Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things. And this week, we’re late! Because someone decided it was a good idea to take a week-end off work, internet and all that good stuff to go galavanting about who-knows-which European country. Well, screw you Tibère. Screw. You. But still! We managed to pull through this difficult time of our lives, and after a few sessions of couple therapy administered by a German psychiatrist over Skype, we’re back as one, unitied, loving family to talk about Who stuff. And, following the advice of said professional, it’s just the three of us this week. Not just because guests that fit our (complicated, due to timezones and stuff) schedule are rare, but also because it’s a great occasion for us to learn how to know each other better and eventually know how to reach a new, improved understanding, to quote my lifecoach who learned his job through Wes Anderson movies.
1) General Thoughts
TIBERE: Well … It happened? Honestly, after what might be the longest string of good episodes in the show’s history, in my humble point of view (“Face the Raven” to “Thin Ice”, that’s eight very strong scripts – and yes, I do love “Mysterio“, blast the naysayers), that was more than a bit disappointing. Well, it’s not terrible. Much like all post-2015 Who, there’s a solidity at work here – the writer and director very much know what they are doing; but here, they don’t really manage to elevate a conventional form into something truly special. It feels a little like a series 7B episode, which is not a compliment: a nice, well-done stylistic exercise without much matter.
SCRIBBLES: It was very much just a “here’s something pretty average before we go crazy” sort of episode. Sort of Doctor Who’s “The Eternity Trap“, basically just setting out to be a standard haunted house take, at least for the vast majority of its run time. I loved what it built to, Suchet’s scenes with his mother were gorgeous, but it takes all that time to get there in a fairly bog standard genre exercise. What really worked for it for me was how it reestablished Bill. We get a good reminder of her personal stakes in ordinary life. She’s a student, a gay woman, and she misses her mum. Those aspects of her made all the best things about the episode.
SCARVES: Yeah, it was very much a solid but unambitious story. It found its tropes, settled into them comfortably, but never really went for anything truly inspired – the more personal conclusion had some interesting stuff going on that felt like something you can get a bit more out of . I’m increasingly thinking it’s probably the weakest episode of the season so far – “Smile” had its flaws, but it was interesting, and bursting with ideas, and was not this frustratingly unambitious.
TIBERE: I think it’s very hard for me to ignore the fact this is the debut story of a new writer. And, well, let’s be honest, Mike Bartlett was always going to face some pretty intense competition here, considering how good the new additions to the roster have been of late. Mathieson and Dollard are basically untouchable at this point. But … Yeah, this just utterly failed to convince me that he has much to add to Doctor Who. Sure, it’s well-written, it works just fine, but I don’t really see an energy at work here, a personal touch I need more of. It feels like Gatiss or Thompson could have written this. Like, compare this to “Flatline”, Mathieson’s first script (in order of writing, not airing) – yeah, the form is standard, but you really get that our pal Jaime has a vision for the show and is trying to fight the restrictions imposed to him. This … Just feels kind of lazy? Well, maybe not lazy, but cruising. And yeah, it’s definitely okay to get a rest once in a while – but thing is, the first three episodes of the series were already riffs on tried and tested Who genres, so having a fourth one in a row, that’s also much weaker just strikes me as a bit of a bad move.
SCRIBBLES: I know Bartlett is tremendously well regarded in the UK, but I must confess I have never seen Doctor Foster, so I had no expectations. To me, this was a fairly standard thing. The best stuff all came from the ending, when it moved past the standard haunted house build, but it was far too enthusiastic to luxuriate in that in the buildup. I’m not the biggest fan of “Hide“, but I appreciate that it’s trying to say something interesting in every stage of its haunted house story. This doesn’t quite do that, it’s content to have a bunch of kids get eaten by a house as the height of intrigue, up till that sweet and sentimental ending. What a climax, though. The restraint from directly comparing it to Bill is delicious because we still know that’s where all its weight is, and Pearl Mackie sells that quiet sadness. I do wish it’d had just a shot of the picture of her mum in the house as it crumbled, but it worked there as an emotional scene all the same.
