Two things before we go – one, I’ve noticed I didn’t plug on here the article I wrote on James Wylder’s excellent blog here. So … There you go. It’s about the new Halloween movie, and if you’ve enjoyed last week’s “Witchfinders” essay, I’m sure you’ll find plenty to enjoy.
Second, and I’m very honoured to say so, I can now officially announced I will get to rant about Chris Chibnall’s era in a more formal capacity, since I’ll be publishing a book-length analysis of “Arachnids in the UK” for the Black Archive range of Obverse Books in November 2020. Mark the date, beloved readers!
Now, to the main attraction …
That’s how Doctor Who restarts, in 2005. One word, opening the floodgates, letting the wonders of the universe come in.
One word – and one paradox.
There is, after all, something deeply ambivalent about that idea of running: the Doctor “never stops, and never stays”, to quote “Last of the Time Lords”, but that can be both praise and indictment. They are a force of revolution, of upheaval, sending monsters back into the dark and toppling unjust regimes – but their actions are less of a continuous process, and more of a series of spectacular and explosive dots. It’s revolution, but without the boring parts: the struggle, the grind, the effort. It’s revolutionary politics as imagined by an aristocrat from a race of gods: more aesthetics than praxis.
Which is why writers have actively questioned that ever-present silent dynamic: including, which is relevant to the conversation is, Chris Chibnall in “The Power of Three”, when he has Eleven say that he’s not running “from” things, but “to” them. But of course, the main dichotomy is the one Moffat introduces at the tail end of his run: against “run, you clever boy”, he conjures up “where I stand is where I fall”. In front of a new political and human context, the Doctor needs to learn new modes of engagement with humans, and human affairs.
Thirteen, as a character, very much does not follow that – she is all about the running. It is not necessarily a betrayal of the developments Moffat made, though: what carried the Twelfth Doctor’s ontological crisis was essentially an awareness of his own privilege – he used his own angst and issues as, essentially, fuel towards a political program of action (he does help Bill and provide a safe environment for her, for instance, but in order to do that, he has to be actively encouraged by the memories of the people he left behind, Clara, Susan and River). When you separate the character from that anguish, well …
But series 11 is not necessarily a regression that way, as tempting as it may be to deem it one. There are two elements pointing towards that – the first is that the “running”, in all its complicated implications, is not just the prerogative of the Doctor: in fact, it has essentially been displaced onto the companion characters. It’s not the first time they embrace that – Clara certainly was running away from her life, and reality in general, embracing joyful transcendence in fiction –, but it’s the first time where their pain is more central to the narrative: the series largely is a story about Graham and Ryan’s suffering and loss. Which in a sense, shows the shift Chris Chibnall has brought to the show: the tools used to tackle the metafictional and the extraordinary by Moffat are brought back into more realistic (realistic does not necessarily mean that it has verisimilitude, I should point out, ‘cause … like … frog). It’s not too dissimilar from what series 10 attempted, really, with Bill Potts’ impact on conventional Who tropes: but instead of a series where a character changes the rules of the Who narratives, there we get to see the rules of the Who narratives changing the characters.
And the second is that the fact these characters are running away from their issues and grief is not portrayed as a good thing. “Arachnids in the UK”, which really is the series’ structural cornerstone in terms of character dynamics, show you that clearly: Graham cannot face the presence of Grace, he cannot deal with his problems. He’s coping, through the TARDIS, but that has its limits. And “It Takes You Away” is a story about that – snapping back to reality.
Thirteen says that directly – “friends help each other face up to their problems, not avoid them”. And of course, there’s the absolutely genius idea of making the main threat of the episode, the Flesh Moths, beings that attack you if you run: to not get consumed by the hunger of the Antizone, you have to make a stance, to remain immobile.
Which leads to discussing the story’s inner geography, really. It seems, at first, to follow a pattern quite close to the one “Arachnids in the UK” established: the home and hearth, with its comfort and familiarity (much like in that story, there’s a focus on living spaces: we spend a lot of time around the kitchen table, and the mirror allowing passage between worlds is located in a bedroom), and, in its periphery, liminal spaces haunted by ghosts of capitalism consummation. There’s the moths, which are fairly self-explanatory, and Ribbons, which is basically a random generator of capitalist symbolism: there’s the motif of hunger (he’s Ribbons “of the Seven Stomachs”), the recurring references to the way he exploits bodies (carving knives out of bones, plucking a chicken, talking about the smell of urine), and his rhetoric, full of “transactions”, and complaining Thirteen doesn’t have enough “credit” to pay for his services. Really, the entire episode has these flashes centred around hunger: the best example being the opening joke about the upcoming sheep revolution, which is really funny and a nice call-back to Doctor’s vague vegetarianism but also implies that a capitalist model based on “renegotiation” (a term generally employed to evoke boss/employee compromises) and on consummation is going to end up in a “bloodbath”. But there’s also the empty candy papers alerting the TARDIS team to the presence of Hannah, Graham carrying a sandwich around, or the fact we meet Erik for the first time as he’s making breakfast.
