Sunday, May 14, 2017

10.4 Knock Knock

Knock-Knock?

Who’s there?

Doctor.

Doctor Who?

Yes, Doctor Who, you know, Doctor Who, off the television, do you get it? 

Doctor Who isn’t the name of the character, it’s the name of the TV show. Also, Frankenstein is the guy who made the monster, not the actual monster

You spoil all my jokes.

Knock knock jokes were really popular in the 1930s. They are a very lazy way of generating puns. Certain first names sound a bit like the first syllables of certain words and phrases. Ha ha.

Amos who? 

A mosquito. 

Arthur who? 

A thermometer. 

Theodore who?

The a door wasn't open which is why I knocked. 

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue has an item called Late Arrivals at the Ball which is based on the same idea, but starts from punchline and leaves your to work out the feed. So while

Knock Knock

Who’s there?

Archie

Archie who?

Archipelago 

...barely even qualifies as a joke 

“Will you welcome to the geographer’s ball, Mr and Mrs Peligo and their son.....Archie…” 

…really does. Something to do with the time it takes your brain to process what is going on, I shouldn’t wonder. 

The knock knock joke was intended for children, but taken up in a big way by adults. The form is now very tired indeed, and neither children nor adults are particularly interested in it. However, you can still raise a laugh, at any rate from a small child, by using a knock knock joke to make a joke at the expense of knock knock jokes: to make the form of the joke the joke's subject. At a particular age: 

Knock Knock 

Who’s there? 

Europe 

Europe who?

No, you're a poo

is the funniest thing in the world, even though it breaks the rules of the game because Europe isn't anyone's first name. 

Knock knock

Who's there

Doctor...

is such a perfect example of an anti knock knock joke that it both effectively terminates the genre, and justifies its having existed in the first place. But I can't help thinking that it removes all the updock from the original idea. 

This week's Doctor Who story is called Knock Knock. Its one redeeming feature is that it doesn't contain a single knock knock joke. 

We are no longer in the days of benign amateurism, when Douglas Adams beat out scripts in his bedroom on a manual typewriter, so what they lacked in coherence and polish they made up for in being amazing. Knock Knock was written the same Mike Bartlett who wrote that Prince Charles thing which the Daily Mail wet its knickers over. He wins Olivier Awards and everything. Was the Beeb too nervous to tell him just how bad this script was? Or maybe he submitted something coherent and Mofffat’s editing job cut out all the improvements? Would the National Theater accept a challenging new work about students who say "awesome" and "wicked" and use mobile phones as a signifier of youth and modernity? Would any science fiction or horror magazine accept “there are these insects which turn ladies into wood and make them immortal because they just do okay” as a premise? Was it a spoof where the jokes somehow got lost in the post? Or are we in some twilight zone where this is what everyone expect light fantasy-horror to be like.

I mean, it’s a haunted house. A fucking haunted house. Has anyone treated the haunted house as anything other than a joke — as anything other than a fairground attraction, come to that — in the past hundred and fifty years?

I read the Mysteries of Udolpho during a course on English romanticism, which is the only reason to. It’s the classic gothic novel from which all other gothic novels come: with a heroine stuck in a romantic but mysterious house with a romantic but mysterious host; and lots of mysterious noises; mysterious locked rooms; and above all a mysterious black curtain that you mustn’t look behind under any circumstances.

In this or any gothic story the house itself is the main character. Mind you it doesn’t have to be a house. It could be a mansion or a castle or the Paris Opera. It translates into bricks and mortar a particular model of the human mind — all very pretty on the surface, but with locked doors and hidden tunnels and a vast cellar or labyrinth or sewer or bat-cave underneath it, full of terrible memories and forbidden desires…all of which magically go away if you pull down the veil, tear off the mask, or simply switch on the light. The Painfully Freudian Castle also pops up in Jane Eyre and Dracula and other books people actually read voluntarily. H.P Lovecraft is more gothic than the goths but he doesn’t really deal in castles. Too Euclidean, possibly. 

