Bill and her University friends are trying to rent a house. Whereas most places are either too small or too expensive, one fits their criteria down to a tee. It costs next to nothing and is exceptionally spacious. The catch? Their landlord’s creepy, insect-like creatures live inside the walls and something strange lurks within the tower.
From an atmospheric perspective, this one works a treat. Doctor Who’s giving the horror genre a bash this time around. It’s an attempt that’s been made numerous times in the past, yet one which doesn’t always succeed. Director Bill Anderson returns for a consecutive week running and it’s safe to say he’s got things covered. The tone is creepy, the pacing effective and set designs eerie. A house which eats its victims is a highly unsettling concept; making the sets just as threatening as the physic-bending lice living within their walls.
Possibly one of the more effective elements to Knock Knock is wooden Eliza’s design. Despite her character coming across as a pitiful soul posing minimal threat to the Doctor or Bill, her appearance is more than enough to make the hairs on the back of one’s head stand on edge. Credit to the production team for pulling this one off. A fabulous creation which manages to be both beautiful and terrifying all the same. With the exception of the emoji-bots seen in Smile, series 10 has lacked good old fashion onscreen monsters so far. Although not a baddie, Eliza’s inclusion gives audiences an alien conception that’s been infrequent for quite some time now.
Unfortunately the same level of quality cannot be found in the lice living within the house’s architecture. It’s not that they are a problem in and of themselves. The idea of bugs able to crawl between any physical object is tremendously spine-chilling. Problem here is they’ve been brought to life with CGI. It takes away much of the fear-factor, making them look cartoonish and lifeless. They’d appear miles more frightening had they been created via practical means. Animatronic insects are a surefire way of making these creepy crawlies lightyears more unsettling than the final result. From a production and financial standpoint, their decision makes sense I guess. Manufacturing hundreds of insects can be achieved at a far faster and cheaper rate via digital trickery than physical. Nonetheless the outcome looks much less menacing as a result.
Despite this, everything else regarding Knock Knock’s appearance looks great. Except it’s not only the episode’s optical execution that contributes to the horror elements, as the audio works a charm too. Creaks and groans compliment the atmosphere; foreshadowing frights lurking within the shadows of Bill’s new home. It’s little surprise the BBC decided to trial a binaural mix of this episode on their iPlayer service. If there’s a Doctor Who story to test 3D sound on, this one’s certainly the story to pick. The diegetic sound is unnerving and serves the overall the story well.
Performance contributes toward the scares as well as the sight and sound. Kudos must be given in particular to David Suchet, who provides the most standout performance of the episode. The Poirot star plays the Caretaker, an elderly landlord who manages to simultaneously portray the part as both a sinister threat and cordial dear. His delivery is both warm and vicious; providing an awfully unsettling presence to Knock Knock’s overall story. If you found yourself in a room with this guy, you’d be forgiven for not knowing whether he wanted to cut you a slice of cake or stab you in the heart.
Knock Knock successfully does the whole Doctor-Who-as-Horror with considerable ease. Writer Mike Bartlett has little trouble performing such a task. Where he does struggle, however, is when it comes to closing up his story; an all too common trait for this program. This episode has the exact same problem Smile had several weeks back. Whereas that one spent most its time building a world with little room for a conclusion, this one favours fleshing out horror tropes over structuring a narrative that pays off with ease.
By the time we learn how the insects function, Eliza’s story and the reason behind why the house devours its victims, there’s little time to wrap things up in. Instead Bartlett finds himself quickly resolving the plot by bashing the dreaded “reset button”. Eliza kills the Caretaker, destroys the house and brings all the deceased characters back to life before we’ve even had time to process the recently revealed plot twists.
Regarding that last point, character deaths could have been handled far better in Knock Knock. Seeing as all the people are University friends of Bills, their inclusion and deaths could have been much more daring. If they’d been introduced in The Pilot, they’d have essentially stood in as Bill’s family unit; much in the same fashion as Jackie/Mickey were to Rose Tyler and Silvia/Wilfred were to Donna Noble. Seeing as many have compared series 10 to the Russell T Davies era of the show, bringing back earth-anchoring characters such as these wouldn’t have felt out of place. Killing family unit characters off in episode four is a daring way of subverting tropes associated with the first four series of revived-Who. Except this never happened, as each one of Bill’s friends were brought back before the credits had time to roll (plus they were pretty undeveloped, making it difficult to care for them).
Having said all this, there is some praise to be given to parts of the climactic moments. Although it’s rushed, the twist in which Eliza discovers the Caretaker is her son as opposed to her father is an emotional punch that’s handled considerably well. It’s a tonal shift from horror to tragic which transitions organically. Recognition must be given to both director Bill Anderson and writer Mike Bartlett for pulling this one off. Still, the sudden joy at everyone coming back to life immediately following this ruins matters considerably, so it’s not completely redeemable.
As for the inclusion of Nardole/the Vault at the end, once again it feels clumsily tacked on. It doesn’t come across as an organic addition to the plot, but is awkwardly shoehorned in to remind audiences that bigger mysteries are playing out within the larger scope of series 10.
The question surrounding the vault is fine. From 2005 onward it’s been a standard trope of Doctor Who to have an encompassing arc stitching the episodes of a given series together. Plus it seems we’ll find out what/who’s in there within a matter of weeks (presumably Missy). As for Nardole, however, his presence remains puzzling. His inclusion is bound to make more sense later on down the line, but four episodes in and Matt Lucas’s involvement continues to feel a little pointless. The sooner more light is shed upon why he’s hanging out with the Doctor, the less bewildering it will become. Having said that, it would appear he plays a bigger part in next week’s story. Perhaps we’ll learn a bit more about this enigmatic side-companion before episode five’s finish.
Knock Knock functions as a solid horror piece for Doctor Who. It’s scary, unsettling and atmospherically effective from start to finish. Its rushed ending and decision to cop out of doing something audacious with its characters is what demotes it in terms of quality.
An impressive if problematic attempt for the large part. Its directing makes up for where its script lets things down.
Next week, the Doctor, Bill and Nardole respond to a distress call coming from deep space. As they investigate, they soon find themselves trapped on a space station with a hoard of cosmic zombies!