Series 11 of Doctor Who finally found its defining moments in the 9th episode ‘It Takes You Away,’ when The Doctor finds herself talking to a sentient universe that’s taken on the form of a talking frog.
Grief and loss are themes throughout this season, with Graham and Ryan mourning the loss of Grace (revisited and brought to a head in this episode) Yaz’ grandmother mourning the husband who died in the Partition, the man trying to solve his sister’s disappearance from Sheffield, Hanne and her father mourning her mother, the starship pilot’s brother, and android mourning her sacrifice. The monster turns out not to be monstrous after all, which previously happened in ‘Demons of the Punjab’ where the aliens weren’t assassins but mourners out to honour the people through Time and Space who die alone, and now the Solitract, a sentient universe that isn’t luring people to their doom but just wants a friend. It chooses the form of a frog with Grace’s voice to greet the Doctor with because the frog pendant Graham bought Grace was a symbol of love.
We get a whole scene of The Doctor matching minds with a talking frog while promising to be BFFs with it forever. There is no doubt she is being sincere in her love for this new crazy phenomenon in her life that she has to lose almost immediately. This is everything I want to see in Doctor Who. It’s bonkers, sad and funny at the same time.
For a show with a long history – over 50 years’ worth – of bonkers moments, this was in the Top 10. It’s very Douglas Adams in its whimsy and silliness, a combination of the cosmic and the ordinary. That scene carried a whole series’ worth of themes, ideas and emotions in just a few minutes. It was also the moment when the character of the 13th Doctor came into focus at last.
The Doctor talks the Solitract into letting her go before the reality collapses and kills them both. She doesn’t make a poetic, eloquent speech that Steven Moffat used to write. She has no clever turns of phrases, only direct, emotional, empathetic honesty. She promises the Solitract that she will always be its friend, and the two of them promise to remember each other always. It’s a poignant moment where friends have to say goodbye. For the Doctor, it’s bittersweet. She’s found something so vast and strange and beautiful that she could be happily lost in it forever but has to leave it. Like her previous selves, she has to bear another loss.
I also thought about how the scene was specifically written to the 13th Doctor’s personality. Yes, any other Doctor could enact that script, but I can imagine the previous Doctors handling the Solitract differently. The 9th Doctor Christopher Eccleston might have agreed to just die with the Solitract in a bout of self-loathing and despair. The 10th Doctor David Tennent might have argued with the Solitract and fought to defeat it. The 11th Doctor Matt Smith might have manipulated and conned the Solitract before pulling off an escape. The 12th Doctor Peter Capaldi might have scolded and shamed the Solitract into letting him go.
The 13th Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, is unique in her emotional transparency and sincerity.
I try not to watch Doctor Who with preconceptions or what I think the show should be. I like to look at it from the showrunner’s intentions and whether the execution works for me. We’ve already watched ten seasons of “big, cosmic, universe-threatening events” at every turn during Steven Moffat’s run, so Chris Chibnall‘s approach this season is a welcome change with smaller, more intimate stories that homed in on more relatable situations and people.
‘It Takes You Away’ felt like the episode where all the themes and ideas of the season came together more fully than the other episodes in the season so far. It finally stopped to give the Doctor her moment and let us see her core. She’s more low-key than the previous Doctors and doesn’t lord it over the room like they did. She doesn’t present herself as a god-like authoritarian like the previous ones did. She downplays how powerful and dangerous she really can be while the previous ones don’t hesitate to become dark and scary at the drop of a hat. She’s more sensitive to people’s feelings and reassures them whenever she can, which the previous Doctors might not bother doing.
It’s easy for me to see why they chose Jodie Whittaker. When her costume was unveiled, I thought she looked like that nice lady who teaches kindergarten and buys her organic muesli from the local co-op. She’s someone that children and little girls fall in love with and trust – and that’s all on purpose.
Series 11 is not what the show was like in the past ten seasons. It’s practically a new show with a new showrunner, a new cast, a new composer, a new tone that plays on and subverts our expectations of the conventions of the show from the past seasons. Change can be scary for some people – while some of us just go along with it to see where it takes us.