Stop it. There’s no living puddles or weird robots, big fish. It’s just a new house, and people you don’t know. Not scary at all.
The problem with promising “the ultimate haunted house” is that it has to then do something to be ultimate.
Going into Knock Knock, I had quite high hopes – it was combining the big name celebrity actor with the big name celebrity writer, giving us an episode that promised to be the apotheosis of a particular genre within Doctor Who. Admittedly I did have a few concerns there; I’ve let my hopes get too high before, and then been let down accordingly. Even though I did find this one disappointing, it wasn’t because my hopes were too high. Generally speaking, it’s simply that it failed with what it set out to do – give us the ultimate haunted house story.
I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem for Doctor Who to repeat itself or return to the same well multiple times; it’s just that when it does, it has to be able to bring something new to the table. You can do another haunted house story – why not? It’s a great archetype, and I don’t know that anyone could really point to a definitive example of the genre within Doctor Who. (Night Terrors? Hide? Both decent entries, but also both offer potential to improve upon.) But when you do this haunted house story again, there has to be something to it that makes it meaningfully different from the previous iterations of the idea.
Sadly, Knock Knock doesn’t manage this – indeed, it almost goes out of its way to feel derivative. There’s very little here that we haven’t seen before. Obviously, there’s the haunted house structure itself, but let’s take it further – there’s the wood monster from The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, for example, in a reveal that’s utterly stunted because of how proliferated the trailers and suchlike have been with shots of the Dryad. Equally, there’s also the twist ending from The Doctor Dances, though of course it fails to actually imitate what made the twist work in that instance. Nothing changes as a result of the knowledge the Landlord is actually the Dryad’s son, rather than her father – it’s just a throwaway little detail, seemingly included for the sake of having a twist.
None of this is awful, exactly. There’s something entirely competent in its execution of the haunted house format. It’s just that it doesn’t actually do anything particularly interesting with the tropes, or do anything that’s hugely engrossing. While rewatching it for this review, I found it quite difficult to actually pay much attention – devoid of the marginal interest it commanded simply by virtue of being new, it’s just a bit boring.
But not just because it’s a rehash of what we’ve seen before.
The other big issue with this episode is the supporting cast. Principally, it’s because they’re just painfully generic – and at times, veer into being a bit irritating as a result. There’s not a great deal of substance to any of them. I’m not sure whether that’s a result of the writing, or down to the acting – certainly, the one that come across with the most personality (Shireen, played by Mandeep Dhillon) manages to primarily as a result of the actress’ own talent rather than the material she got particularly. But even then, these aren’t characters who feel meaningfully real in any sense. You can do better in the time you’ve got – and if not, it’d be more effective to cut the size of the cast down rather than to grapple poorly with a lot of them. Part of the point of the large cast is to be able to gradually pick them off, yes – but that only works if we care about them.
(As a slight aside – when watching this, I was reminded of Russell T Davies’ worries about Donna being too far removed from children’s lives, basically because she was living an adult life and so on. Is the same not true of these students, with their house hunting and freshers parties and whatnot? That’s not a slight against the episode, just something that caught my attention and got me wondering.)
The problem gets worse when it starts to extent to Bill, though, as Pearl Mackie is given some of the most generic companion material here so far. It’s her reaction to death that’s a problem primarily – in that she doesn’t really have one. Part of the success of Thin Ice was its absolutely fantastic material surrounding Bill’s response to seeing someone die in front of her – Knock Knock largely ignores this, and has her watch someone who’s supposed to have been a lifelong best friend die with nary a tear.
You could argue that Knock Knock shouldn’t try to repeat the ideas other episodes advanced, but if you look at the story as a whole, that’s clearly nonsense. So why doesn’t Bill respond more significantly to the deaths of her friends? It’s a bit like Rose not reacting to Jackie’s death, or Martha shrugging off Tish being eaten. It just doesn’t work for the character.
The eventual return of the supporting cast hampers the episode somewhat too. I’m loathe to suggest that characters need to die for a drama to have consequences, but it’s clear this was a throwaway return to deliberately avoid consequence to what happened. It leaves the episode without any real lasting impact – though given Bill’s initial reaction to Shireen’s apparent death, it’s not clear we would have seen one anyway.
Is there anything good in this episode?
Yes, actually. I recognise that I likely seem quite negative here, but that’s simply because I’ve front weighted my complaints. It’s not so much that the episode is bad, it’s just that there’s a lot about that doesn’t reach beyond just okay – it’s not a hugely ambitious episode. But still – it’s a competently executed piece of television that was, at least on first watch, reasonably entertaining. So what’s in there to like?
Well, even if the celebrity writer disappoints, our celebrity actor certainly doesn’t – David Suchet does a great job as the Landlord, as you’d expect from an actor of his stature. Does the part make a lick of sense? No, not really. But Suchet does a great job with the role, and even comes close to making that ‘twist’ at the end make sense, transitioning seamlessly into a child’s understanding of an authority figure. It’s still a mess of a part, because it’s not really written very consistently across the episode… but still.
There’s also something quite intriguing about the sound mixing on this episode. I didn’t listen to the binaural version of the episode – I’d planned to, but never really found the time in the end – but it was clear watching throughout that it’d be quite impressive. It’s nice to see them pursuing these idiosyncratic little details, and pushing what the show can and does do – although admittedly only on a technical level.
But, even then, it’s almost like actively searching for something to celebrate. There’s just not a lot of substance to Knock Knock – it’s possibly the most emphatically ‘whatever’ episode of Doctor Who that we’ve had in a long time.
In a sense, it’s a bit like an empty house; the foundations were there, but there’s nothing inside.