To its credit, you can at least see what this episode was trying to do. This was supposed to be the “scary one”. Scariness has been in Doctor Who’s DNA since the beginning, and it’s as quintessential a part of the show as impenetrable continuity and outrageously camp romps. In attempting to pen a self-consciously “scary story” in a haunted house, Mike Bartlett is continuing a long and decorated tradition in Doctor Who, and he follows in the footsteps of the Doctor Who scary story’s greatest exponent, Steven Moffat. There’s a big, creaking haunted house inhabited by a creepy old landlord, and it’s eating alive Bill and her friends. A special “binaural” version of the episode was released so viewers could experience the frights and the scares in immersive 3D sound. You were supposed to be gasping and clutching your chest at regular intervals as Bill and her friends were assailed on all sides by the cacophonous, carnivorous dwelling.
It’s just that it isn’t all that scary. It certainly goes through the motions fairly scrupulously, offering startling noises, animate shutters,
creepy fascinating insects and brooding landlords aplenty in its effort to frighten the viewer. And, certainly, no doubt the audience the episode was actually pitched at — children — would have found no shortage of things in this episode to scare them. But as for the rest of the audience, we veterans of The Empty Child and Blink and The Impossible Astronaut, we’ve seen this all before. There’s nothing in the familiar PG-13 horror tropes trotted out in this episode that we haven’t seen before. It’s an attention-holder of an episode, no doubt, and it’s not a feeble script by any means, and it certainly has atmosphere in buckets. But it’s just that you put it next to a lot of the run-of-the-mill scripts of any other series — take The Bells of Saint John, take School Reunion, take In the Forest of the Night — and there’s little that’s remarkable about it. “Scary haunted house” is the only thing this episode is trying to sell, and it’s fallen just marginally flat. As a result the rewatchability factor on this one is low, as I discovered after being significantly less impressed on my second viewing.
I misspeak just a bit when I say that “scary haunted house” is the only thing this episode is trying to sell. David Suchet is also there, and he’s certainly the best thing about this episode. Suchet is a phenomenal actor, and his performance brought a gravitas and soberness to an episode which could have flopped if his character, the Landlord, were played with less conviction. And, if nothing else, it was a privilege to witness Peter Capaldi and David Suchet, two titans of British television, onscreen together.
When we get to the final act, where the Landlord is revealed to be Eliza’s son, things pick up. It’s a slightly long-winded finale, with a few clunky stage directions here and there (Eliza opening the window to see the fireworks; and “Your silence is confirmation”), but it’s the most riveting five minutes of the episode by far. Peter Capaldi is on stellar form as he acts out the Doctor’s ever-entertaining thinking-aloud style of problem-solving. David Suchet is captivating as he transforms from sinister, brooding landlord to petulant, whimpering little boy. The twist itself of the Landlord being Eliza’s devoted son, not her protective and jealous father, is almost certainly the only un-cliché part of the script. It went a long way to humanising, albeit in a rather pathetic way, a villain who before appeared simply controlling and selfish. It was unexpected and brilliant, and was admirably executed.
The device of splitting up Bill and the Doctor for the episode’s latter half was interesting, if nothing else. Often it’s worthwhile to part the Doctor and his companion and make them tackle different fronts of the same problem separately. To be fair, the last time this happened, in Face the Raven, Clara went and got herself killed, but the show would be depriving itself of one of its more interesting plot devices if it let Clara’s fate dissuade it from locking companions in carnivorous Victorian manor houses. It was worthwhile to watch alternately the Doctor and Bill taking on this problem, to put the focus on each the Doctor and Bill in turn without sharing the limelight (and the good dialogue) with the other. We can see a sharper picture of Bill forming now, as a companion who’s quick to act, keeps a cool head and thinks quickly in the face of danger. As I’ve been saying, these are traits she shares with literally all of Moffat’s other companions (if not every other New Who companion, maybe with the exception of Donna), so we’re no longer either impressed or surprised when Bill displays traits which would be remarkable and admirable in any normal human being, but maybe it’s fair to say that the Doctor just has a type; he doesn’t pick “normal human beings”, he picks exceptional human beings.
Otherwise, among the most interesting parts of this episode were sequences which had nothing to do with the plot. The Doctor being distinctly evasive after he accidentally mentioned the word “regeneration”. Bill calling the Doctor “grandfather”. The vault. Actually, after four weeks the vault is becoming rapidly less interesting. There’s only so long you can sustain interest in a very conspicuous mystery like that without revealing anything substantial about what its significance is. At the moment it’s just a locked door, which, as of now, fairly obviously (and disappointingly) contains Missy. What’s far more interesting than what’s inside now is what its purpose and significance is, but almost nothing’s been said about that. It’ll be a relief when the damn thing finally opens in Extremis. As for “grandfather”, unless Steven Moffat is being extremely cruel and uncharacteristically frivolous, it’s looking more and more like Susan is going to have some significance this series, if not, I suggest tentatively, making a five-decades overdue reappearance — which would be simply amazing.