But it’s complicated further by the Solitract nesting on the other side of that zone: the dark hunger in the middle, which is really nothing more the Sheffield Gothic of Chibnall transposed into fantasy and fairytale aesthetics, can only exist because of a twisted mirror of our reality. A place where our own desires, our own losses, materialise and take life. Really, capitalism, in the episode’s diegesis, ends up being an infection, a dark pus that bubbles into the wounds of the soul: it needs, to take root, to be invited and let in. Hence the mirror imagery: it casts back at us our own reflection, our own feelings, until it turns into a doorway to the dark. It grows, essentially, on hurt and trauma – which is a relevant observation, at the end of the day: just look at Graham’s affirmation, in the opener, that he should have died; isn’t someone who holds their own life as something irrelevant better-suited for employment under a capitalist society?
The episode’s true genius, of course, is making this mirror a sentient actor in and on themself. Their desires are twisted as well: Erik and Graham’s suffering is met by an equal loneliness and thirst for human contact. That explains the way the Antizone scene use very purposeful mythological symbolism: the Doctor uses thread to find her way in the caves, which feels very much like a nod towards the myth of Theseus and Ariadne. And makes, obviously, the Antizone into a Labyrinth. Which is not just a maze where some kind of primordial hungry creature dwells (although, yes, these moths are totally our Minotaur stand-in – Minomoths? Mothotaurs?) – it has been, in more recent, psychology-influenced analyses and retellings of the myths, understood as a psychic map. A representation of the mess that a human mind is, basically, with the Minotaur figure as a stand-in for primal desires. And really, that’s what the essential of the episode is: navigating the landscape of want; people are driven by their desires, and try to escape other forces of desire, in a sort of sinister dance.
The question becomes, then, how to break that dance, how to end that cycle. Because the real monster of the episode are these creeping desires. Grief is that “it” that takes you away – away from reality and people who need you, and into a beautiful landscape of memories and feelings, which is, in the end, incompatible with our universe. And that’s where the episode’s examination of gender roles comes in.
Series 11 loves a bad parental figure. There’s Ryan ubiquitous but unseen father, of course, whose absence haunts the narrative of this story; there was Epzo’s mother, mentioned briefly in “The Ghost Monument”; and “It Takes You Away” has Erik. There’s a strong link between the three: they are all overrun by loss – be it loss of a loved one (Ryan’s father, has, after all, also lost his wife, as “The Tsuranga Conundrum” reminded us), or loss of faith in the universe, followed by the adoption of a grimdark self-centered ideology. All of these figures assume a fairly conventionally male coding: sure, Epzo’s mum was a woman, but her efforts were focused into turning him into a big tough masculine man; just as Ryan’s father wants to be a “proper” family.
On the other hand, you get the episode’s focus on femininity. Which, obviously, centres on the Solitract – the explanation scenes surround them are a bit on the long side, admittedly, but at the same time, they also tie the story in very specific parts of the Who lore, parts that have a lot to do with the representation of female characters.
Here’s the Canon Dump part: while Ed Hime doesn’t name anything, the concepts he waves around, and the references to the Doctor’s childhood on Gallifrey, very much echo concepts that were developed in the Virgin New Adventures book line. Most specifically, in Lawrence Miles’ “Christmas on a Rational Planet”, which conceptualised something called “the Anchoring of the Thread”: basically, the idea being that History, as we know it, is nothing more than a Time Lord construct, that they effectively created Time, or at least our version of Time, the one we occupy. Magic and the supernatural finding themselves banished away from that universe, away from Time, giving instead focus to reason and science. Which is of course, deeply linked to lines of gender: Rassillon, the architect of that process, having after all come into power (as Marc Platt tells us in “Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible”), by depositing an ancient line of female sorceresses and priestesses that used to rule Gallifrey, and would later create the Sisterhood of Karn. The Solitract, in that context, is an emanation of a primordial feminine energy that has been cast off out of our reasonable, male, limited universe: an ancient and beautiful magic spell. There’s even a hint of neurodivergent coding, with this idea that they cannot “fit in” our universe – which parallels Hanne’s own arc, where her femininity and disability essentially allows her to be diminished, trapped within a man’s fairytale, a narrative where she is prey for some unseen beast outside the house. It’s very telling that her moment of liberation and agency comes when she obtains a key and unlocks a door – it’s a symbol deeply tied, in the whole system of tales, to female decision-making, and sexual agency and autonomy in particular (see for instance, the tale of Bluebeard, and how that was retold a posteriori by feminist writers like Angela Carter).
And that feminine mystique has echoes throughout the season: it is haunted by powerful female figures. Most obviously, Willa’s grandmother from “The Witchfinders”, who is explicitly tied to the same use of magic and ritual; but there’s also Grace, Najia, Eve Cicero from “The Tsuranga Conundrum” (who ends up dying, as a ritual incantation is recited), and the Doctor’s own seven aunts she mentions in this episode.
And of course, there’s the Doctor herself – and her newfound femininity proves to be the key to solving the problem. The Solitract tries to get what they want by essentially exploiting male angst – and the Doctor saves the day by substituting to that a logic of equality, of sharing, of female friendship and support. It puts aside the narrative of grief, to embrace joy and love. And in doing so, it inspires others to heal in similar ways: Erik realises his mistakes and goes back to Oslo with his daughter; and Ryan lets go of his angst and accepts Graham as part of his family.
“It Takes You Away” doesn’t deny the appeal of running away – it shows the tenderness of Grace, the beauty of Norway. But it makes a case for standing your ground: not one based in morals and inner turmoil; but as a dialectic of self-improvement.
As far as stories go, it’s really big. And incredibly beautiful.