Jane Austen lampooned Udolpho in one of her earlier, funny books, and the Haunted House now survives mostly as a comedic idea. Bats fly out of towers; unreasonable amounts of lightening forks; floorboards creak; doors and shutters slam at random; people are heard moving around in empty room; mysterious music plays. Haunted houses are scary, but no-one is scared. They represent fear without being frightening. They are the kinds of places where you might encounter a funny sheet ghost, or even a friendly baby one, but definitely not the where you’d have a disturbing encounter with a relative you thought was long dead. The original Scooby Doo cartoon opened with the image of a gothic mansion (well, a New England colonial pile) replete with bats and lightening bolts to invoke the idea, not of horror, but very specifically of spookiness. 

Knock Knock is the result of a collision between two non-disastrous ideas for Doctor Who stories. They are smashed together with no regard for disguising the join or making even the vaguest amount of even fairy-tale sense. 

What if a group of students rented a house and found out that it was infested with cockroaches…but it then turned out that the cockroaches were actually evil alien monsters intent on invading the earth? 

What if a group of students rented a house and found out that it had a Jane Eyre style mad-woman in the attic? 

Both ideas would have worked better in a bog standard semi-detached des. res. but the Olivier Award Winning playwright places them in what is obviously and explicitly a Scooby Doo mansion. (Oh god, that lightening!) This requires absolutely everyone to be far stupider than any human being could ever actually be. David Suchet appears from nowhere, shows our characters around a house with no modern wiring, heating or wi-fi and a tower that the are not allowed to look in under any circumstances, and says “Would you like to sign….the contract” and no-one sees any potential downside. 

The house is populated by alien insects which hide in the woodwork but can be called to the surface by certain sounds  — a tuning fork, a record, but not, oddly, a sonic screwdriver. They can emerge in huge groups and consume humans in seconds — a bit like the invisible robot piranhas in Smile, but without even the decency to leave behind some bones for the garden. In the secret tower which no-one is allowed to visit lives landlord’s beautiful daughter. She was dying of movie-lady disease but the cockroaches saved her by turning her into wood. But the cockroaches have to periodically eat other humans to keep this one alive. We are given no hint as to any mechanism which makes this work: no magical explanation which says “they feed on human emotion” or “they survive by sucking the sparkle out of David Suchet’s acting”; but no pseudo-scientific explanation about harvesting squigglon gas which can only be found in burbleon neurons of adolescents either. 

The solution to the mystery is not ingenuity or bravery, but — once again — exorcism. Presumably, someone told the Olivier Award Winning Playwright was that that was what happened in Doctor Who: someone is bound to something, and some third party comes along and unbinds them by very emotionally giving them permission to depart. 

Thousands of questions about the scenario pour over us like a swarm of cockroaches. The Landlord’s beautiful daughter is actually the Landlord’s beautiful mother — this is what passes for The Twist. Many years ago in the Olden Days when his Mummy was sick a little boy found magic cockroaches in the garden and they made her immortal but also turned her into wood while he carried on getting older and older and finding students to feed the cockroaches. The cockroaches also give him the power to to manifest and disappear at will but this is not explained at any level. The Olden Days do not appear to have been any further back than the 1950s. How did it come about that a Little Boy and his Beautiful Mother were all alone in a gothic mansion and what happened to all the doctors and social workers and relatives?

Oh Andrew you spoil all my jokes you aren't supposed to ask questions like that it's only a children's programe no-one but you pays that much attention to it it isn't supposed to make sense. 

For the final denouement, the Landlord’s beautiful mother reveals that she can control the cockroaches with her mind — for how? And can infect her father by touch — for why? And as a final going away present she can bring the dead kids back to life. How? But only the recent ones. Not the ones who died in 1997 or 1977. Why not? 

Bill has acquired five friends who are looking for digs. There is the shy Asian one who Bill is kind of friends with. There is the tall Scottish one who tries to hit on Bill but is relieved when it turns out that she’s gay. There is the geeky one who retires to his room with violin music and gets eaten. And there is the geeky Northern one who hooks up with the Doctor, acting (and I use the word loosely) like an exceptionally gormless old-school companion, wide eyes, gibbering, at no point recognizing what is going on at any level. He is not un-coincidentally called Harry. I suppose Hogwarts is a kind of haunted house; he kept making me think of the very early Ron Weasley.

