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Doctor Who – Knock, Knock (Review)

“That’s what they’re called, Driads?”

“That’s what I’m calling them, yes.”

“You’ve gone crazy.”

“Well, I can’t just call them lice, can I?”

Performance is a bit wooden.

Knock Knock is a solid, if unexceptional, episode of Doctor Who. It occasionally feels more like a grab bag of idea welded together, more than a single cohesive story.

Knock Knock is essentially three very different episodes sutured together in a decidedly haphazard fashion. Knock Knock is, in quick succession: an episode focusing on Bill’s life outside the TARDIS, an old-school haunted house adventure, an intense familial psychodrama with a powerhouse guest performance. There is a strong sense that Knock Knock would work better if it chose to be any two of those three episodes, but that it simply cannot hold itself together trying to satisfy all three masters.

Dial it back, there.

In its opening few acts, Knock Knock establishes a very clear sense of purpose. In keeping with the characterisation of Bill as a companion who would be at home in the Davies era, Knock Knock is focused on her life outside the TARDIS. One of the big innovations of the Davies era was the focus on the companion’s personal life, in the acknowledgement that the supporting characters had lives that existed beyond their adventures in time and space. Davies dared to wonder what kinds of people might run away with the Doctor, and from what they were running.

In contrast, Steven Moffat pushed the show towards more archetypal companions. The key companions of the Moffat era seldom had significant lives outside their encounter with the Doctor. In fact, the Doctor would frequently become entangled with their personal lives, whether popping into and out of the Ponds’ domestic bliss in The Power of Three or going undercover at Coal Hill in The Caretaker. Amy Pond thought of the Doctor as her imaginary friend, while Clara was scattered across time and space by him.

Could do with a tune up.

As introduced in The Pilot, Bill Potts is a much more conventional companion. The framing of Bill in The Pilot harks back to Rose in several ways, from its use of montage to its class anxieties. Bill feels very much like a character from the Davies era, she is a working-class lesbian. Knock Knock builds on that by building a life around Bill’s time as a student. It is an episode that is very clearly framed in terms of a relatable experience for anybody who has ever left home in their late teens or early twenties, the difficulty of finding rented accommodation.

In the past, the Moffat has built these stories around the Doctor rather than the companion. This is very much in keeping with Moffat’s strengths as a producer. If Davies was a dramatist engaged with the intersection of the sublime with the mundane, with the texture of the world into which the spectacular intrudes, then Moffat was a sticom writer more interested in the contrast and comedy of a classic fish-out-of-water premise. The Doctor had his own houseshare in The Lodger, and he got a job in Closing Time.

Gate keeper.

In contrast, Knock Knock is very focused on how Bill lives. It is a much more grounded way of telling this particular story. Once again, the episode luxuriates in the mundane. There is a very effective opening montage that covers the frustration and horror of house-hunting. The students wonder how everybody else does it. “Some people have money,” one reflects, making it clear that they do not live in some magic abstract world, but are instead dealing with very familiar concerns.

Knock Knock is built around the life that Bill lives outside the TARDIS, the life that was largely left unseen and unexplored for Amy and Clara. The Davies era mined this life for drama and contrast, while the Moffat era tended to suggest that it was irrelevant to the matter at hand. After all, the Eleventh Doctor handwaved all of this for Amy and Rory, casually and off-handedly buying them a house at the very end of The God Complex when he realised that his relationship with them was not healthy.

Lighten up.

Knock Knock does offer a small suggestion for why Moffat has eschewed these narratives in general. Bill is mortified when the Doctor invites himself into her life and introduces himself to all of her friends. “Basically,” Bill explains helpfully to the Doctor, “this is the bit of my life that you’re not in.” Bill expects to be able to keep a part of her life separate from her encounters in the Doctor, presumably in the same place where Amy kept her relationships with her friends and parents.

The implication would seem to be that Moffat was consciously separating this part of the companion’s life, acknowledging that it existed distinct from the companion’s interactions with the Doctor. This explains why Amy’s only friend appeared to be Melodi, based upon the teaser to Let’s Kill Hitler, because she was the only friend who was ultimately relevant to Amy’s time with the Doctor. Similarly, that explains why Clara’s personal situation changed so dramatically between The Name of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor; it was not relevant.

Landlording it over them.

Of course, this arguably impacted how the audience saw Amy and Clara. Because the show fixated almost exclusively  upon their interactions with the Doctor rather than their lives outside the TARDIS. As a result, Amy and Clara seemed less nuanced and developed than Rose or Donna. Amy and Clara seemed less like real people and more like characters in a television show, their personal lives existing in off-screen ellipses. Clara’s family only really appeared in The Time of the Doctor, because they were only relevant to that particular episode.

