|Is this some kind of joke?|
It’s May 6th, 2017. DJ Khaled is at number one with “I’m the One,” backed by Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper, and Lil Wayne. Ed Sheeran, Drake, and Shawn Mendes also chart, as do Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, who see their Spanish-language “Despacito” jump from 22nd to 4th on the back of another Justin Bieber guest appearance. In news, it is announced that Prince Philip will be stepping down from his public engagements in the fall, and local elections see the Tories make heavy gains. Impressively, nothing really happens in the US. Don’t worry. We’ll make up for it next week.
On television, meanwhile, we have Knock Knock. If Thin Ice represents the optimistic long-term future of Doctor Who—the bit of 2017 that most resembles what one might hope for from 2027, then Knock Knock is the bit of 2017 that most accurately prefigures 2018. And the fact that this entry spent the better part of a week consisting of that previous sentence and nothing more speaks volumes as to what that’s going to be like for me. Knock Knock is a true oddity within the Moffat era in that it steadfastly refuses to cohere into anything. It’s a messy and misshapen thing that doesn’t have much to say and isn’t sure how to say it, but that never goes far enough off the rails for it to be fun to just angrily dismantle it. It’s just sort of there, taking up time between Thin Ice and Oxygen.
Still, we’re going to have to get used to dealing with this sort of shit, so let’s have at it. The obvious starting point is Moffat’s celebrity writers initiative. Throughout his tenure, Moffat has made a point of commissioning the writers of other hit series for Doctor Who. Starting with Simon Nye and Richard Curtis in Series Five and continuing through Neils Gaiman and Cross, the practice seemed to wind down with the Capaldi era only to, in his final season, come back with an aim towards making up for lost time. We’ll deal with the second one of these—a Scottish playwright who worked with Ken Loach—later, but Mike Bartlett was hired off of the tremendously successful Doctor Foster, a Suranne Jones led thriller about marital infidelity.
This approach has generally worked for Moffat. Sure, Gaiman’s second script was something of a wet fart, but Vincent and the Doctor remains an oft-cited highlight of his tenure, The Doctor’s Wifeis infuriatingly good, and Rings of Akhaten is potentially the most underrated story of the new series. It also served to get a number of interesting and compelling voices into Doctor Who, even if four out of five prestigious television writers hired by Moffat were white guys, and none were people of color. We still got takes on Doctor Who from some major writers who wouldn’t normally bother writing single episodes of a TV show as work for hire. And Bartlett seems on paper like an obvious choice—Doctor Foster was a massive hit, and Bartlett was a long-time Doctor Who fan who chatted happily to Doctor Who Magazine about his memories of the McCoy era.
The McCoy era gives us at least some purchase to start understanding this from, and not just in terms of the decision to have one of Bill’s friends proclaim something to be “wicked.” The McCoy era, after all, remains the period of Doctor Who that was most comprehensively socially engaged. Indeed, the most obvious thing to compare Knock Knock to is Paradise Towers, that being the other story in Doctor Who that takes “its hard to find good affordable housing” as its starting point. Paradise Towers, however, positions this primarily in terms of a larger system. The Towers are not just a shitty housing development, but a place whose exploration reveals things about the how and why of its existence. I’d say that this exploration of place belongs to an older tradition of Doctor Who, but coming off of Smile and Thin Ice that’s not a reasonable thing to say.
Nevertheless, Knock Knock very clearly does not work like this. It’s not just that this is one of our obligatory contemporary stories—there’s ample precedent for those being about exploring places, if not many in recent memory. Rather, it’s that Knock Knock is fundamentally rooted in a logic of high concept spectacle—a logic that is, let’s be honest, just as old as the logic of exploring place within Doctor Who. And the central hook of Knock Knock is absolutely solid. It starts from the reality of skyrocketing housing prices and the way in which young people are effectively priced out of getting a toehold on the housing ladder, and then comes up with the thoroughly Doctor Who conceit of “well, you know what would still be affordable in this circumstance? A haunted house.”
When I reviewed this story, I noted the weird prevalence of haunted houses in Doctor Who. The why of this is fairly straightforward—Moffat had a smash hit with Blink and so it got aggressively ripped off. But the what of it is more interesting. Obviously the haunted house is a fundamentally gothic trope. The haunted house is always an old house, which is an obvious point, but also makes it clear what’s actually scary here. Indeed, Knock Knock goes further in this direction than any of the previous three haunted houses by making it very firmly the house itself that is scary and dangerous. The episode focuses, as the name suggests, on sounds, but also on space and material—people are literally pulled into the house, and monsters emerge out of it.
