Greetings, beloved readers, and may I begin this week’s recap with the simple uttering..
ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOAD
Look, I hate to bring up Futurama again, but I realised recently that it’s pretty much the only other sci-fi series besides Doctor Who that I have watched with any regularity. Well, there was Battlestar Galactica in the ‘00s, which was awesome, and would have been a great subject for recaps had I thought of it t at the time, but I was very busy during 2004-2009 travelling, doing amateur dramatics, listening to post-Destiny’s Child Beyonce, and joining Facebook to poke people.
So Futurama remains my yardstick for really intelligent sci-fi coupled with really top notch toilet humour. Therefore how could I, when faced with the glorious weirdness that was the Solitract Cosmic Frog, not realise that the whole episode’s plot kind of boiled down to the same thing as the throwaway-concept-turned-immortal-character of the Hypnotoad?
Both are essentially trying to bewitch the vision of simple humans to ensure obedience and loyalty. It’s just a slightly different amphibian.
I still think the previous Witchfinders episode was better, but there’s no doubt this was a solid, entertaining hour of Doctor Who with a strong sci-fi idea behind it. It made for a good penultimate instalment - and featured a lovely performance by young blind British actor Ellie Wallwork as Hanne.
S11, E9: It Takes You Away
Team TARDIS pulls up in present-day rural Norway, a fact guessed by Graham when he sees a fjord, and confirmed by the Doctor when she nibbles on some soil and rules out the future time known as the “Woolly Rebellion”.
They spot a small rustic cottage with no smoke coming from the chimney, and proceed for a look. The boarded-up cottage gives off serious serial killer vibes, complete with abandoned children’s shoes and mounted animal head trophies on the walls.
Ryan and Graham go upstairs to investigate, following a Hansel and Gretel-style trail of candy wrappers. They discover a terrified young girl cowering in a cupboard and dressed, for some reason, like the Unabomber.
Graham has the outstanding idea of offering Hanne a sandwich to get her to talk, and it transpires that Graham has been carrying adventure snacks with him for a while now. This little factoid was one of my favourite morsels of the series so far - how NICE for Doctor Who to acknowledge that food is a thing, and people generally must eat food, and quite often the Doctor and gang end up wandering around for literally HOURS with no sustenance, and I don’t know how they survive, I really don’t.
Sigh. I need to stop eating.
Anyhoo, young Hanne reveals that her father has been protecting them both from some scary monsters, who prowl the woods outside their cottage and make intimidatingly loud growling noises at the same time every day. But now her Dad has vanished, and Hanne can’t tell the Doctor what the scary monster looks like, because she’s blind.
Ryan dishes out some pretty harsh real talk when he hears Hanne’s Dad has been gone for four days - he’s up and done a runner. As someone with his own disappearing Dad, it’s not surprising that was his go-to thought, but everyone else jumps to an “Ohhhh, nooooo, it’s fiiiinnnnnneeee” routine, with Yaz deploying her best soothing police officer tone.
There’s a bit of busy work as Ryan and Yaz check the shed and find dead pheasants and animal traps, while the Doctor and Graham ask a few more questions of Hanne. Eventually the scary monster noises start up, and Hanne legs to the underside of a bed (which is strange when you consider that’s normally where monsters live).
Ryan and Graham meanwhile find themselves in an upstairs bedroom, not appearing in a mirror. A strange noise has caused some sort of interaction with the mirror, and Ryan is concerned for a moment they might be secret vampires. The Doctor arrives and tells them to stand well back for safety…
…then plunges her head through the portal, and gives the experience a 6.5 or 7 out of ten, a rating that I don’t understand.
The Doctor decides she needs to investigate further, and TEAM TARDIS say they will join her. Hanne wants to come too, but the Doctor isn’t risking it. She instructs a reluctant Ryan to stay behind, because he’s just slagged off Hanne’s Dad and admitted he’s “rubbish with kids” to Yaz so story narrative rules dictate that they must be thrown together against adversity.
The Doctor scribbles some words of advice to Ryan on the wall of the bedroom, and explains it away as instructions on how to keep the house safe. Of course, Hanne, being blind, can’t see this, and the three orders to keep her safe, assume her Dad is dead, and find out who else can care for her are quietly devastating. It’s probably my favourite thing about this episode.
The Doctor, Graham and Yaz plunge themselves in an above-average Haunted House, complete with polystyrene walls and fog machine. The Doctor thinks like Ariadne and tethers some twine to the rock outside the mirror, allowing them to retrace their steps should they get lost.
The gang then happen upon the stupidest thing about this episode - Ribbons of the Seven Stomachs, a half-Gollum, half-Nosferatu creature that decides to extort the Doctor for her sonic in return for the light provided by his magic lanterns.
