Here is the first of my reviews from DWM #513.
“Infestation of the Dryads!” Presumably that’s the title the Doctor has assigned this adventure in his personal canon. A Dryad is a tree nymph in Greek mythology. I know this because I looked it up. Doctor Who often takes from the classics.
No one person could ever be equal to those tales, but Knock Knock’s writer, Mike Bartlett, comes closer than most. As guest star David Suchet referenced last issue, this is the man behind one of the BBC’s most successful dramas of recent times, Doctor Foster (2015), which landed an average viewership of 9.51 million – a staggering amount in the new money of broadcasting climes. He’s also won multiple Olivier awards, and just to rub it in, four days after his Doctor Who debut, BBC2 brought us his adaptation of his own much-lauded play, King Charles III starring the late Tim Pigott-Smith.
What’s my point? Only a reminder of the writing power that goes into modern Doctor Who. No offence to the brilliance of those who came before, but bagging an episode is no longer a nursery slope into Shoestring. It can be a peak to be conquered by a talent who is already operating at high altitude. While Bartlett (and let’s just throw in the fact he was a former writer in residence at the Royal Court), utilised blank verse for his monarchy drama, it’s pleasing to see him equally proficient in the texts of Doctor Who. Both the Shakespearian and the Holmesian are brothers in his armoury. “Sleep’s for tortoises!”
It all starts with Little Mix’s ‘Weird People’ (I Googled the lyrics to identify artist and title). The opening feels a little like a Hollyoaks montage, as the fresh fresher faces of Bill and co tour Bristol’s property rental market. But as we reach the bit that takes us into the theme music, the soundtrack has sloped into Bach’s ‘Violin Sonata No.1 in G Minor’ (Shazam for that one). In a way, those pieces represent the gamut of this story. At one end, the small, but painful, politics of new friendships. At the other, the loneliness and resentment of bereavement. Both themes interweave beautifully throughout.
The first, of course, comes through Bill, and the fact that now the Doctor has moved her on in life, it’s time for her to move out. The fledgling is flying the coop, and although that doesn’t mean she’s actually leaving the TARDIS, it does require some new rationalisation of her relationship with the Time Lord. “Basically, this is the part of my life that you’re not in,” she tells him, shortly after he’s spoken aloud the dark secrets of her Spotify playlist, inadvertently demolishing her self-built new persona.
I admit, I long for someone to once more throw in their lot, and shack up permanently on board the time-ship (wouldn’t you be there in a heartbeat?), but I like the discussion that’s opened up; particularly the way Bill gives their association some kind of context by calling the Doctor ‘grandfather’. Where once the show was fearful its leading man was too young, since 2014 it’s seemed to have an even greater anxiety about the fact this incarnation looks like a chap in his late fifties. Sometimes a chap in his late fifties who is a bit out of puff. Embracing this is the right thing to do. Particularly as right now, the grandparent-grandchild relationship feels like a fresh situation, not just for Doctor Who, but British TV drama.
It puts both a closeness and a distance between the two characters. He is her guardian, and opens up to her in a way he won’t for anyone else. And she to him. But that profound generation gap also means he can’t intrude into the complications Bill faces when it becomes apparent Shireen is going to default on their plan to nab adjoining rooms. That’s not his world. In those cases, the Doctor is better off outside, licking his finger to take an ad hoc wind-reading. Or at the back of house somewhere, conducting a survey of the property’s utilities. Or cutting through everything by asking the Landlord: “Who’s the Prime Minister?”
The Landlord is a wonderful creation, clad in muted browns. That’s doubtless an allusion to his odd allegiance with the house, but it also makes him appear as if lifted from a sepia photograph. David Suchet displays exemplary judgement in his portrayal. It’s all about small movements and a mild intonation – the exhibition of good manners from way back when. “Discretion is second nature”, he explains, when it seems he has let himself into the property. There’s something more, though. The Landlord, perhaps, is a personification of grief. He’s so contained, he reads as being impeded by his mourning. There’s a moment in his life he simply refuses to move on from. “Hope is its own form of cruelty,” he says.
I have questions, though. Does he have some kind of otherworldly power that allows him to disappear when he is momentarily out of sight? Perhaps he is devolving into the walls and then back out? Also, what became of his father when his mother took ill? Was he sacrificed to the creatures too, so that she may live on in her crooked form? That could be so.
The Landlord’s story ends with him reverting to the child he’s never outgrown. We learn his name is John, as Eliza asserts her control over her son, hushing him and holding him. It reminded me of the scene in the Seventh Doctor story, Ghost Light (1989), when Gwendoline realises Mrs Pritchard is her mother. “Mama, I thought you were lost”, she says. “Oh I am, my dear. We both are,” is the reply. It’s another instance of an ossifying relationship between parent and child. Literally in their case. Actually, that tale is a good companion to this. Each are set in lightning-conducting haunted houses and both send characters up “the wooden hill” to a horror movie death. Take from the classics? I’d like to think Bartlett also had this one in mind.
Knock Knock continues this series’ incredibly strong run. There seems to be a new clarity, and therefore strength in the story-telling. This adventure knows what it is, and what it needs to do (“I keep thinking there’s going to be one of those bookcases where you pull a special book and there’s a secret passage,” says Paul, knowingly). But we shouldn’t understate how much Bill’s character has also contributed to this new era of sanity. As successful a creation as Clara Oswald was, I’d say she was apiece with the Doctor’s world. Bill is more like us – and after four stories is still challenging (but not rubbishing) the rules. Because, although it made sense to her predecessor in the TARDIS, ‘Time Lord’ really doesn’t sound like a name for a species, does it? Let’s set Ms Potts to work on what’s in the vault, next. I bet it wouldn’t take her long to point out this is starting to get a bit ‘Sherlock’s sister’.
One last thing I had to look up in writing this piece: ‘Binaural’. I think it’s a sound recording method, using two microphones, to create a 3D soundscape. A binaural audio edition of Knock Knock was made available on BBC iPlayer after the BBC One transmission. The idea being, you listen to it wearing headphones – the crashes, the bangs and the wailing wainscoting – and you’ll feel at the heart of the action. Which I probably will do at some point. But, to be honest, as it went out on Saturday night, I was already there.