Saturday, 13 May 2017

Knock Knock

Chapter The 53rd, in which everyone gets wood.

[Warning: This is a current episode, and there will be some spoilers ahead.] Bill Potts moves in to a house-share with five other students from St. Luke's University; the rent's cheap as there is no central heating, and it has a major problem with woodlice. Plus, it eats people. The landlord is clearly a Norman Bates type (ooh, what a giveaway), but these kids are desperate not to have to deal with letting agents any more, and who can blame them, so they sign the contract anyway. Then, on a dark and restless night, when the Doctor's there too to embarrass Bill / help her move / investigate, they're picked off one by one, sucked into the wooden fabric of the house. The landlord hides a dark secret in a tower in the house, a secret that has meant the deaths of six tenants every twenty years: so, eighteen students have been killed in the last seventy years; now, that doesn't sound that high a death toll when you spell it out, and - yes - statistically this house is safer than the M4, but it's creepy, okay? Sheesh. Nobody explains why it's only six tenants required each time, or why every twenty years exactly, but it was getting a bit hectic at the end there, and there was definitely no time for a lengthy info dump. Oh.

Before Doctor Who came back on TV this Easter, I used the random number generator to pick which episode I would blog; it came up with a 4, which meant I would be posting about The Haunted Hub, as the story was rumoured to be called then. I wonder if that was ever a proper title, though, as the house is not a hub, unless the idea was that it's the central base for the Dryad creatures to roam about to infest the trees in the area. It was shown that this was the case a couple of times, but that was early on before it was clear what the nature of the threat was exactly. It's not haunted either, come to think of it. A few days after the original broadcast, I watched the special version of the story formally known as The Haunted Hub on the BBC iplayer with binaural 3D special sound. I couldn't tell any difference to be honest, but I enjoyed the fun intro with an announcer doing a Peter Serafinowicz Darth Maul voice telling me to make sure my headphones were on the right way round. I suppose it could have been Peter Serafinowicz himself doing the Peter Serafinowicz voice, that's a thought.

First-time round:
We watched the first three episodes of this current series live on BBC1 on Saturday night, with all the family together; but, the trailer after Thin Ice made Knock Knock look pretty scary, so myself and the Better Half screened it, timeshifted using the PVR, on the evening of broadcast. We thought it was borderline, so prepped the kids and they watched it with me in the middle of the day when it was bright outside, to take the edge off it. All three (boys of 10 and 7, girl of 5) enjoyed it, and thought we were making a fuss about nothing.

The big draw of this story is the special guest star: David Suchet is excellent throughout: a subtly malignant presence as he slides in and out of the action during the earlier part of the narrative ("For a man such as myself, discretion is second nature"); he doesn't play it as Rigsby from Rising Damp, so much as an actual patch of rising damp, spreading creepily over every scene he's in. He's pitch perfect doing the traditional bad guy act (and, of course, it is an act) in the middle, with a nice change of tone at the end when the true nature of the character is revealed. Perhaps he pushes on that last note a little too hard in places during the conclusion, but it's a minor quibble. It's been a while since a guest actor has been served so well by a script; this year's other contenders so far - Ralf Little, Nicholas Burns, Mina Anwar, Jennifer Hennessy - have all had little more than cameos.

This is doubtless deliberate. These early stories have all been about showing off the new TARDIS duo, and the dynamic between them. This explains why no-one - including the other regular cast member, Matt Lucas - has got much of a look in until now. Pearl Mackie and Capaldi have a natural and effortless chemistry that's presumably the result of lots and lots of effort, not just from the two actors, but from the writing, and from every one of the crew too: the production is showcasing something new here, the engine for the show's new direction. The stories so far have been enjoyable because of this, but perhaps a bit low-powered - there's a definite tension felt when watching that events have yet to shift into a higher gear. It seems that's going to happen soon, with hints about regeneration being dropped, and whatever's locked in the Doctor and Nardole's underground vault - this year's MacGuffin - looking like it (she?) will be escaping before too long. Unfortunately, most fans at least will know none of this can last. At least one, if not both, of these main two actors is not going to be employed on the show after Christmas, and that's a shame - it's working so very well.

For the moment, we have to put that out of our minds and enjoy what we have. A new twist is given  in Knock Knock with the Doctor being forced into the role of embarrassing older relative dropping off his charge at college, hanging around too long, and showing her up; Bill doesn't mean to be ashamed of him, she just wants to be independent. I recognise this, as I'm sure anyone would, from when I was young and starting at university, and I'm also preparing myself for the day - soon to come - when I'll be the old buffer having to make myself scarce. The script milks so much out of this simple set-up: as well as the recognition factor and the deepening of the central relationship, there's humour with the Doctor's vanity that he only looks old enough to be Bill's father, and a magnificent fan frisson at the companion calling the Doctor 'grandfather'. Most of all, it foregrounds the counterpoint between the two different big adventures Bill is embarking upon, which I suspect is the thematic touchstone of the whole series, encapsulated in the little moment of Bill talking to herself: "Stop it - there's no living puddles, or weird robots, or big fish. It's just a new house. And people you don't know. Not scary at all."

