“Well, you don’t have to go to outer space to find monsters,” claims Nardole (Matt Lucas) at the conclusion of Mike Bartlett’s “Knock Knock”. Indeed, this week’s Doctor Who again confirms how the show’s format enjoys frequent visits to the hallowed halls of contemporary Gothic horror. The haunted house story is a rich vein that’s runs throughout the series, giving rise to such celebrated outings as “Hide” and “Blink”, and even stretching back to great stories of the classic era like “Ghost Light”.
This is a story that gathers up decades of Gothic storytelling traditions and has fun with them, including an immersive binaural soundtrack if you watch this on BBC iPlayer. The sense of the uncanny is essential to the success of “Knock Knock”, generating atmosphere and unease through sound effects, with the creaking of wood a particularly dominant cue and associated with such tried and tested flourishes as unearthly scratching, thunder, and piercing screams. The sound design here is superb.
Bartlett, fresh from the success of Doctor Foster, wastes no time in establishing the debt of gratitude to the sub-genre of the haunted house tale generated by Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, itself rife with elements of pastiche, and used effectively by the likes of Henry James, Charles Dickens, Ann Radcliffe, Wilkie Collins, J Sheridan Le Fanu, MR James, Edgar Allan Poe, et al. Here, Bartlett also recasts the motifs of the possessed house and family secret via the contemporary twists provided by Shirley Jackson, Daphne Du Maurier, and Stephen King.
While Bartlett explores the unheimlich in his story with gusto, it’s also an exploration of Bill’s (Pearl Mackie) independence from The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and socialisation with her new friends as they go house-hunting and strike out on their own. There’s much humour about estate agents and dodgy landlords that provide points of familiarity for any students watching out there. Who hasn’t been fleeced by the small print in contracts or discovered that ‘all mod cons’ actually includes some not so spacious bedrooms, a wonky washing machine, and rising damp?
The opening scenes have another function, too. They need to tell us as much as possible, in the briefest time, about each of Bill’s student friends and, to some degree, Bartlett succeeds. They are character sketches that he tries to embellish when the story shifts inside the manor house. Inevitably, the viewer acknowledges they’re marked out as victims and, unfortunately, there probably isn’t enough time to fully sympathise with each of their fates.
Contemporary horror cinema is so often guilty of putting the viewer into the role of voyeur, distancing them from the protagonists because investing in them may be unproductive due to their limited shelf life in the narrative. Therefore, one of the friends, Pavel (Bart Suavek), is despatched without us even knowing very much about him before the titles kick in (although his scream merging with the opening scream of the title music is delicious). The triangular tensions between Shireen (Mandeep Dhillon), Bill, and Paul (Ben Presley) add much-needed flourishes to their brief character profiles further into the episode.
That said, it’s perhaps worth noting that it’s the sense of wanting to find a home that’s the central psychological motivation for the group, and it’s also this that drives their relationships. Their encounter with The Landlord (David Suchet) and renting his house says an awful lot about contemporary anxieties concerning home, particularly if you’re flying the family nest or leaving student halls to find a new one. A place to shelter, socialise, and construct identities, independently of your parents or guardians, suddenly becomes a threatening space in “Knock Knock”. No wonder so many students choose to study in their home town and stay at home with mum and dad.
For Bill, this not only means positioning The Doctor as surrogate parent (or grandparent) who’s happy to use the TARDIS as a removal van, but also showing her mum, whom she hardly knew, that she’s moved on and struck out on her own. There’s a lovely scene where she and The Doctor consider his Time Lord origin as some indication of being posh, a status from which he claims he originally beat a hasty retreat, especially if it meant wearing those big collars. Once more, Capaldi and Mackie make these scenes shine.
Social mobility was not his cup of tea and he was, and always will be, the Gallifreyan dropout. I also loved the “sleep’s for tortoises” call back to “The Talons of Weng Chiang” when Bill’s curiosity is piqued about The Doctor’s sleeping arrangements. Note how he also rebuffs her question about regeneration, turning this scene of domesticity in the TARDIS a shade darker through a bit of foreshadowing.