Now Ribbons is played by Kevin Eildon, a fantastic character actor who’s uniformly good in every appearance. He certainly plays Ribbons well enough, and I get the character is there to explain that they’re in an Anti-Zone, acknowledge that he’s seen Hanne’s father, and prove how dangerous it is by being eaten by flesh-eating moths. It’s just that the whole character concept left me colder than a ten-minute-old chip.
Anyway, Ribbons gets killed off pretty quickly for someone who seems to suggest he’s been in the Anti-Zone forever. He cannot resist the lure of the Doctor’s sonic, fallen on the ground, and his movements attract the flesh moths. There’s a squeam-y image of a moth emerging from his eye socket, all of his flesh having been stripped from his bones. Farewell, Ribbons, we hardly knew ye.
The Doctor, Graham and Yaz manage to take advantage of the distraction to run away and find the portal, escaping to safety. But is it safe? It turns out to be a mirror image world in which the light glows softly and everyone looks like they’ve been Facetuned to soft-focus perfection.
Also, Erik is there. Hanne’s Dad is casually making breakfast when the gang startle him. Erik is wary at first, but relaxes to the point of not giving a shit soon enough. Graham and Yaz want to give him a right royal punching for his easy dismissal of Hanne’s safety and wellbeing, but the Doctor knows there’s something up - because there’s two plates.
In wanders Trina, Erik’s wife. But not a weird alternative dimension wife - Hanne’s Mum. She died, but in this world is still alive, with no idea how. Erik is clearly so enamoured at being reunited with his wife that Hanne has dropped way down his priorities list.
But wait! More intrigue, with Trina asking if they wanted to meet their friend. Dum-dum-daaaaah - it’s Grace, Graham’s wife and Ryan’s Granddad.
I loved Graham’s reaction - “Don’t do this to me”. He has the pained expression of a true sceptic faced with an impossible thing standing before him. This creature has the memories and personality of Grace, but Graham knows it cannot be her. Even though she knows why he wears a frog necklace.
Back in the Real World, Ryan discovers the scary monster noises were just recorded sound effects rigged up to play through an effective sound system around the remote property. But then he gets knocked out by Hanne, who’s worked out the Doctor had written a message, not a map, and is determined to go through the mirror herself. Ryan follows her through and manages to get to her before the fleshmoths do.
The Doctor is meanwhile trying to figure out what the hell is going on. She has a blue sky session with Yaz in the bedroom with the mirror, plodding through all the information about the Anti-Zone and how such things only spring up to protect two dimensions from colliding with catastrophic results.
“No way!” she realises, remembering a bedtime story one of her apparently seven grannies used to tell her when she couldn’t sleep. Before the universe properly got started, the Solitract was an energy-and-consciousness that basically stuffed everything up just by existing.
Our universe managed to excise the Solitract energy (take note, voters of Dickson), allowing it to actually function. But now it seems the Solitract is back… and as Yaz says, this mirror world in which people’s lost loved ones have returned does seem rather like a trap.
The Doctor runs to warn Graham that they need to leave immediately - without Grace. But every second Graham has spent in the company of Fake Grace has seen him become more convinced she is Real Grace. Hypnotised, you might say.
Everyone races back up to the bedroom and the mirror, and the Doctor attempts to open the portal to get all the regular humans out. But Grace and Trina are hanging on, and the Doctor realises want the Solitract really wants is… company.
Then Hanne barges through, with Ryan still in the Anti-Zone. Yaz has a go at Fake Grace, saying she’s not a patch on Real Grace, who would be charging into the Anti-Zone to rescue Ryan. Trina then flicks her palm upwards and uses a bolt of energy to throw her backwards into the Anti-Zone.
Erik tries introducing Hanne to Trina, but the young tacker isn’t having a bar of it. Her physical blindness allows her to see better than her father - his eyes deceive him, but she can sense the person embracing her is not her mother. “You’re not well, you haven’t been since Mum died,” Hanne tells her father. “I hate you!” she tells Trina, who again flicks her wrist and sends her “daughter” hurtling back into the Anti-Zone.
It’s Graham’s turn now, but he’s struggling with the idea of rejecting Grace, full of guilt over her death and missing her physical presence. But he asks a final question - “What about Ryan?” “He’ll be fine!” responds Fake Grace. “You were so close,” Graham responds, sadly but finally. Again, Graham is MVP this episode.
