Doctor Who: “Knock Knock”

Doctor Who is usually considered to be science fiction, largely due to the framing device of time-and-spaceships from another planet, but even though most stories try valiantly to bash out a sciencey-sounding explanation for everything that happens, there’s usually a point where this attempt ends up being fruitless. 1968’s “The Mind Robber” is one of the earlier examples, an adventure which takes place in “The Land of Fiction” and includes threats that disappear if you are determined enough not to believe in them, which is pretty much the opposite of how one would normally define reality. Then there’s 1982’s “Kinda,” one of my favorite Doctor Who stories of all time, in which the antagonist is an intelligent serpent demon from another dimension who possesses people through their dreams and can be (temporarily) defeated by imprisoning it in a circle of mirrors. And of course there’s 2006’s “The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit,” featuring a creature which makes a pretty good claim to being, if not Satan himself, a reasonable facsimile thereof. This might lead us to think of Doctor Who as being more in the vein of science fantasy, in the same family as Star Wars. But it might also make sense to regard it as a show where every episode might be a different genre unto itself.

Doctor Who has always done horror extremely well, for instance, but “Knock Knock” is perhaps its most modern stab at the genre. We’ve seen haunted mansions before (“Image of the Fendahl” and “Ghost Light,” not to mention “Hide”) and we’ve seen gruesome body horror (“The Crimson Horror”), and we’ve even seen alien woodlice (“Frontios”), but this is the first time we’ve seen that most important of horror tropes: six young adults falling victim one by one to a sinister family secret.

Well, it’s definitely important to this horror story, because it provides a ton of personality and humor to the first half hour of the story, when the Doctor shows up to help Bill move in with her new friends, and stays to follow up on his unerring instinct for extraterrestrial danger. Capaldi is magnificent throughout this story, in what is for my money his best performance to date as the Doctor, seamlessly switching from “see, I’m good at making friends” moments where he tries to ingratiate himself to Bill’s friends with her Spotify playlist and bluff his way through pretending he knows her music (inadvertently revealing her guilty pleasures) to deadly serious Doctor face where we can see he’s investigating something. He manages to play this same grimly ominous tone for laughs (one bit where he swoops owlishly out of shot like a comedy vampire, and another where he stops all conversation by asking with alarm and then delight, “what’s that smell?…is that Chinese food?”) and chills (reading off the names of the Landlord’s previous victims, then grinning icily and asking “where are they?”). Intoning what might have been the original, classic-era-esque title for this episode (“Infestation of the Dryads”) he pulls off a flawless Tom Baker impression, and has one of the episode’s best moments just by crunching a potato chip.

The banter between the students rides the thin line between lively (Paul flirting with Bill, who lets him down gently but firmly) and a little mean (the gang teasing Felicity about what seem to be an inconvenient multitude of phobias), which is perfect for a good horror story. All this not only lightens what would be a pretty heavy episode (with some of the most disturbing special effects we’ve seen in a while) with some Scooby-Doo laughs, it makes the whole thing hugely entertaining even before anything really starts to happen.

Tasked with playing against this goofiness is David Suchet, who as the Landlord exudes not only an impenetrable solemnity but also a complex blend of false paternalism, impartial malevolence, and stunted innocence. The role could in fact have been your basic Scooby-Doo villain in someone else’s hands, but Suchet, an RSC luminary with a resumé a mile long in every medium, approaches it with the utmost care, giving us every nuance of the Landlord’s injured psyche. It’s an astonishing (if, of course, deeply creepy) performance, making it all the more impressive that Capaldi is able to match its gravitas.

The story sings for most of its length, rather bravely (only four episodes in) splitting up the Doctor and his companion and pairing them up with others (Bill with her friend Shireen, the Doctor with their wide-eyed housemate Harry). It only drags a bit toward the end, when the truths of the house are revealed and the family secret the Landlord has been protecting and feeding decides not to be protected and fed anymore. It’s a resolution that must be earned, but also seems inevitable, and therefore several minutes too long. It also raises some perplexing questions: where did the so-called Dryads come from? Do they really only need to eat once every 20 years, and how in the world did the Landlord work that out? Why do they preserve one person and eat all the rest? How can a person who’s been eaten return to life, especially after it looks as though they’ve already given their energy to the family secret? Why is a process initiated by the sounds of a classical record interrupted by those sounds continuing indefinitely when the record skips? Some of these questions are genuine puzzlers, but others can perhaps be put down to the conventions of genre. Things in “Knock Knock” are a little bit magic because it’s a horror film packed into a Doctor Who episode, and almost every horror film is at least a little bit magic.

