A Lonely Old House, Looking For Ghosts (Knock Knock)
|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.
May 14, 2019 @ 2:52 pm
May 14, 2019 @ 4:36 pm
Whenever I think of this episode, my mental image is a fusion of the Scooby-Doo gang led by a cartoon Bill. Complete with some of the original incidental music (in the 60s and early seventies when SD was good and not this rebooted stuff da kids got later, get off my lawn etc. etc.)
The memory does in fact cheat, but for avoidance of doubt, this is a good thing in my book.
May 14, 2019 @ 7:46 pm
One thing to add – if you haven’t lived in Bristol, you may not be aware that right up until the murderous haunting, this is a pretty accurate depiction of student living. Many Bristol students end up packed into large Victorian and Edwardian houses in the suburbs, often very beautiful, but worn down. And honestly, the Land Lord is only a little bit weirder than some of the potential landlords I met (like the very old man who collected WWII memorabilia, so his umbrella stand was an artillery shell – quite cool – and his entrance hall had a cabinet of Nazi artifacts – not good at all. He seemed honestly quite nice, and of the age that some of it might have been personal war trophy, but still, not living there). In the end, though it may not be good, I’ll always love Knock Knock, because it feels like someone made an episode for me but forgot to tell me about it.
May 15, 2019 @ 11:53 am
As someone who had been living in student accommodation for three years when this was broadcast and has lived in cheap terraced housing all his life, the bugs were the part of the episode that really got me. This type of housing is usually built on the cheap, several decades old and heavily worn due to the way that families will have just come and gone from the place throughout its life. This means that they’re full of cracks and that means that they’re full of crawly things. You do sorta end up living within a bunch of insects.
Given this, the fact that the house is filled with hostile bugs who came out of the walls and dragged you in with them was always the bit of the episode which, to me, most effectively took “What things do you have to go through when at the bottom of the housing ladder” and used it for horror. I imagine that a lot of kids watched that episode and then felt uneasy for days afterwards everything they entered a room and saw another spider. And honestly, isn’t stuff like what Doctor Who’s for?
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May 14, 2019 @ 9:06 pm
I think it says everything about this episode for me that as I went to click on my bookmark for here, I was wondering “What’s El gonna say about Oxygen?” Because I had simply forgotten this episode even existed. I watched it-I have the BBC version on the very computer I am writing this on-but I did not remember it at all, even the silly twist about the mother.
A lot of hate is directed at Lie of the Land for being bad-and it is-but at least I REMEMBER it!
May 15, 2019 @ 12:05 am
I had such a good time watching this. Stoned, alone in my room with a bag of jellybeans, equally terrified and delighted by it all. I’m going to avoid a rewatch because I’m sure it doesn’t stand up, but my memory of it is perfect and golden.
May 15, 2019 @ 4:54 pm
I had a really good time with it too. The kid stuck in the wall terrified me. Such a direct, creepy image. Especially with David Suchet’s landlord removing the player. Honestly, all the kids struck me as right, I was there age at the time and they all reminded me of people I knew, and I think that David Suchet’s character was interesting and the reveal at the end was solid. It helped hint at the theme of moving on and growing up, which is something that comes back in a big way with the Master and Missy plot at the end of the season.
I have a far softer spot for this episode than El it seems. I think we’d all have loved it if it came out in Series 11. It might have a similar structure to those episodes, but unlike those, it actually works on its own terms.
May 15, 2019 @ 1:05 am
I’m keener on this than many (most?) and not just for the simple pleasure of “oh, cool, David Suchet’s in it.” Bill hanging out with her friends, awkwardly coexisting with the Docter on the margins of her life, is lovely characterization we got very little of. Rose, Amy, Clara, all felt like whole people with lives that were bigger than their friendship with the Doctor. And though Bill got such a life, in the end, there were only glimpses beforehand, like here. It’s one of my favorite bits of “Bill-ness”.
May 15, 2019 @ 11:12 am
As a person who is blind, Knock Knock felt like more of a gift to me than being represented by a blind Doctor in the next few episodes. I have no particular issue with the sound of the new series, but the classic series seemed to rely on sound more heavily, possibly because they knew they couldn’t rely on visuals as much. This episode, the binaural mix especially, felt like a return to the sonic innovation that made DW so captivating to me as a child.
Even so, I recognise the story’s weaknesses, and I wonder if some of them could have been repaired if it had been set after Oxygen. This would have added further significance to the use of sound, and made it a story where the Doctor saved the day just as easily without his sight. This might have been more didactic if done poorly, but given that 50 per cent of people in the UK don’t believe a person who is blind can work, I feel like it would have been more purposeful.
May 15, 2019 @ 1:53 pm
I like Bill’s stress over sharing a house with people she doesn’t know, the way she muffles that for her friend’s sake, that there’s nothing wrong with them but she’s not “proven wrong” or anything. I like her showing her mother’s picture her new room. I like her liking Little Mix; it’s a very well-chosen detail.
May 15, 2019 @ 2:00 pm
For me, this story fails in two potential directions. It wants to say something about the Landlord’s refusal to let his mother go and Bill’s relationship with her mother, but can’t because if Bill lets her mother go now it ruins a later story (if one presumes that story has anything left to ruin). And on some level, it wants to draw a connection between the Landlord and the Doctor as people who allow much younger folk to move in with them and who have an odd relationship with time. But in the end, it has nothing interesting to say about that, and Capaldi’s turn away from angry granddad in this season of the show undercuts anything it might.
