Doctor Who's 10th season is only four episodes in, but I can't remember the last time the show hit the ground running as well it has this season. We've had great chemistry between Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie, great fun, and now in this weekend's episode, "Knock Knock", we got the rest of the perfect Who formula: A whole load of scares and a lot of heartbreak.
The last time Doctor Who really attempted a properly spooky "haunted house" story was "Hide" back in season seven — but by its climax, it quickly became a story about love rather than having the bejeezus scared out of you. The same could arguably be said of "Knock Knock", which starts out as a classic horror story and by its climax becomes a tragic paean on letting go of your loved ones. But unlike "Hide", the twist managed to feel much more earned in this week's episode — as well as being much scarier. And not just because most of the guest cast were students on the hunt for some cheap lodgings, the most dread-laden scenario of them all.
It's long been said that Doctor Who is meant to send you scurrying behind the couch, but "Knock Knock" is the first time in a very long while something on Who managed to actually scare me with more than just a particularly chilling concept. The show builds up a lot of tension with all the knocking, the maudlin environment of the old house itself, and the classic trope of its cavalcade of young cast members being slowly picked off one by one. But after discovering that Bill and her new friends' rental house is host to an army of creepy alien lice — or dryads, as the Doctor nicknames them — the show ramped up into scare overdrive.
It's rare these days to actually see body horror on Who, as the show much prefers to keep it off camera and leave the terror to your imagination, which is usually more effective than Who's budget can manage anyway. But this episode featured not one, but two moments of people being devoured whole by masses of sentient lice, emitting blood-curdling shrieks as they died. On camera! At quarter-to-eight on a Saturday evening (here in the UK)! It was actually refreshing, in a weird way. And honestly? I think the CG was frighteningly effective, too.
And yet "Knock Knock" became so much more than a great bit of horror, as Bill and the Doctor — mostly separated from each other this episode, but still as on fire as they have been this series — each slowly unravelled the mystery behind the chilling Landlord who's been luring unwitting students to his lice-house and having them consumed for decades. The revelation that the Landlord is doing it out of a misguided sense of protecting his half-wooden mother Eliza, the dryads' first "victim" after he brought them into the house as a child, is a bit confusing at first — I'm still not entirely sure why he lied to her and guests for years that Eliza was his daughter rather than his mother — but it was still an incredibly emotional turn, mainly thanks to a powerful performance from David Suchet (best known in the UK as the definitive portrayal of Agatha Christie's beloved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, in a long-running series of murder mystery adaptations).
It also played into what appears to be a growing theme in this season of Doctor Who: How do you measure the value of one life against another? Can you make the choice to save one life over the lives of many? Each episode so far this season has attempted to tackle that, to varying degrees of success — "Knock Knock" arguably did the most emotional version so far, with Eliza choosing to end her half-life and her son's heartbreakingly misguided devotion to her by destroying both them and the house.
But what's this theme leading to? Could it play an important part of the Doctor's impending regeneration? We'll have to see, but as long as we keep getting consistently great episodes of the show like we have so far in season 10, I'm more than willing to wait and see how it all pans out.
Assorted Musings (In Time and Space):
- A special note has to go here for a truly stellar performance from guest star David Suchet in this episode, which ought to go down as one of the best guest appearances the show's ever had. His ability to turn from a sinister, creepy figure as the Landlord to a blubbering, grief-stricken child sells the revelation of his real relationship with Eliza far more than the script does. A masterful turn from a British acting legend.
- I know many people groan at the "everybody lives" attitude a lot of Doctor Who has lately, so I know one sticking point about this episode is going to be the fact all of Bill's space-lice-devoured friends are back to life by the end of the episode. But I kind of accept it, if only because it could've been almost absurdly grim for an episode of a family TV show to end with all but two primary cast members dead. Doctor Who's done that before, sure, but it didn't really need to happen here.
- So it has to be some version of the Master, whether it's Missy or the Simm incarnation, in the vault, right? The Doctor's friendliness with them, the playful piano playing, the joyful reaction to getting to hear a story filled with death and destruction. If that's not the Master, then it's one hell of a red herring to make us all think it is. Hopefully it won't be much longer till we find out.
- The BBC released a special binaural audio version of this episode online after broadcast, designed to be viewed with headphones to get an immersive listening experience. But let me tell you, listening to Peter Capaldi crunch on a prawn cracker in truly superb audio is an experience not to be missed.