As such, Knock Knock feels very much in keeping with the characterisation of Bill as a more tradition companion. It is a story that could easily have been told in a different way. In fact, had this been a story featuring the Eleventh Doctor, it is not too hard to imagine Matt Smith going “undercover” as a hip and groovy college student in the style of The Lodger before uncovering the landlord. It is a storytelling choice that illuminates a lot about how this season has chosen to approach Bill in contrast to how previous seasons approached Amy or Clara.

Up the creak…

Similarly, Knock Knock returns to the old device of having the companion gradually come to terms with how weird the Doctor is. Amy and Clara seemed to grasp almost everything that they needed to know about the Doctor from the outset, jumping into their adventures with both feet. Bill has been allowed to gradually acclimitise to the Doctor. In The Pilot, she learned he was an alien with a magic box. In Smile, she learned he had two hearts. In Thin Ice, she discovered that he had a lot of blood on his hands.

This gradual reveal recalls the slow introduction to the Doctor during the Davies era. The show did not even mention the word “Gallifrey” until Gridlock in the third season. In Knock Knock, Bill is surprised to learn that the Doctor is a Time Lord. “Time Lord?” she repeats. “What’s that? Your job?” The Doctor even makes a conscious effort to rein in her learning of his background and origin. “Just remember Time Lords, that’s enough for now,” he reflects. It is a very controlled introduction, in keeping with the Davies era rather than the rapid-fire exposition of the Moffat era.

“Remember, Time Lords. Not that it’ll be important for you to know that for the season ahead.”

The episode then transitions into a tried and tested “haunted house” story. Really, this should be a slam dunk for Doctor Who. The series has been doing stories like this for decades, perhaps most memorably and effectively during the Hinchcliffe era, although it could be argued that this sort of story is really just a Troughton era “base under siege” story with a gothic skin applied. Haunted house stories are very easy and very effective; pile a bunch of people into a creepy old house and then have creepy stuff happen to them.

Knock Knock certainly alludes to any number of classic horror film premises. The plot device of creepy old guy tricking a bunch of young people into moving into a haunted house for his own nefarious purposes recalls House on Haunted Hill. The economic anxieties underpinning the story recall classic haunted house horror films like The Amityville Horror. Even the image of the house collapsing into itself at the very end harks back to The Fall of the House of Usher or Bad Dream House from Tree House of Horror.

Yes, I totally get this is a Treehouse of Horror.

Knock Knock taps into a number of these primal fears, the anxieties that underpin property horror as a genre. Knock Knock builds upon the stock horror idea of a house that murders its owner, a metaphor expression of the ears about mortgage and debt that come with owning a property. Knock Knock images a house that very literally eats its inhabitants, perhaps acknowledging the very relatable fear that a new home owner will be consumed by the stress associated with the property. “He’s preserved in the walls, in the very fabric of the house, forever.”

Even in terms of Doctor Who, Horror of Fang Rock is rightly considered a classic. Hide was one of the highlights of the fiftieth anniversary season. Knock Knock even makes an affectionate allusion to Ghost Light, with a secret elevator leading to a dark (and possibly alien) secret buried beneath the house. In theory, Knock Knock belongs to a very fine pedigree of Doctor Who stories. It is a very traditional and old-school narrative, but one that is reliable and proven. Knock Knock really should be a classic, from the moment that the floorboards start creaking.

Study break.

Knock Knock explicitly acknowledges that it is a tried and tested formula. The house itself is described as old-fashioned and outdated. “That’s an oil burning heater,” the Doctor explains. “You might need it. There’s no washing machine either. The hob is from the thirties. The sockets will not take your devices.” When the students try to brush it off, the Doctor insists, “No, no. They’re out of date.” Bill tries to look on the bright side, but even she acknowledges that it is a very old house. “There might be a few old things, but it just needs updating.”

It is interesting to wonder whether this is some sly meta-commentary from the episode, a reflection on the fact that Doctor Who itself is pretty old. Like the house, Doctor Who has been standing for a long time. It is very much its own thing. Bits and pieces have been stripped out and replaced over the years, but it is still an old and enduring pop culture artifact. Indeed, Knock Knock arrives in the tenth season of the revived series. Few television shows these days even last ten seasons. Very few of those are revivals of much older concepts.

A Herculean task.

Indeed, given that Smile seemed to be built as a commentary upon stock criticisms of Peter Capaldi’s rather grumpy interpretation of the Doctor, it is interesting to wonder whether Knock Knock is also a nod to the lead actor’s advancing age. Capaldi has generated no shortage of controversy due to his age, being noticeable older than Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith. With the talk of “regeneration” towards the start of the episode, it is interesting to wonder whether the Doctor might see something of himself in the house.

Then again, this is a nice bridge into the third and final little story tucked away in Knock Knock. The episode starts as an episode focusing on Bill’s life outside the TARDIS, transforming into a stock haunted house narrative. However, it then becomes a much more emotive story about a sad and lonely man who keeps a monster in the tower. These last two elements fight for space, both ultimately feeling rushed. Knock Knock has barely begun to play with its haunted house concept before it arrives at an extended scene driven by extensive exposition.

