The more this season goes on the more that there is a sense that the show is reaching into its past for inspiration. So far this has produced three episodes of pretty good to great quality and it does so again with Knock Knock.
This episode has ingredients from the more horrific end of the Philip Hinchliffe era and that classic staple of Doctor Who, the base under siege, mixed together into a tasty cocktail, served in a Russell T Davis contemporary Earth setting and garnished with a Steven Moffat feel-good ending. Award winning writer Mike Bartlett proves himself to be a skilled at blending these different elements into something that manages to feel familiar yet new. It doesn’t end with the script either. Director Bill Anderson and the cast take the baton an run with it and the result is one of the scariest stories the show has produced in a while.
The set up is straightforward. Bill and a bunch of people she’s not long met all decide to share a place. When all of the houses in their price range prove to be terrible they are made an offer too good to be true by the mysterious Landlord who just so happens to have a lovely, large old house that he is willing to rent to them for next to nothing. Bill asks for the Doctor’s help to move in and he ends up sticking around when he senses that not everything is as it should be.
The episode really comes alive once everyone is in the house and people start to be picked off one by one. The Doctor and Bill are split up for the first time as they are cut off from one another by the house. Bill ends up with a couple of companions of her own in Shireen and Paul while the Doctor has Felicity and Harry. It’s nice that Bill is shown to have learned from her brief time in the TARDIS but she isn’t being gung-ho, rather she is using her intelligence and reasoning. She is the one who works out where the entrance to the tower is and she is the one who points out to the Doctor that the Landlord couldn’t be Eliza father due to how far back the disappearances go. Meanwhile the Doctor strikes up a nice partnership with Harry after Felicity flees the house and appears to meet her doom. Harry and the Doctor make quite a good team in their scenes together which gives the moment of Harry’s death more weight when it happens. Kudos to Peter Capaldi and Colin Ryan for getting me invested in the character in the brief amount of time they had together.
At the centre of all of this is a magnificent turn from David Suchet as the Landlord. To begin with it appears to be your average villain and almost a waste of Suchet’s talents but it is in the reveal that the Landlord is in fact Eliza’s son rather than her Father that Suchet brings another level to his performance. The torrent of barely contained emotion that Suchet brings utterly re-contextualises the character and while there is no forgiving what the Landlord has done you can’t help but feel for the child willing to do anything to save his mother. The sinister old man falls away to reveal the terrified little boy that is still underneath. The sight of him weeping in his mother’s arms as the Dryads consume them is one of the most heartbreaking images the series has ever produced.
I know there are some who will find everyone being brought back to life at the end a bit twee, but in this case I think it made sense from both an emotional and storytelling standpoint. Emotionally it allows Eliza to try and make some small amends for what her son has done all these years and from a storytelling point of view it means that Bill isn’t having to spend a night in a police station having to try to explain what happened to five people who disappeared. If you hate that aspect of the ending I’m not going to change your mind but I found it a satisfying and, given that I had come to enjoy several of these characters, pleasing ending.
There are a couple of niggles. It is never really explained why they Landlord felt the need to lie to Eliza about being her father or why Eliza would believe that he was. It made sense that Nardole not be present for the first couple of stories but I would have liked some more of him here if only to see what his dynamic with Bill is going to be like. I haven’t made any comment thus far on the vault plot and this is because I honestly couldn’t care less until it comes to the forefront. This episode all but confirms that it is the Master in some form or another but if there is one thing I won’t miss from Steven Moffat’s tenure on the show it is the dangling of endless mystery boxes. It is building to something and I will see what I think about it when they get around to pulling the trigger.
Knock Knock is atmospherically creepy, strangely moving and macabre. It is hard to say for sure but I get the feeling that, in years to come, the kids who saw this then stopped watching as they grew older will say “I remember that one with the house and the bugs. That scared the crap out of me.”. That is the kind of Doctor Who that stands the test of time.