Monday, 8 May 2017

Doctor Who: Knock Knock (Episode Review)

You wouldn't think it at first glance, but horror and Doctor Who have a long history together. Despite being firmly rooted in the realm of science fiction, the series has frequently branched out into other realms time and time again, adapting and altering itself to fit certain genre conventions or event styles of other series. Sometimes this can even take over the show entirely for a while, with Tom Baker's first four seasons often going full Hammer horror time and time again. Well, it seems that Moffat was quite nostalgic for that time, as Knock Knock is another Hammer tip of the hat. Not a parody, nor a pastiche, but a almost line for line translation of the same ideas and effects which made that era of British horror so memorable. In my personal opinion, it definitely worked.

The story follows Bill and a few fellow students hunting for a house. Unsurprisingly, for someone lacking the insane income required for such a venture, they soon find that they can afford nothing on the market. Nothing, that is, until an old gentleman approaches them with an offer - An ancient and forgotten building he is looking to rent out to others. While Bill is thrilled at the opportunity, it soon becomes clear that nothing is right in this place. Something lurks within the walls, and one by one they begin to fall prey to its attacks.

The Good

Your enjoyment of this one will ultimately hinge upon how fond you are of old horror ideas. If you're a little too burned out on ghost stories, Dracula and contemporary genre ideas, you're not going to have much fun out of this one. While it might have a twist, it's less of a typical Moffat one and proves to be something far more fitting of the kind of franchise it's trying to emulate. However, personally speaking, I think that's a major part of this story's strength. It is, in many regards, akin to Deep Space Nine's Necessary Evil, which equally tried to emulate the concepts and ideas of another show but without poking fun at them. By crafting them well enough into the existing lore, without cheaping out and simply replicating famous scares, gags or scenes, it reminds viewers of how engaging this style of entertainment can truly be.

The story is also paced extremely well and - after so many years of this having become a common trend - it needs to be said that taking its time to develop elements helps this episode in every sense. You need a calm start to help get things going, something to establish relative normality before diving into the insanity which lurks beyond. By spending the first ten minutes slowly establishing who is who (to a degree) and giving hints of something wrong, it offers a creeping sensation of slow dread. You're waiting for things to go insane, but it's a case of just when and how it might happen.

Many of the scares are what you would expect them to be, as you have a wide array of people on hand at any one time, with each one being slowly bumped off one after the other. Yet, what helps to make this effective is that you do not see what happens to them early on. You get hints, suggestions and even the odd scream as they are dragged away, but it's clearly something terrible. This could have proven to be an exceptionally cheap gag were it not for a few things. The first is that we are constantly given hints, very specific reminders, of just what is going on here. The house constantly creaks, things scuttle about the walls and there are odd noise no one can explain. This keeps both the audience and the characters on edge until we all but see someone consumed by these things, before witnessing the gruesome results of being attacked by the force within the house.

The show, unlike previous efforts, also opted to favour practical effects over the dated CGI many stories are often lumbered with. While there is some fairly blatant moments of copious computer generated imagery, it's largely limited towards the end and overshadowed by several spectacular creations which reflect just what Doctor Who can pull off given a solid budget.

The Doctor himself proves to be on point as ever with many of these scenes (something you shouldn't need to hear by this point) and his interactions with Bill remain fantastic as ever. This is particularly evident early on when he finally mentions his race, his travelling habits and issues moving the TARDIS from place to place. It's again a nice element of normality within the episode, but it's also used to help highlight certain elements of his life; especially when it comes to his reluctance to discuss the subject of regeneration. With that said however, praise needs to be heaped upon David Suchet here. The man is a veteran actor and it shows, as he's given exceptionally little to work here, but manages to craft a chilling foe, a tormented old man, and a regretful monster within an exceptionally few scenes. Without his performance the episode would lack the "face" it needed to pull off most of the horrific moments which built up to the conclusion, and create the engagement needed to truly pull off such a chillingly tragic finale.

This said, there are a few bad bits here, and they do need to be addressed.

The Bad

The student characters aren't good. We barely get to know them, they leave little actual impact for the most part, and most of the talented members among them seem to be bumped off early on. While few of them are truly dire here, some seem like they don't truly know what to do with the roles they were given, and because of this the story has this habit of feeling like a slasher film at times.

Furthermore, a major problem is that, while there is a tense atmosphere and a solid finale in the story sense, it lacks outright scares. It's chilling, even disturbing at points, but lacks the truly scary qualities to mark it out as a proper horror outing. In this regard it's more akin to The Thing From Another World to the actual The Thing. This is only compounded when the episode effectively hits the reset button hard, avoiding all of the murders present in the tale and reversing any bite it might have had. It's not hard to see why it was done, but it's too clean and too easy an ending to really feel like a satisfying finale to the story it was going for.

Finally, and prominently, we also have the actual ending with the vault. This is going to be a running theme throughout the series it seems, but the Doctor seems exceptionally chummy with whoever is on the other side of that door. This could be a double bluff, but many likely already know the answer from the teasers and after the River Song predictions it seems unnecessary. It's almost tacked on which doesn't help matters, and it seems to have taken the place of a proper ending to the main story in question. Overall, it leads to a weak final scene for what was otherwise a fairly great story.

The Verdict

Again, just to be clear, opinions on this will vary heavily, but this is a win so far as I am concerned. There is brilliant work on display when it comes to the cinematography, lighting, effects and (most of) the acting, and the twist is a genuinely great one while still sticking to Hammer tropes. Even if it's more creepy than outright terrifying, there's still something to be said for just how well it executes and develops those elements. Watch the trailer, take a look at a few other reliable opinions, and see what you think for yourself before going into this one.

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