Sunday, 7 May 2017

TV Review: Creaky floorboards and great performances make for a first rate Doctor Who

S10E04 - "Knock Knock"


Contains spoilers.

Doctor Who and horror is always something I can get on board with. I've always been a big fan of the show's scarier episodes - give me "Blink" or "The Empty Child" over "Vincent and the Doctor" any day. More often than not, Doctor Who enjoys toying with the horror genre a little bit. "Listen" takes a moody supernatural tale and questions the existence of the supernatural in the first place, "Hide" turned a haunt house horror into a love story.

"Knock Knock", the first Doctor Who episode penned by Mike Bartlett, doesn't concern itself with such a task. Bill and her student friends can't find anywhere to live until they stumble on a man renting out his big creepy house for a bargain price. Obviously, they leap at the opportunity. But when the floorboards are creaking more than they should be and one of their friends doesn't come out of their room for over a day, the Doctor decides to have a little look deeper inside the house.

Bartlett's script is immediately very clever in how it forms a new kind of Doctor Who story. It gives us a sense of how the rest of the season will unfold in terms of Bill's relationship with the Doctor - her home life is already being suitably fleshed out. Taking a big point in Bill's life and turning it into a Doctor Who story should feel counterproductive, but the episode finds ways to turn this on its head. Once again, Bill is at the front and centre of the episode and Bartlett makes terrific use of the character.

After some creepy goings-on early in the episode - which are handled excellently, by the way, the initial knock knock scene in the corridor was terrifyingly executed - Bill and the Doctor are separated, which gives us the opportunity to see how Bill functions in strange circumstances away from her Timelord friend. Bartlett wisely ensures that Bill is the most intelligent of her friends, slowly piecing the puzzle together herself while the Doctor does the same on the other side of the house.

Pearl Mackie and Peter Capaldi are on reliable form, but the standout performance of "Knock Knock" comes from David Suchet. As the Landlord, Suchet is unnerving and commanding, underplaying his performance in favour of small subtleties and quiet uneasiness. There's a sense of weariness and exhaustion to him, but also something that's impossible to really locate buried even further inside. It's a beautifully textured performance, and one that hides secrets in plain sight. 

As has frequently been the case in this season, though, things start to get a bit wonkier when the story reaches its climax. The ultimate reveal of Suchet's character actually being the son of the wooden woman rather than her father is unexpected, and Suchet plays this transformation masterfully, but the idea isn't given enough time to flourish. There's some quick narrative reversal and some darting through corridors, and all of our characters are essentially back at square one.

Still, it's tough to dismiss how strong "Knock Knock" is in the build up to this moment. The supporting performances are strong, the horror and atmospheric work is terrific, both the Doctor and Bill are well utilised across the story and the whole thing is just wonderfully entertaining. "Knock Knock" might stumble in its final moments, but it stands as the strongest episode of the season thus far purely for how off-the-charts exciting its first two acts are. Bartlett understands Doctor Who brilliantly, here's hoping he'll be back next year too.

Notes -
  • Seriously, this episode had some brilliant scares. Every door and shutter closing simultaneously was spine chilling, and I won't deny leaping out of my skin when the floorboard slammed shut on Harry's foot. Bill Anderson clearly had a blast directing this episode, and it shows.
  • This show often struggles with supporting casts, but everyone here was great. Colin Ryan in particular stood out as a brilliant addition to the episode, but Mandeep Dhillon, Ben Presley and Alice Hewkin were all very good. Supporting casts are easy to take for granted, when you get one as good as this it really helps the episode take flight. I'd happily watch a spin off with them.
  • The Doctor's face when Bill asks if he needs her postcode to find her new home might be Capaldi's best comedic moment yet. It's the hardest I've laughed all season for sure. This man is a treasure.
  • Some impressive VFX on display here too. The lice creatures weren't perfect, but Eliza's wooden form was breathtaking, and the entire house dissolving away at the end looked fantastic.
  • I'm starting to really like Bill. Now that her introductory phase is over and she can fully have fun in the role, Mackie should just get better and better. She's been terrific thus far, it'll be really exciting to watch her reach even higher heights.
  • The moment of Bill showing her mother's photo her new bedroom was brilliantly conceived, an touchingly performed by Mackie.
  • So, Missy's in the Vault, yeah?

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