TIBERE: You definitely can make a case for this being better than “Hide”, but at the same time, I think I prefer “Hide” by a fair margin. It’s a failure in many respects, but it’s an interesting and compelling one, I’d argue: it at least shows something unique to Cross, this sort of weird, messy “pack-as-much-stuff-as-you-can-in-one-script” spirit. But yeah, I’d definitely agree with the climax – it’s a very, very good scene, and when you put Suchet and Capaldi in one room, you cannot fail to get some kind of dramatic tension. But I do have quibbles – one: yes, the scene is beautiful, but I don’t know if the script has much to do with it; really, with that kind of talent, they could make reciting the phonebook into something compelling and interesting. It’s kind of the same problem than in “The Zygon Inversion”: performance over content. Or, maybe more accurately, than in “New Earth”, another story with a final beat that kind of comes out of nowhere and that rests more on good acting than script relevance. Still, I don’t want to look too negative – I didn’t hate it, and just as you pointed out, it’s a fine showcase for our leads, so let’s move on to that so that I can stop to be a grumpy arse for a while.
2) The Doctor, Bill, and the cannon fodder
TIBERE: Bill is probably the best part of this episode (if we discard Suchet, who steals every scene he’s in, but you know, …). Which is something I feel I’m saying a lot these days, but it’s true! She’s terrific. This episode sort of tackles an important topic as far as she’s concerned, ie the balance between her “Doctor” and “non-Doctor” lives – it’s a central parameter of the Moffat’s era, and she makes her mark in a distinct and interesting way: she’s still very much in a close relationship with the Doctor, wherever she is, keeping the teacher/student relationship, but she does draw some lines and keeps space to herself. She asserts her agency and independency, but in a much gentler way than Clara, who drew an adamant line between these two areas of her life, with let’s say mitigated results.
SCRIBBLES: I love seeing Bill do normal student things. Her life in general really resembles mine in some ways, rooming with other students, serving food to other students in the dining hall… I like that. It’s a nice way into the haunted house plot, which is a nice little traditional story mode you can tie to everything that she is. I wish her social awkwardness with the group was a bigger through-line to the episode, but it was nonetheless a very strong little thread to it. I like how the fresher’s party came into the resolution very much, which we got to see her going there with the friends at the end.
SCARVES: The fireworks at the resolution really didn’t work for me – the way they opened the shutters to the instant appearance of fireworks felt tonally off, although I see what Bartlett was going for – the Doctor showing Eliza the life she’d been missing out on, it’s just that the specific thing he went for disrupted the flow of the scene, and not in a good way.
TIBERE: Yeah, that’s sort of what I aimed at when talking about the occasional wonkiness in the writing of that otherwise lovely final scene? It’s just a bit of a milquetoast message – made me think of “Earthshock“, and Five’s kind-of-lame case for the beauty of life and flowers and stuff. I don’t think Bartlett really finds the right angle: it’s a story of lost potential, at its core – someone who wasted his life trying to stop the inevitable, who could have been much more and much better, and this tragedy doesn’t sting as much as it could; maybe simply because the Landlord is too far gone – there’s not really any tension as to whether or not he might redeem himself. To completely change subject, I do really, really, really love the little bit where Bill tells off the Scottish guy that’s trying to hit on her. That’s an incredibly naturalistic bit, besides of, you know, adding more gay stuff to an episode, which can only be a good thing.
SCARVES: That was a good bit for several reasons – it was an honest portrayal of an experience many gay women go through – having a guy hit on them and be a completely oblivious to their lack of interest in men, while also using Paul as a positive example of how to respond to that specific type of rejection – backing off instantly, being grateful for the explanation, and happy to still be friends with Bill. This is especially important because many gay women have a great deal of trouble trying to let straight men down gently, as they don’t receive an understanding response – instead, many straight men take it as a personal insult, when it’s nothing of the sort. So it’s nice to see Doctor Who setting a good example for a new generation of young boys, while reflecting an experience a lot of non straight women have been through.
TIBERE: It happened to me! Ah, fun times …
SCRIBBLES: I loved it. Really, all the interactions with the kids felt good to me, very real and very believable. They all were distinct enough, and had their own little crush triangles like Shireen sighing after both Bill and Paul. And they had interesting hobbies, I loved how Pavel was into audio equipment, that’s just the sort of touch that feels like a real young adult with passions of his own, and him clinging to that to resist getting sucked in was a great touch. If Bartlett did nothing else, he established a great lot of realistic feeling characters that I hope to see explored more.
