Season 10 has already set a high bar with its first three episodes, establishing a strong dynamic between new companion, Bill, and the soon to depart, Twelfth Doctor. So, with the fourth episode of the season upon us, does the trend continue, or does it fall flat on its face? Well..
Bill is on the move, searching for shared student accommodation. With her group of friends finding nothing within their price range, they are approached by an elderly gentleman outside of an estate agency. His presence, as we come to discover is no accident, and with him offering them a place to stay, the group enter into a contract with the mysterious Landlord, and move into his large, old house, which holds a dark secret.
The Doctor helps Bill move house, using the Tardis as a “removal van”, something which Bill suggests he could hire out. Questioning whether the Doctor sleeps in the Tardis, an old Fourth Doctor line is neatly resurrected, as he points out that “sleep is for tortoises”. Rebutting the suggestion that he become a removal service. he comments upon his age, and that he is a Timelord, much to the amusement of Bill. Having mentioned regeneration, there is a swift diversion by the Doctor from the subject, and a contemplative look, suggesting some foreknowledge that his time in his present incarnation is almost over.
Before the opening credits roll, housemate Pavel disappears, and the mystery begins.
The large, draughty house fascinates the Doctor, and he soon makes himself at home; introduced by Bill to her roommates as her Grandad, or “Grandfather” harking back to the Hartnell era.
Housemate, Harry reveals his grandfather went hiking along the Great Wall of China, even attempting to steal a piece. In a deleted scene, we would have learned that his other grandparent was Harry Sullivan, after whom he is named.
Another of the students, Paul, attempts to make a pass at Bill, and again, her sexuality is brought to light, tactfully and respectfully, with the almost casual nature with which one would hope the LGBT community would be afforded by now. In fact, Paul is positively delighted to learn he never stood a chance!
With the house offering some suitably creepy creaking and groaning sounds, the group of friends speculate on whether it is the central heating, or, more wildly, a little doll that's come to life, or giant spider, both, perhaps, references to earlier stories.
Whilst the students are all well cast, Harry, in particularly, is an intensely likeable character, with a wide-eyed curiosity and a clear admiration of the Doctor. Perhaps it is the echoes of his grandfather upon whom the character is very loosely based, but I cannot help but feel Colin Ryan would make a magnificent addition to the Tardis crew.
After Bill and co discover the Doctor in a cupboard, we get a proper introduction to the Landlord, adeptly played by David Suchet, who exudes an unsettling, and often sinister calmness.
The Doctor is terrible with names, but reveals himself to be a fan of Little Mix, as, apparently, is Bill. The aspect of Bill’s life which the Doctor isn't a part of, is handled much more expertly than Clara’s casual blending of home life, teaching and occasional bouts of time travel when convenient.
It has a much more natural, refreshing quality,and with the Doctor effectively confined to Earth to guard the Vault, Bill having a life away from the Tardis is much more logical and credible.
Within no time, the wooden house begins to reveal its secrets, with roach-like creatures manipulating, and emerging from, the walls.
Bill and Shireen discover Pavel trapped within the wooden wall of the house, in a not too dissimilar pose from the unfortunate Cyberman in Earthshock, or Star Wars’ Han Solo, encased in Carbonite.
Meanwhile, the Doctor, Harry and Felicity find themselves trapped as the window shutters slam shut around them. Felicity manages to escape, however her fate is sealed outside the house. Pontificating on the origin of the creatures. The Doctor names them “Dryads”, a reference to Greek mythology surrounding tree dwelling nymphs.
Exterior scenes of the house bear strong resemblance to Gabriel Chase, from Ghostlight.
As they investigate further, Harry and the Doctor discover tenancy agreements dating back seventy years. The Landlord explains his “daughter” Eliza, was dying, and must survive. Every twenty years, he takes in new “tenants”, which the house absorbs.
In the tower, Eliza is revealed to be made of wood, which is a rather disappointing explanation, although this is somewhat mitigated by Bill's astute observations, which lead to the revelation that Eliza is, in fact, not the Landlord’s daughter, but that he is her son. This is a nice twist, pointed with tragedy and poignancy.
The Doctor deduces that high pitched sound awakes the insects, which, in turn, revitalise Eliza., who, ultimately sacrifices her own life, and that of the Landlord, submitting themselves to the infestation. In a final act of mercy, Eliza restores Bill’s friends.
Whilst I have been critical of lack of death during Moffat’s tenure, it feels appropriate, with the house having not yet “digested” the students.
No explanation is offered as to why the bugs turn Eliza into wood and eat everybody else or how their somewhat unusual diet sustains her. Similarly, how the Landlord learned that the house needed to be “fed” to keep Eliza alive remains a mystery. Perhaps, most significantly is that Eliza has forget ton that the Landlord was her own son.
Nevertheless. the flashbacks, and subsequent scenes of the young, and older Landlord with his mother are beautifully realised, and David Suchet positively steals the final scenes. Whilst the “wooden mother” is somewhat unsatisfying, it is more than made up for by a positively stellar performance by Suchet.
To conclude the story, the “something” in the vault is playing the piano, and Nardole’s scenes are brief, but measured. His character has a much more refined quality, particularly with shorter interactions with the Doctor, and there is much less “Little Britain” in Lucas’ portrayal.
The episode is recorded in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and, unusually, 3D binaural stereo. I am a fan of both, so an episode with a three dimensional soundtrack was a tantalising prospect. Surround sound is, of course, used on all recent episodes, however, the use of binaural recording is new. At time it does veer toward “gimmicky”, with some of the “knocking” feeling rather superfluous, but ultimately it is a highly effective presentation. That said, the Dolby 5.1 track is every bit as rich and encompassing. For the technically curious, you can read how binaural recordings works HERE.
Stand out performances by Colin Ryan and seasoned actor and Poirot star, David Suchet, complete the episode. It is a somewhat muddled plot, however succeeds due to the rich blend of characters and tragic denouement.
Episodes with “sentient wood”, with perhaps the exception of The End of the World (The Forest of Cheam), never seem to fare terribly well. From their inception in Mark of the Rani, to wooden Cybermen, and more recently, the interminably tiresome In The Forest of the Night, the concept has never been particularly well realised. This story does fare somewhat better, snf although the revelation is less than satisfying, it can be overlooked by powerful, evocative performances from a superb cast.
Whilst, perhaps, not quite as strong as Thin Ice, Knock Knock is an effective, emotive episode. It does feel somewhat rushed, and the revelations and resolution are a little lacking. Nevertheless, it scores a well deserved 8.5/10. A solid effort!