Doctor Who – Series 10 Episodes 3 and 4 – Two Ghost Stories in Time and Space

Something Doctor Who seldom really deals
with: what to the companions do with all
their stuff when they move into the TARDIS?
With Bill introduced, and a somewhat kinder and gentler version of Peter Capaldi's 12th Doctor established with her, Doctor Who series 10 is kicking into full swing. The second and third episodes move past this introductory phase and into the main body of the season in a quite interesting, if unusual, way: while outwardly pretty different, both episodes present sci-fi spins on classic Gothic horror story formulas. Episode three, Thin Ice, is a Victorian tale of strange disappearances and mysterious lights under the ice of the frozen Thames, while episode four, Knock Knock, is a classic Old Dark Haunted House yarn, both drawing from the genre's oldest literary traditions. While I am not sure if this stylistic juxtaposition was deliberate or if the scripts just happened to fall next to each other, they make an excellent pairing, and really set the tone for the season – particularly in how playfully they work with the material. Both episodes feel like a return to different points in the show's past, and while both are fairly dark in their own ways, they cultivate a tone which is decidedly less grim and menacing than much of series 8 and 9 were. The key to this tonal change is the dynamic between 12 and Bill, which is very different from what he had with Clara: largely gone is the boundary-pushing, somewhat reckless adventurer attitude of last season, replaced instead by the dynamic of Bill as the student and The Doctor as the eccentric, cool professor. In these two episodes we first see him test his student on the lessons of time-travel ethics, and then we see what happens when that “cool” professor party-crashes a gathering of his student's friends, and seems maybe not so cool after all outside of his element. Both instances make for fun, if different sides of this Doctor, and make for a season that is unlike the rest of his era on the show, but quite like certain chapters of the show's past.

"I wear a top-hat now - top-hats are cool."

Thin Ice, the Victorian supernatural mystery about human-eating lights beneath the Thames, feels very much like a flashback to the classic first few years of the 4th Doctor Tom Baker era, under showrunners Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe. That era was characterized by its love of putting sci-fi spins on Victorian-Gothic mystery/horror tropes, and by its juxtaposition of dark horror content with the 4th Doctor's whimsical eccentricity. That recipe is repeated here, with great success. The atmosphere is pitch-perfect, with its foggy slums inhabited by Dickensian orphans, and creepily opulent upper-class manors inhabited by ruthless, wealthy villains. The mystery unfolds quite excellently, with supernatural and mythological elements giving way to sci-fi explanations in a way that flows quite well. The story gives The Doctor opportunities to show off both sides of his personality: his more Tom Baker-esque eccentric side, and the dark, morally-ambiguous intensity that characterizes Peter Capaldi's portrayal. This is also the episode where Bill really comes into her own as a companion: by this point she knows the ropes of how time-travel works, and has started to feel out the ethical dilemmas and unsettling paradoxes of it. The episode starts with an effectively grim moment when her initial reaction of excitement to be traveling in time gives way to a realization that they have traveled to a time when people who look like her were still kept as slaves. As the episode goes on, the tone of their trip changes from a lesson on time-travel to a test: The Doctor, in his role as professor, places the importance of the decisions they are making on Bill, so she feels the gravity of exactly what it means to get embroiled in past events. In this regard, the dynamic between Bill and The Doctor is starting to feel quite a lot like that between Sylvester McCoy's 7th Doctor and Ace, who similarly had a mentor-student dynamic (she even called him Professor as a nickname) which cultivated her development from a curious teenager to a badass hero in her own right. Hopefully Bill's arc will be equally strong – it's certainly starting out that way.

"I know what you're thinkin' -
you're thinkin', there's Old Gregg,
he's just a scaly man-fish..."
If Thin Ice has an obvious flaw, it's that it clearly should be longer than it is. The story is strong, and the world that the episode builds is a very effective one, but the constraints of a single hour-long episode are so restrictive that it all seems to go by so fast. The stories like this in the Baker/Hinchcliffe/Holmes era really took their time, and tended to be atmospheric slow-burns rather than fast-paced and action-driven as this often is. It all works just fine; it's not that episode feels too short, but rather that it feels like it could have been even better with more room to breathe. It has a world that certainly could have been explored more effectively over a double-episode, and more of a slow-burn pace would have felt more appropriate for the nature of the vintage-Victorian-ghost-story vibe. Still, this is a solid episode, and one that does a very good job of ushering in the main body of the 12-and-Bill era.

"See, I'm totally more cool and with-it than that Matt Smith guy!"

Knock Knock offers another sci-fi take on classic Victorian-Gothic horror tropes: this time the Old Dark House ghost story. This episode once again recalls Doctor Who's past with its particular genre blend, although this time it doesn't reach as far back as the 4th Doctor era: Knock Knock feels very much like a revisitation of series 7's Hide, starring Matt Smith. Placing such a Matt-Smith-feeling episode so early in this new season seems to further signal Steven Moffat's intentions to dial back the polarizing darkness of the Capaldi era so far, and while I am still not sure if I agree with this direction (I really liked series 8, and series 9 is one of my all-time favorite seasons), it does work quite well on its own terms. Casting the 12th Doctor as a fish-out-of-water – the “cool” professor made to look totally uncool and ridiculous when he tries to hang out with a bunch of millennials – results in some pretty great comedy that is rather unlike anything Capaldi has had to do so far. His characterization in this episode feels much more like Smith's Doctor than his own – less eye-rolling cynicism, and more wide-eyed enthusiasm about the possibility of getting to investigate a haunted house – but Capaldi plays it very well, with highly entertaining results. I do hope that the show doesn't swing too far back in its desire to compensate for Capaldi's divisive grumpiness in the past couple seasons, but at least in the context of this particular episode, it works.

The guy who met Agatha Christie meets
the guy who just plays one of her
characters on TV...
However, Knock Knock has a few problems, the biggest of which it ironically shares with its obvious ancestor, Hide. Both episodes start out very strongly, when the nature of the story appears to be that of an actual haunted house tale. But both episodes lose steam when they feel obligated to come up with some sci-fi explanation of what's actually going on, since it is pretty well established that there are no actual ghosts in the universe of Doctor Who. Hide holds up better than Knock Knock in this regard: the sci-fi plot devices of this episode's last act are rather lacking, and ultimately let down the strong two acts that precede it. This is somewhat made up for by a strong guest performance by David Suchet (Hercule Poirot, from the long-running TV series based on Agatha Christie's detective novels), who brings both spookiness and emotion to the episode's villain. But even with his memorable role, this isn't one of the show's best mash-ups of sci-fi and horror; certainly no Impossible Planet/Satan Pit, or Under The Lake/Before The Flood. It is not a bad episode – the atmosphere is great, and it's fun seeing Capaldi take on a very different style of humor – but it isn't one of the best either.

These two episodes do a pretty good job of indicating what could be a new, less dark direction for the last season of the 12th Doctor era. It certainly works on its own terms: 12 and Bill have a great dynamic together, and both the humor and gravitas of their scenes are very effective. I suspect that those who were put off by the darkness of the last couple seasons, and by Capaldi's abrasiveness in series 8, will find this much more to their liking. However, I find myself hoping that they bring a bit of that dark abrasiveness back in, to at least split the difference: I thought that series 9 Peter Capaldi was absolutely perfect, and while I do quite like this season so far, I don't want to see him lighten up too much.


Thin Ice:

Knock Knock:

- Christopher S. Jordan

Don't make The Doctor grumpy again – share this review!