One of the great qualities of Doctor Who has always been its willingness to embrace a variety of other genres beyond simple space opera. Throughout its over 50 year history, the series has never been afraid to expand its reach, easily shifting from science fiction to simple adventure then to fantasy, or from comedy to drama. But, since its beginning, Doctor Who may have been most comfortable exploring the genre of horror. This is a series, after all, that sent generations of British children scurrying behind the sofa, watching through fingers tightly clamped in front of their faces. The latest episode, “Knock Knock”, belongs firmly in that family of Doctor Who stories, in many ways embracing the horror genre more overtly than the show has in a long time. And it’s a terrific example of what makes this kind of Doctor Who story among the most satisfying.
The episode opens with Bill (Pearl Mackie) and some friends struggling to find lodging to accommodate the six of them. She and her friends manage to come across a deal that seems too good to be true; a huge gothic mansion leased to them by an odd Landlord (David Suchet) in the kind of deal only students making their first rental agreement would fall for. Luckily, Bill asks the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) to help her move, and like a parent coming to their kid’s first grotty apartment, the Doctor’s suspicions are immediately raised. But is this simply a bad deal, or does this creaky old house and spooky landlord harbour a darker secret? This is Doctor Who, so count on the latter.
One of the most famous periods in Doctor Who history came in the early part of Tom Baker’s era as the Fourth Doctor in the 1970s. This period focused on crafting pastiches of Gothic horror stories and drew upon their archetypes. It’s impossible to watch “Knock Knock”, written by series newcomer Mike Bartlett, and not think about this earlier classic period. But “Knock Knock” lives up to the comparison, crafting a scary and moody episode that certainly delivers on the chills. But this episode actually manages to do more than echo the tropes and aesthetics of the Gothic genre. With a tragic and dark mystery at its center, “Knock Knock” actually is a piece of Gothic fiction, not just a deconstruction of one.
In my earlier reviews of the series thus far, I’ve talked about how the episodes have put more focus on establishing the relationship between the Doctor and Bill, prioritizing their interactions above crafting original and complex narratives and placing plot at the fore. While the narrative of “Knock Knock” is straightforward and stream-lined, focused on telling a spooky ghost story, the narrative of the episode does take center stage. Bill and the Doctor do have some nice relationship-building elements, particularly focused on Bill’s desire to keep her two different worlds separate. that was an element I initially found kind of irritating, but the script won me over when, instead of having Bill never actually tele the Doctor why she seemed so embarrassed by him, Bartlett is smart enough to give Bill the maturity to tell the Doctor why she was so set on keeping TARDIS life from infringing on her home life.
But the main story is what works so well, with Bartlett keeping the first couple acts of the story firmly planted in the horror genre, an approach picked up on by director Bill Anderson, who embraces the haunted house setting of the piece and runs with it. It’s a classically spooky tale for much of its run time, and when the Doctor Who sci-fi elements do kick in, they are kept simple and logical to the story. The final element that works well is the tragic underpinning of the story, which I won’t reveal here, except to say it is a deeply affecting and emotional look at loss and the inability to move on (and isn’t that what underpins every classic haunted house story?)
This tragic element, which gives the story its heart, is anchored by David Suchet’s brilliant performance. He’s always been a terrific actor, and here he delivers one of the finest guest turns the series has seen in some time. The Landlord goes on a journey in the episode, and Suchet is able to make his earliest scenes comes across as vaguely spooky, albeit just welcoming enough to have us believe these kids would fall for his charms. And then each subsequent scene sees more and more menace and strangeness injected into his performance, however Suchet never crosses the line into moustache-twirling, always suggesting something more beneath the surface. And in his final scenes, when all is revealed, he gives the characters much more life and dimension than your average Doctor Who baddie. It’s really great, and it’s what makes the whole episode work, proving why some parts require an actor of Suchet’s skill in the first place, even with a solid script supporting the character.
The rest of the cast are all excellent. Pearl Mackie and Peter Capaldi continue to create a great Doctor/Companion pairing, with each of them always going for the most interesting choice. And the other flatmates in the story, while they each have the giant potential to become irritating (which is often a deliberate choice for horror stories involving young people; if they were smart and capable they often wouldn’t be in this situation), they never tip into that completely, instead they come across as young and naive not egregiously stupid.
This is another great episode in the tenth series, leading me to wonder when the streak is going to end. I’d still say that the series thus far isn’t as ambitious as the best stories of the past two series, but each episode so far has really delivered in a classically fun approach. “Knock Knock” continues that streak, delivering classic Doctor Who chills to send us back behind the sofa. 9/10