TIBERE: Yeah, there’s just a sort of messy awkwardness to their interactions that feels really lovely and realistic? They kind of reminded me of my own IRL friends, which is pretty lovely. I do feel like a better version of the episode would have leaned over them more, and found a way to tie them to the story and resolution of the episode? Because as much as they feel alive and interesting (and they do!), you still are watching the episode with the genre conventions in mind, and realize they are clearly intended to be the disposable victims of the alien creatures. Which is a bit of a shame – like, inevitability is a powerful tool, but it can too often turn into predictability. Also, obviously, let’s just point out that it’s a very, very, very diverse cast? Which is good. Also they’re hot. Just saying.
SCRIBBLES: What a great sort of potboiler it could have been. Finding Pavel, learning they are trapped, fighting it out and panicking and trying to band together. I think there were touches of that. The one girl jumping out the window and running was excellent, I almost wish she got away just to screw with conventions, and to give something emotional for the people still trapped to argue about. Her getting dragged back and devoured honestly felt a bit disappointing. And the picking off of the early stages dragged a bit long. Paul getting taken felt pointless given that beat was established by Pavel, it would have been better if it had a more active reaction from Shireen and Bill trying to save him, and that could have played off that romantic triangle well, too.
TIBERE: God, I’m imagining like, a whole political metaphor, there. Intersectional opposition against the uniform force of brown right-wing woodlice. Yes! But agreed about the window-jumper: it’s also pretty cool of the episode to show a realistic panic attack. And agreed once again about the way Bartlett handles his cast: once the actual “slashing” part of the slasher movie kicks in, they all die in very quick succession, sort of depriving the episode of potentially more interesting beats.
SCRIBBLES: For sure. It’s shrewd in that it knows leaving them dead like that would be unsatisfying, and the everyone lives beat is a good choice, but I wish they would actually have more exploration of seeing friends die beforehand. Shireen in particular could have been used to more emotional impact given her importance to Bill.
TIBERE: I do hope they will pop back at some point, though. The door is open, at any rate, and it would feel pretty cool to have an established cast that’s sort of hanging around the college setting.
SCARVES: Personally, I think the episode really missed a trick in not fleshing out Shireen and Harry more – the episode did a good enough job of distinguishing between the guest cast, and establishing the dynamic of the group, but none really felt fleshed out to the degree that, say, Rigsy or Perkins is. And the two that become the Doctor and Bill’s alternative companion figures for the episode would probably have been good candidates for deeper characterisation in the story.
TIBERE: Maybe cutting one character or two to give more development to the others could have been a good idea. It’s a very large guest cast we have here! But that’s not all the characters we have here. The Doctor is there too! Hi Twelvie!
SCRIBBLES: It was never gonna be an episode for big insights on him, but he was fun to have around, and I enjoyed the dual teams of him with Harry and Bill with Shireen that made up the bulk of the episode. His face blindness and age ignorance tend to be good to mine for gags, and it was fun to see a more low-key take on the juggling life with the Doctor with real life, lighter even than with Amy. I loved also that the Doctor was pretty much immediately embraced by Bill’s peers. Like, oh, your granddad is that insane lecturer who nobody knows what’s up with? That’s freaking awesome, I’m jealous my gay granddad just steals from national monuments. That dynamic made his presence in the story work a lot more smoothly.
TIBERE: That was great. I thought it was just me that had one of those grandpas. Well, he used to, when he was alive. And it was in supermarkets, not national monuments, which is a lot less classy. I thought they might have leaned a bit too much on the “awkward grandpa” side of Twelve’s characterization at first, and, yeah, it still is there, but I don’t mind it as much with some hindsight. Plus, they do find a justification for it, by still mining those Susan parallels that started with “The Pilot”, and by positioning her as a sort of relative/ward for the Doctor in explicit terms. It’s really interesting to see the Doctor trying to create that kind of dynamic – it recalls the Ponds, in a way, who very much were a substitution family, but in a much more realistic, earthly way: the Ponds were impossible to split from that abstract, fairytale-like world, even when this kind of storytelling was used to comment on and tackle very realistic and painful traumas. I’m all down for this, really. Also, their dynamic is still mined by Moffat and co. to explain as much of the show’s mythology as possible as comprehensively and organically as possible: that little scene about Time Lords and regeneration at the beginning is some sneaky sneaky exposition, and I love it. Also, it’s like, a plot teaser about as subtle as “LIKE AN HYBRID”, but far better integrated to the narrative.
