“You came here. You signed the contract. And now it’s time to pay.”
After a trip to the future and a trip to the past, this week Doctor Who was back on contemporary Earth for one of the classic story styles it usually does rather well – the tried-and-trusted haunted house tale. The show’s been here before, notably with 1989’s Ghost Light and 2013’s Hide, and the results are usually atmospheric if not always comprehensible (I’m looking at you, Ghost Light).
In a long history, there are various established styles of haunted house stories. One is the rich, period Gothic setting in which creepy things happen but are never really explained (Edgar Allen Poe, MR James); another is the earnest group of psychical researchers bamboozled by phenomena their scientific instruments can’t explain (The Haunting, Legend of Hell House). Ghost Light follows the style of the former, Hide the style of the latter. Knock Knock tries another version, one we haven’t seen in Doctor Who before – the group of doomed photogenic teenagers who unwisely choose to spend a night in the most sinister building imaginable, only to be bumped off one by one (The Evil Dead, er… Scooby Doo).
It’s fair to say that, in general, that style of haunted house tale is less respected than the others, tending to be a vehicle for gratuitous sex scenes and excessive (but guiltily enjoyable) gory deaths. Doctor Who is a family show, though, so we didn’t see any of those. Instead, the script by playwright Mike Bartlett focused on those creepy happenings and unexplained disappearances that give the sex and death its context.
That worked fairly well, though like so many of its influences, the plot of Knock Knock didn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. There were plot holes aplenty, though to credit director Bill Anderson, the thing was carried off with enough spooky panache that you might not have noticed them on first viewing.
For example, how did David Suchet’s sinister Landlord (oddly not given an actual name), figure out that the alien wood beasties only needed to be fed once every twenty years? Did he try renting the place out after that initial 1957 bunch, only to be lumbered with a bunch of rowdy students who steadfastly remained uneaten? And once he had figured it out, by whatever means, did he just hover around outside lettings agents every twenty years in the hope of finding six potential tenants/victims? For that matter, how did he know six would be the required number every time?
Still, it’s churlish for me to criticise a lack of plot logic given my fondness for the impenetrable Ghost Light. And my other complaint, that the constant thunder added to give the traditional shocks at spooky moments was oddly unaccompanied by any actual rain (hence the Freshers’ Fair still being on), may not have been scripted – it could have been a directorial choice.
And the director did pull off the spookiness rather well. That shot of Pawel half-embedded in the wall, the screams and pounding knocks, the crumbling bug-covered victims (shades of Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness)… It was all pitched just right to scare the willies out of smaller children, just as the show used to do to me when I was five years old.
By far the spookiest things in it were David Suchet’s tuning fork-wielding Landlord and his wood-sculpted mum. And yet, it was with them that the heart of the story lay, the sinister giving way to the tragic as the Doctor and Bill gradually deduced how the situation had come about. It was nicely uncompromising to see that, while Eliza found a kind of redemption, her “loving son” went to his grave unrepentant and still insisting that “they must be destroyed!” The road to Hell is indeed paved with good intentions.
Less uncompromising, unfortunately, was the unexpected resurrection of the teenage victims, a last redeeming gesture of Eliza. It’s all well and good that she would do that if possible, but why not do the same for all the previous groups of tenants? It also fell foul of the trope that continues to dog Steven Moffat’s tenure of the show; if death is always reversed, what kind of jeopardy can a story have?
Oh well, they were a likeable enough bunch, so it was some consolation to have them back. Yes, the characters were fairly sketchily drawn, but fair’s fair, how much depth do Freddy, Shaggy, Velma and Daphne have? A good cast made the most out of the fairly thin roles, with particular credit due to Mandeep Dhillon as Shireen and (the rather pretty) Colin Ryan as Harry. With Bill and the Doctor split up in the traditional way, each worked rather well as a companion for them (and were disposed of once they got reunited). But really, choosing to live in the house out of Blink? Don’t these people watch Doctor Who? 🙂
Peter Capaldi was once again in his element in what was, let’s face it, a rather slight story. Much emphasis was given in the script to his “advanced age”, which was both humorous and interesting. It was surely an intentional echo of his relationship with Susan that Bill kept calling him “grandfather”; and witness his visible discomfiture when Bill asked him about regeneration. It feels like the hints are piling up…
Bill, for her part, got to learn that, once you meet the Doctor, you’re not going to get away from him too easily. “Basically, this is the part of my life that you’re not in,” she tried exasperatedly to explain; only to learn, like Clara, Amy et al before her, that there is no such part of her life. Pearl Mackie again played it well, as a believable real young person; I enjoyed her somewhat awkward fending off of housemate Paul’s amorous advances. She also once again got to puncture the Doctor’s pomposity with her disbelief at the name of his people: “Time Lord? That’s not a species! It sounds… posh.”
Perhaps it’s another one of that ‘posh’ lot incarcerated in the enigmatic Vault. We got the now requisite epilogue addressing this year’s arc as the Doctor turned up with a takeaway Mexican for the mysterious occupant, who apparently plays piano and enjoys hearing stories of the Doctor’s adventures – especially if they involve nice young people being eaten. The ep ended with the door opening tantalisingly while still denying the audience the sight of the occupant. Well, we know this season has two versions of an old foe turning up – I wonder if one of them’s in there?
Knock Knock was an enjoyable enough episode, providing you didn’t think too much about it. Some nice scares, good performances, and good direction elevated it somewhat above being a mere Scooby Doo story, and it was just creepy enough to give the kiddies a good old-fashioned Robert Holmes-style scare. I doubt it’ll go down in fan annals as any kind of classic, but as another of this season’s standalone stories, it felt like it worked well enough.