Sunday, 7 May 2017

Knock Knock written by Mike Bartlett and directed by Bill Anderson

This story in nutshell: Bill and her uni mates are moving into new halls…and there is something creaking in the walls. 

Indefinable: After rising to such heights in Thin Ice simply by offering such a sterling interpretation of the Doctor, he’s redefined as a rather embarrassing grandfather figure in the first half of Knock Knock. He hangs around the house because he recognises there is a mystery here but the episode is primarily told from Bill’s point of view and, trying to get involved with her new house mates, he comes across as a bit of an embarrassing spare part. Capaldi’s Doctor is one that doesn’t really fit in contemporary tales and he’s often shoehorned into a different sort of role than we are used to to try and give him a purpose (the Caretaker, the head of UNIT, the professor, the guarder of the Vault and now the over protective Grandfather). I’m noticing those allusions to Susan, Mr Moffat. I hope this is leading somewhere. The little pause as the Doctor realises he has mentioned regeneration to Bill, a small moment of horror, like he knows it is imminent. Or maybe that was a small moment of despair from Capaldi as he recognises he is soon to give up his dream role. Either way, it’s the most emotive moment in Knock Knock. I wonder if there will be more moments like this, preparing us, throughout the season. Such a shame, he’s such a delightful Doctor now and has a companion worthy of him. Both Alison and myself figure it was the Doctor making the racket in the kitchen that attracted the kids but that doesn’t stop it being a very cute moment. Amusingly, the Doctor that woke up from his regeneration and couldn’t get on with anybody has developed a fine rapport with young people as he has mellowed. Doctor Disco has made the gang, blad. 

Funky Chick: Fancy using the TARDIS as a removals service! One of the most spectacular technological marvels in the universe and it is being used to haul boxes about. Cheeky Bill. She’s smart enough to recognise that she is walking into a horror movie with a creepy old house being offered to students at a bargain price. Whereas everybody else is happy to sign up immediately (it’s like they want to die), Bill has pause for thought. I like Bill dropping that she’s into girls, mostly, to avoid the attentions of a horny Scot. Bill has her own family references that keep popping up and I’m certain we will be meeting her mum before the end of the season and seeing what the Doctor’s involvement is in her death. Bill walks through these adventures carefully, genuinely afraid for her life. That might seem like a ridiculous observation to make but after 5 seasons of Doctor Who with Amy and Clara who essentially danced through the universe going ‘ner ner ne ner ner’ at everything nasty that came in their paths (with a few rare exceptions such as the Silence and the Dream Crabs) it is very refreshing to have a companion who isn’t afraid to be scared. They are, after all, our eyes and ears. If the companion is tough as nails and nothing bothers them then why should we break out in a sweat? 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Hope is its own form of cruelty.’
‘If you could save the one who brought you into this world, wouldn’t you?’ – more indications that we are going to meet Bill’s mother.

The Good:
· The pre-titles sequence captured the horror of trying to find student lodgings very well. It’s not the sort of scene I would ever expect to see in a Doctor Who episode and as a result turns out to be some of the most original material in the whole piece. In fact, with the introduction of the house and the Landlord so quietly and creepily and the first murder, it is probably the best part of the episode as a whole.
· The eerie stuff that works: Pavel’s unseen murder to music, the creaking of the trees outside of the house, the Landlord tapping on the walls, communicating with the house and letting it know that it can feast, Paul pretending to be attacked and then actually suffering the fate he is mocking (that was very nicely handled), the knocking on the walls all around the corridor, Colin Ryan’s crazy eyed acting but for all the wrong reasons, the shutters sealing everybody in the building like the house was eating them alive (because that is genuinely what I thought at that point) and Pavel’s milky eyes staring out of the wall. Although that last one gave me flashbacks to Ursula the paving slab.
· Suchet is an actor I have longed to take a part in Doctor Who and he doesn’t disappoint. Of course he doesn’t, he’s one of the greatest talents England has produced. Mind you, Capaldi is up there too. They have a marvellous moment together when the truth is revealed. He works much better as a creepy old man wandering the halls of the house and tapping on the walls rather than a lost little boy desperately trying to keep his mother alive. Watching Suchet and the younger actors in Knock Knock is a useful exercise for any performer, how he underplays everything and makes each nuance stick compared to their histrionics and excesses. An actor of Suchet’s calibre knows that you don’t have to shout to get noticed. Just embrace the character, believe in him, become him. Whilst it doesn’t make sense in logical terms for Eliza to forget that the Landlord is her son, Suchet makes the twist work because you believe so completely in his character and the way he reacts to her. Other actors I long to see in the show: Maggie Smith, David Jason, Robbie Coltrane, Judi Dench, Joanna Lumley.
· How nice to hear a Brummie accent in Doctor Who. A shame the actor who plays Harry is the weakest of the lot. Or rather the most OTT. It’s rather like Cotton in The Mutants. How refreshing to have a black actor taking a central part in the show…and what a shame it is probably the worst performance the show has ever seen. We won’t try that again for a while, then.
· The costume for Eliza really gave me the willies. If Robophobia is an unreasoning dread of robots, a dislike for the like but unlike then what do you call a fear of a wooden human? Hylophobia? Humlophobia? This story ends with a mother killing her son. I never thought a Doctor Who episode would ever take that angle and make it something that is suitable for family viewing.

The Bad:
* Bugs. I was expecting so much more given the set up. Bugs have had a long-standing history with Doctor Who and ickiness. Everything from the Cybermats that menaced around your ankles in the Troughton era to the overgrown nasties in Pertwee’s time (maggots and spiders), the killer insects that the Rani deploys on Lakertya (‘They kill!’) and the flesh crawling insects that suggest that Gabriel Chase is coming alive. I was hoping that it would be something a little more original like the wood itself was alive and the house was literally eating people. Whilst the effects are phenomenal, watching the bugs crawl all over the victims and eat them alive just didn’t get to me in the same way as seeing Pavel eaten by the wall. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen similar kinds of scenes on everything from The X-Files to Buffy to Smallville. It feels like Doctor Who is late to the party in this respect. Even the Doctor seems let down when he realises this is a species of alien insect at work.
* This had all the makings of a wonderful horror episode but for some reason Moffat doesn’t seem able to follow this genre through. Perhaps he feels that in a family slot the audience cannot handle a full-blown horror tale but he has to remember that Doctor Who has been pulling those off across the years from Fury from the Deep to Spearhead from Space to The Brain of Morbius to The Curse of Fenric. Hide followed the same formula as Knock Knock, presenting all the clichés of a great horror and transforming into a love story at the climax. Knock Knock has the setting, the fodder and the right kind of director but instead of embracing the chills, it takes the domestic approach and winds up being a domestic drama with no murders. Colour me disappointed. Hide and Knock Knock both failed as horror stories for different reasons; the season seven attempt was hampered by a Doctor and companion who cut through the atmosphere with their childish excitedness but was generally very well filmed and freakish in its execution. Knock Knock features a much more convincing set of regulars who react appropriately to being in danger…but fudges it in the plotting stakes by failing to go through with killing off it’s teenage fodder and going all gooey in the conclusion.
* ‘The power sockets will not take your devices…’ and this is met with no objection? Bartlet clearly does not understand the yoof of today. This would simply not be acceptable. ‘I’ll just call the Landlord and sort it out.’ Yeah, right.
*It’s quite the relief when Harry is killed, so hammy is his performance. Even his death is crazy over the top.
* Knock Knock is one of those NuWho adventures that needed to be an hour long to give the story a chance to breathe. Like a horror movie it wants to set up the characters and the location (20 minutes), enjoy bumping them off in spectacular ways (10 minutes) and then provide an explanation and climax (10 minutes). You see the problem, by the time the story has established its cast and setting and it only has a brief while to scare the pants off you before it rushes the conclusion which undoes everything. Because nothing is quite what you think it is. The middle section needs to be three times as long (because that’s the meat and veg in a horror, the scary stuff) and a chance to scatter clues about the Landlord’s identity and real relationship with Eliza. Because throwing in the twist with a flashback at the conclusion cheats the audience. It’s not a twist anyone could have guessed because we only meet Eliza at the conclusion and there are no allusions to the fact that he is looking after anybody. It’s like Agatha Christie ending a novel with the killer being a character that we’ve never met before and hasn’t even been mentioned. It’s a cheat.
* What the hell happens to the bugs? Are they just roaming about the English countryside now, ready to strike again? How does a wooden alien bug re-constitute people? It’s an unlikely process that simply exists to give this episode a happy ending.
* The fireworks. What a timely co-incidence. Groan.

The Shallow Bit: New look Bill, dungarees and hair up, is gorgeous. Mackie is simply gorgeous.

Result: Knock Knock had all the trappings of a great mini horror movie and I walked away with a bad taste in my mouth because it didn’t follow through on its promise. To say I shouldn’t have walked into this episode with pre-conceptions is fair but the trailer, the preview reviews and the first fifteen minutes all convinced me that this was going to be the most chilling Doctor Who of all time. Instead it falls way short of that when it decides to morph into an undercooked character drama in the last third. My favourite scenes were in the middle section of the episode with victims in the walls and the house locking itself shut and bugs stealing their first victims. For ten minutes or so Knock Knock does live up to its premise and attempt to get under your skin (hoho). Like the last three episodes though, it comes undone (and this is probably the worst example) in its climax. In this case it is because nothing is adequately explained (What were the bugs? Why did the Doctor seem to take such an interest in them and then just walk away from them? How can Eliza forget about her son? How do they re-constitute people?) and all the characters depart alive and well. It leaves you wondering what the point of the whole episode was, unless Bill’s friends are going to be recurring characters. In which case I hope they are characterised with a bit more chutzpah than they are here. I don’t remember a defining thing about any of them. Gosh, don’t I sound like a moaning Minnie? What did I like? The direction was generally sound; pacy, atmospheric and (in the opening third) fun. I think he captured the juxtaposition between young (the kids and their search for student lodgings) and old (the house and its creaky owner) very well. It’s a bit of a thankless part but David Suchet is absolutely superb as the Landlord and works extremely well when he is just a creepy old man that seems to be killing off young’uns to feed the house. Certain scenes did generate a sweat and my friend Alison I was watching with did jump at one point. And the make up for Eliza is quite out of this world, reminding me of the Pyroville from Pompeii (like a human being but quite unlike a human being and visually disturbing because of it). And there’s the secret weapon of series ten of course: the Doctor and Bill. I think this would score a point lower if it was in the hands of any of the other regulars in Moffat’s time. Knock Knock wasn’t a great episode, but it was entertaining enough. I’ve said this four times now though, series ten has had four relatively unassuming episodes in a row. I think it’s time for a blockbuster…and its certainly time for Nardole to take a bigger role. A disappointing horror tale but a fair piece of entertainment, Knock Knock should have had the courage of its convictions and sent the kids to bed traumatised. It is following the form of so many horror movies of late by having a decent atmosphere but taking a dive when it comes to revealing the nasty. Mind, most haunted house tales don’t undermine their genre in the final reel. That really is boggling: 6/10
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