Frightening is the best word to describe the latest episode of Doctor Who’s tenth series. Toying perfectly with the gang of pesky kids trapped in a haunted mansion trope, Knock Knock is basically a 45-minute teen horror movie, offering scares, creaks, thrills and chills aplenty, with a sprinkling of Doctor Who magic thrown in for good measure. And while it might not be the most inventive fright fest you see this year, if you’re a fan of the things it apes, this Mike Bartlett-penned story is a spooky throwback that offers a refreshing change of pace in a series thus far dominated by character-driven episodes.
Having survived a swarm of flesh-eating nanobots and a brush with a giant monster under a frozen River Thames, Bill is finally settling into student life, making friends with a group of freshers who invite her to move in with them. Of course, that means enlisting the services of a smarmy estate agent who merrily carts them between prospective properties, each more dire than the last, until they bump into a friendly looking landlord, played by David Suchet. He shows them around his old, spacious mansion, available at a suspiciously cheap price. But before the gang can move in to their perfect student digs they have to agree to one rule: don’t enter the locked tower, which seems to be the source of the mysterious tapping sound that echoes through the house.
Knock knock is undoubtedly one of the scariest Who episodes for a long while. Returning director Bill Anderson deftly creates an unsettling atmosphere within the groaning, isolated house by utilising old-school scare tactics. A lightening storm is raging outside, shutters burst open out of the blue, floors boards creak incessantly, blood-curdling screams can be heard off screen, and, worst of all for any millennials watching, there’s no wi-fi connection. All expertly crafted to ramp up fear factor to maximum levels (for a family show, at any rate). This is one to watch barricaded behind sofa with a healthy supply of cushions.
Much of this series has been focused on sketching out the burgeoning Doctor-companion relationship between Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie, but this episode offers a welcome opportunity to get lost in a spooky, absorbing yarn. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any intriguing moments for the TARDIS duo. There’s further signs of a slightly more combative dynamic forming between the pair as Bill tries to keep her adventures with the Doctor separate from her personal life – which leads to a particularly hilarious interaction where Bill tries to pass off the Time Lord as her nosey grandfather. Capaldi, meanwhile, is in his element here, catching wind of the strange goings on before anyone else and swiftly dancing into the heart of the trouble in order to find the truth behind the suspicious happenings.
While there’s still very little time given to the supporting cast (the students really only exist to add to the bodycount), Knock knock finally presents us with a fully-formed imposing villain in the form of Suchet’s creepy landlord. Appearing at first as a kindly old man who offers desperate students a place to stay, the Landlord soon reveals his more sinister intentions. It transpires he’s in tune with an infestation of alien creepy crawlies, which break out of the woodwork and devour the house’s human inhabitants. The bugs are suitably unsettling and Suchet is rather brilliant, possessing a palpable intensity of presence to convey his threat with a mere whisper or look as his pops into view without making a sound.
As any horror fan will know, the bumps and scares work best when we don’t have a clue what’s going on. When everything happens just out of sight, the mind can only wander to dark places to try to explain them, and for the majority of this episode Anderson plays on our natural inclination to fear the unknown perfectly. It’s unsurprising, then, that the fear factor lessens the more we learn about the house’s true nature. Fortunately, Knock knock has more to it than simple shock value.
Rather than quietly petering out as the mystery is solved, the story gently transitions into something altogether more profound and emotionally devastating. In a classic Doctor Who twist, we learn that the Landlord is not acting out of pure malice but out of love for his ailing mother. Having found a way to save her as a child, he has spent his entire life caring for her, luring students into the house every two decades to feed the bugs that are keeping her alive. The big reveal is perhaps spoiled slightly by the dodgy effects work used to bring Mariah Gale’s wooden facade to life, but it does nothing to temper the impact of the heart-wrenching moment the Landlord realises he has to let his mother go. Again, Suchet is tremendous.
In the end, Knock knock is another strong episode for series 10. Breaking from the trend for slower, character-driven stories, it delivers a gripping tale that, while offering nothing new in the horror stakes, nevertheless provides an abundance of scares before knocking us all for six with an unexpectedly tender finale.