Rarely does Doctor Who embrace another genre as completely as the first 30 minutes of “Knock Knock” does. For the first two thirds of its running time, tonight’s episode is a horror movie, with all the customary trappings. There’s the spooky haunted house with the still spookier landlord. There’s a bunch of thinly sketched young people who are all possibly idiots. There are loud noises and eerie music and windows and doors shutting all by themselves. If anything, it’s all a bit old-fashioned, in the best possible way.
And to its credit, the script by Doctor Who newcomer Mike Bartlett doesn’t take this as the umpteenth opportunity to deconstruct the genre. The Doctor and Bill are dropped into this scenario, and the Doctor’s presence—as well as the fact he’s not some young doofus, at least not in this incarnation—means the story unfolds a little differently than it might in a typical horror scenario, but even then he doesn’t fundamentally alter the setup as he might in another story, at least not at first. Let’s say you remove the Doctor from this story and make Bill the same basic person, except not a companion. It’s not too hard to imagine that version of her working out enough of what’s going on to confront the landlord over the house’s prior occupants, much as the Doctor does.
It’s around that particular scene, when the Doctor starts pleading with the landlord to let him help and Harry makes his ill-fated escape attempt, that the episode transitions from horror movie to a more typical Doctor Who story. The emphasis flips from surviving to solving the latest impossible mystery, and it’s here where the Doctor’s superior knowledge and experience—not to mention his alien nature—alters what kind of story we’re watching. For the first 30 minutes, the focus is on the young people in danger, with the Doctor as honorary member of that band. Following the story “Knock Knock” sets up to its inevitable conclusion would probably mean Bill and the Doctor escaping the malevolent threat by the skin of their teeth, the former’s friends all sacrificed for the sake of building up the monster they just escaped. And sure, Doctor Who isn’t above killing all its guest characters. The aptly named Fourth Doctor story “The Horror Of The Fang Rock” is perhaps the most brutal example of this.
But “Knock Knock” chooses a different direction, as the episode asks us to switch our focus to the landlord and his wooden mother. The Doctor and Bill then move from horror movie survivors to a TARDIS team trying to understand and help. Their own experiences become subordinate to their empathy. And that’s not a bad thing! It’s just a bit weird to watch the story undergo such a shift, especially on a first viewing. The first half-hour and the final 15 minutes of “Knock Knock” are independently very good, even excellent, but the lack of cohesion between them undercuts both.
That could be a bigger problem for an episode not anchored by three terrific performances—four, if you include Mariah Gale’s affecting work under heavy prosthetics as Eliza. I’ve already heaped plenty of praise on Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie, and I’ll soon do so again, but let’s first turn to David Suchet, who is magnificent as the landlord. Like Capaldi, Suchet elects to underplay his character, suggesting a man who is less evil than he is broken or even incomplete, which perfectly fits someone who never really left his tragic childhood. The temptation would be for the former Poirot star to sow hints of menace from the first moment, but it’s only when Harry asks once too often about the tower—and, without knowing it, potentially puts Eliza in jeopardy—that the landlord snaps, and even then only for a moment. The psychology of Suchet’s performance is impeccable: For much of the run, he’s a little boy doing his best impression of a grown-up, then he’s a little boy being cruel to those who must die to save his mother, and then all falls away as his mother realizes who she is and treats him like his son again for the first time in decades.
Still, tonight’s episode is only briefly about Suchet’s landlord. Most of the time, the focus remains squarely on Bill, and here’s where we see a very different horror aspect come into play: Bill faces the exquisite embarrassment of the Doctor wanting to hang out with her and her friends. While other new series companions have had love interests and family members, very few have had friends—like Bill, Rose had a friend called Shireen, while Donna had her arch-enemy Nerys—and these were generally unseen or only briefly glimpsed. It’s very rare for Doctor Who to explore a companion’s personal life in this way, and Bartlett’s script repeatedly underlines just how out of place the Doctor is in this setting, with Mackie and Capaldi wringing every ounce of comedy out of the Doctor’s repeated intrusions.