But what is the underlying fear here? Sure, decaying living spaces have an innate uneasiness, but that’s not where this fear goes. The house in Knock Knock is in perfectly fine condition, after all. The fear is not of decay. Rather, it is of architecture that is itself malignant. (So again, adjacent to Paradise Towers.) The key detail of the haunted house is that it is always a large, mansion-like house. Three bed/one bath bungalows are not haunted. Haunting is only for the buildings at the top of the economic scale.
So the horror of the haunted house is gothic in a way that runs far beyond mere visual trappings. The haunted house is a fundamentally linked to the idea of old wealth, and of the material legacies of it. This is particularly powerful in Britain, where old money ownership of land is a major problem, most famously in Scotland where just over a thousand people own 70% of the land, but also in England where fully 30% of the land is owned by the aristocracy and gentry, and possibly much closer to 50%. The haunted house takes this reality and literalizes it as horror in the way that the best gothic ideas do.
It should go without saying that this is enormously compatible with the story Bartlett wants to be telling here. The haunted house is in fact perfect for a story about Generation Z’s struggles in the housing market, in that the very funny idea of a haunted house being the only place a bunch of college kids can afford is also a straightforward path to writing about the underlying issue. It’s right up there with “aliens are turning the oil back into dinosaurs.” So what goes wrong?
The biggest problem is that despite the strong conceptual unity of his underlying ideas, Bartlett does not actually join them together, even in a patchy and mostly implied way. Instead he fusses around with mood a bit (helped by the BBC’s decision to play with a special binaural sound mix for this episode) before devolving into a cack-handed reveal that the woman made of wood is actually David Suchet’s mother and not his daughter. Given that this is blatantly the ending to The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances with the serial numbers filed off, it’s probably safe to call this a reversion to the bog standard tropes of the series, especially as it then wraps up in a “life is about small moments” thing that’s just as ripped off from Father’s Day.
To make an obvious point, nothing about this has a damn thing to do with the increasing economic inaccessability of housing for young people. Buried family secrets certainly fit with the gothic trappings of a haunted house, as do dryads and the faerie lore they imply, but they don’t fit with the haunted house story this sets itself up to try to tell. Compare this to Doctor Who’s first ever pure haunted house story, Ghost Light, which famously does not quite make sense, but which gets away with it because it has a dizzying nexus of ideas that all go together and play off of each other in a way that makes sense strangely optional. This might make more sense in terms of all of the ideas being understood, but there’s no actual idea at the heart of it. It’s just stuff.
There’s a cautionary tale here about this particular sort of “emotional storytelling.” (Which is obviously not emotional in the general case, but rather an engagement with a specific category of emotional content in a specific way.) Obviously it’s not bad per se—The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and Father’s Day are absolute landmarks of the series, and the approaches they (and the rest of the Davies era) pioneered have more than shown their worth. But all the same, this story hits the way that, say, The Seeds of Death or The Image of the Fendahl or Resurrection of the Daleks did—as a moment when a particular set of tropes and approaches have become dangerously unmoored from the actual reason they had been done for the first time or three and just become a thing that’s done for their own sake. In a functioning era these mark the end of their respective approaches. The Pertwee era generally did not do bases under siege; the Williams era avoided gothic horrors back for one last battle. The Saward era, meanwhile, plunged straight into Attack of the Cybermen. Ultimately this time isn’t going to quite play out like either of those. (It’s notable that the first two are around a change in creative team while Resurrection of the Daleksisn’t.) But that’s not the point. The point is simply to note the exhaustion and to ask what could or should follow.
The answer, or at least an answer, is something that’s been clattering around this post and the two before it. Because ultimately both Knock Knock and Smile fail in basically similar ways, whereas Thin Ice succeeds out of proportion to the rest of the season by doing the thing they fail at. Not only has Doctor Who become disconnected from its historical legacy as a show that explores ideas, but there seems to be an urgent need to reconnect with it and start being one again.
This is perhaps unsurprising given the history of the new series. Davies has never really counted worldbuilding among his gifts, and while I am ambivalent about the concept as an inherent virtue of writing, for a show with Doctor Who’s underlying format of a magic box that keeps going to new places successfully exploring ideas is necessarily going to invove a fair chunk of it. And Moffat is an (at times exceedingly) cerebral writer, his interests are more in playing with the structure of stories than in exploring big ideas as content. (Though we should probably just table that discussion for Extremis.)
But after ten years of other things being the point of the exercise, in 2017 we reach a crossroads where some of the tricks created to make Doctor Who something other than a show about ideas are wearing painfully, aggressively thin, while ideas begin to rear their head with a fierce and promising insistence. In a world in which the options for survival seem to be rapidly and disastrously narrowing, the obligations for a show that can do anything are simple: OK then, do it.