Everybody thinks of Doctor Who as a science fiction (really science fantasy if we’re being pedantic) adventure series, but I doubt anyone would call it a horror series. And maybe it isn’t when compared to things like Penny Dreadful or The Walking Dead, but one of the show’s main goals since the beginning was to scare people senseless. Monstrous aliens are part and parcel of the show’s success, and that often sends people “behind the sofa.” I recently wrote about the show’s connection to Gothic horror, and this week’s “Knock Knock” fits right in that genre…for good and ill.
Written by newcomer to the show Mike Bartlett (creator/writer of British medical drama Doctor Foster), “Knock Knock” is a tremendous example of a modern Gothic ghost story, except there are no traditional ghosts. All of the hallmarks of writers like Henry James and M.R. James (lotta people named James, turns out) are present: huge, foreboding house, a wing (or tower) that is off limits, a spooky landlord who knows more than he lets on, even a woman hidden away in a room. And to the story’s credit, Bartlett has the Doctor recognize all of these weird idiosyncrasies, but Bill and her new roommates don’t think anything of it, because they’re millennial college kids and finding a place to live is hard. Incredibly funny.
This is the first episode (there’ve only been three previous, in fairness) that shows Bill having friends outside of the Doctor or a girl who became a puddle, and it’s nice to see that dynamic, where she doesn’t really feel all that part of the group, but everybody immediately thinks she’s cool because the Doctor is her “grandfather” (nice joke where the Doctor keeps trying to protest that he doesn’t look old enough to be her grandpa). I loved her friendship with Shireen (Mandeep Dhillon), and how Paul (Ben Presley) clearly has the hots for Bill but is immediately okay with her not liking men, and actually relieved he can stop hitting on her.
And in these funnier moments, we start to piece together the creepiness of the situation. Veteran actor David Suchet (who many will know as playing Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot for a number of years–and who actually narrated a series of M.R. James ghost stories on audiobook) does a lovely job playing the Landlord as both helpful and creepy, and then once the reveal happens, he seems suitably frantic at the idea of losing the petrified Eliza (Mariah Gale).
The episode plays as a Gothic horror/haunted house story for a good portion of the run time, and each time one of the roommates is taken, and the house seals itself off, the direction from Bill Anderson properly ratchets up the tension. Splitting up the people is another good touch, and common to a horror movie. Once we learn what the episode is really about–that the Landlord is controlling alien cockroaches that engulf people in the wood of the house–it starts to feel like a Guillermo del Toro movie, and even Eliza herself, as a wooden lady, feels like something that could happen in a del Toro dark fantasy film.
But that’s when my issues with the episode start to arise. The problem with any time Doctor Who delves into horror is that it can never fully commit to it, because it’s Doctor Who and not actually a horror show. The ghosts in proper Gothic horror scare or kill the protagonists, or at the very least sort of drive them insane. But because this is a family show, we can’t have that really happen. The space insects here are just controlled by sound (surprisingly, the Doctor never once used the sonic on them) because of a guy who loves his mother, and even though we see Shireen and the others devoured and dissipated by them, in a truly disturbing moment, they’re all restored to life at episode’s end.
When Doctor Who does horror, there always has to be an out, preventing that final trigger from being pulled. I’m reminded of the Series 7 episode “Hide,” which I loved, which had a ghost and a monster in a huge manor house, and neither were evil: the ghost was a time traveler out of sync, and the monster was a creature from the future simply trying to find its mate. It softens the scares and makes them no longer threatening, which, since this show is meant to be shown to kids, is fine; but as a horror fan, I’d love for the show to just once keep the horror going, even if it has a sci-fi explanation.
That said, I still think this episode was effective, and even if the ending wussed out, it managed for the most part to be a good representation of a variety of horror that the BBC does so well.
BUT, we simply must also talk about the final scene of the episode, clearly shot at a different time than the rest (look at Peter Capaldi’s hair). Last week I speculated briefly that one of the possibilities for who or what is in the vault is the Master (likely even the John Simm variant), and after this week it seems like they’re purposely pointing us in that direction, with the implication that whoever is inside would only want to listen to the Doctor’s story if it involved people dying. Also, the Doctor going in the vault at all is problematic, and I’m sure it’ll lead to badness for him.
Next week, we’re keeping it scary with the Jamie Mathieson-written “Oxygen” in which in deep space, air is a commodity and people become frozen space zombies. Looking forward to this one quite a bit!
Let me know your thoughts on “Knock Knock,” the thing in the vault, and anything Doctor Who in the universe, in the comments below!
Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor and the resident Whovian for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!