Apparently, in an early version of the script he was going to be the grandson of an exceptionally gormless old-school companion named Harry. (This would have been the one redeeming feature of the episode, so they cut it out.) 

It appears that these students have only just started at college (the episode ends with fireworks going off for the freshers party) -- but what student only starts looking for accommodation in the first week of term? Don’t most colleges arrange for you to live “in hall” in your first year? And aren’t most university towns full of private blocks of purpose-built student housing? And why are they using an estate agents rather than a specialist short term letting agency? And why doesn’t the letting agency point out that there is no point in looking for somewhere to live in a group of six and tell them to split up into pairs and be prepared to share rooms?

Thin Ice ended up more or less working as a story, despite plot holes large enough to drive an elephant through, because Fun Stuff kept on happening. Fun is in short supply here A 1950s house isn’t as interesting a place to visit as a Georgian Frost Fair, and finding that the kitchen windows have mysteriously locked themselves isn’t as exciting as scuba diving into the mouth of a mile long haddock. 

It is tempting to wonder if there is an overall story ark going on. Knock Knock has a house which is in some sense made of person-eating cockroaches; where Smile had a city which is some some sense made of person-eating robot piranhas. Thin Ice was set in a fairground, and Haunted Houses are mostly things you encounter in fairs. The Doctor excuses the inability of Frank Cottrell-Boyce to think of an ending to Smile by telling a story about a magic haddock, and Thin Ice has a giant haddock hidden under the Thames. This story is called Knock Knock, and the prisoner in the vault keeps knocking, and there was a prophecy at the end of David Tenant that the Master would knock four times. 

But that implies that someone is thinking about what they are doing. On on the evidence of this story, they really, really aren’t. 

In 1964, the First Doctor, on the run from the Daleks, materialized in what he believed was an alien dimension populated by the dark side of the human imagination — Dracula, the Wolf-Man, Frankenstein’s creature, Universal Pictures copyright lawyers, etc. It turned out that he is actually in a literal Haunted House: a “spooky” fairground attraction full of animatronic monsters. This is approximately five times more convincing than anything in this episode.


4 comments:

Gavin Burrows said...

Yup. We've finally hit shuffle mode. A 'new' episode of Doctor Who just takes a couple of handfuls of elements that have previously been on Doctor Who and throws them at the screen at random. Forty-five minutes of 'knock knock' jokes would have been more entertaining.

Mark Schaal said...

The very first Doctor Who I saw was Horror of Fang Rock. No one was making it out alive from that lighthouse. It strikes me as fundamentally conflicted to choose to do a haunted house episode but at the same time be unwilling to kill off anyone.

I could not drag myself through Mysteries of Udolpho. The Castle of Otranto however is faster moving and so completely bonkers that I found it great fun.

Richard Clegg said...

"It appears that these students have only just started at college (the episode ends with fireworks going off for the freshers party) -- but what student only starts looking for accommodation in the first week of term?"

The students are not freshers, it is clear they know each other already. The freshers party is happening and they are considering going but that doesn't mean they are freshers. Freshers events are for that week but are usually not exclusive to freshers.

"Don’t most colleges arrange for you to live “in hall” in your first year?"

Most try to do so but not all can. In any case they aren't first years.

"And aren’t most university towns full of private blocks of purpose-built student housing?"

They are but this is never enough for all students to have. It is perfectly normal for students to be looking for houses. There may be universities that can provide purpose built housing for all but I don't know of any.

"And why are they using an estate agents rather than a specialist short term letting agency?"

If the agency does lettings what does it matter? It is completely normal for estate agents to handle student lettings too. If I look for student letting in London the first google hit is an estate agent. They have a specialist student service.

"And why doesn’t the letting agency point out that there is no point in looking for somewhere to live in a group of six and tell them to split up into pairs and be prepared to share rooms?"

Because houses for six exist and can be found. The agency might well advise them that other properties are available (here's a house for four and another close by for two). It's a perfectly normal scenario for a large group of students to look for a house together and six is a difficult but perfectly possible number.

Mike Taylor said...

Not a fan, then?

Oddly, I thought this was the best episode so far of the new season.