Postscript: the Vault. We learn that it’s probably a who in there rather than a what, since they like Mexican food and play the piano. We learn that whoever it is likes the parts of stories where people get killed. And we learn that they know “Für Elise” and “Pop Goes the Weasel.” My mind instantly went to another story where the Doctor made regular visits to someone in a elaborate prison, namely the Master in “The Sea Devils.” Certain that the song “Pop Goes the Weasel” had made an appearance in that story as well, I did some Googling, and found that I was actually remembering a moment from “Planet of the Spiders” where the Great One (empress of the Eight-Legs) mimicked Sarah Jane Smith singing the song. So there you go: clearly the Vault’s occupant is a bloodthirsty taco-eating piano-playing giant spider. Don’t tell Felicity.

Doctor Who: “Thin Ice”

The TARDIS lands in what looks like England’s so-called “imperial century,” and are surprised to find the waters beneath them not as safe and ordinary as they expect. An ambitious man with a great deal of power is engaged in an enterprise whose goal is a massive, unearthly profit, and he doesn’t care even a little bit how many human lives he must sacrifice to achieve it. The Doctor and his companion must recruit the assistance of an equally enterprising female and her ragtag band of rogues in order to get to the prize first and set it free.

I swear I’ll stop it with this gag sooner or later, but this could be 1983’s “Enlightenment,” or it could be 2017’s “Thin Ice.” The two stories also share the distinctions of being among the very few Doctor Who stories written by women (Barbara Clegg in the former case, Sarah Dollard in the latter) and being top-notch, practically flawless works. “Enlightenment” is a top five story for me as far as the classic series is concerned; “Thin Ice” may well rank up there as far as the new one goes.

Further, both stories are concerned with class. “Enlightenment” gives us an immortal “ruling class” of nearly omnipotent beings, the Eternals, whose spacefaring vessels are manned by mortal Earthlings who are often killed in the course of trying to win an interplanetary race for their masters. “Thin Ice” gives us an ordinary Earth aristocrat who feeds London’s working class and underclass to a giant chained creature that looks like a fish and sounds like a whale so that it can excrete them as a highly efficient fuel source. Both grant the final moral choice to the Doctor’s companion rather than to the Doctor himself. And both are concerned with the ethical dimensions of the choices made in the stories, rather than shrugging them off thoughtlessly as the consequence of adventure.

“Thin Ice” handles this last bit more convincingly and articulately and also gracefully than we’ve seen in a long time. This is the first time Bill has seen a person die in front of her, and, deeply affected, she confronts the Doctor about his apparent willingness to shrug it off. He does care, he tells her, but not enough to count the number of times it’s happened (surely some fan out there has made such a count; I certainly haven’t), and in the end he simply…moves on. She presses him: has he ever killed anyone? He hesitates, but eventually admits he has (season 22 of the classic series alone contains at least three unambiguous and often remarked-upon examples, and the most recent one that comes to mind is the Gallifreyan General he shoots in “Hell Bent”). He claims that after living for 2000 years he cannot afford the luxury of outrage. And though this claim is thrown into question later on in the episode when he seizes the opportunity to punch a racist in the face, I’d argue that it’s still accurate. Outrage is what one performs when one is unable, at that moment or perhaps ever, to act. If one can act, as the Doctor does at that moment and every other, there is no reason to dwell in outrage.

Though some will no doubt find the politics of “Thin Ice” heavy-handed, I found them beyond reproach. Conversations about the whitewashing of history, the value of life, the blindness of privilege, and the measure of civilization are handled with impeccable grace, even if Bill is perhaps slightly too impressed with the Doctor’s fairly matter-of-fact speech about the latter three issues. On two occasions the Doctor defers to female authority in situations where this is entirely justified (resolving a dilemma reminiscent of the one in “Kill the Moon” in a much saner fashion). The eventual passing of privilege to London’s less fortunate is exactly what we’d want to see happen. It’s the Doctor and his companion righting wrongs in a worthwhile, thorough, and satisfying way. One can imagine the churl who’d object to any of this, but one cannot agree with him, nor quite respect him.

