Gunpowder – TV Review

“No more swords, no more horses – and maybe I can cut my hair.” So Kit Harrington reportedly demanded of roles inbetween turns as Game of Thrones’ resident auntie-romancer Jon Snow. Cue much sword wielding, horse riding and an impressive mane as Harrington seeks to transfer his brooding charms to BBC1 for Gunpowder, a bleak historical drama about the plot to blow up the House of Lord in 1605.

But while the King of the North might be on familiar territory, the same can’t be said for the rest of us. Despite commemorating the event each year by setting fire to old kitchens and paying through the nose for whimsical pyrotechnic displays, it’s likely many of us know next to nothing about the real events of the gunpowder plot.


For starters, Harrington isn’t even playing Guy Fawkes, who was really just the fall guy for the plotters after being caught guarding barrels of explosives beneath Westminster all those years ago. Instead, he stars as his real-life ancestor Robert Catesby, the true mastermind behind the plot whose role has largely avoided the eyes of history up to this point.

That the true story has gone untold for so long is surprising, for it’s a tale ripe dripping with dramatic potential. Scripted by Top Boy’s Ronan Bennett, the show draws us into an expensively mounted, relentlessly grim world of religious persecution, where stately homes are routinely ransacked by the King’s guard and Catholic priests are forced to cower in secret holes for preaching the word of God.


Gunpowder doesn’t shy away from revealing the gruesome reality of this period. One particularly unpleasant sequence sees Catesby’s elderly aunt stripped naked and slowly crushed to death in front of a baying mob, followed moments later by a boyish priest being disembowelled and dismembered.

So why, given its obvious pedigree and rich source material, does the drama underwhelm? Part of the reason is the aforementioned bleakness. The first episode is unrelentingly grim, full of stoney faced characters either being brutally tortured or brooding over the state of the country. Perhaps such horrific scenes are important in establishing what sets Catesby and his conspirators on their path towards an act of terrible revenge, but it hardly makes for enjoyable Saturday night entertainment.


The story also suffers by trying to hard to cover all angles. The flaw in dramatising a little-known period of history is that the audience need events to be put into context for them. That leaves episode one with a lot a heavy lifting to do, meaning there’s little time to get under the skin of its characters. And that’s a shame because the performances are uniformly excellent – look out for a grandly malevolent turn by Mark Gatiss as arch schemer Lord Robert Cecil.

The fireworks may be still to come, of course – the plot has barely begun to be plotted by the episode’s end, leaving plenty of scope for the action to pick up in the remaining two instalments. But if Gunpowder continues on its current trajectory, its plot is in danger of being scuppered before it’s even had a chance to light the fuse.


Doctor Who: World Enough and Time – TV Review

After months of anticipation, fevered fan-speculation and increasingly bombastic promos, the first part of the series 10 finale has finally arrived. And not a moment too soon. Although the current run of episodes started promisingly, it feels like the series has been coasting towards the finish line of late, with a few too many fun-but-fruitless episodes that have done little to advance the larger series’ arc.

That’s not an accusation that can be levelled against World Enough and Time, which boasts a Doctor-Missy team-up, the return of a classic Doctor Who foe and the ’surprise’ resurrection of one of the Time Lord’s greatest enemies in an action-packed plot. And yet, while there’s no denying this is one of the most marvellously audacious episodes of recent memory, it still manages to underwhelm, largely because it blew all of its major plot-twists before the episode even aired.


The opening moments fly by, though. A dramatic foreshadowing of the Capaldi’s upcoming regeneration swiftly swerving into a brisk and breezy sequence where an apparently repentant Missy, with her “disposables” Bill and Nardole in toll, tries to save a ginormous space ship from being sucked into the event horizon of a black hole.

It’s an unexpectedly fun, lighthearted sequence for a series finale, with Michelle Gomez back to her whimsically scathing best as a Doctor-in-training. The scene also boasts some gorgeous CGI work in the realisation of the space ship, which really wouldn’t look out of place on the big screen.

And then, Moffat punches the air out of us by literally blowing a hole through Bill’s chest. In a heart-stopping scene, the Doctor desperately pleas with a trigger-happy crew member who wants to kill Bill before an unseen, human-hunting monster comes to take them all, but he can do nothing to stop the inevitable. Her near-fatal wounding is devastating, exposing the Doctor’s steadily growing recklessness and altering Bill’s relationship with the Time Lord in potentially irrevocable ways.


