“The House That Jack Built” Review

Someone has left Mrs Peel a house. A great big country house. Left by an uncle she didn’t know. Still, if you’re as cool as Mrs Peel, you shrug and drive out to inspect your new house. Which turns out to be an automated revenge trap set by a dead man, naturally.

This episode seems to be rather well regarded. It’s certainly memorable – though not entirely for the best reasons. In many ways, the scenario is similar to the excellent Don’t Look Behind You which will get a proper (and better) remake later. It’s got the female lead lured to a deserted old house, one or two oddballs hanging around, photographs of the said female lead (a Clemens obsession that was also apparent in What The Butler Saw) and a kind of spooky isolation. But where Don’t Look Behind You was set in an old, faded mansion, this is the stark, stripey automated future. A vision that I’d be very surprised to find wasn’t, in some way, inspired by the TARDIS in Doctor Who, a show that would have been on air for a couple of years by this point.

This is one of those episodes where the show turns in on itself. Rather than investigating a criminality & treachery, the show’s leads themselves become victims or targets. There have been a few episodes like this before (Don’t Look Behind You is the only one where it’s been this central to the plot) but it’s a device that quickly starts to feel self indulgent.

This time Mrs Peel is an expert in…  automation and business (she became CEO of her father’s company at 21 and made a huge success of it). We find out a little more of her backstory… her maiden name is Knight, her father, Sir John, had a knighthood but died when she was 21…

Some of the science is a bit dodgy. The key, of which Steed is so suspicious, affects a clock/timer, a compass, and photographing paper. And interferes with the radio. That’s some radiation it’s emitting! The rooms revolve without Emma knowing whether she or they are in motion, yet the accelerate and stop quite suddenly.

There are some anomalies. The music in this one is uncharacteristically electronic (another nod to Doctor Who?) And, we get policemen again in the opening… (An armed policeman, with ammunition strapped across his uniform.)

Most weirdly, we suddenly, after 94 episodes, hear a characters thoughts as if we were in their mind. Can you imagine if we’d been able to listen to what Dr Keel was thinking? It looks a lot like a lazy way of dealing with an absence of interlocutors for Mrs Peel, but it would have been less jarring if she’d started talking to herself. To the best of my recollection, this never happens again.

I’d remembered this one as being Steed-lite, but he’s actually in it quite a lot – mostly driving his car down the wrong road. But when they are finally reunited, the moment at the end is absolutely beautiful: “where’s the shining armour?”. Their faces, so expressive. And no music, just silence as they walk the long corridor, slowly, right the way to the end before we fade to black. Wow.

Tag scene transport: a tandem.

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

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