David Suchet finally appears on Doctor Who, in a deeply creepy episode featuring a haunted house and a mysterious landlord with a dark secret.
Doctor Who is a science fiction adventure that really leans into the idea that it’s also part horror story. After all, it’s full of scary monsters and things that go bump in the night. Showrunner Steven Moffat has always loved the idea of kids watching the show through their fingers or from “behind the sofa”, due to its scary moments. So it’s not that surprising that this week’s episode, entitled “Knock Knock” attempts to recreate a modern-day Gothic horror story, complete with a mysterious, foreboding house, creepy portraits, and bookcase passages.
The episode takes many of its cues from previous Who horror story efforts like “Blink” and “Hide”. But while it is visually very well put together, the ending of “Knock Knock” is more than a little uneven. And though Poirot’s David Suchet does a phenomenal guest turn as the mysterious Landlord, even he can’t quite make up for the fact that the episode can’t quite commit to being as dark as it ought to be.
"Harry: I’m scared. The Doctor: Don’t be. Harry: Why not?The Doctor: It doesn’t help."
Doctor Who Does Horror Really Well
For all that Doctor Who is a show about a time traveling alien bouncing through time and space, it can tell a really good scary story when it wants to. The show excels at horror stories, actually. It has actually done quite a few stories based on that premise. Unfortunately, they’ll all forever be judged next to Season 3’s “Blink”, the standout 2007 episode that introduced the Weeping Angels and made us all afraid of statues for the rest of our lives. And that’s a lot to live up to.
As an episode, “Knock Knock” doesn’t entirely live up to its predecessors in this genre. But it’s still a fairly entertaining ride in its own right. The atmosphere and setting are top notch. This house – with its creaking walls, dark corridors and untouchable tower – is terrifying. In real life, most of us would run away from this place on sight in daylight, not sign a lease to live in it.
The basic gist of the episode is simple. Bill, a poor college student, moves in with a bunch of friends to save money. And this house is a steal, rent-wise, so no one looks too closely at why. Which of course, is a huge mistake, since the reason is that the house will literally eat all of them one-by-one. And in the course of discovering this truth, Bill, the Doctor and all of her friends have to face down a lot of scary situations, many of which come with increasingly disturbing visuals.
In short: “Knock Knock” is a perfect episode to watch with the lights off. And just give yourself over to the incredibly stereotypical horror tropes, which include unexplained noises in the walls, doors that slam by themselves, lights that go out, and disappearing roommates. Oh, and a creepy landlord who seems to materialize around the house at will. The mystery’s rushed, somewhat bizarre ending wouldn’t feel like such a sudden disappointment if the rest of the episode didn’t get so many of the horror elements just right.
"Nardole: Bill told me you went on a little adventure. You see?Doctor: I see what?Nardole: Well, you don’t have to go to outer space to find monsters. There’s plenty of things want to kill you right here on Earth."
The Episode’s Structure Change is Rough
After an episode in the future and one in the past, “Knock Knock” marks Twelve and Bill’s first modern-day adventure together. (Since they only just met in “The Pilot”, that one really doesn’t count.) But, this is also the first episode that separates Twelve and Bill for any considerable length of time, and it’s a rather difficult transition.
Season 10’s first three episodes featured stars Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie acting almost exclusively with one another. Despite the presence of a handful of secondary characters here and there, most of these initial episodes focused primarily on Twelve, Bill and their dynamic together. On the whole, this really worked. Mackie and Capaldi are crackling together, and the emotional character beats between Bill and the Doctor are consistently compelling. “Knock Knock” featured much less of this, and suffered for it.
Instead, we spend quite a bit of time with Bill’s new housemates. It feels very authentic, in that you often move in with a bunch of people you barely know while in college. But, as characters go, they are paper-thin. Only Harry is particularly memorable – and that’s almost as much for the horrifying way he gets eaten as anything else. Despite a few charming scenes when the Doctor helps Bill move in, the two spend most of the episode apart, investigating the creepy goings on around the new house. Bill heads off with her largely forgettable friend whose name I had to look up. (It’s Shireen, by the way.) The Doctor ends up paired with Harry, who at least possesses a certain level of pluck and personality. (Which probably comes from the fact that he’s allegedly related to a previous companion.)
We spent so much time focused on the Doctor/Bill dynamic in the season’s first three episodes. Perhaps the first time the show stepped back from it was always going to be jarring. But it doesn’t help that even in their limited scenes together, Bill acts as though Twelve is her embarrassing doddering grandpa who accidentally answered the phone when a crush called. (Plus: Isn’t he a popular professor at their university? Her housemates are students after all, surely they know who he is?) And it also doesn’t help that they’re both partnered off with other characters who aren’t particularly interesting and engaging. (Sorry, Harry.) Either way, here’s hoping it’s a problem that gets rectified next week.
"The Landlord: Hope is its own form of cruelty."
David Suchet is Amazing
This week’s guest star is iconic British TV actor David Suchet. Best known for his turn as Agatha Christie’s famous detective Hercule Poirot, Suchet here plays a mysterious figure known only as the Landlord. Rumor has it that he signed on to guest star before he ever saw a script, but he throws himself into the uber creepy role with gusto. From making ominous pronouncements, to silently appearing out of nowhere, to smiling in a vaguely menacing way, he is perfect. And every scene Suchet shares opposite Capaldi is a masterclass in understatement, so much so that it’s almost upsetting that there aren’t more of them.
The episode’s ultimate twist — that the Landlord isn’t quite the villain you think he is, but rather a lonely, grieving son who spent seven decades trying to keep his mother alive, is heart-rending. But as an ending, it also contains several pieces that are largely unsatisfying. It’s fantastic to watch Bill ask all the right questions to suss out the secret of Eliza’s identity. But the answers don’t exactly make sense. In fact, there are only more questions if you look at things too closely. For example: How, exactly, are the space bugs keeping Eliza alive, and why is she now wooden? Why did they need to eat six students every twenty years to sustain her? And why Eliza doesn’t remember her son’s identity? Plus, the twist that magically resurrects all of Bill’s dead friends feels incredibly convenient. (After all, in a real horror movie, they’d stay dead.)
And the tonal shift in this episode is really quite bizarre. We transition from a creepy horror movie to a sad Lifetime drama at about the 40 minute mark. And even though we end up feeling some degree of bad for the Landlord by the time it’s all over, it’s still hard not to think that “Knock Knock” maybe copped out on some of the terror its initial twenty minutes promised. As an episode, it’s still effective, largely thanks to Suchet’s great guest turn, but oh, my, what could have been.
Next week: We head back to space, and some kind of scary-looking business on a mining station. Bonus: It looks like Nardole finally gets to come along on an adventure! (But who’s guarding the vault, then?)