It’s here that World Enough starts to falter. We all know Moffat is fond of time-wimey plots with multiple, interlocking timelines and his obsession with the device seriously hampers the story this time. Firstly, we’re ripped away from Bill’s horrific attack for a needless flashback to the Doctor and his companion breezily planning Missy’s training exercise. We then spend the rest of the episode cutting between Bill’s time in the ship’s creepy medical wing and Doctor’s rapid attempts to find her.

Moffat at least gives this structure an intriguing twist where, due to the effect of gravity on time, Bill and the Twelve experience time at different speeds, meaning a minute for the Doctor equates to weeks of waiting for Bill. It’s a neat concept, yet it adds almost nothing to the plot other than taking us away from Bill’s harrowing experiences in the grim doldrums of the ship in order to watch Capaldi repeatedly attempt to explain the science behind the time difference to Missy and Nardole.


It’s a shame because when it focuses on Bill’s traumatic period waiting for the Doctor to save her, World Enough really soars. The eerie hospital setting, complete with creepy patients robotically shouting out in pain, is fantastically evocative of The Empty Child and director Rachel Talay takes full advantage, utilising creaking door hinges, shadowy hallways, and jump scares to ramp up the fear factor.

Most chilling of all are the Mondasian Cybermen. Faithfully recreated in every detail, these classic man-bun sporting foes are scary as hell, their ghostly masks and human-looking hands making for an unsettling sight. Moffat has also delved deeper into their macabre conversion method to create something that is both disturbing and tragic – you almost feel sorry for these pitiful-yet-petrifying creatures.


Of course, the Cybermen aren’t the only bad guys in town this week. It’s no secret that John Simm’s maniacal incarnation of the Master is the one who’s really pulling the strings behind the scenes and his big reveal towards the end of the episode is worth the wait. Newly goateed and having ditched the hooded-hobo look from The End of Time, Simm is back to his teasingly machiavellian best, introduced toying with an unsuspecting Missy before gleefully revealing his diabolical plan. It’s a short appearance but it’s one that holds plenty of promise ahead of a fuller outing next week.

The only problem is we see all of this coming.

You don’t need to have obsessively trawled through message boards in search of spoilers to know that the Mondasian Cyberman and the Master feature heavily in this episode – it was right there in last week’s preview trailer. Yet Moffat insists on acting like we have no idea what’s coming, slowly building up to what are intended to be shocking reveals, when in fact we already knew what to expect before the episode even aired.


It leads to a bizarre scenario where we spend the majority of the episode watching Simm parade around disguised as Bill’s kind hearted friend Mr Razor. Simm is mightily impressive in the role, imbuing Razor with warmth, kindness, and slightly off-kilter charm, but it’s all for nothing. Even most absent-minded viewer wouldn’t need long to work out its Simm hiding behind the mountain of prosthetics. Likewise, Bill’s early demise and subsequent transformation into a Cyberman are so clearly signposted that they lose all impact. World Enough feels like a surprise party where you can see feet poking out under the curtain and your nan’s head peaking from behind the sofa.

On the plus side, with Master back in full flow and Bill trapped in the casing of a Cyberman, the stage is set for a spectacular series finale next week. World Enough got so many things right – the pace, the tone, emotional resonance were all marvellously handled. If only it hadn’t all been spoiled by an over-abundance of pre-publicity, it could’ve been one of finest episode of modern Who. Instead, if feels like one massive missed opportunity.

Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light – TV Review

One of the most enjoyable features of Doctor Who’s tenth series has been the old-school vibe brought to many of its episodes – see last week’s 60s-tinged Empress of Mars. It feels fitting, then, that the final standalone adventure of the Capaldi – not to mention Moffat – era should welcome the return of ‘classic’ Who writer Rona Munro, who penned the final episode of the original series. It turns out to be a mixed blessing, however. Though it possesses some intriguing mysteries, breathtaking visuals and a promising monster, The Eaters of Light lacks much of the high stakes energy we’ve come to expect of modern Who and it feels lacklustre as a result.

