Peter Capaldi. David Suchet. Mike Bartlett.
With such actors, and a talented playwright (who has steadily been moving into television drama with the recent adaptation of his play King Charles III, and with the BBC's Dr. Foster before that) this episode should have been stupendous. It could have been a tour de force.
Mike Bartlett has penned a horror-lite adventure in which a group of stereotypical twenty-somethings are picked off one by one (as if they were Star Trek 'red shirts') in a haunted house, by a malevolent force alien in origin. Whilst there are nods to traditional horror films, in the vein of the Hammer Movies of the 1950's and 1960's, and a play on country house murder mysteries, almost every moment which could raise a shudder - or have a viewer diving behind the sofa in time honoured Doctor Who tradition - is curtailed or undercut. In part this is may be due to Doctor Who being toned down to suit a younger audience and an earlier broadcast time, on a Saturday evening. Knock Knock is far closer in tone to that which would be broadcast on CBBC, closer to The Sarah Jane Adventures than to Doctor Who as envisaged by either Russell T. Davies (and here I'm thinking predominantly of the fourth series with Tennant and Tate) or Steven Moffat across all of Matt Smith's era, or Peter Capaldi's run to date. I presume the decision to veer the series further from the YA demographic (and closer to overt family-friendly viewing) is due to arm twisting by Auntie Beeb, still chasing traditional, live, televisual viewing figures in a world which now streams and time-shifts. If so, I abhor their decision strongly.
On the other hand, it could just be weak writing from Mike Bartlett.
In this episode David Suchet plays "The Landlord", belatedly revealed to be an elderly man named John, who has been harvesting people - and young people in particular - since the 1930's so their life-force can prolong the unnatural life of his dryad-turned mother. A fantastic character actor, Suchet is suitably compelling and creepy in his portrayal. More so, he can be seen as playing both a dark mirror of the Doctor and of his most famous role: that of Agatha Christie's Belgian detective (with 'the little grey cells') Hercule Poirot. Both Doctor and Landlord entice young people into their sphere of influence. One entraps. And the other? That is the question, given the fate of many of the doctor's previous companions.
At the heart of this episode ageing, and the natural cycle of life, are juxtaposed with unnatural metamorphosis. John's mother, trapped like Rapunzel in a tower, is more tree-nymph than mother. Her relationship with her son is inverted, so much so she believes him to be her father. An inversion of the natural order is how this is framed for a younger viewer but, ironically, if viewed from an older person's perspective the role reversal can be seen as natural but poignant; the parent aged and infirm, the child now their main carer. And then we have the Doctor, disputing his supposed age, spluttering as Bill introduces him to her housemates as her grandfather and, more tellingly, forgetting the brevity inherent in a human life. Thus he fails to realise the time-warped house (with utilities and white goods not updated since the 1930's etc.) has been hiding a lifetimes' worth of deadly secrets. In this episode, as in the last, the Doctor admits to being two thousand year old. He seems to be feeling his age much as he once did on Trenzelore. Given Ten/ant's obsession with out-running his foretold regeneration, I wonder if Time Lords can sense when a regeneration cycle is coming to an end and a new facet of the self is to emerge from the flames. In recent children's literature - and here I'm thinking of Harry Potter - Fawkes can sense when his burning day approaches. If a phoenix, why not a Time Lord?
In keeping with the premise of metamorphosis, the tag at the end of this episode sees the Doctor appear in the vault chamber, carrying Chinese food, revealing he has previously accessed the vault and is about to let himself into it again. And so the vault, now housing a piano, becomes a prison someone can waltz in and out of, just as the Doctor's late wife once flit between freedom and her storm cage. This is a prison housing a childhood friend turned nemesis - Time Lord or Time Lady, I presume. Interestingly, despite the obvious nods to the Pandorica (which kept Amy Pond safe across centuries, guarded by her Centurian) I'd say the vault is more in keeping with the confession dial. It is obviously some form of Time Lord tech, over and above a digital archive storing uploads of personality and memory in a digital faux-heaven. Symbolically the vault can be seen as the box hiding Shrodinger's cat. The now infamous thought experiment from 1935 posits that the cat in the box is simultaneously both dead and alive. Mapped onto the Whoniverse, one could suggest that both Missy and the Master are imprisoned in the vault, whilst only one being is. More simplistically, the symbolism of the tower room in which the Landlord's mother is hidden also maps onto this reading, for his mother no longer lives, yet isn't technically dead either.
