Sleep No More
Series Nine, Episode Nine
Hark at this – it's a Mark Gatiss episode! What a totally unexpected pleasure, in that parallel universe where the quality of previous episodes has anything to do with the commissioning of new ones.
Steady on, Captain Sassypants: this time it'll be different. Sleep No More is a Mark Gatiss episode in space, so at least there won't be any clumsy (or bafflingly justified) historical stereotypes. Okay, there will probably be just as many clichés, if not more, but... it's also a found footage episode! Something that's never been done in Doctor Who before! All right, so it has been done in an awful lot of horror films, some of which have been pillars of pop culture for almost twenty years, and it's been the go-to template for horror and action video games for ages, but "It's Already Been Done" shouldn't bar you from having another go. You just put a new spin on it. And this one does: as well as being found footage, it's narrated! Like Love And Monsters! Except that means you don't actually have to piece together the narrative for yourself, which renders the whole "found footage" thing obsolete.
|Oh no, we forgot to say she's a Geordie!|
Quick, end every other sentence with "pet"!
Okay, the script does get something out of the format eventually, but you'll have to slog through The Overly Familiar Episode In Space to get there. We have an abandoned space station, irritable space marines, strange noises just out of shot, the Doctor and his +1 showing up... not only is this boringly reminiscent of sci-fi-action movies, it's boringly reminiscent of other Doctor Who episodes that are boringly reminiscent of sci-fi-action movies. What is there to even say about this stuff? You'd be massively better off watching Alien or Aliens instead? Well, yuh.
The narrator tells us not to get too attached to the characters. Not for the first or last time, he needn't have bothered: they hover between "nonentity", "really annoying" and "are they dead yet". And heaven help the cast with dialogue like this: "Morpheus, Mopheus, Morpheus! Sleep's the one thing left to us. The one thing they couldn't get their filthy mitts on. Now they're even grabbing that – colonising it!" "Spoken like a true Rip!" Not quite Alien-esque banter, is it? Then there's "May the gods look favourably upon you", which they irritatingly staple onto every other radio call. And one of them's a clone soldier, meaning Gatiss can write deliberately annoying dialogue and then point out how annoying it is, which just make it even more annoying. "Maybe they play Hide Seek." "It's hide and seek. Why do they miss out words?" "Chopra! Don't be anger!" "DON'T BE ANGRY!" DEAR GOD! Time out, both of you!
You can see Gatiss trying to give this world a flavour of its own, and that's admirable in itself. Unfortunately all he's really done is sprinkle some weird and annoying bits on some bog standard space shite. Like Mr Sandman: yes, it's appropriate in an episode about sleep, but that doesn't mean we want to hear it half a dozen bloody times, or have the characters roll their eyes when it comes on again. Being annoying isn't funny. It's just annoying.
So, this particular (annoying) abandoned space station houses Gagan Rasmussen, aka Reese Shearsmith. Our narrator is the lone survivor of The Horrible Thing That Happened, and he invented Morpheus, a thing that lets you get a whole night's sleep in five minutes. This is apparently controversial (see that incredibly complex dialogue above), and the Doctor and Clara are disappointingly quick to judge as well: she calls it "insane" and "horrible", while the Doctor complains that us "filthy" humans have gone and tampered with the natural order of things. Simplifying the issue isn't new for Doctor Who, but it's wincefully obvious with such clumsy dialogue. Filthy? The Doctor called us filthy? Seems legit. (The script also has him portentously quoting Shakespeare and awkwardly doing bits from Oliver! songs. Random Doctorly quirks are a fine art; this is more like "I am the Doctor and this is my spoon" all over again.)
|"She's a grunt, Clara. They're bred in hatcheries."|
Ahh, lazy moral indignation.
It's Bog Standard Companion 101!
The whole thing's just frown-inducing. "The longer you're in Morpheus, the more the dust builds up." Eh? Why would that matter if you're only in the pods for five minutes? When people get out, can't they just poke the crud out of their eyes before it grows arms and legs? Even the other characters think this is a bit random – there's that "point out your own annoying bits" thing again – and the script covers itself by suggesting the Doctor's just taking a wild guess anyway, but then he goes the whole hog and assumes they eat people as well. It's a monster story, why not? I mean, apart from the total lack of evidence. The Doctor just assumes things all over the place here, and then he's invariably right. That's a lazy way to progress a plot, but it may have been the only way to progress this plot.
If it all seems suspiciously shoddy, hold that thought: in the closing moments, just after the Doctor heroically points out that "None of this makes any sense!" (ahem), Reese Shearsmith takes a mighty info-dump to tell us this whole ordeal has been a trap for you, the viewer. All those little bits of video static you took for granted were sending a Morpheus signal to your brain and turning you into a sand monster. (Although he kind of suggests the monsters were fictitious, so... maybe the rest of it is?) He then suggests you show this video to your family and friends, which is one way to boost ratings I suppose, and incidentally is that sleep crud I spy in thy eye?
For a lot of kids, this will be their first unreliable narrator. That's pretty cool, but a few things prevent it from being a good one. One, it's massively corny. Like popping a sheet over Reese's head and making him go "WoooOOOOoooo!" I know it's predominantly a kids' show, but jeez. Two, the narrator is so unreliable that you've just wasted forty minutes on a story that is deliberately less than airtight. Is it his fault the characters are so flat, then? Three, the twist is not well expressed. Maybe it's the stupor of sitting through Monsters In Space, Volume: Infinity, but I barely followed what he was blethering about, especially his reference to "a proper climax with a really big [monster] at the end". (Was it hiding behind all the normal-sized ones? Deleted ending, I guess.) Four, so much of this episode is dull or clumsy that I just couldn't shake the thought of Mark Gatiss writing a boring, spacey episode and hitting the It Was All A Dream button out of desperation. Together with the coy "I'm warning you not to watch this" at the start, it's like he's trying to make a Steven Moffat episode. Good luck: I suspect even Moffat might shy away from a script that purports to be "found footage", and then has a narrator clumsily tell you what you're looking at.
|"Good luck mum and dad, getting the kids to bed tonight."|
Wouldn't a good night's sleep keep the bloody things from appearing?
Unfortunately for Sleep No More, subverting clichés is about more than doing them all over again and saying "I meant to do that" afterwards. Unfortunately for us, if Marky G wants a sequel, he will probably get one.