Thoughts on: Knock Knock

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.

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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.

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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.

Rating: 6/10.

Five predictions for Doctor Who Series 10

Doctor Who is today. It’s literally today. Well, tomorrow for me (sometimes it sucks being an antipodean). I decided to write this last-minute post sharing five of my predictions for what we might see in Series 10.

The Doctor will be different

Within the first few minutes of the Twelfth Doctor’s initial appearance in Series 9, the character development he had undergone offscreen since we had last seen him was conspicuous. The cold, brusque and callous Twelve we met in Series 8 was nowhere to be seen. It was clear that between Last Christmas and The Magician’s Apprentice, the Doctor had found his heart, learned some social skills, taken a figurative chill pill or two and possibly smoked some pot. He was still recognisably the Twelfth Doctor we were introduced to in Series 8, but a developed and more emotionally mature version of that character. I liked it, and I liked him. The personality adjustment, I think, was successful and necessary character development which it would have been unsatisfying for him not to have undergone.

And I think we can expect to see further character development in Series 10. Some of the advance reviews of The Pilot have noted that Twelve has once again undergone a degree of personality adjustment offscreen. I don’t think there’s anything surprising about that. Twelve in Series 9 wasn’t a fully-developed character either. He was developed, but not matured, like a fruit that you can eat but isn’t fully ripe yet. It still tastes a bit sour. Twelve in Series 9 was like the teenage version of his character— let’s say late teenage. He had his electric guitar and his black sunglasses and his scruffy clothes, and he was still riding the high of his intense and exhilarating relationship with Clara.

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I think in Series 10 we can expect to see a matured Twelve. Especially after the events of Hell Bent and The Husbands of River Song which have forced him to mature from his teenage mindset of Series 9. I think we can expect him to be softer and gentler, wiser, more emotionally stable, and psychologically older. A more rounded, nuanced and more mature person in general, but maybe jaded from experience and age, like Matt Smith’s Doctor was in the latter days of his regeneration.

I’ve mentioned my feelings about Bill before, but perhaps a companion like Bill is exactly what the Doctor needs in Series 10. Bill is young and energetic and starry-eyed and enthused by the prospect of all of time and space at her fingertips, and someone like that is exactly the kind of person Twelve needs after the losses of Clara and River Song. As that brief sequence of dialogue between Twelve and Nardole in The Return of Doctor Mysterio revealed, the Doctor is clearly still hurting from his losses, and I would not be surprised if it’s aged him and jaded him. He needs someone to make him feel excited about life again.

Bill will leave at the end of Series 10

There’s no reason necessarily why Pearl Mackie shouldn’t cross over into Chris Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who. There’s no rule saying the companion has to leave with the Doctor, or that the entire personnel of Doctor Who has to leave when the showrunner leaves. As we learned, Chris Chibnall asked Peter Capaldi to stay on as the Doctor under him. It’s not inconceivable that he also asked Pearl to stay, too.

But somehow I think Bill is going to be a one-series companion. There’s no doubt that the appeal, for Pearl, of remaining in the role after 2017 is definitely there. Before now she was virtually unknown in British entertainment (this is her first television role), but she’s gone and landed herself one of biggest and most sought-after gigs in television. The longer she can stay, the more experience and visibility she will receive, and the steeper the trajectory of her career will be from this point onwards.

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But at the same time, Bill just looks like a companion who was never intended to stay for more than one series. She’s simple, Bill. A simple concept, that is. For once, we have a companion who’s relatively uncomplicated and normal. She’s not an enigma or a mystery like Clara, the Impossible Girl, or Amy, Fairytale Amy, the Girl Who Waited. She’s just Bill. Bill from Bristol. And Bill from Bristol looks like the kind of companion who isn’t going to obsess or enthrall the Doctor for multiple seasons. She’s going to come aboard the Tardis, have a great time, tag along for a while, then decide she’s had her fun and learned a lot about herself but that it’s time for her to get back to the real world. Nothing complicated. No intense, emotionally-charged relationship with the Doctor à la Clara Oswald. No elaborate arc consuming her and no nagging mystery hanging over her that the Doctor needs to solve. She’ll go adventuring with the Doctor in her summer holidays and then head back to school for the Autumn term.

