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Doctor Who: “Knock Knock”


I don’t have a lot to say about “Knock Knock.” It’s not a bad episode but it’s not a great one either, it’s just sort of…middling. The idea of a house seeming to be haunted due to alien activity is nothing new to Doctor Who — the Seventh Doctor serial “Ghost Light” did it very well back in 1989 — and “Knock Knock” certainly gets the spooky atmosphere right. (I love how Shireen calls the mansion “a freaky Scooby Doo house.”) The story, though? Well, this is another one of those episodes it’s best not to look at too closely or you’ll wind up with a whole lot of questions: Why is Pavel’s demise different from everyone else’s, getting sucked into a wall when all the other students were swarmed and eaten by the Dryads? In the past, when the Dryads were brought to Eliza’s sick room, why didn’t they eat Eliza? How and why did they turn her into an undead wooden person instead? Will Bill’s foster mother Moira, introduced in the episode “The Pilot,” ever be seen again, or will she simply disappear like Clara’s charges in season seven or Amy’s other friend Jeff from “The Eleventh Hour”? The questions go on.

One thing I really liked about “Knock Knock” is that it separates the Doctor and Bill and allows each of them to deduce what’s going on individually, which means we get to see how smart and resourceful Bill is when she’s on her own. She’s definitely not someone who just exists to be rescued or ask the Doctor questions on behalf of the audience. Also, it’s fun to see the Doctor running around the house with Harry instead, which reminds me how much I’d love to see a male primary companion again someday. Where “Knock Knock” drops the ball, though, at least in my opinion, is in not having the courage of its convictions. Bill’s friends are physically devoured by the Dryads and their energy is presumably funneled to Eliza to keep her alive. (There’s no explanation how this works. It’s all rather handwaved away.) So how on earth are these dead characters “returned” at the end? There shouldn’t have been anything left of them. Negating their deaths in such a quick and nonsensical way gives “Knock Knock” the feel of an episode of the old Goosebumps TV show rather than Doctor Who, as if to reassure children that there’s no need to be so frightened. It’s a crucial misstep in an otherwise okay episode.

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! When the Doctor asks the Landlord who the Prime Minister is, there’s a nice mention of Harriet Jones, a recurring but now deceased character who dates all the way back to the very first season of the revival and became Prime Minister in the second season. The Doctor finally reveals to Bill that he’s a Time Lord, not a human, and there are some funny lines about Time Lords’ big, fancy collars. The Doctor also mentions that Time Lords can regenerate, perhaps to foreshadow what’s to come, although he doesn’t elaborate on it. We see the vault again at the end, with its unseen inhabitant playing the piano inside as the Doctor arrives with food and the promise of interesting stories to tell. I’m now more convinced than ever that it’s the Master inside the vault, either as his John Simm incarnation or as Missy. I kind of want to be wrong, though, because I want to be surprised.

I’m still not enjoying the increased antagonism between the Doctor and Nardole. I don’t know why they’ve decided to make Nardole such a nag when he could be much funnier instead. Free Nardole!

American Gods

American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gaiman has fashioned a novel full of great characters, incredible world building, well researched religious and mythological history, and smooth, marvelous prose…all, alas, in search of forward momentum. For a novel this packed with wonderful ideas, very little actually happens. I did enjoy it — these characters will definitely stay with me — but I found its lackadaisical, meandering structure and the protagonist’s mostly passive role in the story frustrating. More than one hundred pages pass before we’re clued into any of the characters’ goals or given any idea of what’s at stake, which made it hard for me to feel invested. As a result, I found the novel very easy to put down and wasn’t always in a rush to pick it up again. I’m glad I did, because the novel definitely picks up in its final third, but for me it was a slog getting there.

The middle of the novel, when Shadow is tucked away in the town of Lakeside, is particularly frustrating. Way too many pages are spent with Shadow simply trying to pass the time, from visiting library sales to chatting with his new neighbors, while Mr. Wednesday is off, unseen, doing things that are presumably more interesting and important to the story. Gaiman himself seems to recognize this issue and adds a last-minute mystery to the Lakeside community for Shadow to solve, and though Gaiman’s instincts are right in this regard, his fix is wrong. The Lakeside mystery is kept too distant from the main storyline, its resolution coming only after everything else is already finished, and as a result it all comes off feeling like an unnecessary addendum. It would have made a fine, separate novel, though.

