine) is primarily in audio drama, you can see that he’s loving having the freedom to move to a visual medium — and is squeezing every drop of potential he can out of it.
As I said at the start, it’s a shame that we won’t be getting a Dark Water this year. But this is an alternative I really can’t complain about: a gorgeous little story about crossing bridges, saying goodbye, and healing wounds before the bigger battle next week. I’d be delighted to welcome Ed Hime back for Series 12.
Thanks so much for joining me, Tom, and I hope you enjoy the finale!
Tom:I’ve got precious little to add to your summary, Janine – you’ve pretty much covered it all. This is exactly my kind of Doctor Who… audaciously surreal, rooted in love, grief and loss. It’s full of images that haunt the imagination (a flesh moth crawling out of Ribbons’ eye socket; our initial glimpse of him bathed in crimson light and smoke; and, of course, a talking frog on a white chair, god of its own universe). It rewards constant re-examination and rewatching: a Ghost Light for the modern age. It’s a triumph.
Team Verdict: 9/10
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