I’ve said before that my basic standard for Doctor Who at this point is “show me something I haven’t seen before.” It doesn’t have to be huge. Punch a racist, fail to explore some interesting ideas about indigenous species, it’s fine. I just want some sense of freshness and innovation. By that standard, then, Knock Knock is a complete and utter bust. Which feels at least slightly unfair, since it’s a perfectly well-made and (mostly) well-written episode, but if I wanted drab competency without even a trace of original thought I’d watch a Chris Chibnall show.
Actually, the snark about Chibnall is slightly unfair, because the culprit in Knock Knock’s abject blandness is pretty obvious: this is 100% down to the malign influence of Blink. And not just in the sense that it’s literally the same house, but in the fact that it’s a house in the first place. Once upon a time, when Doctor Who wanted to be scary it would, you know, do some scary stuff. Monsters stalking the Blitz. Weird Satanic horror on an alien world. Evil tourist busses. Or, frankly, any number of scary ideas from the classic series, only a handful of which were ever “haunted house.”
And then came Blink, and suddenly the standard shifted. This is the fourth straight-up unreconstructed haunted house in a decade. And that’s not even counting stuff like The Eleventh Hour, Silence in the Library, or The Day of the Moon, which are all rooted in the logic of the haunted house. And yes, those are all conspicuously Moffat episodes, as was Blink. This is unmistakably his rut that we’re stuck in. But his episodes, at least, tend to accomplish my basic desire by mashing up the haunted house style of horror with something else. This, on the other hand, is just a spooky house with the same twist as The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. There’s a bit in Doctor Who Magazine that talks about making this the “ultimate haunted house,” but it’s hard to see where that was done.
What’s weird is that it’s not even like the haunted house has been paying that impressive dividends since Blink. Sure, Hide was decent, but it was burnished by the fact that the back half of Series 7 was curiously devoid of classics. Night Terrors was crap. And yet somehow, in the wake of Blink, the haunted house has become a Doctor Who standard to be reiterated regularly. And there’s no real reason that should be. I mean, the other obvious Moffat-era defaults, out of control technology and monsters that aren’t actually malevolent, are at least interesting points that feel relevant to the present historical moment. The haunted house, on the other hand, just feels like a tired attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle while apparently completely misunderstanding what was actually interesting about Blink. It doesn’t have anything particularly interesting to say in and of itself. I have little doubt there is an interesting haunted house to do in 2017, but if there were four really interesting haunted houses across all of television in the last decade that’d be a surprisingly big decade for haunted houses.
But to actually take it to the episode, even aside from the fact that haunted houses are just a thing Doctor Who needs to not do for seven years or so, like I said, there may well be an interesting haunted house to do in 2017, but this isn’t it. This is… adamantly failing to aspire to anything more than “fine” at any given moment. Daniel asked in the podcast for Smile “who’s this for,” and the question applies painfully to this. What’s the audience for this? Who does this have anything to say to?
The usual answer when I complain about this - certainly the one that was trotted out for Smile - was that it’s for children, often with the specific phrase “fairy tale” getting used. I can only assume “fairy tale” is to this generation of Doctor Who fandom what “romp” was to a previous one, though, as all it means is sloppy storytelling and undercooked themes. Why can the Landlord teleport or just appear out of nowhere? What are his motivations in the final scene exactly? (Is it just “overgrown child?” Why exactly is he obsessed with destroying people?) How did the line “your silence is confirmation” make it through to the shooting script? Why fireworks? And would it have killed you to give the cannon fodder some actual characterization? None of this infuriates, but it’s lazy, and the suggestion that “for children” is an excuse for laziness does infuriate. Children still deserve stories that are actually about something. They deserve stories that are trying. They don’t deserve a celebrity writer and a respected actor having a lark because that’s what they see Doctor Who as.
Nah, the better defense is just that the Capaldi era has generally gone for a setup of “slightly lazy early episodes, batshit ambitious later ones,” and the arrival of Jamie Mathieson to kick off what Doctor Who Magazine tells me is a very intense mini-arc next week sounds like we’re getting into the stuff that Series 10 is actually going to live or die by. For episodes one through four, this is… fine.