Contains some spoilers for the episode
Over the years, Doctor Who has been many things and dabbled in dozens of genres. But while its adaptability and flexibility is undoubtedly the show’s core strength, for me at least it is never better than when it’s scary in a good old “watch while hiding from behind the sofa” fashion. Think of the show’s golden period when it borrowed liberally from horror stories such as Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde during Tom Baker’s early years; or the memories of the giant maggots and equally oversize spiders faced by Jon Pertwee; or even the eerie dead forest and the ghostly abandoned futuristic city of “The Daleks” in 1963. Or more recently, the remarkable success of the spectacularly creepy “Blink”, still regarded by many as the singe best Who story of all time. As it happens, the location for this week’s story was next door to the house used for “Blink” in 2008; it’s a small universe after all.
It’s why I had such high hopes for this week’s episode which promised flat-out old-fashioned horror movie chills. If “Knock Knock” had only managed to deliver on that level, I would have been a very happy camper.
The thing is – it did deliver. And I was happy. And then it continued. In the end, it so far exceeded my initial already ridiculously over-optimistic expectations that ‘happy’ falls absurdly short of capturing my current mood.
It would be wrong to call this a particularly original story, since it’s about as cookie-cutter an old, dark haunted house tale as you could hope to imagine. Surprisingly, Who hasn’t done many haunted house stories in the past – “Hide” is probably the most recent, while “Listen” was an effective MR James’-style ghost story. At times “Knock Knock” felt almost like a live action episode of Scooby-Doo with its crashes of thunder and lightning, creaking floorboards and secret doors concealed as bookcases. But it was all scripted to perfection by new-toWho writer Mike Bartlett, and photographed and paced with expert precision and total conviction by director Bill Anderson so that not once did the suspense ease up. Most effective of all was the sound design: if you had the stereo sound system cranked up (as I did for this one) then you’ll have been jumping almost every second by every thump and bang and whisper and creak around the room. No wonder that the BBC have made this a ‘special event’ episode on the iPlayer by mixing a special binaural soundtrack to be listened to on headphones – if you dare. Don’t try it late at night with the lights off.
Almost as crucial a contribution this week was the music. It was another very different sort of offering from Murray Gold than we’ve been used to in the past, one more suited to the latest ultra-frightening horror movie at the multiplex rather than his usual full-on orchestral powerhouse Who fanfares. It’s almost as though the music itself was scared of what was going on, and as a result it was keeping out of the way hiding in a corner which allowed the sound effects to get on and do their work to full effect.
Part of the reason why the chills were so effective here is because they’re rooted in everyday situations that we’ve probably been through in the past, from seeking affordable housing on a limited budget to the delights of finding all the problems with the new accommodation – predatory estate agents, weird landlords, a lack of central heating, power sockets that don’t work, no mobile phone coverage, Oh, and a nasty insect infestation for good measure. All of which means that there is virtually no separation between our world and that of Bill – only, she’s got a friend with some skills who thankfully doesn’t take the hint to get lost and leave her to it, because he already knows that something is badly amiss. All of this was captivating and gripping in a way that for me at least was conspicuously missing in last week’s highly-regarded “Thin Ice”.
In fact, “Knock Knock” proved very useful in helping me to connect with exactly why I hadn’t been quite as enamoured with last week’s episode as everyone else seemed to have been. I couldn’t shake the feeling that “Thin Ice” had been a little slow and ponderous, and somewhat lacking in narrative protein to be fully satisfying desite some stand-out individual scenes. The same could actually be said about “Smile” the week before; and even “The Pilot” had some very similar traits to it.
Now, I don’t mind slowing the pace down once in a while in order to spend time getting to new a new regular character, especially one as engaging as Pearl Mackie’s Bill. However three in a row was producing diminishing returns as far as I was concerned, and that’s perhaps the underlying reason why I liked “Thin Ice” less than most people seemed to. This time around I wanted and needed an episode that told a really gripping story and featured some proper supporting characters for once, rather than relying entirely on the Doctor and Bill’s interaction to carry the whole 45 minutes. And that is indeed what we got in “Knock Knock”: a story what was utterly gripping from beginning to end, and with a guest cast that despite limited time on screen still managed to make an impact, to the extent that when they died it comes with a real jolt and sense of actual loss.