The characterization of Lord Sutcliffe himself might be the most cartoonish element of the story, being entirely self-aware of his complete lack of compassion, but he’s no more cartoonish than your typical Dalek. The child actors are competent and never outstay their welcome. And both Capaldi and Mackie are in top form, already leaps and bounds more compelling to watch than in “The Pilot.” Blink and you’ll miss the scene where the Doctor tries to congratulate himself on his ability to entertain the street urchins with a storybook, and Bill objects (quite rightly) to his attempts at 21st century slang, but it works so much better than similar lines in the series opener. In some ways, the actor playing every new companion has it harder than the previous one did, having to sell the same reactions to the inevitable realities of traveling with the Doctor in a fresh new way, but Mackie is more than up to the challenge. When we finally see her toward the end, realizing that she’s run out of time and she won’t be able to save everyone still on the frozen Thames before the explosives go off and ice cracks, finally grasping the difficult choices the Doctor makes in every adventure and just urging the kids to run and save themselves, it’s the most natural transition in the world. For this episode, at least, this is a tremendous TARDIS team, and I can finally say I’m sad this will be the only season with the two of them.

In the postscript to one of the very best stories of the past ten years, we get more of Nardole back in that subdued mode that worked so well in “Smile,” providing both an explanation for his post-“Husbands of River Song” survival (the Doctor has “reassembled” him — what more do we need to know?) and a hefty bit of foreshadowing about what’s in the vault (more like “who,” and whoever it is they’re dangerous…so probably not the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan, then). Terrific stuff, this. More, please.

Doctor Who: “Smile”

On a planet far out in space, a human colony has been established on which to be unhappy is punishable by death. The basis of that colony’s power is a lifeform with face-changing servitors, whose sentience everyone has overlooked or ignored until now, and which can be peacefully coexisted with if only everyone would treat it with respect. And as the hibernating human colonists wake up, they are about to discover this threat they’ve unknowingly brought with them to their new home.

The story is “The Happiness Patrol” from 1988. No wait: “The Beast Below,” from 2010. Or maybe either “The Ark” from 1966 or “The Ark In Space” from 1975?

OK, so that joke doesn’t quite work two stories in a row. “Smile” vividly recalls quite a few stories in Doctor Who history, probably unintentionally since it’s Frank Cottrell-Boyce and not Moffat writing this installment, but who knows? It hangs together a bit better than “In the Forest of the Night,” and in fact exemplifies an approach to Doctor Who that doesn’t happen much lately: the Doctor and his companion wander into a mysterious situation on a distant planet and, with no one around to explain, have to work out what’s going on before things get out of control. For all that I’m not a big fan of 60s Who in general and the First Doctor in particular, this structure was a hallmark of that era of the show and I’m glad to see it happening here.

Capaldi and Mackie carry the majority of the episode all by themselves, and they do it beautifully. Bill is still taking to this companion stuff like a fish to water, shifting from enthusiastic tourist to clever partner-in-crime, full of bravery and compassion, never bland or boring or frivolous or foolish. Their initial five minutes in the TARDIS — talking about how the Doctor stole his ship, and how it chooses a destination that’s somewhere between “where you want to go and where you need to be” — are as entertaining as the entire rest of the episode. Nardole’s a bit less ridiculous this time out, and a bit grumpier about his apparent responsibility to hold the Doctor to that mysterious promise to stay on Earth and guard the vault. And Capaldi himself is much more interesting this week than last, breathing life into bits about future Earth culture and amorous algae emperors, full of counterintuitive glee about “a grief tsunami.”

The gleaming white building in the middle of a wheatfield populated by adorable squat robots is one of the best-looking alien worlds we’ve seen since “The Girl Who Waited,” another story that seems to have contributed some DNA to this one. The emoji faces and mood discs are an idea that could have been terribly cheesy yet somehow seem perfectly appropriate a few scenes in. And though the few supporting characters do seem to suffer largely because they’ve been scripted to withhold or ignore useful information until the last possible second, generally they’re plausible and sympathetic.

