Saturday, 14 November 2015

Doctor Who - Sleep No More

Contains spoilers.

So tonight Doctor Who tried its hand at the found footage genre, and all of a sudden this consistently excellent standard of series nine has come grinding to a halt. It's not as if Sleep No More is a bad episode, in fact there is actually quite a lot to like here. We can go into the specifics later on, but for now let us summarise this episode as follows: aesthetically sublime, but narratively sloppy. Mark Gatiss is an unusual writer for Doctor Who. He has written episodes for this show since its reboot back with series one, and he's never really given us anything special. He's had some complete disasters (namely series five's Victory of the Daleks), but the vast majority of his episodes fall into that woeful category of potentially classic ideas squandered with poor scripting.

Series seven's Cold War, for example, never used its fantastic underwater setting to any advantage, much like last year's Robot of Sherwood never really understood its own thematic content until the final sequence, and spent so long trying to be giddy and fun that it forgot how to tell even the simplest of stories. Gatiss is great at giving us top notch ideas ("There are ghosts made of gas", "I will change what it means to be human", "Ice Warriors in a submarine"), but he's also annoyingly good at pouring away the episodes' potential by not writing them well enough. Sleep No More, regrettably, follows that trend to the letter. Its base idea - "Found footage story of the aftermath of an invention causing the human race to no longer require regular sleep" - could be something special indeed. But despite the absolute best work of new time director Justin Molotnikov, none of it really comes together.

What this episode does having going for it, though, is its aesthetic design. The found footage format has become well worn and tiresome in film, but is rarely used on television. We see this story unfold through the perspectives of each individual character (and occasionally some wall POV shots, but we'll get to that later), and this cuts out the possibility of establishing shots or wide angles. Every frame of the episode feels tight and compact, it has the best sense of claustrophobia of any Doctor Who episode this series. Similarly, characters rapidly turning their heads creates a wonderfully jarring feel to each sequence as the frame whips round with them, and the way the Doctor and Clara are introduced to the episode is brilliantly unique.

Rather than us following them, we begin with the ship's rescue team and just stumble across our protagonists. Despite the fact that, really, it's no different to any other episode, Molotnikov does a fantastic job of making this sequence eerie; we feel as if we shouldn't be watching the Doctor and Clara in that moment. As the introduction to a story, Sleep No More scarcely goes wrong in its first act. It's also benefited by the brave and satisfying idea of removing the show's famous title sequence entirely, for the first time in the show's history. It gives the episode an uneasy feel to begin with, something that this story should have kept for its entirety.

But, unfortunately, it didn't. Whilst the episode's cinematography and sound design remain excellent throughout (the lack of a musical soundtrack feels so wrong in Doctor Who, yet so right for this episode), once Sleep No More shifts gears into act two, the brief set up begins to crumble and the story falls apart frustratingly early on. Firstly, we're introduced to the Sandmen far too soon. Whilst the fact that we see the creatures almost immediately, and at the same time the crew does, benefits the episode's narrative format, it weakens the monsters substantially. There's no mystery, no enigma to keep us hooked. While the superb Under the Lake from earlier this series (an episode that draws many similarities to tonight's but is supremely more enjoyable) also introduced its villains early on, there were questions that needed answering about them, and we learnt more as the episode progressed, before reaching a satisfying conclusion in Before the Flood.

On first viewing, the Sandmen are acceptable monsters up until the episode's ending, in which the story is concluded so quickly it's almost impossible to comprehend after just one watch. Sleep No More doesn't answer enough of our questions (Is Clara still infected? Did the Doctor shut down the programme? Was Rassmussen successful in his plan? What happened to Nagata?) to reach a satisfying conclusion, and the few mysteries of the Sandmen aren't addressed well enough to justify us seeing them so early on. On second viewing, this is doubly frustrating.

Another issue that plagues this episode is its eventual sloppy approach to its own format. Whilst the found footage trope works well in the first half, once we discover the real nature of the footage it stops making any sense. If the footage we see is coming directly from the perspectives of infected characters and/or infected dust particles, why are some of the wall POV shots black and white, and some aren't? I'm never nitpicky with Doctor Who, I always let it put thematic content and character moments ahead of general logic, but when these errors force both the episode's narrative and its format to stumble, they're difficult to ignore.

Once we reach the final act, there are perspective shots that I still don't understand after two viewings. Shaky over the shoulder shots of the Doctor take up a lot of screen time, yet no character is stood behind him. Are we to believe that the infected dust particles have now taken it upon themselves to gaze around their environment and look at whichever character is talking? It just seems odd, and what once was being used, albeit briefly, as a clever storytelling tactic has by now fallen into the abyss of nonsense. The supporting characters are all also ridiculously weak, normally I overlook this with Doctor Who but they were just so underwritten in this episode that there were moments where I couldn't tell who had died, let alone why or how. I can overlook not caring about a supporting character when they die, but not even knowing which one they were is an issue.

Sleep No More's pacing does it no favours either. We repeatedly cut back to Rassmussen's video blog, and in doing so the tension is broken almost constantly. He tells us which characters will die soon, and rather than act as upsetting foreshadowing, it winds up being another unwelcome element in a story loaded with unwelcome elements. Look, I really really wanted to like Sleep No More. It was my most anticipated episode of the series, and I can't help but feel woefully disappointed with it. I tried it a second time around with lowered expectations and with an understanding this time of the conclusion, but while some elements fared better on a second viewing, others faltered.

Mark Gatiss seems to be the kind of Doctor Who writer who can come up with compelling, innovative ideas, but is unable to piece them together into a workable whole. Sleep No More, like many others Gatiss has offered us, has all the makings of a classic episode, but winds up being difficult to even label as "good". Maybe this is one of those episodes that should be watched entirely independently. Maybe I was expecting too much after the standard of the first eight episodes. Perhaps if watched in complete isolation, out of the blue and with marginally lowered expectations, something really enjoyable could be found here. But slotted behind eight consecutive stellar episodes, and crammed before what seems to be an epic, almost three-part concluding story, Sleep No More will never make an impact.

Notes - 
  • It really is worth saying again that first time Doctor Who director Justin Molotnikov did an exceptional job with this episode. Everything from the camerawork, to the sound design, to the unusual colour scheming was just remarkable.
  • Even if they lost all narrative weight and never managed to be even remotely frightening, the Sandmen are a pretty unique design.
  • Despite not being a huge fan, I have to give credit to Gatiss for proposing an episode unlike any other this show has done before. Even though it didn't quite work, this was a risky move to make, and I respect that.
  • Amid all the sloppy writing and sketchy pacing, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman still shone through. It is potentially Clara's final episode next week, and I can't express how sad I will be to see her go.
  • The lyrics to Mr. Sandman are awfully relevant here, aren't they? Still, did that song really need to pop up as many times as it did?
  • Reece Shearsmith gave a solid performance as Rassmussen. The rescue team all felt flat and underwhelming for me, but who can blame them when given that kind of material.
  • As much as I have issues with the way this episode ended (mostly in terms of pacing), the image of Rassmussen's face slowly crumbling away was pretty horrifying, and probably the most unsettling moment Doctor Who has done since Amy's baby was revealed to be a ganger duplicate all the way back in A Good Man Goes To War
  • Peter Capaldi has a knack for making even the most absurd lines sound dramatic, yet even he couldn't save the Doctor's announcement that the Sandmen are made from the sleep we get in our eyes when we wake up. Not the show's most exciting revelation.
  • So series nine's run of excellence has come to an end. Still, as long as the final three episodes return to the standard of the first eight, this is still on track to become my favourite series.
  • What would a series of Doctor Who be without a dodgy one, huh?

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