Doctor Who: Mike Bartlett on series 10’s Knock Knock

Writer Mike Bartlett tells us about writing his first Doctor Who episode and being a Who fan trying to act cool around John Simm…

Knock Knock, a haunted house story with a sci-fi twist, was a highlight of Doctor Who series ten. It gave us comedy from the Doctor and Bill, creepy goings-on from a race of alien lice, and an emotional third act with real heft. David Suchet’s performance as an eerie student landlord also made for one of the most memorable guest roles in a long time.

During a conversation with Doctor Foster screenwriter and playwright Mike Bartlett about his new ITV thriller Trauma (starting Monday at 9pm), we chatted about his experiences writing the episode…

How did Knock Knock come about? Was it the first pitch you made to Doctor Who?

They got whiff that I was a Doctor Who fan and called me up, which I was very pleased about. I’d only written television for a few years before that happened, I hadn’t written a huge amount. It also didn’t quite feel like a show that you call up and go ‘can I write an episode?’, maybe it is, I don’t know but it didn’t feel like that to me. It felt like there must be hundreds of writers wanting to write it so if they want you then they’ll call you, and then they did, which was really nice.

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I read a very funny blog post recently by screenwriter James Henry who was developing an episode for series ten that didn’t make the cut in the end, and he described the way Steven Moffat knocked ideas around with guest writers. How did your story evolve with Moffat?

He’s brilliant. It’s a writing masterclass spending any time in a room with Steven Moffat and his brain. I know other people have said that but it’s a really distinct phenomenon. His brain jumps to the correct or more interesting solution about ten times more quickly than us mortals do. I learned so much from it.

I went in with the idea of the lice and the landlord and the house and a bit of the story, then Steven said ‘okay, well this has to be the best haunted house story, the definitive haunted house story. We want ghosts, we want knocking on walls’ and we went through all the ideas of the things we might want in it – walls opening up, towers… some of that was there already and some of that came out of his encapsulation of what the episode needed to be.

Plot-wise, what he’s very good at is going ‘you’ve got seventy per cent of the way, you need to push it another twenty, thirty per cent’, what can happen next? Now what’s next? What would be more surprising than that? That’s what’s brilliant I think about writers running shows is that you’re doing that work with a writer who has that joy. It feels really collaborative and fun knocking ideas about with another person who writes six episodes a series himself. It’s Doctor Who, so how could it be better?

Some of the nerdier moments in your episode—that line “sleep is for tortoises”, the Fourth Doctor quote and the Harry Sullivan references—were those from you or were they suggestions from outside?

They were sadly and tragically from me, yes, [laughs]. There were probably more of them, originally. I don’t know if this was ever too explicit but I think there was also a bit of a Ghost Light reference, I think the moment when the Doctor turns to Bill and says ‘up the stairs you go’ almost knowing the danger up there but sending her there anyway feels like Sylvester McCoy and Ace.

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You had fun with that then?

I didn’t sit down with a list of my favourite Doctor Who moments and think ‘how do I crowbar them into the episode?’ it’s more just what I do anyway, you know – good writers borrow, great writers steal! [Laughs] It’s just useful and if it’s the right line at the right time then great, steal it. It also makes sense because that’s the same person. We all say the same good line twice, so if the Doctor says it, he can get away with it even more because there are thousands of years between him saying lines twice! In a nerdy way, it’s great fun for people who have watched the 800 Doctor Who episodes that exist without getting in the way of those people that haven’t.

Your episode also seeded in Twelve’s Regeneration. He gets the big takeaway at the end and you also had the mystery of the vault to handle. How did you go about threading that stuff in? Were there guidelines as to what you could and couldn’t reveal at that point?

The vault stuff at the end—I’m sure I’m allowed to say this—is Steven’s, not me. Steven Moffat wrote that scene at the end. There was originally another scene at the end which I think, I believe is on the season ten DVD as a deleted scene [it is. You can see it here], if everyone wants to go out and buy that! In it, they’re back in the house and it sort of rounds the episode off.

As the series took shape, there was a lot that needed to be carried on, so you have that scene at the end with ‘who’s in the vault?’ and Nardole. There’s also  a moment in the episode earlier on when the Doctor says ‘I sleep after I’ve had a big lunch or I’ve regenerated’ and Bill says ‘What’s regeneration?’ and he moves on very quickly. I don’t think at the time that I knew that Peter was going, but I sort of thought it was quite possible so I did put that line in thinking, if he happened to regenerate at the end of the series, that isn’t a bad thing to start seeding.

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The length of production on Doctor Who means that you’re writing that script before they know where it’s going, before they know who’s sticking with the show. It’s an interesting process of writing your own stuff but they’ll then come along and say ‘here’s the actor playing Bill’ so you have to adjust for that. I think some of the other writers had to put Nardole in their episodes when he perhaps wasn’t originally. That’s part of the fun of it I think for me, you have to be on your toes as a writer to adapt to what’s going on in the series as a whole.

As a Doctor Who fan, and an executive producer on [new ITV thriller] Trauma in which you’d cast John Simm… had he filmed his series ten scenes when you met him for Trauma?

He had. We had lunch just to chat and get to know each other a bit before we started and he’d already filmed his scenes and I wondered how long I could have lunch for before asking him about it and before I could tell him about how awesome he was in The End Of Time and how excited I was he was coming back and geeking out. I think I judged it pretty well. I think I seemed like a reasonable grown-up before I got into that.

[Den of Geek asked John Simm if he remembered that lunch and he told us: “I don’t remember anything like that! I was exactly the same, making sure I didn’t gush all over him about King Charles III. I think we both sat there in silence. I had no idea that he was a Doctor Who fan, but I loved his episode. His episode was great!

Simm has very fond memories of his series ten return, telling us, “It was a lot of fun, it was great. I particularly loved the episode where I was dressed up as Razor. That was fun to do, to look completely different. It was great fun and a real honour as well to be able to work with Peter. I’ve been through two Doctors in my time, and not a lot of people can say that! Both terrific actors as well.”]

What’s brilliant about John is that when you get started, he’s easily as enthusiastic as you and loves it and had a brilliant time and loved playing that part so it was fantastic.

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Presumably if Chris Chibnall gave you the call for series eleven and onwards, you’d be interested in writing again?

Yeah, I’d love to. I’d love to. Isn’t it a brilliant show? The idea of regeneration is so good in terms of not just the character, but we’re seeing at the moment in terms of our culture, I feel like our culture is regenerating at the moment in terms of changing attitudes towards lots of things. What other show can entirely reboot itself in its very DNA and change everything about itself?

What’s so exciting about what Chris is doing is that, from what I can see, it’s going to be a very different show, which it has to be, it must be and if it couldn’t be, then it would get cancelled.

Isn’t Jodie brilliant already? What a clever man and what clever choices he’s making, brilliant.

Trauma starts on ITV at 9pm on Monday the 12th of February.