The Doctor’s own interest in the house, as Bill unpacks her belongings, suggests immediately that there’s a mystery to be solved. The house with its strange tower is itself a character, a site of disorientation, that clearly invites The Doctor in to solve the contradiction between the homely and the unhomely that it projects. It’s more than the sense of it being a bit draughty judging by the look on The Doctor’s face and the creaking noises on the soundtrack.
Shireen, Paul, Harry (Colin Ryan), Felicity (Alice Hewkin), and Bill explore the house. They acknowledge it’s a spooky old place and yet the music coming from Pavel’s room, a repeating bit of classical music, doesn’t seem to alert them to anything wrong. Pavel seems to enjoy sitting in his room for days, anyway. The Fields House in Newport is a terrific location and, as has been noted, one derelict half of it was originally used as the creepy Wester Drumlins featured in 2007’s “Blink”. Director Bill Anderson makes good use of the dining room and cellar at The Fields House, plus some corridors, staircases, and bedrooms in a property in Usk, to create a very claustrophobic, dark, and threatening space.
Anderson perfectly visualises the haunted house as a locus of psychological distress through the dizzying juxtaposition of angles, and gradually he ramps up the tension, the sense of disruption, and the threat of the uncanny. Freud described the homely and the unhomely as intertwined and saw the fluctuation between the two as the physical manifestation of the repressed past emerging into the domestic present. The creaking wooden walls and floors of the house reveal their true origin after initially subjecting the housemates to loss of phone signal (that very modern fear representing total isolation), tapping, and rattling noises (The Doctor popping out of a cupboard and informing them there is no central heating and there’s “lots of wood”) and The Landlord suddenly appearing, rather ironically, out of the woodwork. The architecture and its associated noises clearly mimic this little gathering’s phobias.
David Suchet is wonderful as The Landlord. “It’s a heartbreaking experience to leave one’s charge behind. All alone in the big wide world” is a great line that encapsulates the emotional core of the story, particularly when we soon discover his own familial secret. Suchet switches from urbane politeness to snapping paranoia as the house yields its terrible legacy, begins to consume its inhabitants and the survivors gain entrance to the forbidden tower.
The housemates response of “it’s just pipes” to these unearthly noises also made me chuckle, as I instantly recalled the legendary 1992 haunted house drama-doc Ghostwatch — where a malevolent ghost called Pipes haunted a family home in Northholt. Bill attempts to get The Doctor out of the house because ‘grandfather’ is beginning to embarrass her with his insistence that something odd is going on. Again, she puts her foot down and suggests a demarcation between TARDIS action and the “bit of my life you’re not in.” This a welcome return to the older companions who insisted on having a life outside of The Doctor’s influence.
It is his concern for Pavel, who has not been seen for a day and is listening to a stuck record, and the housemates’ own altering perceptions of the house that provide the catalyst for their growing fears. When Paul feigns his own demise and then seemingly disappears with a series of screams, Shireen and Bill reassure themselves he’s alive with a series of knocks. These ‘knocks on wood’ suddenly start to echo around them, emanating from the walls of the house, and doors and shutters burst into life. The knock on wood tradition also harks back to the association that wood and trees have with good spirits in mythology. It used to be considered good luck to tap trees to let the wood spirits within know you were there. More about that later.
It’s a very clever use of sound to create unease, and reminded me of the truly disturbing sequences in The Haunting (Robert Wise’s 1963 film of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House), where sound was used to extraordinary effect. The house is alive and it’s eaten Pavel, Paul, and Felicity. Pavel is found half-consumed by the wooden walls of his room in one of the episode’s stronger moments of horror. Literally blending in to his surroundings, the semi-conscious Pavel indicates there’s a connection between the skipping record continually playing and his current condition. Sound becomes the trigger for all the horror that ensues and, as The Landlord observes, is “a distraction from the inevitable.” Pavel is absorbed into the wall when The Landlord switches off the record player.
The unhomely and the homely are fluid in nature and there’s a sense here that its occupants are trapped between a harrowing past and an unreliable future. The victims traverse these two states and are “preserved in the very fabric of the building forever.” This suggests a parallel between the architecture of the house, the human body and the invading killer. As Carol Clover noted of horror film narratives, “the same walls that promise to keep the killer out, quickly become, once the killer penetrates them, the walls that hold the victim in.”
