“I won’t open boxes
That I am told not to
I’m not a Pandora
I’m much more like
That girl in the mirror between you and me
She don’t stand a chance of getting anywhere at all” – “Suspended in Gaffa,” Kate Bush
A seemingly abandoned and boarded up cabin in Norway. The anti-zone with a troll-like being and flesh-eating moths. An alternate reality. A talking frog. Only an episode of Doctor Who could feature such a host of odd and fairy tale-type elements and still make sense or be emotionally effective.
The episode started normally enough, with a smooth landing in Norway. When the Doctor figures out they won’t be caught in the middle of a sheep uprising, her and team TARDIS head to a boarded up cabin. There they find Hanne, a blind but brave girl, waiting for her father to return. She explains that there’s a monster in the woods and that she fears whatever it is has taken her father away. (Her mother is long gone as well, having recently passed away.)
If only it were that simple or easy.
The Doctor and her companions quickly search the property and try to keep Hanne at ease, although she and Ryan get off to a rough start when he asks if perhaps her father left on purpose, much like his own dad did. Hanne fills the Doctor and Graham in on how they ended up at the cabin—he wanted to get away after the death of his wife and Hanne’s mother and the house was a steal. Yaz and Ryan find a variety of animal traps in the shed close by.
When the monster starts roaring, all return to the house and secure it. Graham goes upstairs to keep watch when he sees a mirror that doesn’t show his own reflection. The Doctor rushes upstairs to sonic it and investigate. After pushing through, she realizes it’s a portal. All the companions and Hanne are game to go with the Doctor but she warns it’s not safe. She decides to take Yaz and Graham and leave Hanne and Ryan to protect the house (and for Ryan to keep Hanne safe in the meantime).
The Doctor scribbles a note to Ryan calling it a map, when in reality it’s instructions on how to proceed: “Assume her dad is dead. Keep her safe. Find out who can take care of her.”
The Doctor, Yaz, and Graham head through the mirror to find Erik, Hanne’s dad. Instead of finding themselves in an alternate reality straight away, they are in a dark cavern with a troll-like creature named Ribbons who is hungry and holds all the lights in the odd place. When Ribbons spots the Doctor’s sonic, he agrees to take them to Erik. The Doctor has been using string to mark their journey.
Back at the cabin, Ryan and Hanne discuss what to do next. Ryan apologizes for insinuating that her father would leave her, and Hanne figures out the Doctor left a message for Ryan, not a map. The two fight a bit with Ryan locking the door to the room with the mirror and hiding the key before the monster begins to roar again.
Meanwhile, in the cavern, Ribbons leads the way and the group encounters a flesh moth, who he keeps at bay by throwing one of the dead rats off of his belt. When he urges them forward, he cuts the string the Doctor had to lead her back to the real world.
Back in Norway, Ryan goes to investigate the monster’s cries and finds it’s nothing more than a looped track playing over a speaker set up in the woods. When he returns to the house to alert Hanne, she knocks him out by slamming a door on him and then retrieves the key to the locked room so she can go through the mirror.
The cavern winds on and while Ribbons attempts to attack the group, he finally reveals where they are—the anti-zone, a space meant to act as a buffer between two worlds that should never touch. As the lantern goes out and more moths gather for food, Ribbons lunges for the Doctor’s sonic only to be devoured while the Doctor and her companions watch in horror, standing perfectly still. They run ahead finding the other part of the portal.
The other side of the mirror is similar but like a super-idealized reality. Back in the real world, it’s misty and the cabin is a mess. Here in the alternate world, it’s sunny and everything looks new—a true fairytale land. And it’s there they find Erik, who explains that he placed recordings of monsters around the cabin in the real world to keep Hanne “safe” from going up into the hills to look for him. He nonchalantly tells them all to leave and that he’ll go back soon. Yaz and Graham are both angry for his lack of care for his own daughter when his reason for coming here is revealed: Trine, Erik’s wife and Hanne’s mom, is alive in this world but can’t leave and go back through the mirror. Graham tells Erik to get his priorities straight and think of Hanne when Trine mentions that Graham has a friend waiting for him here.
Meanwhile, Hanne continues to move through the anti-zone when Ryan comes after her, protecting her and telling her what he sees, and then Ryan tells her the truth that her dad lied to her.
Grace continues to try to understand what’s happening and Graham is grappling with the person he sees in front of him. He knows deep down it’s not her.
The Doctor continues to work out how things are wrong and putting together how to set things right. It’s then she realizes the current world they’re all in is dangerous and made by a strong being, most likely the Solitract, a bedtime story one of her seven grannies once told her. The Solitract is a conscious plane of existence that moves outside of space and time and when the Universe banished it, the Universe was able to finally make sense. The Doctor and Yaz figure out that this is trap to try to get back to the regular Universe.
