Series Ten, Episode Four
New writer, everyone! Get the nice china! And Mike Bartlett has quite a prestigious job to do, handling the first “scary one” of Series Ten. Small group of people trapped in a creepy old house, creaky floorboards, sinister guest star? What’s not to like?
Probably my favourite scary film is The Haunting, and the most famous bit in that is just a load of knocking on a door, so an episode called Knock Knock is off to a good start with me. And I was a student once, so I’ve been in that boat of having no accommodation when term’s almost upon you. Now that’s scary. (I also had a housemate that disappeared, but I’m pretty sure she wasn’t eaten by space bugs. I ought to check, really.)
|Incredibly, they don't do that joke. You know the one.|
(Didn't stop the BBC announcer though, did it?)
Stuck for accommodation, Bill and half a dozen fellow students meet The Landlord (no name; bit odd that nobody asks), who gleefully points them to a huge house they can rent for cheap. Is it too good to be true? Well duh; not one of them bothers to read the contract, including Bill, so I’m sort of with David Suchet on this one. The Doctor helps Bill move, cannily elucidating what a huge help the TARDIS would be in that situation. Of course he only has to glance at the house to know something is wrong, and he promptly embroils himself in their first night at home.
There’s something very satisfying about locking a bunch of characters in a house and letting the plot unfold more or less in real time. The Doctor puzzles out what’s happening as it goes along, noticing the trees outside are moving despite no breeze, flagging that a housemate remaining unseen in his room for an entire day isn’t normal for anyone, and immediately clocking something very odd about Suchet’s kindly-yet-creepy Landlord. Some serious guest star power here: Suchet plays it like Mole from Wind In The Willows, but with an evil agenda that keeps slipping his mind. You never know how complicit he is in the deviousness that’s going on, which works given his reasons later on. You’d be right to think that getting him and Peter Capaldi in a room together was worth tuning in for; Capaldi has so utterly hit his stride now, he can make eating a crisp look interesting, or make a smile terrifying. (He also slips into a Tom Baker impression at times, which few could get away with.)
The episode wobbles a bit early on with the Doctor-Bill relationship. She’s really keen to keep her private life and her, uh, Doctor Who life separate. This is annoying because virtually every companion since 2005 has kept one foot in their living room at all times – forget traveling through time and space and changing your life, what about the safety blanket? But it’s also unearned. Bill’s university studies and her life with the Doctor are linked: he’s her tutor and it’s his input that got her there, plus he’s the reason she has any photos of her mum, so she’s got even more reason to have him in her life. Fair enough if there’s a reason for Bill to act like an awkward kid being embarrassed by her dad at the school gates, but they haven’t set this up, so she’s just a bit of an arse towards him. (They don’t even give her the obvious reason, a housemate she fancies and wants time alone with. Quite the opposite, with a misunderstanding about orientations.) At least this gives Capaldi some amusing business, like insisting he doesn’t look old enough to be her grandad. I love when the Doctor doesn’t register his own appearance, like thinking he did look old enough to be Amy’s dad when he looked like Matt Smith. And it’s always nice to reiterate that the Doctor = a grandfather figure.
Anyway, we’re here for the creepy, so something weird has to happen and somebody has to snuff it. (Preferably multiple somebodies.) Knocking isn’t actually integral to this; everything in the house creaks all the time, but there’s only one scene with a sinister knocking going from door to door on its own, and that doesn’t really go anywhere. Something is in the wood, and it eats people when there are high-pitched noises. (Or, uh, when it wants to?) There’s some top notch screaming, generally from the men because the companions aren’t allowed to do that any more, and a moment when we see someone half-absorbed in wood is like something out of Guillermo del Toro. Overall though, Knock Knock mostly just talks scary, especially when it turns out the problem is alien bugs. This is personal preference, but for me the more “seen” the threat is, the further it gets from an Old Dark House story. The moment it becomes about CGI creepy crawlies, I lose a bit of interest.
|So his music summoned the bugs, but is also keeping him here?|
Ah, who cares, it looks creepy AF.
As for the bugs and what they’re doing here, this is the messy bit. Suchet is luring kids to his house every 20 years so the house can feed on them. (It prefers to feed on young people, judging by some vague lines about “youthful energy”.) This in some way keeps his sick daughter alive, as they have developed a symbiotic relationship with her. But why do they want to keep her alive, besides bargaining for more kids to eat? And “alive” in this case means “made of wood now”, which seems like a mixed blessing. What would happen if they stopped? Would she become more wooden? I wondered if she was meant to look more human once all the kids were dead, at least until another 20 years goes by, but I assume not as we see the effect one of the deaths has on her and it’s no effect at all, besides a shimmery thing. (She looks the same afterwards.) I wanted to know how Suchet even learned that dead kids = alive-but-wooden daughter, and what happens to them both in the 20 years between feedings, but alas, these episodes are 45 minutes only, so we must leapfrog through the “explanations” while the end credits tap their watch.
It all builds (too quickly) to a satisfying climax between Suchet and his “daughter”. (Or is she?) Epiphanies come a bit too thick and fast here – again with that troublesome pacing – as the Doctor talks himself into understanding and her into action. (I liked his line about “infodump, then busk”, but I wish it wasn’t true every week.) Suchet is incredible here, bouncing between malevolent and heartbroken, and Mariah Gale matches him, which is even more impressive under all those prosthetics. Add Peter Capaldi and well, yeah, it’s pretty good actually. Until Mariah saves all of Bill’s housemates, pulling the last bit of scary rug out from under the episode and replacing it with a fluffy pink carpet. That “eaten by bugs” effect is genuinely horrifying, but once you’ve seen that it might as well be a teleport. (Plus the finale is a bit of a mix of Love Conquers All and Heroic Self-Sacrifice; effective, but not exactly new ground.)
Cut to Nardole and something playing a piano in the Vault (I hate myself for this, but I do want to know what’s in there), and that’s Knock Knock. It’s pretty good, rather unclear but not exactly stupid, creepy but could be a lot creepier, thank god for Suchet. There are some little arc-plotty touches if you like that sort of thing, like all the grandfather bits and the rather pregnant nod towards regeneration. (Nope, lock the doors, we’re keeping him.) It’s another episode I’d struggle to say a lot about, but after The Pilot it’s the best so far. Knock on wood.