I want Doctor Who to be good. I really do. But I can’t help it if the writers are unable or unwilling to create a sensible villain or a compelling mystery. This episode of Doctor Who was a bit of a let down, although not for lack of trying on the part of the main cast.
The story opens with the prologue showing Bill and a few friends searching for a house to rent. After several failures they are greeted by an old gentleman who offers them a deal that is too good to be true. A large house with several bedrooms at a very low price.
After inspecting the house Bill and her friends decide to rent it. The Landlord (we never learn his name) then offers the students a contract to sign. This is the first of many threads that are left unexplored in this episode: the Checkhov’s Contract.
The episode spends too much time on this contract, so much so that the viewer can’t help but assume that this will become a major plot point later on. However, this appears to be a red herring. The contract is mentioned but it has nothing to do with the mystery of the house itself.
From the importance that was placed on the contract both in the first act and in the trailer that was released last week, one would assume that the main storyline revolved around the students unknowingly signing a contract that doomed them in someway. But alas, it’s just a rental agreement.
After the students sign their agreement, one of them moves in early. He puts on a record, a classical violin piece, but the mood suddenly begins to turn. The house begins to creek. Something off screen happens, and the young boy is captured by some force as the record player begins to skip, leaving the music in an eerie loop.
We are next given a scene involving Bill using the TARDIS to transport her few meagre belongings to the new house. A bit of dialogue ensues which will certainly be important later on: regeneration. The Doctor makes an offhand remark about not needing to sleep, unless it’s after a regeneration. Bill asks what The Doctor means by regeneration, and the doctor quickly changes the subject. This is the set up for what is obviously going to be an important plot point in the Christmas special, when Peter Capaldi’ tenure as The Doctor ends and he regenerates into a new form.
The next scene reveals another seemingly random thread that is never fully explored in this episode. When Bill and The Doctor arrive at the house, The Doctor notices that the trees in the yard are moving. The house is creaking. Everything seems to be drawn toward the center of the house, which is a tower that the renters are for bidden to enter, as stated in their contract.
Although the scene makes it appear that the tree has wrestling at the house is creaking due to wind, The Doctor lets his finger and hold it up to the air, determining that there is no wind. Something is trying everything in the vicinity of the house towards the tower.
Yet this is never again export or explained in the episode. We don’t really know what it is that draws everything towards the tower, and this seeing feels to me like a remnant of the first draft, where the original fillet or mystery was something completely different than what it turned out to be in the final version.
After delivering Bill’s boxes The Doctor decides to stay, despite the protests of Bill who obviously wants to spend some time alone with her friends and away from The Doctor. She then tells him that there is nothing wrong with the house, and that this is a part of her life in which he is not involved.
There’s a lot of levity in the scene, and it works. The Doctor doesn’t seem to understand how old he looks, and demures at the suggestion that he should pose as Bill’s grandfather. The students laugh about music, specifically Bill’s taste, and everything begins to seem normal. That is until The Landlord arrives.
This was the scene that really missed marked. With all of the set up involving The Landlord and the creepy house, I had expected a duel of wits between The Landlord and The Doctor. Instead there was merely a terse conversation and a brief exit.
The only purpose of The Landlords appearance is to show him using a tuning fork for no apparent reason and to give a piece of necessary expository dialogue. The students have been hearing the sound of small footsteps running about the house, and ask if the landlord has a cat. He says no, and after a brief conversation with the doctor about caring for people who are in their charge, he admits that he has a daughter that he still cares for.
After this the disappearances begin. The party gets split, with Bill and two other characters going upstairs while the doctor and two more students remain in the common room.
While having a conversation with her friends, Bill and a young girl overhear one of their roommates in a struggle. They discover him missing, and the house begins to creek and shutter. The two can find no trace of their roommate, and decide to investigate the room of the boy who disappeared during the first act. The music is still skipping on the record in his room, and when they explore it they find that he is stuck in the wall, still being consumed by the wood as if something had made it pause. The Landlord arrives, turns off the music and we witness the boy being fully consumed by the house.
Meanwhile The Doctor and the rest of the students are downstairs, slowly discovering that they have been trapped inside the house. The powers of this evil house which is apparently consuming people are somewhat of a tangle here. From an earlier scene we learned that the house did not have modern power outlets, nor central heating and air-conditioning. There is no cell reception inside the house, and an earlier trip outside reveals that a washing machine that was outside the house has now disappeared.
This is an odd bit of misdirection, like many of the loose strings of this episode that leads nowhere. Watching it, one could possibly assume that the house has something to do with time. The house itself is obviously from an older era and the disappearance of the washing machine leads one to believe that the landlord activated something within the house that caused it to travel back in time. Or perhaps outside of time. Perhaps this theory was an example of my inclination to overthink things, but the disappearance of the washing machine is never quite explain, even after the big reveal.
When the house begins to lock itself up one of the students escapes. She runs outside but is caught by a tree and seemingly consumed. The Doctor and the last student from downstairs run in fear and stumble upon a storage space. It holds the belongings of several sets of houseguests, with identical contracts to the one that the students signed. We discover that every 20 years The Landlord lures a group of unsuspecting renters into the house and they are consumed. Not by the house itself, but rather by bugs, insects that seem to inhabit the wood of the house and disintegrate their victims in an instant.
This is my biggest problem with the episode. Why the twenty-year interval? It was this clue, along with the scene involving the missing washing machine, that led me to believe that the house had something to do with time, rather than mysterious people eating insects.
Again, I suspect that the original mystery was something completely different and was changed for some reason or another.
Bill and her friend escape to the forbidden tower and come face to face with The Landlord’s daughter. She has become a creature of wood that hosts the insects. When The Doctor confronts The Landlord we learn that he controls the insects in order to keep his daughter alive. The Doctor says he might be able to help his daughter and The Landlord leads him to the tower.
Finally we learn that The Landlord controls the insects, luring unsuspecting renters to the house as food for them in exchange for healing his ailing daughter. Except of course that he is in fact her son, having aged in a normal human lifespan while the insects kept her in a sort of wooden stasis. Eventually the mother realizes what her son has done, and takes control of the insects, causing them to consume herself and her son while bringing all of the students back to life.
In an epilogue The Doctor and Nardole have a conversation regarding his charge, the mysterious vault hidden within the University. We learn that The Doctor has put a piano in the vault for their prisoner to play and that The Doctor can enter the vault: bringing his prisoner Chinese food.
To be perfectly honest the epilogue was the most interesting part of this episode. The loose threads and red herrings were distracting from the start and I found the end villain to be lackluster. I’m far more interested in what’s in that vault, which probably won’t be revealed until the penultimate episode of this season but is probably Missy.