Back in the Sixties, successive Doctor Who creative teams were obsessed with the idea of coming up with the ‘new Daleks ,’ a monster that would capture the public imagination the way Dalekmania had and, along the way, sell a few toys. While none knocked the iconic pepperpots off their top spot a few, like the Cybermen, came close and some made a fair stab at it, like the Ice Warriors or the Yeti. But many more spent their Doctor Who afterlife propping up the bar next to the Quarks and the Zarbi and telling anyone who’d listen how they could have been somebody.
In the 21st century this has been replaced by the urge to create ‘the new “Blink”.’ Really, even that trend goes back further to “The Empty Child” and it seems each season has contained one story that tries to outdo its predecessors and claim a place among anecdotes of the future – the story every middle aged fan of 2050 says gave them childhood nightmares. “Knock Knock” is firmly part of this tradition and one can almost imagine first time Who writer Mike Bartlett (Olivier Award winning playwright and creator of Doctor Foster) cackling at his keyboard as he imagines the dry cleaning bill for the planet’s underpants going up with every scene he writes.
The only trouble is… “Knock Knock” actually isn’t that scary.
It tries very hard to be scary, and grasps at every tool it can find under the kitchen sink to shred the audience’s nerves – a dark and stormy night, creaking floorboards, doors that suddenly slam shut by themselves, lights that cut out at dramatic moments. The only thing missing is a cat that jumps out of the dark and scares everyone.
Part of the reason it fails, despite all this, is the lack of any sense of genuine threat or menace. We’re introduced to Bill’s new housemates but, perhaps in a horror movie homage that goes too far, they’re all total cyphers and it’s hard to remember their names as the herd gets thinned, one by one, let alone care about their fates. The monsters, too, are creatures that sound like the stuff gory direct to DVD horror movies are made from – a massive swarm of flesh eating cockroaches that the Doctor dubs ‘Dryads’ – but something a show like Doctor Who was never going to be able to do it well. The Saturday evening family show remit means that they were always going to totally bloodless and tidy in their eating habits. It doesn’t help that they’re actually terrifically cute in their design and about as adorable looking as it’s possible for a cockroach to get. The most disturbing thing about them, really, is the eleventh hour reveal that they can restore their meals to life by a method that you probably shouldn’t think about too closely.
But so what if “Knock Knock” doesn’t succeed in being the new “Blink”? Not every Doctor Who episode has to be bed wettingly terrifying, after all. When you remove that ambition off its shoulders, what you’re left with a standard, if not straight-forward, adventure skilfully executed on all fronts.
Where this story certainly succeeds is in establishing the status quo of what everyday life is now like for the Doctor and Bill. Having gotten the ritual of new companion introductions out of the way with a trip to the past and to the present, they now settle down to almost literal domesticity and there’s some great character work for the two of them.
Moving day is so much easier when you have a mate with a TARDIS
Bill is now comfortable enough with the Doctor to make use of the TARDIS as her own handy moving van and unfazed by alien man-eating cockroaches, and settled into her life as a full time freshman student and part time TARDIS traveller. In fact, while Steven Moffat’s time as showrunner has featured a recurring pattern of the Doctor as Peter Pan – showing up at his latest Wendy’s window from time to time to tempt her out for a new adventure, this episode is about as explicit as the show has gotten about the companion demanding the two sides of their lives to be kept separate. For much of the first half Bill is cringing at the Doctor’s insistence on hanging around her new house and finds the idea her new housemates might think she’s friends with one of the college lecturers so mortifying she makes up a pointless and ridiculous lie that he’s her grandfather instead.
Bill’s not best pleased by the Doctor outing her as a closet Little Mix fan
She also keeps to her pattern of asking those awkward questions the Doctor isn’t used to (why does he have a bedroom in the TARDIS if her never sleeps, what sort of name is ‘Time Lord’ for a species, what’s this ‘regeneration’ thing he mentioned) and manages to keep just to the right side of ungrateful when complaining about having to spend time with the Doctor when it’s not “TARDIS adventure time.” If deliberate, it’s a lovely subtle moment that she goes straight from grumping about his cramping her style to hanging up in her room the pictures of her mother she only has because of him. It’s certainly a lovely call back to see her carry on one of the imaginary conversations with her mother she referred to back in “The Pilot.”
Our other companion, Nardole, is again sidelined this week – popping up in a postscript to express increasing concern about the Vault situation and the Doctor’s disintegrating attitude to it. We’re learning a lot, week by week, about the contents of the Vault and the Doctor’s relationship to it and it’s hard not to start drawing conclusions about who, or what, is in there and why the Doctor has sacrificed so much of his freedom to guard it. But is that just what Moffat wants us to think?
The guest cast largely have a thankless task playing some pretty underwritten characters, but really it’s all about acting legend David Suchet (Poirot) as the nameless Landlord. It’s not the most subtle of roles but he plays it like the first act of a Dracula adaptation, all barely concealed menace and hunger with almost self-satisfied hints that almost dare his guests to realize his villainy. He’s played this game many times before, and won, so there’s a lazy grace as he moves through the story, nudging the pieces just enough to claim another victim but totally untroubled by their efforts to escape him. Even the Doctor himself doesn’t remotely intimidate him. Suchet really comes into his own with a twist on the character towards the end, which not only nicely pivots his motivations but allows Suchet to expose the damaged person underneath the affected disinterest while keeping him every bit as dangerous. It’s not usual to see the Doctor openly unnerved by an adversary’s fractured psychology, or to see Peter Capaldi go toe to toe with another actor on his own level, so together he and Suchet create some of the episode’s best moments.
Acting legend David Suchet plays the dastardly Landlord
Everything looks simply gorgeous, throughout, with the cramped corridors of the sprawling house previously used in, appropriately enough, “Blink ,” proving a terrific location once again and the standard of the photography this season continuing to impress. There are some lovely visual moments (whoever realized that the new sonic screwdriver would look like an old fashioned candlestick if held vertically in a pitch black room is a genius) and the design work on the monsters is fantastic.
There are some oddities of logic here and there (I’m not convinced the Dryads life cycle actually makes any sense, a lot of emphasis on the importance of the tenants signing their contracts goes nowhere and it seems a little perverse to spend so much time establishing that the Landlord controls the Dryads with sonic waves from his tuning fork only for the sonic screwdriver to play no role in the solution) that suggest the ghost of a more complicated plot, but despite its ultimate basic A to B structure, “Knock Knock” proves to be a satisfying slice of Doctor Who, with monsters, villains, hapless victims and – again this week – some of the best character and arc development the show has seen in many a year. It just doesn’t happen to be as scary as it wanted to be.
[Four TARDISes out of Five]
Doctor Who airs on Saturdays. On BBC One in the UK on at 7.20pm GMT, in the US on BBC America at 9pm EST, in Canada on Space at 9pm EST. In Australia it airs on ABC on Sundays at 7.42pm.
This episode is due out on DVD and Blu Ray on May 29th
By: Peter Nolan