And I think Pearl might feel she was obliged to leave along with Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat. It was always going to be an awkward position to be in, to continue as the companion after the Doctor regenerates. It’s going to be especially awkward if the showrunner is leaving at the same time. Maybe Pearl would feel that it’s appropriate for her to bow out with Peter and Moffat, having done her brief but hopefully respectable stint on the show.

The Master won’t be the only other Time Lord the Doctor meets

We already know that the Doctor will encounter not just one, but two Masters this series. So Series 10 is already jam-packed with Time Lords, but I think there’s a good chance we’ll be getting at least one more than we expected. Gallifrey made its triumphant return to Doctor Who in the Series 9 finale, after all, and the Time Lords are once again on the Tardis radar and active in the universe.

I think there is a possibility that two known characters in Series 10 could be Time Lords. The first is the character played by David Suchet, “The Landlord”, in episode 4 of the series, Knock Knock. You’d be right in thinking my only reason for speculating that David Suchet’s character is a Time Lord is that, much like the Doctor and the Master, we only have a title (with a “the” in front), not a name. Not much to go on, I grant, but it’s true that, from the description of the episode, David Suchet’s character sounds tantalisingly enigmatic:

Bill is moving in with some friends and they’ve found the perfect house! So what if it’s strangely cheap to rent, and the landlord is a little creepy? The wind blows, the floorboards creak and the Doctor thinks something is very wrong. What lurks in the strange tower at the heart of the building – and why can’t they find any way to enter it..?

And what is it that “lurks in the strange tower at the heart of the building”? If you can say with a straight face that you didn’t just think “Tardis”, then you’re lying. Given that they’re dialling up the enigma factor on David Suchet’s character, I think it’s likely that the episode will climax in the character’s “true” identity being revealed. Maybe he’s a Time Lord. Or maybe we’re just supposed to think that while his real identity is something completely different — a misdirection. But if he is a Time Lord, I think it’s more likely he won’t be a returning Time Lord character. A one-off new character is more likely. This won’t be a regenerated Rassilon, in other words. Or, God forbid, a regenerated Romana.

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The other character whom I speculate may have Gallifreyan origins is Nardole. Nardole was never supposed to be anything special. He was the comic relief character played a comedian in the 2015 Christmas special. He exited the episode having parted ways with nine tenths of his body, a disembodied head sharing a robot body with another disembodied head. But for some reason seemingly unbeknownst to everyone apart from Steven Moffat and Matt Lucas, Nardole returned in the 2016 Christmas special and, we were nonplussed to learn, is set to return as a full-time companion in Series 10.

I’m almost certain Nardole is going to leave at the end of Series 10, but the question is what he’s doing there at all. Moffat has dropped hints that there is actually a purpose to Nardole’s presence in the Tardis in Series 10. I’m wondering if Nardole will turn out to be a more significant character than we realise. For all his comedy and bumbling ways, there’s a certain mystery about the character, because we know very little about him. Why did the Doctor “reassemble” Nardole at all? Why Nardole, of all people? Is he a Time Lord? It’s one possibility. There are certainly others. Given that we know so little about Nardole, it’s hard to speculate with any accuracy, but the two things I’m confident in conjecturing at this point is that there is something special or significant about Nardole, and that he will play an important narrative role in Series 10.

Which still doesn’t change my feelings about the character at all, to be honest.

This will be Moffat’s best series yet

I just have a hunch. An intuition, if you will. Moffat has spent his whole career as Doctor Who showrunner foraging around, experimenting, trying to find out what works. You can perceive the common voice throughout all five, now six, of Moffat’s series, but still each has felt different. He’s tried new formats, new moods and styles. From the “fairytale” theme and mood of the early days of Matt Smith he’s moved onto the darker, grittier feel of Capaldi’s era. From monster-of-the-week in Series 5 he’s graduated onto the joined-up and interconnected narratives of Series 9.

