In this week’s episode of Doctor Who, Bill and her college peeps — Harry (Colin Ryan), Paul (Ben Presley, Galavant), Felicity (Alice Hewkin), Shireen (Mandeep Dhillon), and Pavel (Bart Suavek) — hunt for a place to live. The digs they check out are too pricey or too noisy or too cramped. Out of nowhere appears a strange old man (the always reliable David Suchet) offering them a place beyond their wildest dreams. If nothing else, “Knock Knock” might teach youngsters that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. After the sextet sign a contract, Pavel moves in first and it doesn’t take long for him to disappear into his room (damn near literally) after spinning a tune on his turntable.
In perhaps the episode’s only smart gag, Bill enlists the Doctor’s help with moving. He materializes the TARDIS around her stack of boxes and rematerializes outside the creaky old house. Even the Doctor is impressed by its size, but he senses something in those creaks. Bill introduces the Doctor to her friends as her grandfather. (He begs, “Father, at least. Please!”) As the scenario progresses, Bill becomes more and more embarrassed by the Doctor’s presence, ultimately ushering him off the premises, and it was here where “Knock Knock” started losing me.
It’s still early days for Bill as a TARDIS companion (at one point she mentions the creatures she’s recently encountered), so it’s absurd that she’d be embarrassed by him at this stage. He’s a time-traveling alien who’s taken her to the far future and the distant past in a dimensionally transcendental police box! He’s given her a whole new life she never could have foreseen. How is he not the coolest guy she’s ever met?! If she’d been traveling with him for some years I might buy it, but not now, not yet.
The kids explore the house and move into their rooms. Paul has a crush on Bill, and after a couple of awkward encounters, she finally tells him she’s into girls. In Pavel’s room, the LP continues to skip, but nobody ever knocks on his door to say hi or see what’s up. There’s also a tower that they can see through the windows, but can find no way into. At night, as they’re all gathered in a common area they hear loud noises coming from a nearby cupboard. They move closer and closer and Bill opens it and … the Doctor’s inside, checking things out. He’s not going anywhere until he gets to the bottom of, well, what? Beyond his vested interest in looking out for Bill, it’s never made clear why the Doctor is so suspicious. He just is.
The house is horribly out-of-date, without many of the amenities that might be taken for granted elsewhere. Even the outlets don’t fit modern devices. The Landlord unexpectedly shows up and promises to soon take care of the issues plaguing the house. With this second appearance, he’s clearly not to be trusted, but only the Doctor senses it. As difficult as it can be for young folks to find housing, it is understandable that they want to believe in their new living situation, which seems almost ideal. (Minus the outlets.)
Once everyone retires for the night, all manner of weirdness begins. Screams come from jokester Paul’s room. At first, Bill and Shireen think he’s pranking, but then the howls become alarmingly horrific. The door is locked and they can’t get in. Then knocks and creaks start coming from everywhere, and the pair find they can’t even leave that area of the house. Doors are sealed, windows are gone. Downstairs, the Doctor, Felicity, and Harry discover the same: Exit doors are sealed shut, as are the shutters on the windows. Felicity just escapes through a window, but something involving a tree happens to her outside.
Bill and Shireen finally go into Pavel’s room, and what they find is horrific beyond thought: The young man has been grafted into the wall. Part of his face and hand stick out à la Han Solo frozen in carbonite. His eyes are glazed over white, and yet they somehow continue to move. This imagery is easily the high point of the episode. The Landlord shows up, lifts the needle off the skipping record, and Pavel melts entirely into the wall until he’s no more.
The Doctor and Harry get their first look at a wood louse … and then hundreds swarm. In the cellar, the gents discover six boxes of people’s belongings and a contract identical to the one they all signed, dated 1997. A stack of Polaroids tells a story similar to the one Bill and her friends have endured this terrible night. More boxes off in the corner and yet another contract dated 1977 (along with a Bowie 45 of “Heroes”), and then yet another contract from 1957.
The Landlord appears again and tells the Doctor his story: His daughter Eliza (Mariah Gale) was seriously ill, then the creatures saved her and “we’d do anything to protect them.” Harry runs, but the Landlord dings his little tuning fork and the woodlice rise up from the staircase and devour him in seconds. High-pitched sounds activate the creatures! Bill and Shireen make their way into the tower, where the “daughter” reveals herself — she’s a woman seemingly made of wood, similar in appearance to a dryad of folklore and myth. (It’s odd that the Doctor used that term before when talking about the lice, because here’s the real deal.) The Doctor and the Landlord arrive, the former presumably having convinced the latter he can do something to help the daughter. The tuning fork is dinged again and Shireen is devoured.
It’s a believable touch that the Doctor might forget how short the human lifespan is. Bill deduces that there’s no way the Landlord can be this woman’s father, given how long this has been going on. He is her son. He tamed the lice who could keep his mother alive. After glimpsing the real world outside the window via a fireworks display, Eliza sacrifices herself and her son to the lice. In her death, she somehow also releases all five of Bill’s friends from their wooden tombs.
Here’s a partial list of questions that account for the two stars I gave this episode: If Eliza could release Bill’s friends, why didn’t she release the other 18 people who’d succumbed to the witchery? Why was it always six at a time? How did the 20-year interval enter into the “agreement” with the lice? Why didn’t the lice devour Eliza as they did everyone else they encountered? What exactly did they do to keep her alive? Why did the Landlord fess up to the Doctor in the cellar? Was he going senile? Why was the Landlord so hung up on the contracts? Why did the kids all sadly gawk at the collapsing house, seemingly unfazed that they’d been saved from this horrible fate? Were there no police investigations into each of these groups of people going missing simultaneously time and again? Even with the 20-year cycle, surely there’d have been a dogged constable clued into these disappearances.
So far, this season has been light on explanations for alien menaces, but it’s all come to something of a head with “Knock Knock.” Is this all deliberate? There’s effective mood created here but little else, and this episode had a special sound mix created specifically for headphone listening. (Hopefully we’ll get that here in the States on the Blu-ray.) That could conceivably help further the tension and atmosphere, but it will never overcome the glaring plot holes and weird inconsistencies in the script. Folks, we hit our first truly duff episode of the year. There’s at least one every season, but let’s hope there aren’t too many more …
• Postscript with Nardole and the Doctor and the vault: Whoever’s inside plays “Für Elise” on the piano. Nardole is aghast that the Doctor has put a piano in the vault (“You don’t learn!”). The Doctor talks through the door with a promise of Mexican food and a new story (the adventure he’s just had) and once he says, “Lots of young people get eaten,” the piano inside happily plays “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
• The two pop tunes heard are “Weird People” and “Black Magic” by Little Mix.
• Bill has seen the Doctor’s bedroom, he tells her he’s a Time Lord (which she finds terribly amusing), and he brings up regeneration, but just as quickly skirts the issue.
• The line “sleep is for tortoises” was first uttered by Tom Baker in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.”
• Harry was supposed to be the grandson of ’70s companion Harry Sullivan, but it was removed from the final cut.
• When the Doctor quizzes the Landlord about the current prime minister, he mentions Harriet Jones.
• The Doctor played bass on a Quincy Jones recording.