May 15, 2019 @ 3:37 pm
The aliens turning oil back into dinosaurs bit – is that a reference to Invasion of the Dinosaurs or something else?
May 16, 2019 @ 4:57 am
I think it’s a reference to Terror of the Zygons. Oil drilling in the North Sea leads to the return of the Loch Ness monster!
May 16, 2019 @ 8:50 am
I’m assuming it’s a reference to her entry of “Under the Lake/Before the Flood” where she has an aside arguing that “one of the greatest possible untapped Doctor Who stories is probably some alien presence that’s turning fossil fuels back into dinosaurs”.
(Although, as Helena has said, that plot does have surprising links to Terror of the Zygons.)
May 15, 2019 @ 3:56 pm
It seems that there’s a bit of a bimodal distribution in why most people tune into TV: for spectacle (chasing that water cooler talk from people who don’t actually follow TV all that much) or for the characters. Fandom, particularly the portion that produces and consumes transformative works, falls mostly in the latter category. Hence why GoT chasing spectacle has enraged those who had fallen in love with the characters, no matter whatever themes the show was supposedly about.
So one of the reasons that I’ve mostly bounced off of Doctor Who has been that I’m someone who’s in it for the characters/relationships, and DW commonly kind of cared about its plots as vehicles for other things, like a Twilight Zone but with protagonist continuity. Neither plot nor character serviced one another, they just kind of existed in awkward independence.
This episode is in that mold. The characters and relationships exist independently of the plot. (This is also one of the vibes I got from Eaters of Light, but this episode at least had more Bill-Doctor interactions.) Thin Ice explores ideas, sure, but keenly focuses them through the plot, characters, AND the relationships, so I care.
This is why I prefer shows that are even less about ideas, and tend to have less-than-impressive episodic plots, because they use those plots as mere staging for their characters and relationships (also, comedy). Shows like “The Librarians” or “Legends of Tomorrow” are actually rarely about anything, but they also rarely do concept for concept’s sake only. Shows like Lucifer notoriously have less-than-impressive procedural plots so that they make the desired character interactions happen and don’t get in the way of them. These shows tend to suffer when they have to do some concept-for-concept’s-sake plots to pad out the network TV episode count without disturbing the character arcs too much.
Meanwhile, a good chunk of DW fans find concept-for-concept’s-sake episodes not just expected, but as the norm. Again, DW as more of a Twilight Zone-ish anthology series that just happens to have continuous protagonists.
(So in the sense of “a show about ideas in a setting where they can do anything, but keeps things grounded in the main cast,” I’d consider The Magicians as a current heavyweight, if not champion.)
May 18, 2019 @ 6:56 am
My main qualm with this episode has always been that the housemates coming back from the dead at the end really really jars. In a haunted house story like this, gruesome deaths would usually stick. The deaths aren’t really serving to make us feel upset; they’re there for spectacle and to raise the stakes of the scares.
But this episode can’t have the deaths stick because these are ostensibly Bill’s friends, so if they were gone for good, the show would have to at least in part deal with the trauma of that for Bill, and that is so clearly not on the cards.
What do you do though? If you move it to a random student house separate from Bill, then the audience is wondering why you’ve not used the obvious link.
May 28, 2019 @ 1:15 pm
What’s more, the “coming back from the dead” thing is inconsistent: only the most recent victims of the house get resurrected. They didn’t even give us a handwave along the lines of “the previous victims are completely absorbed now, these new people were still being digested”…
May 28, 2019 @ 1:37 pm
Great analysis of “Knock Knock” as an illustration of RTD’s “emotional storytelling” done as a series of tired tropes without any substance. This episode was so boring. And its most interesting part – the mother/son reveal – wasn’t even connected to anything else.
Another thing “Knock Knock” fails at is making me believe in Bill’s everyday life. One of the interesting differences between RTD and Moffat eras is the way in which they sketch the companion’s life outside of the TARDIS. Rose’s world felt real and important. Same with Donna’s world. Martha was a bit of a miss for me, the family never got explored past “annoying mother and some other people”. But when it comes to the Moffat era, the companions mostly feel untethered to me. Amy switched careers between episodes, her missing parents appeared once and then were gone again, Rory’s dad apppeared out of nowhere after 2 seasons and in “The Power of Three” the everyday life of the Ponds had to be pretty much built from scratch. Clara’s home life in S7 felt barely existent and her family only appeared in the present day in “The Time of the Doctor”.
Bill feels similarly untethered to me. After “The Pilot” I found it hard to believe in her “real life” (with the possible exception of her date in “Extremis”/”Pyramid”) because it was barely sketched. It was never explored enough, never important. Her school friends disappeared after “Knock Knock”. Perhaps I was the only one that minded, but I feel like fleshing out Bill’s world would’ve benefitted her character.
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In the end I felt pretty disappointed with this one. I did really enjoy the setup and the setting – and could see interesting links with lived experience (such as with the Bristolian above), as I’ve also lived in some odd houses myself. But in the end it felt like the story didn’t follow through or cohere for me. Some really good imagery though.
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July 18, 2019 @ 8:58 pm
What’s more, the “coming back from the dead” thing is inconsistent: only the most recent victims of the house get resurrected. They didn’t even give us a handwave along the lines of “the previous victims are completely absorbed now, these new people were still being digested”…
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