The tag is a wonderfully compelling piece of televisual drama. So too the teaser, with the group of students trouping through one nightmare house share after another, looking for decent accommodation until they stumble into a trap of the Landlord's making. If only the main body of the episode had been equally as good.
Thematically this episode is similar to both The God Complex and Night Terrors (written by Toby Whithouse and Mark Gatiss respectively) yet Knock Knock is weaker fare. In The God Complex the Doctor and his companions are trapped in a hotel of horrors in a stupendous, unnerving and moving episode which flirts with revealing some of the darker facets of the Doctor's psyche. In Night Terrors a little boy named George brings his nightmares to life, in a pocket-universe confined within a period dollhouse, terrified he'll be taken away from the family he's chosen. Here the house, or alien wood-lice which inhabit it, feed upon a person's life force. They siphon it off, the woodwork trapping then devouring one person after another. Here the villain of this piece can actually be read as a serial killer, albeit one with alien accomplices. Unlike the aforementioned episodes this lacks tension, as regards which members of the student body might be in jeopardy next. We care about Pavel because the set up leading to his death is a fantastic, creeptastic, hook. The special effects which accompany his demise - trapped in woodwork as deadly as slow-moving quicksand - are horrifically beautiful, uncanny, and scary. We care far less about his friends once the opening credits roll and they all move into the house, having signed their lives away via rental contract. Worse still, unlike in The God Complex and Night Terrors here the Doctor fails to connect with supporting cast as he did there. That may be down to performance choices Peter Capaldi made, versus those of Matt Smith, but I'd say the real lack lies in the writing. Furthermore, unlike Amy and Rory's role (in the adventures noted above) Bill is only in mortal danger in the last few minutes of the episode, is touched by loss only momentarily before the Doctor saves the day and her friend is rescued.
Bizarrely, for an episode which I believe wasn't meant to be the Doctor lite (there's one every year, supposedly) the Doctor feels almost superfluous for much of the action. Here he is forever playing catch-up, providing a dash of comedy amid the tragedy, and only partially successfully at that. Thus we have quips about appearance and age and visual gags with the Doctor appearing out of utility cupboards later revealed to be lifts. Bartlett's writing, and sense of the Whoniverse, seems weak to me. In fact I haven't been so disappointed in an episode since Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote In the Forest of the Night. I do wonder if the problems with the script (as regards uneven tone) might not be due to Bartlett having signed up to write an episode which he assumed would be similar in tone to the last year's and then having to substantially alter focus and tone. Plus, there's a moment when Bill prompts the Doctor:
BILL: Okay, now's the time for the plan.
DOCTOR; That was it, no plan. Info dump, then busk.
BILL: Well, start busking…
- in a conversation which, to my ear, sounds awfully similar to something Clara Oswald might have said. I remain convinced Bartlett was contracted to write something for the previous series and that his episode then got bumped forward, as happened to Neil Gaiman with The Doctor's Wife. At least I think it was The Doctor's Wife...
Exempt of any criticism of this episode are the special effects - created by Milk-VFX and Real SFX respectively - who did fantastic work, both on Eliza (the Landlord's mother) turned dryad and on poor Pavel whose transformation was arrested by the needle caught in the groove at the end of a record. A fantastic visual and suitably horrific. Though it may have escaped a child viewer's attention, Pavel is the only student who doesn't make it out of the house alive.
Knock, Knock may play with all the stereotypical tropes of horror film, but the denouement in which the Doctor uncovers the tragic villain of the piece is aptly reminiscent of Agatha Christie's Poirot unmasking a murderer. That switch, that drop in pace jarred, making an already lackluster episode appear weaker still.
This had all the ingredients needed for a great episode. Shame about the execution.