One thing that fairy tales and usually short-form horror fiction have in common is that they will both often take place in a world that, while it might resemble our own, exists within its own rules, which very often don’t. Wolves can talk, for example, or vampires really exist. They require the reader to suspend their disbelief in a slightly different place than they might have to for something a little more mundane.
Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who has often made use of this notion as, while Russell T Davies’ version of the series mostly took place ostensibly within a (caricatured, maybe, but nevertheless) rational depiction of our universe, Moffat has located it somewhere within the realm of classic children’s literature, its storylines rubbing shoulders with the likes of The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There’s something “ordinary” underpinning it all, in other words, but often you’d be hard-pressed to see it for all the magic pervading the realism.
Mike Bartlett’s first – and perhaps only, if Mark Gatiss is correct and next year Chris Chibnall uses a team entirely composed of writers new to the series – Doctor Who story is a fairy tale about a house that gobbles up children in order to feed the Rapunzel figure trapped at the very heart of it. It’s also a horror short story, befitting Moffat’s ideal of telling smaller plots that expand to fill the space through a greater concentration on the characters, about a mother who has cheated death through supernatural means. It does, of course, being Doctor Who, have a science fiction explanation at its core, albeit one that isn’t explored especially thoroughly. And it’s also that point in the series whereby during the RTD years, the programme would relocate back to modern day Earth to introduce the audience more thoroughly with the new companion’s family.
If there’s an issue with Knock Knock, it’s that the realism of Bill’s new student life doesn’t necessarily make for a perfect fit with the other influences Moffat and Bartlett are bringing to bear. Placing your suspension of disbelief has been an issue during the Moffat era, in a time when the companion’s boyfriend might spend 2,000 years as an automated Roman soldier before turning back into a regular person at the end of the story, or when your companion finishes the season with a TARDIS and companion of her own, having been snatched from the moment of death. And so it proves here, with Bartlett’s script fighting hard to impress upon us the danger to the group of six students who have thrown themselves together in order to find somewhere to live, from what in the end turns out to be a swarm of magic cockroaches granting a terrified child’s wish for his dying mother.
Bartlett does a terrific job, given the limited time available, of convincing us the students are real people, helped no end by some terrific if not overly experienced actors. Ben Presley is very funny as the gangling Paul, his relief when he realises Bill isn’t reciprocating his desires being both very funny and very true. Alice Hewkin is also tremendous as Felicity, a very likeable character it’s disappointing to see gone so soon. In a manner that’s pretty traditionally old-school, Bartlett splits up the Doctor and Bill and then pairs them up with new characters, the Doctor with the excellent Colin Ryan as Harry, a very engaging young actor, and Bill with Mandeep Dhillon’s Shireen, the most accomplished of the junior guest cast and a decent foil for Pearl Mackie. With Harry being the grandson of the fourth Doctor’s early companion Lt. Sullivan (albeit confirmed in a line of dialogue that was cut), it’s tempting to think that Shireen might be the friend Billie Piper’s Rose often used to quote, but for the differences in spelling and age. All four of the students we really get to spend time with are engaging and enjoy a peculiar kind of chemistry that’s appropriate for new acquaintances attempting to become friends, and it’s notable that Bartlett creates investigative pairings aligned by gender rather than cross-matching as you might expect. It keeps the dynamic of the episode feeling fresh where it might be predictable.
Bartlett also has some fun with the trappings of the haunted house genre, the inaccessible tower at the building’s heart playing a fundamental role and the “knock knock” sequence midway through proving just as frightening as the unseen banging in Robert Wise’s version of The Haunting, perhaps one of the most terrifying scenes in all of cinema. As the knocking escalates here, the shutters slamming shut unbidden and the house sealing itself off, there’s a tangible sense of things spiralling out of the students’ limited control and another possible and very effective visual allusion to Japanese horror as Felicity disappears through a window, only to be captured moments later by, well, a tree. There’s as little relief outside the house as within. We have however, come a long way since The Mark of the Rani.
The Japanese horror influence extends to the thoughtful way in which Bartlett includes the surroundings as part of the mystery. The house isn’t just the place within which the plot unfolds, it’s a fundamental part of what’s happening. The comprehensive manner in which the clues are provided even includes Pavel being trapped, Earthshock style, in the panels of the wall, before being freed once the music stops. The “everybody lives” ending – well not quite everybody, simply this latest batch of victims – feels consistent with Eliza’s shock at discovering who she is and what’s been happening to her.
But it’s here where Bartlett’s story runs a little adrift, the fairy-tale aspect taking over at the expense of believability. We can accept the lack of an explanation for the insectoid dryads, but it stretches credibility to imagine Eliza not remembering what her relationship is with the only person she’s had any contact with for the last seventy years, or at least to have found anything suspicious in her situation. There’s a huge emotional punch, of course, and David Suchet – both brilliantly creepy and persuasively compassionate – is entirely convincing in selling it, but the scene’s effectiveness rests on whether the audience can swallow the circumstances.
Whether we do or not, the first half an hour or so of Knock Knock is a terrific exercise in applying and intensifying tension, the first properly scary story of the series and just as accomplished a production as the previous three. We’re off to a good start, and now that we’re just a week or so away from discovering who’s in the vault, things might be about to go up another gear. We’re also possibly getting an indication of a wider narrative trajectory, the mention of regeneration and the references to “grandfather” potentially clues as to where Series Ten is heading…
DR. WHO SERIES 10, EPISODE 4: “KNOCK KNOCK” / DIRECTOR: BILL ANDERSON / WRITER: MIKE BARTLETT / STARRING: PETER CAPALDI, PEARL MACKIE, MATT LUCAS, DAVID SUCHET, MARIAH GALE, MANDEEP DHILLON, COLIN RYAN / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW ON I-PLAYER (AIRED 6TH MAY)