SCRIBBLES: Just gotta add, it’s a tragedy that the Harry reference was cut, even though for some reason it wasn’t gonna say Harry was the gay thief granddad (he should be, dammit, that’d be great). It was a lovely little touch. Makes Harry Jr. more exciting to have around, too, and he was already a likeable presence.
TIBERE: I mean, in a series that brought us the Great Movellan Cameo of April, I’m kind of baffled they didn’t referenced it. Also, make Harry gay, dammit! He was in UNIT back in the day, everyone there was bathed in queer aesthetics and stuff. But still – I did really like Harry Jr., even without that reference. Maybe that’s just because I’m weirdly into him. I don’t know. Witness my nuanced insights on the episode, reader! And despair!
3) Is it scary? – i.e. the technical stuff
SCARVES: Not really, but then I rarely find Doctor Who that scary, and the best horror Who stories, such as “Blink”, “The Impossible Planet”, “The Empty Child”, and “Day of the Moon” are good because they have a deeper note than just a handful of creepy jump scares, stuff that keeps you coming back for more once the scares have faded, or that keep you intrigued if you’re too old for Who’s level of horror, which is mostly “scary for preteens, occasionally has a good jumpscare for adults”. This episode may well have disturbed younger viewers, the bigger issue is that for most of its runtime, it’s not trying to be anything more than a sort of scary runaround.
SCRIBBLES: No. No, it was not scary. Bugs are creepy to go with, but it forgoes doing much with that. The swarming them was good, but no buildup scenes? No creepy bugs under the sheets when they try to sleep? No house deathtraps, sudden pits in the floor or stuff to try to devour them? The locking them in sequence was great, more of that, please. It felt very safe within the horror setup, very determined to play it straight, and that I think was the biggest weak point of the episode.
TIBERE: I must admit, it was probably my biggest disappointment as far as the episode was concerned. The whole lack of originality problem I half-expected, but the lack of efficiency as far as the horror elements are concerned is a much bigger sin. Like, if you’re going to do a simple, straightforward horror story, maybe actually try and horrify people? I don’t think “Countrycide” is anything special, but it did manage to give people some actual frights, and that’s kind of a nice, sweet victory in and on itself (and probably explains why it is still held as a classic in some parts of the online fandom). I probably blame the director, honestly – it’s Bill Anderson, who helmed last week’s “Thin Ice”. And my opinion of him was confirmed by this episode: he’s a perfectly solid, technically competent director, but he really, really lacks an experimental edge and some audacity as far as the visual stuff is concerned. It wasn’t much of an issue in “Thin Ice”, where bringing to life the setting is the biggest challenge and where only the diving scenes betrayed that kind of issues, but in an horror story? It becomes very problematic. Horror can be incredibly lazy – because it’s easy to conceptualize it as, well, basically a ghost train. Just put shocks and gore and make people jump in their seats. But a piece of television or of cinema doesn’t work that way: first, it has to resist a rewatch, which … Kind of isn’t the case here? Honestly, that whole fake-out scene with the Doctor in the cupboard is incredibly lazy: and it’s typically the kind of scene which can only ever work once, when you don’t know the trick. The most amazing thing is that it comes only three episodes after an almost identical scene, in “The Pilot”, where Bill is ambushed by the water creature in her shower: that scenes never pulls a fake-out, but creates several moments of rising and falling tension a short while – it’s very well-crafted and intelligent. This, for the most part, isn’t: it doesn’t conceptualize its scares, it’s not trying to find interesting ways to make them happen – which is an issue in Who, where the limits inherent to the target audience mean you have to get creative and original to unnerve without being explicit (it’s not a coincidence if the Weeping Angels are both the scariest thing to come out of Who and an incredibly original piece of directorial wizardry!). And of course, it relies, way, way too much on clichés. I’m gonna quote Pauline Cadart from the excellent YouTube channel Pepperpot Team here (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCW5tIUvt5B1Qfq2NpWhHSuA ), because I think her diagnostic of the episode is spot-on: it suffers both from an excess and a lack of clichés. You get the thunder striking and all the expected tropes, but at some moments, you feel like there “should” be a tense scene, and there just isn’t any: when Eliza first appears, for instance. The slow, creepy reveal of a wooden, still face – how great could it be? But they really don’t milk it as much as they could – like, it could be a “Doctor Dances”-level scare, maybe with them realizing there’s someone with them in a bedroom they thought was abandoned? That would have been great.
