2017 Series Episode 4 - tx 06/05/17. Written by Mike Bartlett. Directed by Bill Anderson. Episode reviewed by Robert Stanley
Bearing in mind this is the series that Steven Moffat didn't want to make, it's found it's mojo again. All thanks to a back-to-basics “Year Zero” approach which sees the Doctor having mellowed a lot during his years of exile on Earth, only for the arrival of Bill Potts to spark him back into life. After three well-received stories effectively re-introducing the concept of Doctor and companion travelling through space and time, it's down to `Knock Knock` to keep up the momentum. I've come to this year's run completely fresh having managed to largely avoid previews and spoilers, and all I knew of this story was “it's a bit scary”. It's hard to get a “scary” story right, because what scares somebody may be met by indifference by somebody else: that was the challenge facing Mike Bartlett in his first Who script. Nowadays the vogue in horror films is for impossibly good-looking teenagers to expire in a variety of inventive and gory ways; not an option for BBC1 Saturday evenings, so Bartlett looks to Buffy for inspiration (with a bit of Scooby-Doo for good measure: look at how the kids run around the house in a straight line). “Buffy” of course had the twin advantages of sharp dialogue and a cast which could bring it to life: the youngsters playing the housemates had a go, but with the exception of Paul none of these characters had any real, well, character. And they definitely come off second best alongside the regulars. I get the impression that the housemates were written as such to get the Daily Mail frothing at the mouth like it did last week (and indeed, the BBC and Bartlett got a full front page rant the next day, albeit for his King Charles play rather than Doctor Who).
I mentioned `Knock Knock` being described as “a bit scary”. “Bit” is an apt word, as while it was never going to be another Hellraiser, we get a few chills at best. Unless of course you have a thing about insects, with the Dryads swarming and devouring on a par with the Scarabs in the recent Mummy films. Sadly the reveal of Eliza had its impact reduced thanks to the `Radio Times` spoilering it in its Saturday Preview. While the visuals are impressive without being truly scary, it's the sound which triumphs with the knocks and creaks you expect from a haunted house building up and becoming a threat. The sound's even more effective if you try out the binaural soundtrack version on the iplayer, especially the bit after Paul's been devoured when the knocking really sounds like it's all around you. Something I've noticed (or not, when you think about it) is that the music isn't as intrusive as it used to be, with Murray Gold realising that with much of the story being realised through sound effects he could reign things in. It's therefore jarring when he finally lets rip during the final few minutes when everyone escapes from the house. In fact that escape sequence is the only real letdown in this story leaving more questions than answers. Why just resurrect Bills' friends and none of the others? Why do the Dryads devour the house, and where do they go afterwards? Plus many more. Fortunately that's not the actual end as we have a coda back in the vault to remind us that Matt Lucas is a regular. We get a bit more of a reveal as to the occupant: it likes Mexican takeout, and plays the piano.
Once again, the story's lifted by The Doctor and Bill. Pearl Mackie's been the shot in the arm the show's needed in recent years: while still the eyes and ears of the modern viewer, Bill harks back to the original companions of the classic series who are just there for the adventure, with no baggage or any “special relationship” with time which blighted more recent travellers. Mackie also appears to have given Capaldi a new dimension to his performance. The manic whirlwind and rock star ambitions have gone, replaced with a more measured performance but keeping the urgency you expect from The Doctor. But it's David Suchet who really impresses as the Landlord: it's always good to see a top actor in a show like Dr Who bringing subtlety when surrounded by larger performances. Suchet's fantastic voice manages to convey creepiness through quietness, making it all the more shocking on the occasions he raises it. Also worthy of note is Suchet's hands: lots of touching going on, and look at the way he wipes tears away near the end. We mustn't forget Mariah Gale as Eliza, who pulls off that rare trick of conveying sadness and pathos whilst under a mass of (very effective) prosthetics.So apart from that blip at the end, `Knock Knock` is another solid story, not quite as good as `Thin Ice` but further evidence that this series of Doctor Who is heading in the right direction.