Monday, 16 November 2015

Review: Doctor Who 9.9: Sleep No More

Part of the culture that surrounds Doctor Who is its perception as a "scary" show. Little kids, hiding behind the sofa, peeking between their fingers at the screen, too scared to keep watching but too enraptured to just leave. This occurs whether an episode is designed to be part of the horror genre or not - a lot of things are more scary to a child than they are to the writers. This makes it surprising when the show actually attempts to head into a straight-up Horror direction - it takes extra effort to make a story which will be scary for the adults, but easy enough to understand for the kids. Sleep No More was a brave attempt at subverting Doctor Who convention and wandering bravely into this new direction. It fails spectacularly.
Wait, these guys were in this episode? Could have fooled me.
       Initially the episode is presented as the last will of a scientist about to be destroyed, a staff member aboard a satellite surrounding the planet Neptune who is the inventor of the Morpheus device, a series of chambers which allow a user to go up to a month with only five minutes' worth of sleep. The Doctor and Clara arrive on the station a while after it has been evacuated, meeting a team of characters who have arrived to investigate why they went silent. The episode presents most of the scenes as being from some people's point of view, with the excuse first being that the rescue team are wearing camera helmets and later that the Morpheus System has latched onto their optical signal. Soon, the team is menaced by creatures made of Sand, the "Sandmen", who The Doctor claims are the mutated collections of grit that accumulate in the corner of the eye after sleep. It's soon revealed that the whole thing is a sham, that the scientist has been dead for a while, and, in the episode's final moments, that the entire episode is a propaganda video which spreads the sandman-creating signal to whomever watches.
      The found-footage aspect of the episode didn't have to end up being as gimmicky and weird as it ended up being. Sometimes when directors try tricks with hand-held cameras the results are shaky and disorienting, and that was very much in full effect here, to the episode's detriment. Instead of being tense and scared about what the hell's going on, the viewer spends to much time working out what they're actually looking at. To the episode's credit, it did try to counteract a lot of the negative aspects of the genre - the standard "how the hell is everything being filmed" question the genre usually pulls up is turned into a nifty part of the overall plot, but it still doesn't make up for the fact that this was not the best execution of that concept.
      This episode's cast boasted two important guest stars - Reese Shearsmith as narrator/villain Dr. Rassmussen, and Bethany Black as "474". Shearsmith is forced to carry the episode, and he works well with Gattis' gothic horror roots, having worked with him on similar stuff back in their League of Gentlemen days. Rassmussen is a twist on the classic Frankensteinian archetype, his actual form having been destroyed by his own creations and now impersonating him for the video. Shearsmith was born to play these roles and he is one of the episode's few saving graces, especially in his chilling end-of-episode speech. On the other hand we have Bethany Black, Doctor Who's first ever trans actress (!), whose appearance in the episode was hyped up prior to broadcast. Imagine my disappointment when she was made to play a half-human slave soldier of intermediate gender, whose character barely even has a name and dies in a pointless sacrifice half-way through the episode, barely mentioned again. Why even hype up the appearance if all you're going to do is waste a promising guest star?
Shearsmith is just good enough to justify this trainwreck.
     The rest of the episode ended up being forgettable. The cast of the base-under-siege, despite receiving lengthy introduction sequences at the beginning, had so little focus time before their inevitable deaths that you didn't really care about them. The one character who survived the ordeal, Nagata, had no personality traits beyond a really forced Geordie accent. It was nice having a cast mainly composed of British-Asian actors, but as with Black it seems like a bit of a waste if those characters are going to be ignored in favour of developing the three important white people. It was this, combined with the unbelievable nature of the premise (Living eye-dust? This from the guy who criticised "farting aliens" ten years ago), that made this episode hard to watch even ignoring the direction.
     To some this episode's gimmick sold it, and that's all right. But given the development of this season, this single-part experiment felt very out of place. Why organise your scary episode for the week after Halloween? Regardless of that, for me this step into the avant-garde was a step in the wrong direction. We want character development and interesting sci-fi ideas, not empty scares and "clever" plot twists - this was exactly the issue that caused Moffat to go into meltdown four years ago. (Writing that just made me remember how long he's been here :/) Sleep No More, when it wasn't being insulting or weird or disorienting, was just a hell of a lot less interesting than it thought it was, and that was its main downfall.

Thanks.

NEXT WEEK: Harry Potter and the Return of the Guest Stars! It's Face The Raven.

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