This week’s reason for the Doctor abandoning his guard of Missy’s vault is the need to settle a history-based spat with Bill. Both have their own theories as to what really happened to the Roman Ninth Legion, who historically disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and so they naturally hop in the TARDIS for a quick trip to second century Scotland to find out who is right. Of course, it’s not long before the time-travelling team find themselves getting involved in the usual interdimensional scrapes. As the Doctor and Nardole find themselves captured by a tribe of hostile Pictish warriors, Bill falls down yet another hole and uncovers a band of surviving Roman soldiers who are hiding from a strange creature that only comes out at night.


On the surface, at least, the Eaters of Light has all the makings of an entertaining Who episode. It’s a fun, light-hearted and slightly-strange adventure, featuring an enticing conundrum that blends folkloric mysticism with a timey-wimey plot device (the story revolves around a set of Cairn stones that encase a temporal rift). There’s also plenty of sweeping landscapes, with director Charles Palmer (Oxygen) making excellent use of real locations as opposed to the creaky set work we suffered through last week. The themes, too, will be strongly strongly evocative for fans: the futility of battle, the power of fear, and the benefits of working together for a greater good.


The only trouble is, the story doesn’t pull you to the edge of your seat and get under your skin in the way it should. As with many episodes this series, the Eaters of Light is more than happy to take its time, allowing the mystery to unfold gradually while it digs deeper into the lives of its main characters. The difference this time is that the characters are not particularly interesting. Bill, the Doctor and Nardole aren’t asked to do much beyond their usual roles – although Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas do get to exchange some superb banter, mostly at the expense of the Highland setting (“It’s Scotland, it’s supposed to be damp!”).


Meanwhile, newcomers Rebecca Benson and Brian Vernel don’t fair much better, with the latter’s Roman solider Lucius only required to pointlessly lust after Bill in another needless reminder of her sexual preference. Benson, in particular, feels like a missed opportunity. Her character Kar, the spirited leader of a Pictish tribe, is put at the centre of an interesting moral quandary, having allowed the monster out of the rift in the hope it would kill the advancing Roman army and save her people. Yet this plot point feels completely underfed because Munro never explores the pressures Kar feels in trying to protect her people or the guilt that is caused by instigating the monster’s mass slaughter.

Apart from a few instances of people poking pointy objects at each other, the episode is also lacking in action to help move the plot along, and it drags as a result. Part of the problem is that the monster is barely a part of the action. A glow in the dark dragon with sentient tentacles, the monster has an impressive, and no doubt expensive, CGI realisation, which perhaps explains its long absences from proceedings. That leaves it feeling somewhat peripheral to the plot, however, and severely diminishes its impact as an enemy to the human race, especially given its motivation seems sketchy at best (apparently it needs to kill all humans so that it can eat stars, or something). Without this basic threat level, there’s a noticeable lack of tension in the plot which is desperately needed to propel proceedings forward.


Overall, the Eaters of Light offers some intriguing concepts, beautiful exteriors and a few fun character exchanges to enjoy, but it suffers due to an undercooked script that would’ve been greatly aided by fleshing out it’s core characters. Instead, it remains a solid but unspectacular episode that will be swiftly forgotten come the first instalment of series 10’s two-part finale next week.

Doctor Who: Empress of Mars – TV Review

With the Earth now safe from a zombified dictator-led alternate reality following last week’s conclusion to the Monks trilogy, series 10 of Doctor Who gets back to basics with a largely standalone adventure, Empress of Mars. Featuring rickety sets, a bizarre story involving Victorian soldiers camped on an alien planet, and the return of a classic foe, there’s a charmingly old-school feeling to Mark Gatiss’ latest (and possibly final) Who tale. Fleeting waves of nostalgia aside, though, Empress of Mars is a fairly uneventful episode that tells us very little that we didn’t already know.

A lively opening sequence sees the Doctor and Bill sneak into a NASA control room at the very moment a team of flummoxed scientists are expecting to receive the first communication from a new space probe orbiting Mars. When the images finally download – evidently BT is yet to roll out 4G to neighbouring planets – they discover the message God Save the Queen spelt out in rocks on the planet’s surface. Naturally, the Doctor, Bill and Nardole (who’s presumably given up on trying to keep Twelve within the vicinity of Missy’s vault) hightail it straight the Mars in 1881, the year the rocky SOS first appeared. Upon their arrival, they find things are not quite as they expected: oxygen is freely available, there’s a roaring camp fire and a squad of Victorian soldiers are using a giant space cannon to blast the Red Planet’s innards in search of precious minerals.