SCRIBBLES: God, I wish there was a plot reason for the lightning. That’d be the sort of absurd touch that’d elevate the episode for me. Like, “yeah, space bugs manipulating wood attracts electricity from the sky as part of the process, duh.” That’d be nice.
TIBERE: Exactly! The episode is in a position where it takes itself incredibly seriously, which, you know, is fine, not every hour of Who has to be a metatextual romp, but at the same time, it doesn’t exactly justify that very solemn tone?
SCARVES: I was discussing the direction of the episode of this episode with my housemate, and we briefly compared this one to “42”, another middle of the road script that basically just serviceable: there is a major lack of pace and energy to this story, whereas Harper gives “42” a real sense of pace and movement that this one lacks: he makes the “burn with me!” monster feel consistently visceral and threatening in a way this episode only occasionally manages with the dryads and the house. It has some striking and horrific imagery, The housemate stuck in the wall being the standout example, and it gets the tone and aesthetic of the haunted house right, but never hits the viewer with a properly visceral scare.
TIBERE: As someone who adores “42”, I very much agree. That’s a middle-of-the-road script, but its pitch-perfect in execution and delivers some absolutely essential character beats for Martha. It tries and fights off its status as a forgettable romp – which is more than “Knock Knock” does, in my not-very-humble-but-I-try opinion.
SCRIBBLES: To me it felt like stuff Doctor Who has done atmospherically a dozen times before. There’s little here to distance the visuals from “The Eternity Trap“, or the mundane sides of “Ghost Light” and “Hide” before they lean into the weird. A haunted house is a solid Doctor Who set-up, but you’ve gotta embrace more happening than just that to make it feel substantial. Some stories do, and those work better. The dryads were a good concept that just weren’t embraced enough for the weird potential. Weird gives novelty and novelty provides interest, and you’ve gotta be interested to be scared, I think.
TIBERE: Much like Anderson’s previous entry, there’s also some weirdness as far as the special effects are concerned, I feel. He relies on them far, far too much: we didn’t need to see Sutcliffe fall to his death last week, and we didn’t need to see the woodlice eating people this week. Just watch the opening scene for a good example of that – you don’t get to see anything, but it’s pretty chilling. Not showing is always better than showing, as far as horror is concerned – your mind will always be much more efficient at scaring you than the director. And, yeah, those woodlice attacks are pretty tame, honestly. Mike dear, I’ve seen “Hellraiser”, that’s not gonna work on me – if you’re not gonna play your bad special effects in a lovely, corny, tongue-in-cheek way – which “Thin Ice” did, and which DW generally does, well … Maybe find good and compelling way to work around the technical limitations? Because this is not really doing it for me.
SCARVES: That said, it does seem worth praising the “surround sound” efforts of the SFX team – that added some genuine atmosphere and innovation to the story: this was a haunted house story that is very much about the haunted house, and having an immersive world of sound for the story that really helps you engage with the house as a physical space, aiding that particular thematic thread greatly.
TIBERE: I sadly was unable to listen to it – BBC, think about the people overseas that don’t have access to the iPlayer! But yeah, the sound design was really compelling – that scene where the knocks on Paul’s door echo all throughout the house is one of the most interesting and creative scares of the episode (even if it could have been backed up by the directing more, but eh, I’m not going to complain AGAIN).
4) Wood and Oedipus: the themes
SCRIBBLES: Yeah I think I’ll leave this to you guys, Oedipus symbolism is not my field.
TIBERE: Honestly though, I think the episode mostly relies on political metaphors, in a way, and not so much on the whole Oedipus angle. Which is kind of surprising, because, well, if they’re not going to milk that, while even include a mother/son relationship, but what do I know … I feel like after three episodes that were mostly set across time and space and dealt with progressivism, we get an Earthbound episode that deals with conservatism. I mean, it’s kind of a crude metaphor, when you think about it: an old white dude literally devours the young, POC youth, in order to keep things exactly as they have been. He petrifies the world around him because he fears change. It’s not subtle, but it works fine! Maybe would have worked better if they still had keep the daughter angle, though: a man that wants to keep a woman under his spell, literally turning her into an object, a piece of wood, now that is some great symbolism.