Grace flicks her wrist and throws him through the mirror - then vanishes. “Surplus to requirements!” says the Doctor, urging Erik to reject Trina. He doesn’t want to, but then the Doctor pulls her bait and switch - convincing Trina/Solitract that she is the better option as a lifetime companion. The brittle walls holding the universes apart can only really hold one human, and does the Solitract really think Erik would be as knowledgeable as the Doctor?
“You’re not Trina!” Erik realises, and bang, he’s gone.
Then comes what I call “the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt 2 bit where Dumbledore shows up in Harry’s near-death dream state thingy”. Everything goes white, but instead of being at a train station, the Doctor is …. in a room… with a frog.
It turns out the Solitract has taken the frog form as it finds it delightful, as Grace did. So it also has Grace’s voice. The Doctor doesn’t even really stop to wonder if she’s accidentally inhaled a few tabs of LSD, but instead starts talking about the beauty and expansive nature of her own universe to her new bestie - and the sadness about leaving behind her other friends.
But the mirror universe is still destabilising due to the Doctor’s presence. The frog just think she wants to leave and is lying, but the Doctor insists good friends help each other realise their problems. She says the Solitract must go on being awesome, by itself.
Look, while I know there are probably a fair few introverts out there thinking that sounds like perfection, I can’t imagine anything bloody worse. It’s like when you’re doing a comedy show, and people don’t laugh, but tell you afterwards they WANTED to laugh because it was really funny, but nobody else was laughing, and they didn’t feel comfortable laughing. Hint: NEVER hold back your laughs at a comedy show. Don’t force yourself of course, but if a comedic performer ever tells you they prefer appreciative silence, they’re lying.
On an unrelated note: my Game of Thrones-inspired comedy show Raven On is now on sale for seasons at Perth FringeWorld and the Brisbane Comedy Festival. I promise it will be LAUGH OUT LOUD FUNNY, or else I’ll cry.
Where was I? Oh yes, Toad of Toad Hall. I feel sorry for the bugger, alone, its own universe and consciousness, and no princess ever likely to kiss it. But the Doctor is convincing in her argument that she needs to leave. “I will dream of you out there, without me,” the frog intones, before lifting its little foot and sending the Doctor back into the Anti-Zone.
The rest of the gang are still in there, very slowly making their way back. Ryan wants to wait for the Doctor, and luckily she comes bolting through, the last one through the mirror, sealing it up with her sonic once she’s through. “It’s a shame,” she thinks about the unknown factor of whether the Solitract will have survived. “I made a new friend.”
There’s a Moment of Intense Silence while everyone realises the extent of what they’ve experienced. The Doctor looks at Graham, Ryan looks at Graham, Erik looks at the Doctor’s ominous chalk message and appears to have had the stupid punched out of him.
Outside the house, Erik informs the Doctor he will take Hanne back to Oslo, and the little girl is pleased. She even gives Ryan a hug to thank him for protecting her in the Anti-Zone; and thus their odd couple relationship is confirmed. The Doctor is back to her practical self, heading back to the TARDIS. But Graham is still shaken; and Ryan very carefully broaches the subject of Grace.
I did find it odd that the episode contrived to keep Ryan out of the mirror world, so he never encountered Fake Grace - is that because they wanted to focus on the relationship with Graham, and his feelings of loss? Did they think Ryan would have recognised her as fake much more easily than Graham? Given Erik had also been bewitched by his deceased wife’s image, was there something in the way the Solitract operated that specifically worked on widowers, rather than children or grandchildren? Does that explain why it didn’t summon up an image/avatar for either the Doctor or Yaz? Was Graham’s grief much more easily readable? Earlier on, Yaz explained her training with children by saying “You have to reinforce what makes them feel safe”. That’s what the Solitract was trying to do too, no? Making Erik and Graham feel safe?
Anyway, the point is, Ryan seems to have acknowledged Graham having a rough experience, and bestows on him the term “Grandad”, which has long been his aim. They all rejoin the TARDIS and zoom off to the series finale next week - and can we expect a fistbump now that Grandad has been uttered?
I still have few unanswered questions about the Solitract - was it always in the Norwegian house, in that mirror? Or did it sense Erik’s grief somehow and manifest itself there?
And also, why did Ribbon have to be so shithouse? Ribbon was about as entertaining as a joke about “Schindler’s List” inside a Schindler’s lift. I mean, not that it’s not amusing, it’s just we’ve all done non-stop since 1993.
Still, it was an all-round decent episode, with a sci-fi concept at its heart. Was the frog the most genius idea ever? Possibly not. Was it at least better than Lame Ribbons? Hells yes. Again, the Doctor struggled a bit with exposition in the episode, but not as clunkily as previous outings, and the whole thing came good in the end. Next is the season finale! Where did the time go… hur hur hur.
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