Posted on November 16th, 2015 in Uncategorized | No Comments »
I rather like formal games. Movies like Rope (all shot in one take – supposedly) or Interview (with essentially a speaking cast of two) excite me immediately. The best of them make a virtue of the formal constraint, telling a story which wouldn’t make sense without it. Some of them make the constraint into more of a gimmick, which might still be admirably clever but is less likely to quite so thrilling. Sometimes, it’s just an annoying distraction.
Doctor Who stories with this kind of constraint are rare and usually the product of a last-minute scramble to get a script ready. The Edge of Destruction, a faintly demented psychodrama set entirely inside the TARDIS and featuring only the regular cast was an act of desperation on the part of the first script editor David Whitaker when not only the TARDIS set but also the Dalek seven-parter had proved far more expensive than anticipated and two more cheapie episodes had to be magicked out of nowhere to keep the show on the road. Similarly, when Derrick Sherwin cut The Dominators from six episodes to five, The Mind Robber had to gain an episode which would only the regular cast and some standing sets (plus some left-over robot costumes from another series).
In the modern era, despite both show-runner’s zeal for headlines, most of the attention-grabbing aspects of the stories have come from their content rather than their form. Sometimes just their titles: The Next Doctor, The Doctor’s Daughter, The Doctor’s Wife etc. Midnight has something of this quality, but the prologue and coda and the overall large size of the cast mean that it doesn’t have quite the same feel. 42 has a very clear constraint – played out in real-time in exactly 42 minutes, but otherwise feels like quite an ordinary slab of mid-Russell Who.
So because of its found-footage gimmick Sleep No More already feels like something a bit out of the ordinary, and it’s not clear (even less so than with The Girl Who Died) whether it is part one of a two parter, contributing to the overall season arc, a true stand-alone story, or some other kind of narrative hybrid. The question will be – does the gimmick satisfyingly integrate itself into the story, is it an unwanted distraction, or is a nice addition but scarcely essential?
From the opening minutes, it’s clear that writer Mark Gatiss and the rest of the production team are doubling-down on the found-footage gimmick. There is no opening title sequence (a first in the show’s 52 year history), just a sort of space word-search (sorry, Doctor), and a dire warning from Reece Shearsmith, finally completing the League of Gentlemen guest star box set. We are introduced to yet another set of hard-to-differentiate cannon fodder, and then we meet the Doctor and Clara.
What follows is rather disappointing. Firstly, the found footage camera style largely just makes the action hard to follow. Secondly, surely someone at some point must have noticed how similar this is to Under the Lake? I don’t just mean they are both base-under-siege stories. They are both base-under-siege stories in which a largely deserted base is set upon by faceless and not entirely corporeal monsters with whom they struggle to communicate and from whom they must hide in special rooms. And this isn’t just linguistic trickery, pulling out the bits which sound the same and ignoring the rest. The two shows feel very much the same, even down to the use of closed-circuit camera footage, except that Sleep No More doesn’t have the time travel element to keep the narrative going.
When it doesn’t feel almost the same as Under the Lake, it has another problem. In the excellent book The Making of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry recalls a studio exec coming to see the filming of a scene from The Devil in the Dark. One of the more highly-regarded episodes of the series, turning a science fiction cliché on its head, the monster which is attacking innocent people turns out to be a mother protecting its young. However, on the day that the studio exec is present, Spock is being treated for his injuries and has the rather graceless line: “Captain, the monster attacked me!” So what the exec sees is a pointy-eared alien bleeding green blood attacked by a monster – pure sci-fi pulp nonsense!
Imagine turning on Sleep No More about half way through and seeing Peter Capaldi running away from those lumbering foam-rubber sleep monsters babbling about sentient mucus, or rolling around on the floor while they shake the cameras because of a “gravity shield failure”. It just looks and sounds like complete drivel. It doesn’t help that as the basically indistinguishable crew get gobbled up, and the explanations are slowly forthcoming, less and less makes any real sense, to the point where the Doctor himself is forced to conclude that the episode is basically nonsense.
And then, there’s that coda where Rasmussen admits that, rather too much like the Angels in The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone, the speck of magic sand dust sleep mucus is embedded in the video rather than a physical item, and that the whole thing was just intended to make us watch so as to infect us. So – wait, does that mean that what we were watching didn’t really happen? If so, why not create a story which did make sense? Or at least not include a character who complains that it didn’t make sense. If it did really happen then how did Rasmussen avoid death? And it’s very out-of-character for the Doctor to leave with so many unanswered questions (or maybe he will continue his investigations next week). And if he has left (assuming he was there at all) and permitted this lethal message to be transmitted back to Earth, does that mean that in the 38th Century, humans on Earth were wiped out by the Sandmen? Bluntly, this is a total mess and none of it makes any real sense at all.
All of which would be much more forgivable – the slightly pointless experimentation with form, the pick-and-mix supporting cast, the aching familiarity, the gibberish ending – if the whole thing had been even a little bit less dull. But this was probably the most boring episode of Doctor Who I’ve sat through in quite a long time. Bland characters in stock situations, a real dearth of good jokes and no spark of imagination.
Well, Shearsmith I suppose was good value and the notion of the Morpheus chamber, if not hugely original, is at least a compelling science-fiction hook. The “no helmet cams” reveal is quite nice – although what was that heads-up display stuff in the first five minutes in that case? – and Capaldi and Coleman continue to do good work with the very little which is available to them.
So, a major misstep in what has been quite a strong season so far. It’s hard to say whether I would have liked this more if it had been transmitted before Under the Lake rather than after, so I’m disinclined to mark it down too harshly for being repetitive, but for being nonsensical and especially for being boring, I have to deduct quite a lot of points. It’s better than the total nonsense of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, the wholly unsatisfactory In the Forest of the Night or the complete gibberish of The Wedding of River Song, but not nearly as interesting as good-but-not-great episodes like The God Complex or The Lodger. Let’s say two-and-a-half stars, whether or not any of these questions get answered in later episodes.