Getting her move on.

To be fair, the scene exists for a number of reasons. Most superficially, Knock Knock features a guest appearance from David Suchet. Suchet is something of an institution on British television, in large part due his fourteen-year tenure playing Agatha Christie’s iconic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Suchet is a fantastic actor, and it would make little sense to cast him the role of “generic creepy dude who feeds college students to his sentient house.” The big final scene with Eliza is clearly designed to give Suchet a chance to show off. And he does good work.

The scene also exists to play into the bigger themes of the season, and to explicitly parallel the Doctor with the Landlord. Building on the photograph of Susan glimpsed in The Pilot, Knock Knock makes another allusion to the Doctor’s long-lost granddaughter. Bill insists on referring to the Doctor as “grandfather”, reaffirming that role for the character. The Doctor and the Landlord bond over the challenge of taking care of somebody else. “It’s hard-breaking experience, to leave one’s charge behind in the big, wide world,” the Landlord reflects.

Tardy in the TARDIS.

The Doctor seems to own his sense of familial responsibility. In some ways, this feels like an organic development of the “duty of care” that the Doctor developed during his time with Clara. The Moffat era has spent a lot of time building up the idea that the Doctor is learning from his mistakes, and has realised the damage that he can cause. In some ways, bringing Susan back into the fold feels like an organic follow-up to that character arc. After all, the Doctor did effectively abandon Susan. He neglected his duty of care.

As such, the monsters at the heart of Knock Knock are designed to play off that idea. The Doctor effectively saves the day by reminding Eliza of her own familial responsibility. “You’re the parent,” he urges her. “You’re in charge.” The Doctor taking responsibility for his own grandchild would seem to be a logical extension of that particular character arc. The Doctor has increasingly recognised the harm that he causes to his friends, so what about the harm that he has caused to his family?

Also, yes, he’s a Land Lord because he’s like a Time Lord, but tied to one place.
Very clever.

More explicitly, the sequence is designed to parallel the Doctor’s current relationship with the Vault. The Landlord keeps Eliza locked away in the tower, a very fairytale touch. The Doctor keeps his own charge locked away in the Vault. There is a similar sense of love and affection there, a long-standing sense of duty and responsibility. The Landlord is trapped by his ties to Eliza, just as the Doctor is tied to the individual locked behind that ominous door. The final sequence is designed to underscore that idea.

However, it is still a sequence overburdened with exposition and dialogue. The scene is largely driven by the Doctor explaining at length the events that he has deduced, intercut with various flashbacks of the Landlord’s relationship to Eliza. There are some very clever ideas there, most notably the twist that the Landlord is Eliza’s son rather than her father. However, the decision to compact all of that exposition into a single scene undercuts the effectiveness. The audience barely has time to accept the relationship between the Landlord and Eliza before it is abruptly twisted.

The whole place is bugged.

An interesting choice following on from Thin Ice, the script for Knock Knock is decidedly ambiguous about the origin of the strange monsters that drive the plot. Most obviously, the Doctor acknowledges that he has never heard of them and that most of his work defining them is guesswork. (Although “Infestation of the Driads!” sounds like a great lost Pertwee adventure.) The Doctor doesn’t even know if the Driads are alien, he just assumes that they are. It feels like an extension of the ambiguity in Thin Ice, where the sea creature was also not explicitly alien.

Indeed, it is worth noting that none of the first four episodes of the season feature a single alien threat. The Pilot features sentient oil. Smile focuses on malfunctioning robots. Thin Ice has a creature of unknown origin. Knock Knock introduces some strange wood lice that a boy found at the bottom of his garden. It would be interesting to see this as a recurring theme of the season, a year of Doctor Who without an explicitly alien threat. Of course, several incarnations of the Master loom in the background, but the trend is still interesting of itself.

Feeling boxed in.

Then again, the season so far has avoided stock monsters. In The Pilot and Smile, the action is driven by malfunctioning technology. In Thin Ice and Knock Knock, the real monster is the human exploiting the strange creatures. “You don’t have to go to outer space to find monsters,” Nardole observes towards the end of the episode, a very astute reflection on the themes of the episode. It will interesting to see how that theme stretches across the season, once the Vault inevitably opens.

Knock Knock is just too messy to really work as an episode. The story needed a much tighter edit and more a streamlined approach. The result is an interesting failure, an episode with clear ambitions that remains incapable of realising them.

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2 Responses

  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughtful and detailed review. But I disagree with you. I found this the most engaging episode of this series. I liked the appeal to any student who has been in a bad housing situation and the emphasis on the group of friends. I thought David Suchet was terrific and lifted Capaldi, in the scenes they shared. I enjoyed it a great deal. Thank you for making me think about it!

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