The Doctor knows that Erik and Graham must return to the real world without their lost loved ones so she works to keep the portal open. It’s at that moment that Hanne jumps through the portal while Ryan distracts the flesh moths.
Finally reunited with her dad, Erik introduces Hanne to Trine, but Hanne says it’s not her mother. She calls for Ryan and that’s when all realize he’s still in the anti-zone. With the portal shut closed, all of the companions beg them to open it but Grace says no, to leave him.
With the fairytale version of the cabin falling apart around them, the Doctor says there’s too many people for the Solitract universe to hold itself together and she begs for it to let her go. The Doctor asks the Solitract why they built this universe when the answer is simple – connection. It wanted to return to the regular universe proper but couldn’t. It took forms they knew humans wouldn’t reject. But Yaz rejects them and the fake Grace, saying if she was actually Grace, she would have already passed through the mirror, looking for Ryan. The Trine form blasts Yaz back through the mirror, exposing the way out. The key is they must reject them so they are thrown back into their own world. Hanne tells her father he isn’t well and tells Trine again that she hates her and is thrown back into the anti-zone.
That means it’s Graham’s turn and he’s not sure he can reject Grace. The Doctor encourages him and tells him that her death was not his fault. It’s then that Grace pleads with him to not leave her again. He asks “What about Ryan?” to which Grace replies that he’ll be fine. He sadly shakes his head and says “You were so close.” He calls her a fake and is thrown back through the mirror. As Grace disintegrates in front of them, Erik begins to realize that Trine is not real but can’t let go. So the Doctor makes a deal with the Solitract. She bargains that she knows more about the universe than Erik does and she can show the Solitract all of space and time. The Solitract rejects Erik, throwing him back through the mirror.
The Doctor finds herself in a blank world filled with white light. It’s empty except for a chair with a frog, a form the Solitract decidedly loves.
“There’s me thinking the day had no surprises left,” the Doctor says with wonder.
The Solitract asks the Doctor to describe her Universe. She tries to, but words fail her. She can only say that she will miss her friends. The plane continues to destabilize and the Doctor begs the Solitract to let her go back to her own world lest they both die.
“Friends help each other face up to their problems, not avoid them. You are the maddest most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced and I haven’t even scratched the surface. I wish I could stay. But if either of us are going to survive, you’re gonna have to let me go and keep on being brilliant by yourself.”
The Solitract is sad, but the Doctor promises they’ll be friends forever. They say goodbye and they are thrown back into the anti-zone. Everyone runs back to the mirror portal, the Doctor sonics the mirror and it breaks. The Doctor laments having to say goodbye to a new friend. Ryan sees that Graham is struggling and Erik sees the note that the Doctor left.
Erik decides it’s time for him and Hanne to return to the city. The Doctor and her companions head to the TARDIS but Graham and Ryan pause for a moment. Graham mentions that he saw Grace – but it wasn’t her. Ryan says he misses her too, but they have to look after each other, finally calling Graham granddad.
It’s not that Doctor Who hasn’t taken us to alternate universes in the past. Rose was trapped in Pete’s World, separating her from the 10th Doctor in “Doomsday” way back in the second season of the show. Both Amy and Rory had to pass personal tests of heartbreak to save each other in episodes like “Amy’s Choice” and “The Girl Who Waited” when they traveled with the 11th Doctor. It’s the fact that a conscious plane tried to recreate these people’s loved ones as a way to connect back to a universe it loves and misses, but it fails because it lacks the true humanity of the shell beings it has created.
Graham and Ryan losing Grace at the beginning of this season has been a thread we were always going to come back to, much like the one the 13th Doctor uses while in the anti-zone. And whereas past companions might have been overly eager to reunite with a lost loved one, Graham is wary and you can see him battling with himself even when he’s on the edge of accepting this new version of Grace. But it’s thoughts of Ryan that bring him back from the brink, because Grace loved not only him but Ryan, too.
There are so many fairytale and magical realism moments floating around in this episode, that I feel like many recall other films or books I love. The fake monster noises and Hanne’s blindness feels like a straightforward nod to The Village while the anti-zone looks like something straight out of Legend. The two worlds concept feels close to Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, Grimm’s fairytales and Alice in Wonderland. I want nothing more but to sit down with Ed Hime and pick their brain about their influences and how they were able to channel feelings of loss, despair, and wonderment so uniquely. This episode was a wild ride, and one that will likely divide the fan-base for a long time. I have no idea how next week’s finale can top it.
Rachel Stewart has written fandom commentary for sites such as FangirlConfessions.com, Nerdy Minds Magazine, and ESO Network, among others. She has published work in the anthology “Children of Time: The Companions of Doctor Who.”