❉ Knock Knock was so good it could have been made for the classic series.
“Just an old house and a dodgy landlord. Pretty standard for students.”
There’s been a pleasing, gradual upward curve in quality through the episodes of Doctor Who so far this series, so to arrive at the best episode this early in the run is both exciting and encouraging. There were no questions left hanging (The Pilot), there wasn’t an unevenly paced narrative (which slightly marred Smile) and everything was explained (unlike the background to the aquatic beast in Thin Ice).
For me, what was particularly satisfying about Knock Knock was that it could have been a story in the classic series, where to succeed a story usually relied on four elements: atmospherically lit sets, disturbing sound effects, tense direction and committed acting. If the Knock Knock had been made in black and white it couldn’t have been any better.
Doctor Foster writer Mike Bartlett initially sold us the kind of I Know What You Did Last Summer scenario where a group of young people move into a house and bad things start to happen. This was playfully alluded to by Bill’s group of friends immediately accepting the offer of a man on the street they’d never met before – David Suchet’s effortlessly sinister Landlord – looking over An Old Dark House, complete with thunder and lightning, and being quick to sign what might have been a Faustian contract.
People did start to disappear but then, like many a classic Doctor Who, Bartlett twisted the story in a bizarre direction. The wood in the very old house – no wi-fi, no washing machine, plugs that wouldn’t take any modern devices – was absorbing Bill’s house mates, ably played by Mandeep Dhillon (Shireen), Alice Hewkin (Felicity), Ben Presley (Paul), Colin Ryan (Harry – ah, if only he’d been that Harry’s grandson, as originally written) and Bart Suavek (Pavel), whose disintegration into some wood panelling is one of the most unsettling images Doctor Who has come up with in recent years.
Once the Doctor had discovered that alien insects were infesting the woodwork and causing the disappearances, the story twisted again in a completely unexpected direction, down to a very intimate scale. Seventy-plus years-old Eliza (Mariah Gale – projecting pain and anguish admirably through layers of wooden prosthetics) had been kept alive by her devoted son – the Landlord – luring young people to the house every ten years to replenish her life force. The last scene was a moving struggle to do the right thing between mother and son – as the Doctor said, “What’s the point of surviving if you never see anyone?” – with Eliza’s finer instincts triumphing, releasing Bill’s friends and ending the cycle of abductions.
I’ve outlined quite a lot of the plot here, but it was so well thought through I think it’s worth elaborating on in print. There must be something in the air at the moment, too: I’d just got back from seeing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 which, under all the stunning CGI and wisecracks, had some serious things to say about family and belonging. Here, on Saturday night, was dear old Doctor Who using the haunted house scenario to tell a quietly tragic story of how far a frightened little boy – the heart of Suchet’s excellent performance – would go to keep his mother alive.
Knock Knock was just about perfect. God, how I love this 50 year-old series can still surprise me.
❉ ‘Doctor Who’ airs on BBC One every Saturday at 7.20pm. Click here for episodes and extra content.
❉ Series 10: Part 1 will be available on DVD & Blu-Ray 2 May 2017, with Series 10: Part 2 available on 17 July 2017. Complete Series 10 available on DVD & BD later this year
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.