That character work also neatly complements the horror genre excursion. After all, it’s a classic horror trope that the characters involved have to act like idiots for the plot to work, and “Knock Knock” is no exception. The problem is Bill has established she’s no idiot, and nothing that happens tonight is any stranger than what she witnessed in the first three episodes. The story explains her occasional obliviousness as a character choice, an indicator of how much she wants to preserve some space of her life independent from the Doctor.
Even then, “Knock Knock” is careful to make Bill the bravest, most intelligent member of the group, with her volunteering to investigate the spooky noise and her working out a good chunk of what’s going on here. Beyond that, some of the storytelling choices on the margins are clearly designed to ease the weirdness of placing Bill, a companion who we will see in episodes before and after that, in a narrative scenario that would normally involve the brutal murder of a bunch of her friends: first, only Shireen is someone she knew before the events of the story, and second all her housemates come back to life at the end, a necessary and wise concession given how much death affected her in “Thin Ice.”
Finally, a larger thought: An episode like “Knock Knock” underlines the difference between Bill and her predecessor in the TARDIS. In part because Clara began as a mystery instead of a character, she could never really progress beyond being the archetype of a Doctor Who companion. All her actions and motivations ultimately either traced back to her role as the Doctor’s companion or felt episode-specific, something not clearly rooted in a character that existed outside the TARDIS. She wasn’t unique in that regard: Martha was in a similar position, and Amy and Rory rode the line with this, especially after season five. The point is the stories Doctor Who eventually figured out best suited Clara were those that spoke more universally to her role as a Doctor Who companion—her addiction to adventure, growing similarity to the Doctor, and even her romance with Danny Pink were compelling because of what they said about the show and its storytelling conventions.
Bill, though, exists independently of the Doctor, even if “Knock Knock” portrays her failing to keep her life separate. In this respect, she fits into the best tradition of Rose and Donna, characters the show likewise took time to develop outside the TARDIS. Bill’s desire to find a place to live, her dealing with Paul’s unwanted advances, her friendship with Shireen, even her showing her mother’s photo where she ended up—all these are aspects of a character that could exist and be compelling even if she had never fallen into the Doctor’s orbit. And that makes it all the richer when Bill makes the companion’s contribution to the resolution of the story, as she points out the impossibility of the landlord being old enough to be a middle-aged father in the mid-20th century and the improbability of such a father just randomly sharing a box of insects with his sick daughter. These are practical objections that may not be directly informed by any of the traits and motivations that I just mentioned—though notice how Bill also pauses when the landlord challenges the Doctor to say he would not do anything to save his own mother—yet there’s a sense of connectivity and coherence in Bill’s actions that you find in the best new series companions. Doctor Who has something special in Pearl Mackie and Bill, as her presence has elevated every episode she’s appeared in. When she’s accompanied by Peter Capaldi and David Suchet at the height of their powers, it’s easy to forgive “Knock Knock” a bit of narrative wonkiness.
- For the record, none of what I said above should be read as a condemnation of Clara. She was fun in specific episodes of series seven, very good in series eight, and often great in series nine. Plus, Jenna Coleman generally elevated the shortcomings of the writing for her character. I think series nine is the best of new Doctor Who (though series 10 already looks like it’s in with a shot), so I’m not dismissive of Clara’s contributions to the show. It’s just that everything just feels easier this year with Bill around, as the storytelling is organic and character-driven in a way the show hasn’t tapped into this readily since probably series four or five.
- I do enjoy the little stray bits of characterization Mike Bartlett gives to the generally thinly sketched housemates. In particular, Shireen is very obviously crushing on Paul long before Bill calls her out on it, as she consistently teases him about being expendable or Scottish or whatever else in the way someone figuring out if they are attracted to someone would.
- The scene in which Bill and the Doctor discuss how he’s a Time Lord is another brilliant interaction between them. I’d say the show should give them a two-hander together, but then I remembered that’s what all the best bits of “Smile” already were. Also, I do hope Bill sticks around long enough to learn about regeneration firsthand after that deft bit of foreshadowing.
- At this point, I’m not sure there’s any logical identity for who’s in the vault that isn’t the Master. Only real question is whether the Master in there looks like John Simm or Michelle Gomez.