This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
10.4 Knock Knock
“Do you like Little Mix?”
There’s a bit towards the end of the Sylvester McCoy Doctor Who story, The Curse Of Fenric, that always moves me. I don’t want to spoil the exact nature of it, not least because it’s a moment that hits you all the harder if you don’t see it coming. Just that it involves Ace, played by Sophie Aldred, and it really adds something special and incredibly human to the story.
I bring it up because I love the last third of Knock Knock, for not dissimilar reasons. Appreciating that some aren’t happy when Doctor Who goes emotional in its story wrap-ups – heck, we all love a big space battle from time to time – the fact that David Suchet’s mysterious landlord is actually the son of the woman we assumed to be his daughter is a very well earned, impactful piece of storytelling. I like that it works as a twist, but mostly, that it works because it adds real tenderness to the story.
The build up to it is helped by David Suchet’s excellent guest performance (one of the best guest star appearances in recent years, I’d contend), all the more effective when you consider how little we see of him in terms of actually screentime. But in that time, he goes from very creepy and sinister, to tragic and heartbreaking. All in under 50 minutes.
Credit there to Mike Bartlett, making his Doctor Who writing debut. It really is some piece of work. But then credit also needs to go the production team, and director Bill Anderson, for realizing such an effective, spooky little horror story.
“Where are they?” ”In the house”
The light setup to the story offers few clues as to what’s coming. Bill is moving into a student house with a bunch of friends (note the little dig at affordability of housing). They naturally can’t find anywhere vaguely habitable on a budget, and instead, rather quickly, accept an offer from a stranger to go and live in a massive house. They can afford it, they sign the contract without reading it (tsk), and move in.
The comedy – and pace – in the episode is frontloaded, as the TARDIS becomes a removal truck, and Bill wants the Doctor to leave her to it once she’s moved in. Calling him her grandfather (don’t forget that cut to the picture of Susan in The Pilot!), the Doctor shows signs of going and leaving everyone one to it. But then he gets interested in the mystery of the house.
As did I. When you only have 45 minutes to set up, explain, and pay off a story, it’s wise to keep things fairly to the point. Bartlett does that. He blends the creaks of an old house, with people disappearing. Oh, and a mysterious tower that you got no prizes for guessing would be opened up by episode end.
I found the story suspenseful and unsettling, too.
Where horror movies tend to get under the skin the most is when they home in on something relatable. It Follows, for instance, is a film that gives me the chills, and it’s the idea that someone is always coming for you – even at walking speed – that gets me there. Doctor Who, particularly Steven Moffat scripts, have mined small things effectively in recent times too: don’t blink, hold your breath, beware a crack in the wall.
In this case, perfect for anyone who lives alone in a small house and decides to watch this, it’s the creak of the floorboards that we home in on. That every groan of an old building could hide something deadly. Knock Knock holds back the CG realisation of this for a long time too, allowing sound effects and a tickly score from Murray Gold to do the unsettling. When it does break out the computer effects, it deploys them wisely. A wall that eats someone up. And then, eventually, little bugs that do their work quickly enough to stop you focusing too much on them. Somebody watched that last Indiana Jones film in the effects department, and knew what not to do.
Just to reassure, then, those sat alone in a creaky house right now. Not only is every noise out to get you, but the creepy crawlies might just have their eye on you too. Sweet dreams.
The ingredients of the episode work. The ensemble cast are good, and it feels like we get time with most of the characters here, rather than them having to do the Doctor Who equivalent of slipping a red shirt on and accepting their fate. But it’s Suchet who really stands out. Anderson shoots him expertly, having him walk in unexpectedly from the shadows, coming across as very reasonable and friendly and then, with the flick of an eye and the snap of his voice, sending a chill right the way through the Freeview system. That “how do you get into the tower” question is rebuked in very sinister style with “you don’t”, and boy, does the message come across. It works because Suchet underplays everything so deliciously, that means when he needs to ramp things up, it has impact.
“An old house and a dodgy landlord, which is pretty standard for students”
As for the two leads, top work again. The Doctor and Bill are separated, at Bill’s insistence – “this is the bit of my life that you’re not in”, she protests (good luck with that) – and it’s full-on Detective Capaldi we get here. Simple, intelligent questions – “who is the Prime Minister?”, replete with a Harriet Jones namecheck – demonstrate that the Doctor builds up to working things out, rather than suddenly getting everything in a paragraph or two of dialogue.
Also, this is an episode that really warrants a rewatch. It’s even more fun seeing things like the music tuning fork when you know what’s coming, and what the purpose of them is.
We also get louder hints as to what lies ahead. Very loud hints. Note that the regeneration drums have started to bang here, with the Doctor discussing it with Bill at the start of the episode. He also tells us that hunger and regeneration go hand in hand, and by the end of the episode, he’s got himself a massive Just Eat order in (other takeaway services are available). That’s clearly no coincidence. Might he – whisper it – already be dying in this guide? Has the regeneration actually started?
And then there’s the vault. Be in no doubt that the Doctor knows who’s in there, and also, that he wants to spend time with them. Already-revealed returnees for this series are obviously the prime candidates. We also know it’s someone in there who enjoys a bit of ivory tinkling. Speculate away.
“Time Lords? That’s hilarious. Do you wear robes and big hats?”
The more I think about Knock Knock, a bit of me wishes they hadn’t released pictures of Eliza in advance, though. When she first appeared here, I did wonder if it was going to be anti-climax. But by threading such an emotional wallop between the story of Christie and Eliza, her character – beautifully voiced by Mariah Gale – really worked. I liked, too, that Bill’s brain was firing, and that she got to the reveal for us. When Eliza eventually told her son that “it’s our time”, my eye also decided to leak a bit of water. A lovely piece of drama.
It’s three weeks of very little Nardole we’ve had now, but the teaser for next week’s Oxygen suggests that Matt Lucas will finally get to join in an adventure more fully. I’m glad about that. But I’m mostly glad right now that Doctor Who can do episodes like Knock Knock, and that they can still have the impact they do. I thought it was a really impressive piece of work. My favourite of the series so far.
Read our review of last week’s episode, Thin Ice, here.
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