If there’s anything wrong with “Smile,” it’s with the central sci-fi conceit. It’s a little tough to swallow a team of service robots that can understand verbal commands but can reply only with emojis (even the phone you might be reading this on can speak to you if you want it to) and is too dim to comprehend that if its job is to keep humans happy, killing them just for being unable to maintain a positive attitude is the opposite of doing its job. It’s even tougher to swallow the idea that these knuckleheads have evolved into a sentient silicon-based lifeform given their obvious limited intelligence. Why do they need the mood discs if they can read moods from human faces? (Is it so they can still check the mood of a human whose back is turned?) Who programmed them to independently learn the complex problem of human happiness, but couldn’t prepare them to go out into the wheatfields alone to get the pollination done? This is a farcically stupid machine race, such a clear and present danger to the organic life around it that it’s hard to blame the humans when they get trigger-happy. This is not even a slave revolt: it’s just the honest mistakes of a machine acting with the best intentions and lacking even the basic safeguards imagined by Isaac Asimov in the mid-20th century.

But perhaps the Three Laws of Robotics are the wrong thing to expect from a story that was likely influenced less by Asimov than by Samuel Butler, author of the 1872 satirical novel with which the colony ship Erewhon shares its name. I haven’t read the novel myself, but Cottrell-Boyce clearly has, or at least the parts that (according to Wikipedia) deal with “the possibility that machines might develop consciousness by Darwinian Selection.” Erewhon, Butler’s fictional country, is remarkable for “the absence of machines […] due to the widely shared perception by the Erewhonians that they are potentially dangerous.” Frank Herbert has obviously read Erewhon as well, having named the anti-AI crusade in Dune after Butler. “Smile” doesn’t necessarily regard intelligent machines as incompatible with humans, but to call it a cautionary tale seems like an understatement.

This is of course the second episode in a row concerned with technology that is both incredibly powerful and colossally dumb, causing enormous harm through a misguided and clueless desire to help. This premise ought to be threadbare by now since its emergence in “The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances,” but still seems to have a bit of life in it and continues to be slightly more interesting than antagonists who are evil and murderous “just because.” We get enough of the latter in real life.

Doctor Who: “The Pilot”

In a dusty hallway of an English university is a room, and inside the room is a professor. The professor is a man who’s had a colorful, exciting, long life and is now having a quiet one, giving lectures and puttering about with his hobbies and his books. He’s a man from another world, on the run from his own people, a hero or a criminal depending on who you ask and when, with two hearts, a long life expectancy, and some remarkable psychic abilities. But it’s his room that contains perhaps his most remarkable ability: the power to travel anywhere in space and time, and perhaps even out of both entirely. One of his students, who has no idea about any of this, is about to step into that room and into a more exciting life than anyone would believe was possible.

The man’s name is Professor Chronotis, the student is one Chris Parsons. This is Douglas Adams’ lost Doctor Who story, “Shada.”

Okay, sorry, it’s not. But you can see how “The Pilot” might have the tiniest flavor of that never-completed story from 38 years ago, and it’s a lovely way to begin series 10. It’s also mysterious: why HAS the Doctor been teaching university for the past 50 years? To whom did he promise to stop adventuring, and is the promise related to the high-tech sealed vault in an abandoned basement on campus? How has his Penfoldesque companion Nardole kept his creamy complexion over 50 years, and is Nardole’s longevity related to the whirring sound it makes and the bolt that drops when he lifts his arm in a quiet room? If these mysteries are the series arc this time out, I applaud their subtlety.

This is, in fact, one of the most dignified series openers and companion introductions we’ve seen in recent memory. The comparison that comes to mind is “The Bells of St. John,” which this superficially resembles, except that this replaces the monastery with a university, and a motorcycle ride up the side of a skyscraper with a thankfully restrained pair of guitar riffs. The show continues to look better and better visually, and the direction is largely excellent; even the incidental music this time out is worthy of praise, setting an agreeably playful tone for the new season.

The story itself is well-conceived and mostly works, with a couple of caveats. Moffat seems to have mined elements from many of the better stories over the years, not just “Shada” from the classic series but also “Midnight,” “The Waters of Mars,” “The Lodger,” and his own stories “The Doctor Dances,” “The Pandorica Opens,” and “The Eleventh Hour.” It never feels too derivative, though it also doesn’t quite cohere. For a thing that’s not evil, just hungry, the main threat seems awfully sinister and dysfunctional. And since the emotional weight of the story turns on the new companion’s relationship with the scary puddle’s first victim, it would probably have helped to give the two of them some chemistry.

