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Saturday, 6 May 2017 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
Knock Knock: The Landlord (David Suchet) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas
Guest starring: David Suchet
Co-starring: Mariah Gale, Mandeep Dhillon, Colin Ryan 
Ben Presley, Alice Hewkin, Bart Suavek and Sam Benjamin 

Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Bill Anderson
Produced by Nikki Wilson
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin

First broadcast on BBC1 on Saturday May 6th at 7:20pm 

This review contains spoilers and is based on a standard, non-binaural preview version of the episode. 

Speaking at the BFI/Radio Times TV Festival last month, Steven Moffat remarked that one thing he'd like to do after showrunning Doctor Who is write a play. Moffat has done his bit for trafficking between the worlds of theatre and TV talent this season, however, by securing the services of both Rona Munro and feted playwright and Doctor Foster creator Mike BartlettKing Charles III, one of Bartlett's recent and highly successful plays, is about to hit our television screens in an adapted version, whilst 2016's Wild -- a piece based loosely on the Edward Snowden case which took a radical turn into almost Who-esque territories -- has shown Bartlett's affinity with relevant material. Now, it would seem, is very much Mike Bartlett's time to clamber aboard the occasionally creaking but always smartly veneered Whoniverse.

Knock Knock is, let's face it, a rather cheesy title, gesturing at those repetitive old "Who's there?" jokes that probably still generate endless amusement among the programme's youngest fans. But by giving this reference an adult spin -- for this is a riff on the venerable haunted house subgenre -- Bartlett cleverly blurs together child and adult sensibilities right from the outset. Playing with the Doctor's relationship to Bill, and having her address him as "grandfather", is also a lovely throwback to the 1960s show; I initially responded to it in exactly this manner, as a gift to long-term fans. But cunningly, it also slots perfectly well into the theme of this episode's eventual and familial denouement, a smart tongue-and-groove piece of thematic construction (and generational confusion) that's hidden in plain sight.  

Writers new to Who have a tendency to emulate the leading tropes of their commissioning showrunner -- Matthew Graham's Fear Her often felt like RTD-lite, and Stephen Thompson's The Curse of the Black Spot replayed Moffat's favoured device of 'technology gone awry'. Here, we get an aspect of the ordinary, everyday world transformed into a fantastical threat, something which, though it has an extensive history in the programme, has also become part of the Moffat repertoire. And there's a kind of variant take on "are you my mummy?" which harks all the way back to The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. Having said that, Bartlett doesn't only seek to fit seamlessly into the Moffat-esque way of things, and also stamps his own mark on proceedings, notably in a comedic sequence criticising the state of students' rental accommodation in the UK, albeit imparting its critical stance with a deftly light touch.

On the minus side, I felt that Bartlett was sometimes a little cramped by the demands of a 43-minute single episode when he's evidently used to working with longer dramatic forms that have more space to unfold characterisation (something that the serialised Doctor Foster achieved quite brilliantly). Since the haunted house story calls for a number of characters who can be bumped off, Bartlett is also pretty much obligated to give Bill a decent number of housemates. This immediately causes a difficulty because each one threatens to become a student stereotype or a single-note creation. Perhaps slightly fewer students to be menaced by Wester Drumlins -- sorry, Bill's new residence -- would have helped on this front.

The tightly-coiled demands of an episode that has to set up atmospheric menace before delivering a pay-off 'reveal' also make life slightly difficult for guest star David Suchet, who is required to oscillate between ordinary-but-odd, outright creepy, and something far more essentially and basically human. It's a tough ask, and in places Suchet's performance seemed a little too mannered to me. But regardless of that, Doctor Who is fortunate to attract actors of such calibre, and I was admittedly disappointed that fan speculation regarding 'the Landlord' (that he would become a recurring character of some mysterious and Time Lordly status) fell wide of the mark. Suchet's character is very much a one-shot, belonging to this story alone. 

 

Knock Knock: The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))
Series 10's Vault storyline continues to gather pace, and the concluding moment -- withholding a reverse shot that would have revealed who was in there -- was deliberately cheeky, and all the more effective for it. But an episode entitled Knock Knock is bound to rely, more than most Doctor Who, on its sound design and soundtrack. On the whole, this worked very well, though the level of aural threat could perhaps have been more intense (I'll be interested to see whether advance hype surrounding this as a very scary episode is reflected in the general fan and audience response, as well as how much difference the binaural version makes). I'm a horror fan, but for my money this was far stronger on atmosphere and build-up than any genuine sense of shocks, jumps or 'scares'. The monsters' mass presence was, in the end, effective without being remarkable -- we dodged a Tractator-level incident, to be sure, but all the CGI hordes still felt generically competent rather than truly memorable.

 

And packing an episode with wood-related content is, I suspect, always going to be a risk in terms of inciting reviewers' puns or provocations (you can just imagine how any journalist looking for a punchline would reach for their finest grain of 'wooden' material). Actually, focusing on this dimension -- something that has rarely featured in Doctor Who other than as a challenge for the sonic screwdriver -- gives this episode a very specific and quasi-historical flavour. Yes, it's a present-day story, but instead of brutalist concrete-morphing creatures, steel-and-chrome monstrosities, or electronic/nano-techno-villains, there is something almost pleasingly quaint, if not retro, about a good, old wood-based threat. There's a sense of sedimented history, and the dust of ages, that setlles over 'Knock Knock', making the eventual reveal of Eliza's presence (and identity) an integral part of this 'return of the repressed past'.

Knock Knock does what the best of contemporary Doctor Who has always strived for: it combines fantastical threats with social commentary and moments of touching emotion and humanity, at the same time as fusing 'child' and 'adult' levels of meaning. As the proverbial 'family television' it also uncovers a gothic, dysfunctional family -- one that needs to be fixed by the Doctor's intervention. Holding on to the past at any cost is shown to be a powerful mistake, and 'Knock Knock' is ultimately about a very different kind of fear to its earlier evocations of creaking floorboards and unseen forces, zeroing in on the fear of loss, and all the misguided actions it can provoke, rather than notching up a villainous case of megalomania or 'evil'. In this, it marks its distance from certain previous incarnations of the show, and develops an approach highlighted in The Pilot. But the question that remains, given the Doctor's chatty engagement with the Vault's occupant, is whether he too, like the Landlord, is mistakenly holding on to an aspect of the past... In a week or two, we'll start to get some answers.