Earlier this week Gatiss described the episode as the kind of thing he’d like to watch on a bank holiday Monday, and there’s certainly something about the Victorians on Mars set-up that feels quintessentially Whovian, almost like it could’ve fallen straight out of the Hartnell or Troughton eras. The retro feel is most definitely felt in the special effects work, which often feels like it was made in the 1960s. Some fancy CGI shots of the Red Planet aside, much of the episode supposedly takes place in a cramped cave below Mars’ north pole, but there’s no escaping the knowing feeling that it’s really just a sound stage in Cardiff. That’s not intended as a criticism of director Wayne Yip, who does an able job with the budget available. A sequence where the Ice Warriors rise up out of the dirt is particularly effective.

Where the dodgy effects work does cause problems, though, is in the design of the Ice Warriors. Cold War wisely took the Jaws approach to making a monster scary in spite of a lacklustre budget, keeping a lone Warrior off screen for as long as possible as he slaughtered the crew of a nuclear submarine from the shadows. Empress of Mars makes the mistake of bringing back the enemy in its full, lumbering glory, and the results are hardly intimidating. Rather than an advanced race of highly skilled invaders, the Warriors look more like someone has slapped a waste paper basket on an extra’s head and told him to walk like he’s got a pole shoved where the sun doesn’t shine. And their new method of offing their enemies, which involves turning their target into a bundle of dirty laundry, looks a lot sillier on screen than Gatiss and Yip probably envisioned.


Even the introduction of the queen of the species, Adele Lynch’s titular Empress Iraxxa, does little to offset the naffness of the story. Lynch brings an entertaining mix of grace and venom to the role, but the opportunity to bring a female perspective to the species is sadly squandered – she’s really just another war-hungry commander who’s more concerned with swinging her military might around than working towards a peaceful resolution.

The crux of the plot sees the Doctor trying to broker peace between the Victorian army, who are seeking to claim Mars in the name of Queen Victoria, and the Ice Warriors, who had been hibernating on the planet for millennia until the meddling Red Coats rudely woke them from their slumber. There’s potential here to explore the Doctor’s split loyalties between the human invaders and the indigenous species. Yet, much like last week’s episode, which rushed a chance to examine Twelve’s darker side, Gatiss only gives this tension surface-level attention in what feels like a largely weightless adventure.


It does, however, give Gatiss a chance to take pot shots at Britain’s empirical past. This largely achieved through Ferdinand Kingsley’s delightfully unctuous Catchlove, a smug Victorian solider who appears completely oblivious to the fact that he’s in the wrong and who bellows things like “Don’t belong here? We’re British!” with enough righteous indignation to make Nigel Farage leap to his feet to salute.

After the grand scale and high-stakes drama of the last three episode, Empress of Mars feels like a huge dip in quality, disappointing with its unimpressive special effects, harmless villains and an undercooked script that lets down its main players. This is yet another Gatiss-penned episode that fails to deliver the goods.

Doctor Who: The Pyramid at the End of the World

After last week’s mind-bending head-scratcher of an episode, which seemed to turn off viewers with its multiple timelines, ‘false’ realities and muddled plot resolutions, The Pyramid at the End of the World is a much tighter, more contained affair that feels all the more effective for it. Having set up the sinister Monks’ evil plan for world domination, this week’s episode sees the creepy foes set their scheme into motion. It’s a gripping invasion thriller with a conscience, offering plenty of twists and turns alongside some biting social commentary, and it all builds to a devastatingly emotional climax that feels all the more poignant in light of the horrific Manchester attack.