A friend said that this felt like a two-parter squeezed down to one, and if so, the short shrift given to this relationship is the worst casualty. We never see Bill and Heather have a conversation that feels authentic and warm; after their eyes-meet-in-a-club moment, Heather always seems troubled and haunted, giving the impression that she’s already in the puddle’s thrall and is reluctantly seeking victims for it. She doesn’t appear to like anything very much, even Bill, and I had to watch a second time to see that her first vanishing act wasn’t an attempt to sacrifice Bill to the puddle. Bill’s crush seems superficial and unreciprocated as a result, though perhaps this is intentional; starting her time with the Doctor by losing the love of her life would have been a pretty heavy debut. It’s probably better for the bond to be easy come, easy go, even if this makes it less moving and more confusing.

We know Bill’s prone to crushes (as, charmingly, is Nardole) because of the story she tells the Doctor at the beginning of the episode about “perving” on the girl she serves chips to in the canteen. The story is bothersome for three reasons. First, perhaps most importantly, it adds to the confusion about her relationship with Heather. We get only the briefest of glimpses of the chip girl, and it’s not entirely clear they haven’t ended up being a thing, so when Bill starts to notice Heather, it’s easy to wonder: is this the same girl? have they broken up? The second reason is that Bill’s answer to why she comes to the Doctor’s lectures would probably have been more interesting than the story she actually tells, which feels like an outtake from Coupling. And the third reason is that Bill doesn’t seem to get that you can have beauty AND chips, and that you don’t have to stop liking a pretty girl just because she’s gained weight.

Luckily, Bill is so effortlessly appealing that she’s perhaps the only modern companion who could say something like that and get away with it. She’s wonderful from the get-go, making Bill entirely real, lots of fun, optimistic despite what looks like an uninspiring upbringing, and a breath of fresh air. After Me, the Impossible Girl, and the tangled web of Amy, Rory, and River’s intertwined timelines, it’s lovely to have a Possible Girl on board the TARDIS again. Pearl Mackie is great, turning on a dime from a minor freak-out over instantaneous international travel to pointing out that the Doctor’s granddaughter named the TARDIS in English, not Gallifreyan.

This season’s second companion, Nardole, is obviously the comic relief, and he’s so broadly drawn that he’s a bit less successful at it than he ought to be. It’s a tall order for any actor to juggle three thankless tasks: running around in fear whimpering “oo ‘eck!” at anything scary, laughtracking other people’s comedy (“banter! It’s good, this”), or — worst of all — underscoring obvious character moments of the Doctor’s (“quite silly,” “never notices the tears”). He’ll get a great line like “Human alert. Would you like me to repel her?” and have to follow it up with tired potty humor (“I’d give it a minute if I were you”). Matt Lucas is as appealing as anyone could be under these circumstances, but hopefully other writers will give him some better material.

Finally there’s Capaldi himself, whose performance as the Doctor continues to frustrate me. For every line he nails, there are three that seem like missed opportunities. It could be the script; for example, “I can see I’m going to have to raise my game” isn’t the wittiest line Moffat’s ever written, and yet I can’t help feeling Matt Smith would have made it into something perfect. I respect Capaldi’s credentials as an actor and he’s brought real magic and gravity to the role over the last few years, but he’s a much drier Doctor than either of his predecessors and it doesn’t always serve him well. I get the sense that behind the scenes he’s probably brought a steadying influence to a show that had started to get a bit over-the-top, but I’m ready to swing the balance back to a lead who can deliver a line about the sky being made of lemon drops without needing Nardole to rimshot it.

On balance, though, a small cast works well together to tell a simple monster story, reintroduce us to the TARDIS, provide a good jumping-on point for any new viewers out there, and give the longtime fans some Easter eggs right before the holiday. Everyone knows River Song, of course, but it’ll take a classic fan to recognize Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter, in the other photo. And it’ll take a real classic fan to recognize the Daleks’ longtime enemies the Movellans (from “Destiny of the Daleks” in 1979) being cut to pieces by “the deadliest fire in the universe.” There’s something here for all of us, and it’s been worth the wait.