November 14, 2015, 8:00 p.m. (EST), BBC
The best thing about Doctor Who is that Doctor Who can be anything. Want to do a straight drama about a historical period? No problem. Want to do a farce set in the furthest reaches of the galaxy? The show has your back. Experimental sci-fi? Sure. Political allegory? No problem. There is no genre or format that Doctor Who cannot colonize and make its own, no idea that cannot be transformed with a little work into a great Doctor Who story. This is a show that can do whatever, go wherever and whenever, be anything, do anything, try anything. In that sense, it is not surprising that Doctor Who in 2015 is doing a found footage episode. Nor is it impossible for the show to do something like this well.
I firmly believe this to be true. Yet just as firmly, I believe that Mark Gatiss is not the man you hire for a job like this. I don’t hate Gatiss, nor do I think he is incapable of turning out a good episode (I like “The Unquiet Dead” just fine, think “Cold War” is solid, and actually enjoy “The Crimson Horror”), but he is the last person I would turn to for something remotely ambitious. Gatiss does charming historicals, cute little episodes that tweak history but are mostly just straight-forward Doctor Who. He’s a meat and potatoes writer, and with “Sleep No More,” he was tasked with creating molecular gastronomy. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised the results are potato tasting goop.
To begin with, Gatiss doesn’t even approach the concept of a found-footage episode seriously. Sure, later on he lazily comes up with explanations for why his take on the conceit makes no sense (all those weird angles and wide shots that look just like regular direction? It’s because the “cameras” are dust. Wait, but then why all of the graininess and digitized jumps in the footage? Oh, its an electronic signal embedded in the recordings that are captured by the dust, I guess? Even though that makes not a lick of sense), but basically, Gatiss isn’t playing fair here. He’s a bad sport about the genre he has (theoretically) chosen to play in for the episode, in ways that leave a bad taste in my mouth. I’ll give the episode credit for the way it subtly builds to this reveal, giving us Clara’s perspective, and the tossed off line about there being no cameras. There’s a smart creeping horror to this episode’s construction, and it pays off pretty masterfully with that final scene where the creepy plan is laid out by a Rasmussen crumbling to dust, but those elements feel like clever cheats in a game Gatiss has built from the ground up. “Sleep No More” is not a found footage episode of Doctor Who, and the episode really only gains its twists by the milquetoast way it pretends to be a part of a genre. To some, this may be a clever deconstruction, but the whole thing came across as wildly underdone to my mind, like an episode that failed at its conceit because the writer was too lazy to embrace it, and then tried to reverse engineer a way that it was not a complete waste of our time.
Even that ending, which in isolation is an excellent piece of horror, is tacked on. It feels like Gatiss trying to replicate the final beats of “Blink” without understanding what made that last montage there into the ultimate stinger. This episode instead ends with nothing remotely like a resolution. The “Sandman process” has already begun in Clara. The villains of the piece transmit a message that will apparently kill all of humanity. Even The Doctor exits the piece saying “None of this makes any sense!” This is the first stand alone episode of series nine, and yet it feels the most like it needs a continuation to feel complete. There’s a way to do the “they aren’t really defeated” beat as a terrifying stinger, but here, again, it just feels like Gatiss had no way to end the episode, and so decided to use his lazy exposition crutch as a reveal. I wonder if this episode will launch a thousand fan debates about how the Sandmen have destroyed humanity in the 38th century now, creating all sorts of continuity errors in Doctor Who past and future. I expect not, but only because I imagine everyone will forget this episode almost immediately upon its ending.
There are elements here that work. The overarching plot of the episode is, as I’ve conceded, incredibly clever, and Gatiss is very good at the little tossed off moments that make this feel like Doctor Who, as when the Doctor gravely intones the batshit line “What used to be sleep in your eye has now evolved into a carnivorous life form!” As someone who doesn’t care about found footage one way or the other, and as someone who is on the record as not worrying about whether Doctor Who makes a lick of sense, its strange for me to be mad at this episode for breaking the rules of its genre (something Doctor Who takes gleeful pleasure in, and which I usually enjoy) and for not bothering to make any sense. Yet there is nothing here to hold “Sleep No More” together except its found footage conceit and its twists, and neither of those work when given any thought whatsoever. Ultimately, there’s nothing to hold onto in this episode. Every good idea, when grasped, slips through my fingers like sand. I’d consider that clever if I didn’t know better.
- “It looks like a Japanese restaurant. Have you brought me to a space restaurant?” “People never do that, you know.” “Do what?” “They never put the word ‘space’ in front of something, just because everything is all high-tech and future-y. It’s never ‘space restaurant’ or ‘space champagne,’ or ‘space…ya know, hat.’ It’s just restaurant, or champagne, or hat.”
- “Hold my hand.” “I’m ok.” “I’m not.”
- “Even I sleep.” “When?” “When you’re not looking.”
- “It’s adaptable. It’s clever. And it’s coming for us.”
“Sleep No More” is not a found footage episode of Doctor Who, and the episode really only gains its twists by the milquetoast way it pretends to be a part of a genre.