When last we saw the Monks they were preparing to launch a full scale invasion of Earth and we pick up the action with our fabulously robed enemies having taken up residence in a huge ancient pyramid where they are patiently waiting for their plan to take effect. Meanwhile, in a lab in Yorkshire, two scientists are testing a deadly bacteria that, if it became airborne, has the potential to wipe out all life on Earth. Don’t worry though, these scientists (played by Rachel Denning and Tony Gardner) seem like dependable professionals. Except one of them has broken her glasses and doesn’t have a spare pair (has she never heard of Specsavers?). Oh, and the other one is nursing an epic hangover. On second thought, it might be best to keep your windows and doors shut…


Despite the potentially world-ending events at stake, the episode is surprisingly slow-paced and contemplative, inviting the audience to gradually piece together how these two initially separate plots intersect. It’s by no means an uninteresting watch, though, partly thanks to some snappy editing and camera work by Daniel Nettheim, who ensures a steady momentum is kept throughout. He also manages to retain the epic scope and feel of last week’s episode. The arial shots of the pyramid are particularly majestic, while its interiors are suitably spooky and surprising – even if the presence of the Monks makes it feel a bit like an episode of The Crystal Maze: Zombie Edition.

Co-written by Peter Harness and showrunner Steven Moffat, who last teamed-up for series nine’s politically-charged Zygon two-parter, The Pyramid unsurprisingly shares similar themes, even if the social commentary isn’t quite as overt this time around. The Monks haven’t plonked their pyramid just anywhere, they’ve chosen a point of strategic importance for the world’s three biggest armies – America, China and Russia – in the hope of provoking a diplomatic incident between these world powers. This clever set up raises the issue of whether these powerful nations can work together in order to resolve a crisis in the middle east, but it also takes some surprising turns.


The Monks, unexpectedly, don’t launch any attack, nor do they retaliate to Earth’s show of military aggression; instead they invite each country’s representatives to take a glimpse into a future where humanity is on the brink of extinction before offering to rescue mankind. The catch? The human race must submit totally to the Monks and agree to live under their rule forever. It’s an intriguing premise, exploring how fear can drive people to side with dangerous individuals and also how a feeling of desperation to can see people make reckless decisions.

Such desperate situations are where the Doctor shines, and it’s a delight to see Peter Capaldi’s Twelve getting back to his usual eccentric, slightly bolshy self after last week’s more vulnerable appearance. Though he’s still suffering the effects of blindness, he refuses to let a little thing like a lack of sight hold him back, enlisting the help of his trusty sonic sunglasses and Matt Lucas’ Nardole to guide him through the mission. It’s always thrilling to watch the Doctor in his element – saving the human race from an alien foe – and he’s in full flow this week, charging down hallways, making smart people feel stupid and conjuring up completely mad schemes in order to save the day.


All of which makes those dramatic final scenes all the more devastating. Having successfully outmanoeuvred the Monks by plotting to blow up the Yorkshire lab in order to sterilise the bacteria, the Doctor finds himself trapped in the quarantine bay unable to unlock the doors as he’s too blind to punch the code into the keypad. The moment where the Doctor confesses to Bill that he’s been keeping his loss of sight a secret, which prompts Bill to consent to the Monks’ demands in order to save him, is truly heart-wrenching and emotionally wrought. Capaldi and Pearl Mackie play the scene superbly – you really do feel the anguish and desperation of Bill’s choice and totally believe the Doctor’s despair that the human race has been sacrificed to save his life.

The Pyramid at the End of the World might not boast the bangs and whistles you might expect of an alien invasion thriller, but it’s an intelligent and enthralling sci-fi story all the same, posing plenty of big, challenging questions about the world today while offering an epic scale and scope that wouldn’t look out of place on the big screen. And that emotionally-charged finale leaves things perfectly poised for next week’s concluding chapter to the Monks Trilogy.

Doctor Who: Extremis – TV Review

Up to this point, series 10 of Doctor Who has been largely focused on gently sketching out the burgeoning relationship between the Doctor and his new companion Bill. Minds have been blown, bonds formed and relationships tested as the new TARDIS duo embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the Time Lord’s favourite adventure spots – present day England, period-era London, the distant future and deep space. Extremis marks the moment series 10 steps up a notch, boldly unveiling some of the mysteries that have been teased throughout previous episodes and posing plenty of new ones to chew over for the remaining four episodes.

The action picks up in the aftermath of Oxygen, with the Doctor still blind and somehow concealing the fact from an incomprehensibly oblivious Bill. There’s little time for the Doctor to adjust to his new situation, though, as a surprise visit from the Pope himself pulls him into an ancient mystery. The Vatican has long been the protector of an age-old book, the Veritas, which, as the title suggests, promises to reveal the ultimate truth to anyone who reads it. The only problem is, once someone has learned its secrets they’re immediately driven to kill themselves. With Tom Hanks seemingly unavailable to tackle this particular Catholic conspiracy, it’s left to the Doctor, Bill and Nardole to unravel the truth before anyone else loses their life.


Extremis certainly feels more epic in scope and feel than any previous episode this series. From the opening scenes, which see Capaldi’s Doctor sailing towards a Hogwarts-esque castle, to a trip to the hauntingly surreal Vatican library, it’s clear director Daniel Nettheim has been given plenty of license to create the most bold, cinematic visuals possible. We’re even treated to a fantastically sinister monster in the form of the Monks. The sinewy, vampiricly decrepit sect of ancient beings are absolutely terrifying, especially during one nightmarish sequence in which a discombobulated Doctor is pursued through the Vatican. Crucially, they’re not some misunderstood alien with a forgivable motive for their actions – they simply want to takeover the world and have a frightening plan to do it.

That’s not to say that writer Stephen Moffat completely abandons the more unhurried, contemplative approach to storytelling that has defined series 10. Despite the dramatic stakes, there’s very little of the hurtling down corridors, fiery confrontations or zippy special effects you might expect from the Doctor when the freedom of the world is on the line. Instead, Moffat is more than happy to let the mysteries unfold at their own pace, gradually raising the tension as the Doctor and his companions slowly piece together the secrets of the Veritas and uncover the Monks’ sinister plot. And it still leaves plenty of new mysteries for next week’s follow-up episode to explore.


Still, he can’t resist a little bit of timey-wimey narrative play, cutting between the action in the Vatican and those earlier scene of the Doctor paying a visit to an alien civilisation, led by Ivanno Jeremiah’s (Humans) Rafando, tasked with maintaining population levels throughout the universe. These scenes feel largely like an unwanted diversion from the main plot, often sapping momentum and tension away from the Doctor’s immediate plight, but they come with a delightful payoff when we discover the castle is essentially a rather swanky death row prison for Michelle Gomez’s Missy.

Yes, the unhinged Time Lady is back, but in a much more different form than we’ve seen her before. She might still be cheekily defiant at times, but Missy’s appearance is dishevelled and she’s clearly in a much more vulnerable state as she awaits execution by the Doctor himself. Gomez, of course, plays this broken crackpot persona beautifully. While the revelation that Missy is indeed the person hidden in vault, the Doctor having agreed to stand guard over her body for 1000 years, is perhaps underwhelming, the scenes between the two are powerfully and emotionally charged as Missy begs the Doctor for help, reminding him that of their long, enduring ‘friendship’. Of course he would help her. Whether Missy actually appreciates being locked in a box is another matter entirely…


Missy isn’t the only weakened Time Lord, of course, with the Doctor still suffering the effects of the blindness caused in last week’s episode. It’s fascinating to see Capaldi playing a damaged Doctor. He’s less sure of himself, and more reliant on the support of others than we’re used to seeing from him – even if he refuses to let his disability slow him down in the face of a deadly enemy. Capaldi sells every step of this struggle spectacularly, and he even gets to deliver a couple of defiant speeches as he outsmarts both the Monks and Rafando. Not bad for an old bloke with dodgy eyesight.

With the Doctor spending most of the episode isolated by his own problems, Bill and Nardole are left to form their own unexpected double act as they uncover the Monks’ Earth invasion simulation before anyone else. While their scenes end up feeling superfluous to the plot and their relationship never quite gels as well as we’d hope, it at least gives Matt Lucas the opportunity to explore a different side of his character. It turns out that, far from the comedy butler he appears to be, Nardole is actually a bit of a badass and it’s fun to see him take the lead this week, keeping both the Doctor and Bill in check as he delves deeper in the series overarching conspiracy. We also finally learn how Nardole ended up becoming the Doctor’s chaperone – he was sent by an ailing River Song shortly before her death. The betting for a surprise River cameo in the series finale start here.


As the first of what’s being called the Monk trilogy, the episode understandably feels incomplete. Nevertheless, Extremis is a promising and intriguing start, gently unravelling the mysteries at the heart of the series while expertly ratcheting up the tension in a way that leaves things perfectly poised for next week’s instalment. Saturday evening can’t come soon enough.

Doctor Who: Knock knock – TV Review

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.