That is the nature of the contract the housemates signed and it’s time to pay the rent. As Shireen and Bill flee from The Landlord and his tuning fork, The Doctor postulates to Harry that something has invaded the wood of the building, The episode taps into myths of woods and forests populated by supernatural beings such as wood nymphs and dryads. However the supernatural in Doctor Who is usually traced to an alien original and “Knock Knock” is no exception. The house consumes its inhabitants because a species of alien insect, that activate in response to high-pitched sound frequencies, have been trained to do so.
The Doctor is pleased as punch when he manages to coax one of the insects out of the fabric of the house. “Oh, little one!” he squeals as the creature scuttles away, unaware that its compatriots are swarming out of the walls. While we’ve seen umpteen instances of digital insects on the rampage before in cinema and television, and certainly these attacks bring the devouring scarab beetles of The Mummy (1999) to mind, the horror of consumption is still pretty grim when ‘infestation of the Dryads’ goes into full operation. The episode switches to Gothic ‘body horror’ and what Paul Wells described as “the explicit display of the decay, dissolution and the destruction of the body… allied to new physiological configurations and definitions of anatomical forms.”
Harry and Shireen’s consumption by the Dryads is an explicit nod to these horrific processes as they are absorbed into the fixtures and fittings. The Doctor confronts The Landlord and demands to know where all the victims are, as every 20 years young people sign a contract for the house and then disappear. They, too, have all become its fabric and, as The Landlord confesses, his daughter was dying until the insects consumed them and maintained her survival.
The reveal of The Landlord’s daughter Eliza, when Shireen and Bill enter the tower room, is indicative of the more tragic aspects of this transformation. She could be one of the mythical ‘wood wives’ of German and Swiss folklore or like the wooden figurehead animated by Koura’s sorcery in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974). Brought to life by superb prosthetics and Mariah Gale’s performance, Eliza takes on a fairy tale quality and resonates with so many Gothic tales where the female protagonist finds herself trapped or incarcerated in a haunted mansion. However, Bartlett tries something a little different and after half an hour building up this narrative he switches the emphasis of the story.
The Doctor convinces The Landlord he can help his daughter. Except that, as Bill cleverly points out, he’s not her father but her son. David Suchet manages to imbue his performance with the remnants of this child’s tormented memories, bringing a great poignancy to the final scenes as he begs his mother for forgiveness. This is a typical revelation within Gothic narratives as the family secret is uncovered, usually of an inheritance that conceals identities and questions moral authority.
“You’re the parent. You’re in charge!” demands The Doctor of Eliza as her son unleashes his insect swarm upon them. However, when Eliza begs her son to leave her and to go out into the world, empowered through the recognition of maternal ties, he rejects the idea and attempts to kill The Doctor and Bill. Eliza grabs him and for the first time we hear his name as she calls, “John!” and brings his pain to an end. Both are devoured by the tide of insects.
As I noted earlier, the victims of The Landlord are restored. However, it may have been more powerful if we’d seen the earlier victims all the way back to 1957 reappear. They’re still dead by the end of this adventure, but perhaps again this is another indication The Doctor can sometimes only save the few rather than the many.
Rather like Poe’s ending to “The Fall of the House of Usher”, the terrible fate of John and his mother is reflected in the disintegration of the house. It’s another return to the Gothic narrative’s closure where, typically, the original order is reestablished. The only thing that doesn’t ring quite true is why the fate of the earlier victims didn’t raise alarm bells. If they were students then the University and their parents would surely have reported them missing. This, other little character issues, and a somewhat rushed denouement (where there was little explanation for Eliza’s memory lapse and few reasons given as to how the process with the insects was discovered by John), mar an otherwise enjoyable instalment.
We’re given yet another tag scene back at the vault to conclude the episode, and this time we’re told by Nardole that “our friend inside’s been a little restive lately.” The Doctor talks to whomever’s inside and regales them with tales of wood lice from space that kill lots of young people before entering the vault. Given the piano playing inside switches from the sombre “Für Elise” to “Pop Goes the Weasel” at the mention of this, the likelihood that an incarnation of The Master is ensconced in the vault is surely not far off the mark? Or is The Doctor talking to his future incarnation in there?