SCARVES: Having read Adam Riggio’s review of the episode (he’s great, worth checking out), this episode does have a lot more Oedipal subtext than I’d first noticed, beyond the explicitly messed up mother-son relationship. Having spent the day proofreading an essay on the links between female identity and the haunted house in gothic fiction, I’m struck by the way those themes play into this episode. Eliza’s life is bound to the dryads and the house, and in a way she becomes the house: as a result, the Landlord isolating himself inside the house with her is kind of symbolically him returning to her womb, especially given the way he’s characterised as being stuck in his childhood. Also, the dryads coming out of the walls makes for some imagery that arguably can be called slightly yonic. And Eliza’s identity is deeply informed by the house: as she becomes more wooden, and stays the same age, she forgets who she is, and takes on a new identity as the Landlord’s daughter: the house changes the person she is. And he’s subsumed his identity to the house, too, having forgotten his name: now he only goes by the moniker “The Landlord”, an identity based on his relationship with the house (another thing that links the house to his mother, whose preservation and control he bases his life around). Literary theory has discussed the way the haunted house is a limited space for the formation of female identity, due to the Patriarchal structure that is often represented by the structure of the house – see your remarks about the episode’s critique of conservatism, Tibere. So tellingly, it’s once Eliza has reclaimed her identity as the Landlord’s mother, and rejected the identity of daughter forced on her by the patriarchal structure of the house and the Landlord, that she brings the structure crashing down, killing herself and her son in the process.
TIBERE: It very much echoes “Ghost Light” that way – where the house was (if we’re going by the class readings Jonathan Dennis develops in his Black Archive book [http://obversebooks.co.uk/theblackarchive/available-titles/06-ghostlight/ ], which I very much do – I think it’s about the only way the episode makes sense to me) a sort of corrupt, degenerated representation of the social hierarchy: the antagonist tries to recreate a social microcosm, with God/Light, the Monarch he wants to kill, the noble man he usurps, and so on – until Ace, the young, anarchic, queer-ish force of new times comes and burns it all away. There’s something delightfully obvious about the Doctor/Landlord parallels, too. I mean, they’re both old, aristocratic-looking old white men that are defined by their relationship to a specific “house” – the TARDIS, in the case of the Doctor – and who search the company of young men. In drawing that kind of parallel, the episode sort of quotes Whithouse’s “The God Complex”: the Doctor is also, in a way, someone who eats away young people, someone who uses them to satisfy his own ends. Or at least, he was – there’s an interesting, compelling contrast between his new self, more respectful, installed in a teacher-student/adoptive grandfather-grandchild, and the shadows of the past Doctors, hanging over the Landlord, echoing back to the more ambiguous intentions of previous new series’ Doctor. It highlights the unique nature of Twelve and Bill’s relationship very well.
SCRIBBLES: The mother/daughter twist is an interesting one, the cleverest beat of the episode for sure. Instead of being a cliche setup of saving a child, it becomes a child clinging to the past out of pain, no matter who it hurts. Great take on conservatism, like you said, Tibere, but what’s more, it allows a glowing performance from Suchet, who sells a broken, spoilt child beautifully. Plus, old houses like that are always status symbols of old money, aren’t they? Tearing his regime and the house down together is a good link.
TIBERE: Oh yes, Suchet’s performance is a thing of beauty. He never forgets to show the cruelty and immaturity of his character, but at the same time, he imbues him with lots of humanity, making him into a three-dimensional, layered antagonist. I would have loved to see more of him, he knocked this out of the park. Agreed on the house symbolism, too – it’s literally built on the backs of the deceased teenagers he consumed. Because really, it’s all an act of consumption, in the end – and at the end of the day, it’s the process that defines his specific sort of power that ends up being his undoing. He eats himself – or rather, his family eats itself in a sort of grandiose, hyper-dramaticized murder/suicide.
SCARVES: It’s also worth pointing out that the relationship between the tenants and the Landlord is used for a parody of another result of modern capitalism: overly high housing prices, and the drastically exploitative nature of the relationship between property owners and tenants.
TIBERE: And I mean, at the most basic of levels, the message of the story is basically: “watch out, college students, the system is gonna eat you whole”. Which … Ouch. Too real, man, way too real.
SCRIBBLES: Interesting parallel with “Smile“, too. Both stories are about microcosms of social structure through things living in the very architecture, a sort of exploited class. They even both end with having to go back to discussing housing situations, a continual renegotiation of social economic order.
