A Stick

Doctor Who: “Knock Knock”

Did you see what they did there?

They took my second favourite joke as a child and used it as an episode title. We all know the punchline.

So we have a relatively rare genre borrowed this week: the haunted house. And elements of the slasher.

One thing that Nu Who does that Classic didn’t is to allow companions downtime. With the exception of the first three series of Pertwee, companions were there for the ride until they found someone to marry, got killed or found a better time machine — because the TARDIS was so unpredictable. Russell T. Davies added the soap element with Rose in the reboot, perhaps because he wanted one character who could learn and develop and the Doctor is fixed in that version of the archetype. Amy and Rory found time to have a baby and Clara worked at a school, and Bill decides to rent a house with five friends.

The house is full blown gothic with forbidden towers, old electrical circuit, shit phone signal and no central heating. The landlord, excellently played by David Suchet, is alternately sinister and avuncular.

Rather like this version of the Doctor, who is referred to a grandfather by Bill in a she-isn’t-meant-to-remind-us-of-Susan-Forman way, honest. He takes an instant dislike to the landlord and the feeling is mutual.

There is something nasty in the woodwork, and it kills the students off, one by one, as the Doctor and Bill investigate, separately. The Doctor spends time with Harry — who we know from extratextual kerfuffles is the grandson of Harry Sullivan, a medical officer attached to UNIT and companion during Tom Baker’s first season. Apparently we aren’t supposed to be able to remember a character from forty years ago, but it’s ok for the Doctor to quote a line from “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”.

The gimmick is that the landlord’s mother was dying and he found these wood-affecting insects, dryads, who could keep her alive, by turning her to sentient wood — the only downside being they needed to be fed with the energy of teens every decade or so.

Humans as batteries, ahem.

If when the housemates signed the contract, you had the whiff of signing a covenant with the devil, then he too has had his Faustian pact and whilst he is sinister, you don’t really get the sense he is out and out evil. Hot on the heels of Bill asking the Doctor how many people he had seen die, here we have the Doctor remembering the names of the dryads’ victims — he cares, of course. But the landlord can’t get away with it.

The only thing that surprises me is that we know the dryads react to high-pitched sounds and the writers do love the sonic screwdriver as the deus ex machina. Instead, we get a moving scene in which the mother realises that she has had no life, only a prison, and her son has had no life but her.

This perhaps feeds into the DON’T FORGET THE STORY ARC epilogue, when Margot learns that the Prisoner of the Vault has acquired a piano (music being a motif of the episode) and we wonder whether the Doctor has had second thoughts about life in prison.

We should note, with little surprise, the number of stories about mothers — Li’l Orphan Bill in “The Pilot”, the boy with the dead mother in “Smile”, the orphans who inherit in “Thin Ice”. Doctor Who has never been a children’s programme, but evidently has a large child audience, and a cardinal rule of children’s fiction is to get rid of the parents. (Gwyneth Jones explains this somewhere, but I’ve never been able to refind the quotation.) Uncles or Aunts or Grandmothers or Grandfathers are fine, but no parents. It is a little neat, but perhaps that child audience is being patronised, to have all the teens resurrected.

I think it would wear a little thin if characters could never die — although note that Bill learns that the Doctor is a Time Lord and that he can regenerate, even if he is cagey on details.

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