Previously on Doctor Who, “Thin Ice”
Bill and a group of university friends search for a new place, but when they don’t have much luck finding something comfortable in their budget, a kindly older man offers them a spacious place with a mysterious, inaccessible tower. They move in on a dark and stormy night, and then the murders began.
Season 10 of Doctor Who keeps producing little gems like “Knock Knock” that might not rise to the top of your favorites but are thoroughly enjoyable hours of TV. In this episode, Doctor Foster writer Mike Bartlett turns Bill’s formative, back-to-normal-life moving in with university roommates into a classic horror story, complete with clueless coeds jokingly scaring each other with faux ghost stories and mild romantic foibles. It’s no “Blink,” despite being filmed in the same location used for Wester Drumlins, but it is perfectly paced, tense, and enticing, mostly thanks to its villain played by David Suchet, better known as Hercule Poirot from Agatha Christie’s Poirot. With a balance of honest charm, frightening authority, and earnest innocence, the Landlord appeals and repulses in all the right ways.
Despite a bit of cheap wonkiness with the wood-swallowing, the creature effects were spot on, again recalling The Mummy with scarab-swarm similarities, and Eliza’s wood nymph makeup was impressive. Even the roommates seemed a believable, plucky crew you’d probably want to know. Like many of the second-tier Whovian horrors, the end wraps up quickly and not entirely logically with no cost to the Doctor and Bill, but season 10 is still young.
There comes a time in every companion’s tenure when they must invent a relationship label as an excuse for the Doctor, and Bill’s is thankfully, at last, not “boyfriend” but addled, slightly-stalkery “granddad,” another nod to his desk photo of his granddaughter Susan. He protests strongly, but everyone else loves that her pops is their favorite professor. Bill, not so much. She shows tremendous people skills in laying down the limits with someone she already knows is 2000 years old and a Time Lord… He just happens to ignore that in a major way, a potential point of tension for the future. In fact, this negotiation of familial roles plays into the conclusion, when it is revealed that the Landlord is not the tragic Eliza’s father but her son, and, as such, doesn’t always know best.
“Sleep is for tortoises.”
Continuing to chafe against his travel restrictions, the Doctor uses the TARDIS to move Bill’s boxes. As she chuckles at his posh Time Lord-ness, he excuses his lack of sleep, saying Time Lords only do so after regeneration or a really big meal, which previously happened in the classic Who “The Two Doctors.” Even his line, “Sleep is for tortoises,” was first spoken the 4th Doctor in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” When she questions regeneration, he quickly changes topic, but it’s intriguing that he keeps hinting at it. Does he feel it coming?
Holding up his index finger like he did in “Before the Flood” (and a few long-past times), the Doctor is instantly weirded out by the house and its creaking trees with no wind. Speaking of weird, despite his “posh” status, Bill seems to know he’d be too much for the standard university student and attempts to get rid of him to make a good impression. As the house moans at her hanging a photo, she talks herself out of leaping to alien conclusions, but that, too, is in vain.
“Landline? What is this, Scotland?”
That night, Bill busts the Doctor creeping around the house, but he’s not the only one. The Landlord surprises them and appears to note their concerns, but leaves strangely, knocking on the wood and striking a tuning fork on it. So, the Doctor invites himself to stay and “chill” with Bill’s playlist. Again Bill tries to kick him out, and again he resists.
Roommate Paul jokingly disappears into his room faux screaming… then really screams, but Bill and Shireen can’t get in. The hall fills with knocks, and doors and shutters lock throughout the house. Felicity escapes through a window but the trees grab her. Bill and Shireen find Pavel absorbed halfway in the wall, held in suspense by skipping record music. To Bill’s horror, the Landlord releases the record needle and Pavel absorbs fully, the tuning fork humming in perfection.
Running away, Bill and Shireen find the secret entrance to the tower while the Doctor theorizes that living beings are in the wood, and a large woodlouse emerges… a whole swarm of them. He and Harry take the dumbwaiter to the basement where they find evidence of other roommates, every 20 years, all eaten by the house. The lurking Landlord explains that the creatures saved his dying daughter, so he must care for them. At this, Harry panics and attracts the swarm, who pull him into the staircase.
“Info dump, then busk.”
Bill and Shireen stumble upon his “daughter,” Eliza, a kindly, living wooden being, but when Shireen stomps a stray woodlice, they consume her, leaving only Bill. Led in by the Landlord, the Doctor, having offered to treat Eliza, talks through his theories on what happened–seed pods discovered in the yard and brought inside to amuse a sick girl, a music box that awoke them… Bill questions, what father brings bugs inside to show his sick daughter?
“Everyone loves insects. They’re fascinating.”
At last the Doctor sees: her father couldn’t be the same man 70 years later. The Landlord was Eliza’s son, then a young boy with a prize from the yard where he’d been banished as his mother lay dying. The old man sobs for forgiveness, but Eliza cannot abide his killing children to save her (although when she thought he was her father, it was somehow fine). At the Doctor’s urging to take charge, she throws open the windows to see fireworks at the park and urges her son to go live his life. At his refusal, she embraces him to their mutual end. As the house collapses, Eliza gifts them with restoring the roommates.
Back to the Vault
Nardole pokes around at the vault, but the Doctor barks at him to leave it alone. Suddenly Für Elise plays through the door, and tutting, Nardole leaves. The Doctor shouts through an offer of Mexican for dinner, consoling that he, too, is a prisoner… plus a story about kids getting eaten by wood lice. The tune changes to a happy Pop Goes the Weasel and he goes right in.
It has to be Missy, right?
Quotes, Thoughts, & Trivia
- Maternal moments making me sniffle: Bill asks her mother’s photo if she’s proud and the Landlord folding into his mother’s arms, crying genuinely like a little boy.
- The Landlord is so sheltered that he doesn’t know about Former Prime Minister Harriet Jones.
- Anyone else still shipping the 9th Doctor and Jabe of Cheem from “The End of the World”? Just me?
- Other wooden alien people: the Androzani king and queen in “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe”
- One roommate cracks there might be dolls that come to life, which happened with a Troll doll in the classic “Terror of the Autons” and killer wooden dolls in the more recent “Night Terrors”
- Shireen was also the name of Rose Tyler’s best friend.
- Shoutouts and horror movie similarities: Indiana Jones, Little Mix, Scooby Doo, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, Bates Motel
- According to an interview with the writer in Doctor Who Magazine¸ Harry is former 4th-Doctor companion and Royal Navy surgeon Harry Sullivan’s grandson.
- Agatha Christie met the 10th Doctor in “The Unicorn and the Wasp.”
- This episode is available on iPlayer in a binaural audio edition which simulates 3D sound, perfect for the insect scratchings and creaks.
Doctor Who S10E4
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas, Sam Benjamin, Mandeep Dhillon, Mariah Gale, Alice Hewkin, Tate Pitchie-Cooper, Ben Presley, Colin Ryan, Bart Suavek, David Suchet