Monday, 8 May 2017

Modern day opening, trip to the future, trip to the past – all in the bag. Now it’s time for the return to the companion’s modern day life, as Series 10 continues to emulate Russell T Davies’ formula for beginning a Doctor Who series. That’s not a criticism – the formula works, in terms of showing new viewers what Who’s about and letting the show properly establish the companion and their life.

But whereas Davies would usually have this return to the contemporary take the form of an alien invasion story, Knock Knock uses a narrative type more typical of the Steven Moffat era – the haunted house. Now officially a student, after the Doctor has seemingly pulled some strings, Bill moves with her new mates into a suspiciously spacious and worryingly creaky old house.

Now, haunted houses have been done very well in Doctor Who before – Blink won a Hugo, and you should really check out The Chimes of Midnight, one of Big Finish’s best audio stories. They’ve also been done badly – please don’t remind me of Hide. This is definitely not one of the worst, as Mike Bartlett’s script builds up the menace while both direction and sound design give the old house a creepy atmosphere. 

But Doctor Who haunted houses can never be that scary, can they? The timeslot alone means the BBC wouldn’t get away with going full-on Paranormal Activity. So, to be effective, such an episode needs something special, something as creative and surprising as the ingenious Weeping Angels. What does Knock Knock have in that regard?

It has the student house angle, I suppose, with the potential of a Fresh Meat-esque sparky interplay between the gang. There’s the weirdly tall jock who unsubtly tries it on with Bill, the posh girl who’s scared of everything dusty and can’t live without phone coverage – OK, yeah, recognisable archetypes, that’s a start. And then there’s, err, the other ones. We know they're young and fun because they shout the titles of reality TV shows during moments of crisis, but other than that, not a lot of effort is put into character detail, and consequently the episode often feels flat. Not a classic yet, then.

The more interesting character is the landlord, played by David Suchet. Possibly the biggest guest star of the series, his performance veers engagingly from the charming to the sinister, elevating all the scenes he’s in. This is perhaps at odds with the direction, which wants to play his performance up to the level of parody – the “How do you get into the tower?” “You don’t” moment made me laugh instead of shiver. 

The main technique the episode uses to differentiate itself from cinematic haunted house fare, however, is a very Doctor Who trope – the third-act twist into emotional story. The reveal that the landlord is in fact the son of the wood lady is well handled in terms of believably clicking plot elements into place, while the emotion of him being a kid who became too attached to his mother and couldn’t leave allows Suchet to shine again, and should fit nicely into the story of Bill moving out from home. But...

....hang on. What story about Bill moving out from home? Her foster mother, who we met in The Pilot, wasn’t in this episode at all. There’s such an obvious parallel between Bill confidently leaving her mother figure and the landlord failing to do the same that it feels like a spectacular failure that the episode doesn’t even attempt to make that connection, instead opting for a gag version of it with the Doctor being the parent who awkwardly hangs around. Which is funny, but we really needed to see Moira for the emotional counterpoint. If, as I said in the opening paragraph, the purpose of returning to the present day is to establish the companion’s continuing ‘normal’ life, then there seems to be very little continuity to that. 

Similarly, what are the chances we’ll ever see Bill’s friends again? If Shireen is her best friend, why could we not have seen her in The Pilot? This continues a recurring problem of Moffat era companions (Amy seemed to change career every few episodes, while Clara’s family were so incidental that her dad was recast without anyone noticing), in strong contrast to the care RTD put into this side of things. At least Bill remains more grounded in reality than either of her predecessors, though this discontinuity in her life is certainly holding her story arc back.

It’s the lack of any real original idea, however, that keeps Knock Knock a long way away from the standards of Blink and The Chimes of Midnight. Still, now that both new series and new companion have had time to establish themselves, it looks like the next few episodes may, as Capaldi series have tended to do around the midpoint, start to push the boat out and be a bit more experimental.

  1. Thin Ice
  2. The Pilot
  3. Knock Knock
  4. Smile


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