Capaldi is at his best here, with Suchet bringing out his A-game: there's some great moments, such as when the Doctor crunches a prawn cracker to disrupt the tension, or later when he challenges the landlord to name the Prime Minister. The remaining cast is also good, with each of the students nicely drawn in a few quick strokes, believable and sufficiently different from one another. I'm confused by a few details, though: is Bill enrolled properly in college now, or is she still just being tutored privately by the Doctor? If there's a freshers' party happening, then it must be September or early October, which means that Bill and the Doctor have known each other for the best part of a year at least (The Pilot covered a stretch of time that encompassed Christmas). Consciously being aware of this - which admittedly wasn't until after I'd finished watching the story - did damage it a bit, as they still feel like they've only known each other a limited time. And it seems either very generous or very cruel of the university to be kicking Pavel out of halls at the start of the Autumn term: they'd have kicked him out before the Summer vac, or not at all. These minor details aside, first time Who scriptwriter - but massive TV and theatre talent - Mike Bartlett has delivered a fine story, and he can definitely come again (though he may well be too busy).

Both stories follow the template that's commonly tagged 'Base Under Siege' in Doctor Who critical writing, but in the wider world is known more simply as 'horror': a group of characters are trapped somewhere, and stalked by an unknown - and possibly supernatural - assailant or assailants, who do for them, one by one.

Deeper Thoughts:
Not just a London (or Bristol) Hopper. On the Saturday evening after watching Knock Knock, I read some fans on an online forum bemoaning that the companion in Doctor Who never fully commits to the adventure anymore, and always ends up coming back home every three or four episodes. There are dramatic reasons for this, grounding the audience identification figure to throw the extra-terrestrial shenanigans into sharp relief, and creating further options for story texture within "the part of my life you're not in”, as Bill refers to it when talking to the Doctor. The show could prosper without this, of course: Ian and Barbara were perfectly well grounded, but the Doctor never managed to get them back home once, and we knew very little of their personal lives. It's telling, though, that even in 1963 it was felt necessary for there to be a reason for the characters not to go home (the wonky steering of the TARDIS) or else they should want to, or at least the production team must have thought the audience would question it if they didn't.

The new series has generally taken the 'pop back home' approach, but the classic series also did this, starting in the 1970s, with the Doctor's companions returning periodically to their normal lives as he returned to his Earthbound mission with UNIT; this is very similar to the set up now, with the vault needing to be guarded and the Doctor doing a bit of lecturing on the side. Companions both old and new have been kept linked to the Earth by a strong vocation (medicine, teaching, journalism, being an air-hostess). Even when not applying this approach, the classic series usually got its excuses in; there were a few orphans, a few 'professional' adventurers like Leela or Steven, and even a reintroduction of the TARDIS's navigational issues for a while. Tacitly - subconsciously, perhaps - the series is putting forward the idea that being rootless, travelling without some sense of a place of your own, is not a good thing. Travel broadens the mind, but endless travel maybe flattens it out, removing all the individual features. This is even more explicit in the new series; the following is probably the strongest example, but representative. From 2006's Army of Ghosts:

JACKIE: Do you think you'll ever settle down?

ROSE: The Doctor never will, so I can't. I'll just keep on travelling.

JACKIE: And you'll keep on changing. And in forty years time, fifty, there'll be this woman, this strange woman, walking through the marketplace on some planet a billion miles from Earth. But she's not Rose Tyler. Not anymore. She's not even human.  

I don't know if Russell T Davies believes this wholeheartedly, he's probably just having Jackie playing a part she plays well, that of Devil's Advocate; but, he must believe there is some truth in it, or else the conflict in the scene would not work. Right now, this is a charged political discussion; the incumbent Prime Minister of this country, whose name I can't bring myself to type, said in a conference speech last year “If you believe you're a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere." She had her own political reasons for saying it, and I bristled at the suggestion, just as I did when listening to Jackie Tyler ten years earlier. I examined why I felt this way: home is very important to me, for many reasons. I believe that patriotism, even nationalism, can be perfectly fine if they don't lead to intolerance and violence. It's intolerance and violence that are the problems, whatever the motive behind them. But they are two abstract nouns, whereas a Union Jack is a real physical thing. It's a concrete reality that a love of country can often cause people to do terrible things.

Also, I have to go with Ian Brown or Rakim here: it's not where you're from it's where you're at. If you're too rooted in one place, you'll never get anywhere; progress requires diversity. Bill returns to Bristol because that's where she is studying, developing herself. Everyone should have that right, that equality of opportunity, even if it takes them far from home. Any tension or conflict between the nowheres and the somewheres is a false battle; the real enemies are intolerance and violence, and those that would stoke them up. In the end, everyone and every community must find an acceptable balance between the familiar and the alien. It's possible for me to be English, and British, and European (no matter what happens); and it's even possible for me to be "a citizen of the universe, and a gentleman to boot"! 

In Summary:
Well constructed, laying foundations for building excitement to come; not at all creaky.

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