This week’s episode, “Knock Knock” give us another perfect episode, this time based on the standard Whovian Haunted House trope.
In a writing masterclass, there’s usually a section where the professor breaks down story telling components to their core, known as “The Seven Basic Plots”. So far, it feels like Moffat sat down and for his last season is handing us a Doctor Who writing masterclass. There are only “x” basic plots in the Whoniverse, and here they are, in order. We start with the “Companion Origin Story”, which is usually followed by “The One Where They Go To the Future” and “The One Where They Go To The Past”. (Sometimes, like in the Martha season, these are reversed.) Other Stereotypical Whovian Stories involve horror tropes, such as “The One Set In a Spaceship”. (That’s coming next week.) Then there’s the one that aired tonight: “The One Set In a Haunted House.”
Bill: Time Lords. That’s hilarious. Do you wear robes and big hats?
The Doctor: No, big collars mostly.
Recent versions of this Whovian trope include Moffat’s famous episode “Blink” in series 3, James Cordon’s guest star appearance in “The Lodger” in series 5, and “The God Complex” in series 6. This one has more in common with the latter than the former ones, with the sprawling cast of extras, all of whom might as well have had “fodder” stamped across their foreheads. Like in “The God Complex” the extras are offed, one by one throughout the hour, while The Doctor and Bill try to figure out what in heaven’s name is happening, and how to make the horror stop.
The plot concept here is simple enough: Bill needs to move house, and due to the housing prices, she needs roommates–lots of roommates! (St Luke’s University is located in Devon, where, as Escape to the Country will tell you, houses are 20% above the already-astronomical national average.) Unfortunately, even with six of them, they can’t find anything they can afford that will work–until “The Landlord”, played by David Suchet, mysteriously appears outside the rental office with a house that’s remarkably large and surprisingly affordable. The kids don’t even read the contract before signing–even though Bill is clearly wondering “What’s the catch?”
Shireen: What do other people do?
Bill: Other people have money.
The catch, naturally, is that the house will eat them one by one, as houses do. Lucky for Bill, The Doctor agrees to use the TARDIS to help her move her things–and then refuses to leave once he smells a rat. (Or in this case, alien lice-looking bugs that suck their victims into the wooden walls and floorboards.) This despite Bill demanding he go away…after all, “this is the bit of my life that you’re not in!” It’s good to see Bill has healthy boundaries, even if The Doctor ignores them. Not to mention, he gets insulted when she insists on calling him Grandfather, lest anyone assume she’s sleeping with her professor. Yes, Susan theorists, they went there. Also of note: the kid who gets paired with the Doctor in this episode, while Bill is trapped upstairs, is named Harry Sullivan, which was the name of the male companion who traveled with The Doctor and Sarah Jane during the early Fourth Doctor years. The “Klarj Neon Death Voc-Bot” reference is also from the Fourth Doctor years, from “The Robots of Death” serial. (On the other hand, I have no rational tie-in or explanation for the Little Mix sponsored soundtrack this week.)
Early on in the episode, The Landlord commiserates with the Doctor over having to let go of their children as they go out into the world–even going so far as to promise to watch out for Bill if it will make the Doctor just leave already. The set up suggests that when we find the wooden girl from the trailer upstairs, she will be his daughter. Also probably a prisoner of the house, just as those who are getting swallowed by the walls are.
The Doctor: Reminds me of Quincy Jones. I stepped in for him once. The bassist he’d hired turned out to be a Klarj Neon Death Voc-Bot. What was worse, he couldn’t play.
But in a neat twist, that turns out not to be the case at all–and it’s Bill’s observational skills that catch the discrepancy. If Eliza was a dying teenager/twenty-something in 1937, who was turned to wood by the alien bugs, how is The Landlord still so well-preserved? And why would a grown man bring his dying daughter bugs from the garden to entertain her? The Doctor doesn’t think the latter so odd, but the former is impossible to ignore. The Landlord is 80-something now, which means…. He was not her father, but a boy. A young boy who brought his dying *mother* the bugs thinking they would entertain her–as boys do.
Once mother and son are established, that means the power roles are reversed, and Eliza can command the bugs, instead of taking commands from Suchet. (Suchet, by the way, is superb here–his tone flipping back to a child’s plea once the secret is revealed add an extra layer of creepy to everything that’s come before.) She commands them to polish herself and her son off, while simultaneously releasing Bill’s five friends from inside the wood. Just this once Bill, everybody lives!
Harry: I’m scared.
The Doctor: Don’t be.
Harry: Why not?
The Doctor: It doesn’t help.
And that’s good, because the house then collapses. There goes the deposit–but at least Bill doesn’t have to find five new roommates for the next place? And the Doctor was a good boy and stayed on Earth the entire time. Nardole is patronizingly proud of him, pointing out there’s no need to always be off adventuring when adventure–and alien bugs–are right here the whole time.
Despite my hope that the “Knock Knock” of the title would lead to more knock, knock, knocking on The Vault’s door this week, no such luck. Instead coming from inside the Vault are the sounds of…a piano? Yes, The Doctor has given his prisoner a piano to pass the time. He’s also brought takeaway and plans to have dinner with whoever is inside. As he sees it, they’re both trapped here, so they might as well hang out, and he can tell them all about his latest adventure. Whoever is inside doesn’t seem too interested in the latter…until they hear “and lots of young people get eaten”. (We can all just assume it’s Missy now, right? That happy piano playing “Pop Goes the Weasel” at “lots of young people get eaten” was *so* Missy.)
The Doctor: Sleep’s for tortoises.
Bill: Not Time Lords?
The Doctor: No! Unless we’ve regenerated or had a big lunch.
As noted above, next week Moffat will continue his “one last perfect season” by hitting the “deep space” trope in an episode entitled “Oxygen.” This is an adventure that will involve not just The Doctor and Bill, but also Nardole, all being together, and not on Earth. So much for guarding the Vault…