An interesting fact about series 10 of Doctor Who is that there is only one new writer. This isn’t entirely unprecedented. Naturally the first series of New Who featured an entirely new stable of writers (although all had written for DW in other mediums and were experienced television writers). Several other seasons of New Who feature only two or three writers making their Who introductions. Series 7 is actually the only other one to only introduce one new writer (Neil Cross, who wrote two scripts that year) but series 7 is in many ways an odd duck: Split up into two halves across 2012-2013 and bearing the thankless burden of allowing Moffat to gear up for the 50th Anniversary Special, write out Matt Smith and the Ponds, and introduce a new companion in Clara. His distraction that year shows in the largely mediocre episodes. If we take series 1 and 7 aside then as atypical examples of what a season should do, that leaves this current season 10, although to be sure this is no ordinary year either. Steven Moffat is exiting, leaving the show to its hazy future. Moffat can be forgiven, I think, for leaning on what is by this point a very established and strong team of writers: Mark Gatiss, Peter Harness, Jamie Mathieson, Toby Whithouse, and Sarah Dollard. Even the other notable “guest star” — Rona Munro — makes her return to the series after a nearly thirty year break (she wrote the final story of the Classic television series, the Seventh Doctor’s “Survival”).
As debuts go, Mike Bartlett’s “Knock Knock” achieves an effectiveness and competence without necessary announcing Bartlett as the next great Doctor Who visionary as perhaps Harness, Mathieson, and Dollard’s did. I am tempted to make an unfavorable comparison to Neil Cross whose two sole scripts in series 7 showed a bit more inventiveness: first the operatic and ambitious “Rings of Akhaten,” followed by what I continue to regard as one of the classics of New Who, “Hide.” “Hide” is the more obvious parallel, of course: both it and “Knock Knock” play with similar gothic, haunted house tropes. While “Hide” focuses on ghostly specters, creepy moors, and paranormal researchers, “Knock Knock” plays with gothic literary tropes like the forbidden tower (luckily the Landlord doesn’t turn out to be Bluebeard but he is a serial killer of a sort, with the key to his repeated murders lurking in the forbidden space) and Jane Eyre’s “Madwoman in the Attic.” This similarity only highlights the differences, however. “Hide” begins as a fairly standard ghost story, transitions into a wobbly-wobbly time travel rescue mission, and finally resolves itself as a delightfully silly “love story.” It is to my mind one of the great examples of genre blending in Doctor Who, and I will fight you. “Knock Knock” never seems very ambitious to be more than a standard, if effective, creepy haunted house episode.
So when the formal and genre elements of a Doctor Who story are lacking, it’s always best to look to the emotional and character-driven elements for redeeming qualities, and we do find something here. Like some other DW writers such as heir apparent Chris Chibnall, a quick glance at Bartlett’s work history suggests that SFF isn’t necessarily his primary wheelhouse. The only work of his I’m familiar with is the recent drama Doctor Foster starring Surrane Jones and Bertie Carvel, which was a pretty engrossing (if occasionally infuriating) melodrama about a woman who discovers her husband’s affair. Like Chibnall, Bartlett seems more at home finding compelling character moments than creating unique Doctor Who monsters. It’s hard to know for sure how many of these ideas stemmed from Moffat, of course, but we’ll give Bartlett the benefit of the doubt along with the credit.
Most obvious, to the point of being somewhat heavy-handed, is the focus on the Doctor and Bill’s parental (or Grandparental, as Bill insists) relationship. This foreshadows the eventual revelation of the the Landlord and Eliza’s relationship (although I’m still not quite sure what the point of the confusion between father/daughter and mother/son was, apart from the need for a “twist”). It allows for the Landlord’s plea about how, “If you could save the one who brought you into this world, wouldn’t you?” to play out over the orphaned Bill’s stricken face. Naturally this plot point has and will continue to generate speculation about the ongoing narrative. Is Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter, making an appearance soon? Is Bill somehow Susan, as her repeated insistence that the Doctor is her Grandfather suggests?
Most fascinating to me, however, is that I’m fairly sure “embarrassment” is not a note we’ve seen played between the Doctor and companion before. Anger, exasperation, even disgust, sure, but we’ve never had a companion act as though the Doctor were her embarrassing relation before. Clara kept strict boundaries at times, but more out of a need for control. Bill’s self-consciousness in this episode, allowing the Doctor to help her move her boxes (and what a subtly sad note that she has so few belongings) but making it clear that “this is the part of [her] life [he’s] not in” is a pretty fresh and interesting dynamic for the show to play. Free spirit though Bill clearly is, she also displayed a shyness and awkwardness in this episode. She frets about the big house full of creepy noises and “people [she] doesn’t know,” putting the social and alien fears on an equal level. She certainly wouldn’t be the first self-confessed sci-fi geek to experience social anxiety. Her eagerness to usher the Doctor out of the house and away from her new flatmates turns the tables on the normal Doctor/companion relationship, with the companion usually nipping at the heels of the more aloof Doctor. This especially brings out an adorable, “bad dad jokes” side of the previously guarded Twelfth Doctor, with Capaldi clearly enjoying his own annoyingness. (“See! I’m good at making friends. Gimme your phone,” he says to a mortified Bill). Certainly the Twelfth Doctor has been more open this season, and I wonder if there’s something about Pearl Mackie’s Bill that brings it out in him. I hope that they continue to explore this dynamic of their relationship whether it ends up being a set-up for a Susan reveal or not, as it has the potential to lead to interesting places.
So in the end, well enough done by Mike Bartlett, although I have to admit that I’m excited to transition out of the “introduce the new companion to the nature of Doctor Who” stage of the first four episodes and into the far more interesting envelope-pushing phase as represented by the upcoming episodes penned by Mathieson, Moffat, and Harness. These three have written some of the best stories of the past few years and so I can’t wait to see what they’ve come up with this time.