By now I just feel that he’s got it figured out. Sure, after eight years at the helm he may be casting around for new things to do, but I discern that Moffat isn’t someone for whom interesting new ideas are ever very far from his mind. And he has a stable of very young, talented and ingenious writers at his disposal who are doubtless brimming with ideas of their own. I do think he has a pretty good feel now for what works and what doesn’t, and I sense that, for this series, he’s really done his utmost to best himself once more before he leaves.

Everything I’ve heard about Series 10 has persuaded me that I may be right in thinking Moffat has gone to great lengths to try to make this his best series yet. Have a look at the preview of each episode Moffat gave to the Radio Times. Every single episode is unique and interesting. Each script sounds absolutely intriguing, and I’m struggling to pick which I want to watch most. There’s a conspicuous absence of The Caretaker and In the Forest of the Night type filler stories in this selection. Each episode looks like event television.

And the way Moffat has been describing Series 10, as a “reboot” or “jumping-on point” of sorts, sounds like he’s taking Doctor Who back to its purest, rawest essence — adventure and fantasy and thrills and monsters — and is trying to make that version of Doctor Who as well as he can. That certainly sounds like the kind of Doctor Who I’d want to watch, and it really does look like Moffat has tried to produce a consistently high-quality and faultless series. If these episodes are as good as they sound, there’s a good chance that’s exactly what we’re going to see.

The Twelfth Doctor will regenerate in the finale

The latest trailer for Series 10 briefly showed the Twelfth Doctor hunched over in pain, gold regeneration energy wafting out of his hand. It was a very brief couple of frames at the end of the trailer which made Twitter explode. Because the Doctor isn’t supposed to be regenerating in Series 10. No. He’s supposed to regenerate at the end of the Christmas special, and then the new Doctor will appear for exactly 17 seconds before the credits. That’s how it happens. That’s how it’s supposed to happen.

Then why was the Doctor regenerating in the Series 10 trailer? The Doctor has no business regenerating at any point before the last 2 minutes of the Christmas special, let alone in Series 10.

I don’t think we should put it past Moffat to mix things up a bit. Moffat isn’t the type of showrunner who will opt for the well-trodden path (which he himself helped forge) over the opportunity to do something very different and more exciting. I don’t think the Twelfth Doctor will regenerate in the Series 10 finale and that the Christmas special will feature the Thirteenth Doctor. No one wants that and that’s obviously not what’s going to happen. But one commentator has speculated that Twelve will begin regenerating at the end of the Series 10 finale, and will spend the Christmas special in “regeneration mode”, vulnerable to actual death but trying to hold off regenerating until he vanquishes some urgent threat (possibly the Mondasian Cybermen again), until he finally collapses and regenerates into the Thirteenth Doctor.

Much like the First Doctor did.

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I think that’s a fantastic idea, and I would be very satisfied if that is how the Twelfth Doctor’s regeneration is executed. But I think I’m more partial to an idea of my own, that the Doctor will begin regenerating in the closing minutes of the Series 10 finale, but, much like the Tenth Doctor’s “regeneration” in The Stolen Earth, we won’t actually see him change. It’ll be left on a cliffhanger. A six month cliffhanger which won’t be broken on 25th December by Twelve immediately regenerating into Thirteen, but by a dream sequence or perhaps a flashback. In the classic series the Doctor would hallucinate about his companions in the moments before he regenerated. This is what I’m thinking of, except the Doctor’s hallucination or dream or flashback sequence would extend the length of the episode — and it would feature Clara.

Because how appropriate would it be for the Twelfth Doctor to dream about Clara in the moments before he regenerates? How perfect would it be to have Jenna Coleman back as Clara for an episode, and to have Twelve and Clara back on our screens together again one last time before the second half of that couple makes his final leave? Maybe it would be a dream about Clara, or maybe a montage of (new) flashbacks about Twelve’s memories with Clara, but to see Twelve with Clara again, even in a dream or a flashback, one more time before Peter Capaldi leaves would be beautiful.

And when Twelve stirs from his dream state, he will rise slowly and his eyes will cloud. He will utter a word, “Clara…”, and a single tear will slither down his cheek. Then he will smile, a tender, affectionate smile, a special smile he hasn’t remembered smiling for such a long time. And then golden fumes will start to envelop his body as he closes his eyes, still smiling that smile. And then he will regenerate.