TIBERE: Oh yes, great spot. Even “The Pilot” sort of falls into that category: the puddle is oil, after all, something you use and consume – series 10 paints a world where the basic building blocks of the world as we know it are imbued with symbolic and political meaning.
SCRIBBLES: Very strong theme of exploitation running through it all.
TIBERE: And it looks like “Oxygen” is going to continue that. Mathieson is an incredibly compelling satirist, so I’m expecting some wonderful, wonderful fire.
5) Closing Thoughts
TIBERE: That’s definitely wasn’t a highlight. It might end up the worst episode of the series, actually, if the next few stories deliver – but still, at the end of the day, there’s nothing catastrophic or worrying about it. I can cut Who some slack – a decent, simple story once in a while is hardly going to kill anyone. Series 8 is my favourite, and I love it whole, “Time Heist” included.
SCARVES: Yeah, I want to make allowances for Doctor Who just being okay some weeks – that’s a basic reality of producing a thirteen episode run of television: not every episode is going to be a classic, and if it’s weaker episodes show basic competency, and continue doing good work for the leads that keeps the bigger threads for the season running and developing, then that allows for the highlights of the season to shine even brighter.
TIBERE: I do think it’s a bit disappointing that they brought a new writer to the fold “just to make Doctor Who”, though. If that had been a Gatiss script, I would just have shrugged it off, but this is a bit of a shame. If you’re bringing new talents, I like to see them express themselves in, well, new and compelling ways. Still – I do think “Knock Knock” might be an episode that benefits tremendously from a rewatch in context of the series. I mean, it’s entirely about an old man keeping someone, or something, prisoner – the Tower and the Vault are both symbolical places, and if Missy is indeed in said vault, well, the parallel is only clearer. When the pieces of this specific puzzle are there, a re-reading of the episode as a whole might be called for.
SCRIBBLES: Every run of Doctor Who needs a couple bog-standard and competent but uninteresting pieces. Not my ideal, wish they didn’t need to, but it’s a good establishing point to build from. The best is still to come, but this is a necessary starting block, reestablishing the world of “The Pilot” and the status of the characters before we dive into the really crazy consequences.
TIBERE: Speaking of, a few words about that last scene?
SCRIBBLES: Hey, Missy, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind …
SCARVES: I really appreciate the way each new appearance of the Vault has developed the arc plot slightly – it’s not just reminding us that the arc plot is a thing that’s happening, we learn a bit more each time about the nature of the vault, and the Doctor’s duty in guarding it. This week, we learn that the Doctor has a personal and uneasy yet familiar relationship with whoever’s stuck in the vault – which of course screams Missy, but whether it’s really her or a misdirection, it’s an interesting new thing to learn about the Vault arc. And if it really is Missy, as seems likely, it still raises a ton of interesting questions as to why she’s in there (and I suspect the “why” will be far more the point of the vault mystery than the “who”).
TIBERE: Yeah, it’s a pretty compelling, dynamic enigma so far. It’s good that they’re only going to keep it as far as episode 6, though, because it could get incredibly tiresome otherwise. But it’s building up nicely – and to be fair, that last scene screams Missy so much I’m now almost convinced it’s a clever Moffat misdirection. Feel free to quote this at me when we find out that it’s actually her in two weeks. But overall, I think it gets what worked and didn’t work about the Capaldi arcs so far – it feels very much like the Missy teasers in series 8, which is great, as far as I’m concerned. See, I know not everyone liked them, but giving you an actual scene, with weird, cryptic teasers and characters doing and talking about stuff you don’t understand is great to tease you and make you hyped, whereas simple arc words, especially when they’re as basic as the whole “hybrid” thing, don’t really hit.
SCRIBBLES: It hasn’t quite hooked me, but this is the most it has. I’m more just looking forward to the consequences of its opening, and I like what it brings out in the Doctor, particularly with how ADHD and impulsive he is. To me, the cool stuff about the vault isn’t the question of what’s inside, but seeing how it impacts him.
TIBERE: He really sucks at his job, doesn’t he? He even brings Mexican takeaway and a piano to his prisoner. Worst. Guard. Ever.
And this concludes our talk on “Knock Knock”!
We will be back next week, this time hopefully on schedule and with a guest, for Jamie Mathieson’s “Oxygen”!
Two additional talks, on Big Finish’s “Ninth Doctor Chronicles” and “Torchwood: Corpse Day” are also in the works. Stay sharp!