A war between the gods should be exciting, but since we don’t get to see much of it at all the novel doesn’t reach the level of excitement I was hoping for. You couldn’t call AMERICAN GODS a fast-paced or tightly-plotted novel, but despite my issues it is a worthy one. I can see why it’s so beloved by so many — there really is a richness to the world and the characters Gaiman creates — but it just didn’t resonate with me that strongly.

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Rave Review of IN THE SHADOW OF THE AXE in Locus Magazine

The May issue of Locus Magazine contains a rave review by Bram Stoker Award-winning author John Langan of my novel In the Shadow of the Axe! It’s a remarkably in-depth analysis in just four paragraphs of the novel’s storyline as well as themes that run through my body of work as a whole, but I can’t reprint it all, so here are the highlights:

As Laird Barron writes in his introduction, Nicholas Kaufmann’s In the Shadow of the Axe could have appeared as a Hammer film during the heyday of the studio’s horror productions….Kaufmann’s affection for the material is obvious, and it lends a richness to his conception….[He] skillfully builds his narrative’s momentum…It is Nicholas Kaufmann’s finest work.

Wow, my finest work! If you’d like to read it and decide for yourself if that’s true, here’s a handy ordering link. The link goes to Amazon, but the novel is available wherever e-books are sold. Right now, In the Shadow of the Axe is only available as an e-book, but hopefully the print edition will happen soon. Keep watching this space.

Doctor Who: “Thin Ice”

“Thin Ice,” the third episode of Doctor Who‘s tenth season, continues the pattern of strong, standalone stories we’ve seen so far. “Thin Ice” is actually a better, more cohesive story than last week’s “Smile,” while still allowing plenty of room for the Doctor and Bill to get to know more about each other. Things take a more dramatic turn in their relationship when Bill witnesses her first death and has an important conversation with the Doctor about how he can see so much death and keep going. It’s a good scene, and though I’ve grown tired of the trope of companions getting angry at the Doctor when he can’t save someone (despite all the people he has saved), I very much liked Bill confronting him about whether he has ever killed anyone himself. She doesn’t let him make excuses, either. She makes him own it, which actually brings them closer together.

Another thing I liked about “Thin Ice” is that the speculative element turns out not to be an alien enemy so much as an animal just doing what animals do, namely eating, without any malice or plans of domination. There is a real villain, of course, someone who is exploiting the animal in question, and that’s how it should be in a story like this. (In fact, there are echoes in “Thin Ice” of “Smile” and “The Pilot,” with both previous stories featuring a speculative, non-human element that is potentially deadly without truly meaning harm.)

The script by Sarah Dollard is a strong one, taking the time to address both racism and representation in Regency England, which is not something Doctor Who often takes the time to do. When the Doctor clocks Sutcliffe for calling Bill a “creature” who should show respect for her “betters,” it’s a pretty great scene, both humorous and cathartic. There’s a funny joke about an imaginary companion named Pete who erased himself from history by stepping on a butterfly. We get a scene involving the psychic paper again, which is something we haven’t seen in quite a while. We also learn a little more about the vault, namely that, thanks to some knocking from the other side of the door, it’s most likely a person inside, which I predicted back in episode one. At this point, I’m wondering if it will be Missy. The only thing I didn’t like about this episode was that Nardole is grumpy and moralizing again. Grumpy, moralizing Nardole doesn’t work for me. Matt Lucas is hilarious; they need to let him be hilarious. I’d love to see Nardole be as funny and disaffected again as he was in last Christmas’s otherwise forgettable special, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio.” More funny Nardole, less grumpy schoolmarm Nardole!

And now a small bit of Doctor Who neepery! In conversation with the pie man at the frost fair, the Doctor asks about a man with a ship tattooed on his hand and attempts to bond with the pie man by sharing his disgust of tattoos. But, a little-known fact: the Doctor himself used to have a tattoo! Back in the very first Third Doctor serial, 1970’s “Spearhead from Space,” the Doctor is shown showering in a hospital bathroom and we see a tattoo on his forearm. (This is the only time we ever see the Doctor without a shirt on, until the 2010 Eleventh Doctor episode “The Lodger,” which revealed the tattoo is no longer there. Edited to add: A reader pointed out my oversight that the Ninth Doctor is shown shirtless in the episode “Dalek” in 2005. Notably, the tattoo is also not there.) The reason the Third Doctor has a tattoo at all is because the actor Jon Pertwee got it during his Navy days. Why it wasn’t covered up with makeup for the scene is anyone’s guess, so now the Doctor’s tattoo is canon! The tattoo itself is of a cobra, although when seen upside-down it looks remarkably like the question mark that would become a regular symbol upon the clothes of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors.