Doctor Who tends to be labelled as sci-fi, or sometimes children’s television, but Doctor Who has always been far more that either of those things, because it likes to cross over into other genres. It never sits comfortably within one “label”. Often it is fantasy, with a thin veil of sci-fi provided by a little technobabble. Sometimes it is a crime drama. Again there is nearly always a technobbably sci-fi sugar-coating (except Black Orchid). Sometimes, particularly in the early days, it is an historical drama. In more recent years it can even be a soap opera.
But the genre-crossing antics I always love the most is when Doctor Who becomes a horror story, and it does that quite a lot. It has to be child-friendly, so there is only so far it can go with this, and the technobabble-sugar-coating always has to be firmly in place, but it is still nothing more than that, and there is no reason why Doctor Who cannot borrow the format of a horror. It translates well. Knock Knock is basically following the formula of the horror genre and, typical to that genre, the episode is vastly better before the nature of the threat is revealed than after.
There are some great moments in the episode. I love the look that passes over the Doctor’s face when he mentions regeneration – a subtle little foreshadowing. The relationship between the Doctor and Bill continues to be top-notch – all the “grandfather” stuff was great fun. Bill’s embarrassment over her Little Mix play list – loved it! There is quite a natural rapport between them now – clearly a strong friendship and that comes across well. At this point they must have known each other for the best part of a year. A lot of time has passed over the course of these four episodes, because here we are specifically at the beginning of a new term at university. The resultant development in their friendship that would naturally occur over that period of time has not been ignored, and that is a very good thing. Of course, this means that the vast majority of their time together so far has occurred off-screen, which Big Finish will doubtless be pleased about in future!
It has been a lovely surprise what a brilliant companion Bill has turned out to be, after somebody oddly picked all her worst moments for the series trailer. Speaking of which, I don’t know if whoever puts those thing together is really bad at their job this year, but the next time trailer at the end doesn’t grab me at all.
It goes without saying that David Suchet was magnificent – he was bound to be. He is one of our greatest actors after all. Every moment, every expression and intonation was perfectly thought through, but according to his interview in DWM his preparation for his acting roles in impeccable and he throws himself into everything he does with great enthusiasm. It shows.
I can’t find much to criticise without nit-picking. If I had to find something, the guest cast other than Suchet are perhaps a little forgettable – none of those students really make an impression as characters in their own right. The original intention was that Harry was supposed to be Harry Sullivan’s grandson, but the idea never filtered through to the finished episode. It might have added a little extra emotional investment and a nice little moment for the Doctor had that been made explicit in the episode rather than remaining a behind the scenes intention. However, I am really finding minor little things here to say about what was for me one of the best episodes of Capaldi’s era. Four episodes in, and we’ve had three very good episodes and one brilliant one, so this year is shaping up nicely.
And those insects were creepy! Especially the one that was inside the girl’s foot! I liked how the Doctor made up a name for them because he didn’t know what they were, and chose a name from Earth (specifically Greek) mythology: dryads.
Doctor Who has always tried to be up-to-date with technology. It has not always succeeded but you have to give this wonderful 53-year-old show credit for always trying to push the boundaries. In the 60s we had radiophonic sounds and stop-motion animation, in the 70s we had CSO and a remote-controlled companion. The 80s tried to punch well above its financial weight with a real robotic companion and computer-generated effects sequences. Even Dimensions in Time gave us 3D. Now we are pushing the boundaries again with the latest in audio: binaural sound. It needs headphones to appreciate it, but I rewatched this episode on iplayer on my second viewing with headphones in and the sound quality was simply astonishing. Our favourite show keeps surprising us, with great stories, told with exciting new technology. Long may that continue.
(by the way, that wooden wall which had the actor’s face melded into it is at the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff, and you can put your own head through it – if you want to go and have fun with that you need to be quick though – it’s closing soon). RP
The view from across the pond:
Nowadays, horror is rarely done well. When it is, it’s memorable. The big problem is that movie studios have gone away from horror and more into the realm of gore, in some quest to make the next scare better than the last. Gore does have a place in horror, but it should be used sparingly. Look at the superb Alien. From the day it opened, it has been a classic but there’s not an awful lot of blood (beyond the chest-bursting when the alien pops out). For me, what makes horror significantly different from suspense is the nature of the threat being something that crosses a line beyond human. This may open up other discussions in the future; we can put an ellipses on this and get back to it in the future…
Up until now, I’ve been calling it “experimenting” when referring to Doctor Who trying new things but Roger may have found a better expression: it’s never comfortable sitting with one label so it crosses into others. When Doctor Who has gone into the horror genre, which it has many times in its history, it’s great. Horror Science Fiction is my favorite genre. To be clear, this is science fiction with horrific undertones. (Like teal, one could say it’s a bluish-green or a greenish-blue, but that distinction does mean something!) Knock, Knock happily starts in the horror genre complete with a beautifully eerie home, a fiendish caretaker (played to perfection by the magnificent David Suchet), and something lurking in the tower. The setup and setting for the episode is brilliant and tense.
But I find it gets a bit… wooden (sorry, I just had to…). I’m all for suspension of disbelief, but there has to be an element of logic behind the story, even when we are telling tales of the fantastic. When the science fiction element appears, these dryads end up ruining the believability of the story. First, they appear before the “daughter” gets sick, but when the daughter realizes their entire existence is wrong, she brings about their destruction. How does that work? Second, they might have lived at this house, but they never thought to go elsewhere? They’ve dutifully stayed where they are, one big target? My biggest pet peeve is that the “daughter” has forgotten she is actually the mother to David Suchet’s caretaker. I know the bugs changed her, but knowing what it is to be a parent, you don’t change that! And going back to the destruction of the house, all of the belongings that were brought into the house are just ignored as the survivors walk away. That includes Bills photo(s?) of her mom that we went to such pains to show the Doctor getting for her in The Pilot. (If it’s only the single photo Bill took from her step-moms house, I’m less bothered by it!)
The episode is not a flop, it just misses some marks. We still have the relationship with Bill and The Doctor, which is great. I love the humor that the Doctor doesn’t see himself as old; it makes me laugh every time. There are also some amazing visuals in the episode. The daughter, in her wooden glory, looks amazing. The dryads popping through the wood is wonderful, and when one enters the girls’ foot, we clearly are in the realm of horror. Watching poor Harry get eaten is dreadful. But here I have another annoyance: when the residents are restored, they are restored whole! Didn’t he get eaten by hundreds of these things? And even if I could accept that, they could have at least shown damage to the clothing, as if the digestion had started, like when clothing gets holes after being in storage for a little while! The only one that I could accept being restored was the one who was sucked into the wall.
Doctor Who is amazing. Roger and I viewed it and got different things out of it, and that’s part of what makes it great: it’s not one thing to every viewer. But I want some underlying logic in my viewing. I can accept plot holes, but they have to be less critical to the nature of the threat. When Doctor Who does that right, it’s at its peak. When it doesn’t, I am left wanting. This was episode 4 of the season. I found two excellent stories, and two weak ones. Knock, Knock was #3 on my top 4 list, with Smile coming in last place.
Now shall we end by addressing the elephant in the room?
Read next in the Junkyard… Oxygen