First among nominally equals in that guest cast of course was David Suchet as the Landlord from whom Bill and her university friends rent dubious accommodation without properly reading the contract before signing. It’s full of wood panelling that creaks constantly, and draughts that moan through the house even when there’s no wind. Suchet’s performance is simply stunning, managing to turn from kindly to malevolent, friendly to cunning, warm to chilling all in a single line and with the minimum change to his facial expression. It’s truly a masterclass in performance, and the scenes where he and Peter Capaldi face-off are electric – you can see how much both actors are relishing every second and raising their games individually to make sure they’re not the ones letting the side down.
If I said that Mackie’s not in their league, it’s not intended as a criticism toward the actress who continues to develop Bill wonderfully. After all, maybe only a dozen or so actors working in the UK right now can aspire to the sort of talent on display sparking off Capaldi and Suchet being in the same room together. So it’s probably a good thing that for the first time this season, the Doctor and Bill are split up in the way that Classic Who stories always liked to divide up their regular cast members and send them on different paths, a technique helping to breath life and personality to the guest stars. In this case, Bill is joined by Shireen (Mandeep Dhillon) while the Doctor gets young Harry (Colin Ryan) for support.
Perhaps it’s because I’d picked up on social media stories that the latter was intended to be the grandson of 1970s assistant Harry Sullivan (in dialogue later removed before transmission), but there felt to be a powerful sense of young Harry being positioned as potential companion material in his own right. It even made me wonder whether the next Doctor will be a woman in need of a young male sidekick to satisfy the audience demographics. In any case, it was his ‘death’ toward the end of the episode that made me confidently predict that the demise would prove to be a reversible process, as indeed proved to be the case – perhaps unwisely since it undermined the sense of dread that the episode had built up.
Mariah Gale makes a definite impact late in the story with an effective and unearthly performance as the Landlord’s daughter Eliza, but the other three guest stars get rather less to do: Pavel (Bart Suavek) goes to his room in the teaser and suffers a fate not dissimilar to that of an unfortunate Cyberman in “Earthshock”, or Captain Dallas in the director’s cut of Alien, and isn’t seen again until the very end. Paul (Ben Presley) at least gets to have some fun trying to chat up Bill before he pops off. And poor Felicity (Alice Hewkin) gets dumped out of a window and doesn’t feature again until the gang’s all back together in the final scenes. But at least for once I remembered the guest characters’ names and personalities and what happened to each of them – it’s been a long since since Doctor Who had a significant guest cast that was so capably fleshed out.
It’s not quite all full marks however. To be honest, Bartlett (who was behind last year’s BBC smash hit Doctor Foster and whose acclaimed stage play King Charles III is by coincidence being shown on BBC Two on Wednesday) doesn’t quite pull off the ending of “Knock Knock”. For one thing, the happy ending in which everyone lives feels a bit of a cop-out despite how much we’re genuinely pleased to see them survive. And the last scene exposition is both too little and too much; too little in the sense that it leaves too many holes and confuses with its attempts to spring a final twist; and too much in that these scenes take a bit too long just when the episode is trying to deliver a big climax. That said, there was nothing that really undermines the integrity of the episode’s plot, certainly not to the degree that the conclusion to “Smile” rather badly let the side down there. Whereas the ending to “Smile” simply didn’t make sense however you parsed it, with “Knock Knock” it just felt that it would have been okay after all if only there was more time to explain it properly.
Once the main story is over, there’s still time for an epilogue reminding us of season 10’s ongoing story arc: the vault in the basement at St Luke’s University being guarded by the Doctor and Nardole (Matt Lucas, limited to another one-scene cameo this week) and the mystery of what – or who – the vault contains. It’s clearly someone that the Doctor knows and cares about, because he brings food for the two of them to share having already installed a piano for the incumbent to play. But unless the solution really is as simple as it being the incarceration of the Master (or Missy), I confess I currently have no cunning theories of what this is all leading up to.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Bill calling the Doctor “Grandfather” so soon after we spied a picture of Susan Foreman on the Doctor’s desk felt a little too pointed to be mere coincidence. And there was another odd moment this week, too, when the Doctor tells Bill that Time Lords regenerate and then looks immediately uneasy about having mentioned it at all, quickly changing the subject. Why should regeneration be on his mind right now, and be such a sensitive issue for him? Is the 12th Doctor already on his way out, sooner than we thought?
Doubtless we’ll find out a few more tantalising details to the series arc next week, when Nardole joins the Doctor and Bill in a visit to a space station that’s filled with dead astronauts – none of whom look inclined to take things lying down…
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Doctor Who continues on on BBC One on Saturday evenings. The first six episodes will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on May 29 2017 with the second half of the season following on July 17.