Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Doctor Who - Sleep No More


I've commented many times before on Doctor Who's ability to do just about any style or genre. It can be something completely different from week to week. Sometimes it sticks to old formulas; other times, it tinkers with something new; still other times it dives head first into the experimental to come up with something completely different and bizarre. I love this aspect of the show, but that doesn't necessarily mean I love every experimental episode. Some try really hard, but don't quite succeed (see “The Rings of Akhaten”, for example).

I will admit that I was expecting “Sleep No More” to be one those ones that fails. This was partly because of the found-footage format, which is a style I'm not fond of. The second was because it's written by Mark Gatiss, whose past contributions to Doctor Who I've generally found to be mediocre at best (although “Cold War” is pretty good) and sometimes downright bad (“Victory of the Daleks”). The combination of the two left me with low expectations for this episode. That was, perhaps, unfairly biased of me—especially considering I ended up enjoying the episode somewhat.

Sleep No More” is a bold experiment and not the kind of thing Doctor Who should be doing every week. But once in a while, bold experiments are exactly what the show needs. Intriguingly, aspects of “Sleep No More” are actually very formulaic and follow paths seen in the show many times before. But it takes those formulaic aspects and plays around with both the presentation and the viewers' expectations of how they will resolve. The execution isn't perfect and there are many flaws in the story—but oddly, some of those flaws actually help enhance it. “Sleep No More” is an episode that many people will dislike, some of them intensely. It's certainly not an easy episode to digest, or make heads or tails of. However, I suspect it will be an episode that is talked about (for good or bad) for a long time as it defies attempts to categorize and rate it.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

If one ignores the found-footage aspect of the episode's presentation, “Sleep No More” is essentially another base-under-siege story. The Doctor and Clara arrive on a space station that is under threat from a mysterious menace. There they meet a small cast of characters trying to survive against this threat. It's a format used many times before on Doctor Who, most recently just a few weeks ago in “Under the Lake”. Like other base-under-siege stories, the Doctor quickly takes charge, figures out what's going on, and...

Well, that's where things start to go a little differently. The Doctor concludes pretty quickly that the creatures are made of “sleep dust”, the substance that develops in the corner of people's eyes while they sleep. He determines this with very little evidence, but this is not all that unusual for the Doctor. Typically, the other characters in the story respond initially with disbelief to the Doctor's conclusions, but come round relatively quickly to believe him. But the Doctor's conclusions don't help him save the day. In fact, it would appear that the Doctor is wrong in his conclusions, given the twist of the ending (although even there, we can't be entirely sure as Rassmussen is certainly not a reliable narrator). In the end, the Doctor doesn't save the day. He's forced to flee in the TARDIS with Clara and Nagata, commenting somewhat chillingly that, “None of this makes any sense!”

And he's right. Large parts of this story don't make any sense at all—at least, not unless you look at it from more of a metatextual level. Not making sense is part of the point, a clue to what is really going on. I commented above that the story's flaws actually help to enhance the story and that's because it has its own protection from plot holes spell cast upon it (to use a roleplaying term). As we learn, what we're seeing is literally just a story created by Rassmussen (or the creature that Rassmussen has become or been replaced by or... we never learn for sure), but it's a story put together from recorded events on the station with “actors” (the Doctor and company) who are not willing to follow a script. It's full of gaps, plot holes, uncertainties, discontinuities... In some ways, the more plot holes you find in it, the more the story works.

In a way, that kind of gives “Sleep No More” a protection from criticism spell as well. How do you criticise the episode when any criticism can be countered with, “Well, that's just Rasmussen not doing a very good job of cutting together a coherent story. And that's part of the story.” Well, while this episode is essentially a story-within-a-story, it still has to entertain the actual, real-world viewing audience. It still has to present something that they can follow, and this is where there is likely to be a lot of debate as to whether or not it succeeds—and a lot of people are going to come out on the side of saying it doesn't. Indeed, “Sleep No More” has received the series' lowest AI (Appreciation Index, which measures how much viewers liked an episode) score since Series Two's “Love and Monsters”. It's also the first since “Love and Monsters” to receive less than 80, getting 78 (out of 100). And so, there is certainly a place for criticism.

The found-footage style of the episode works both for and against the overall effect. In some ways, it's used to great effect. It allows for the use of an unreliable narrator in Rassmussen, something not easy to achieve effectively in television. With Rassmussen directly addressing the camera (and occasionally the Doctor, too), it adds another layer to the story, creating the story within a story. Rassmussen is technically talking to a fictional audience in the future solar system. But in a sense, he's also talking to us in the present day. It makes us into characters ourselves, something some viewers may not be comfortable with. This essentially breaks the fourth wall, but it does so in a way that has an in-world explanation (he's not really talking to us; he's talking to the fictional audience). This is a much better way to break the fourth wall than we got just a few weeks ago in “Before the Flood”.

Unfortunately, one thing that works heavily to its detriment, though, is there are just too many “cameras”. Although we get the shakiness and jump cuts associated with found footage, there are just too many angles and points of view, which completely work against the effect the episode is striving for. Not to mention the dust itself being a camera stretches credulity quite a bit. Admittedly, this is Doctor Who, which is known for being far-fetched (we had the moon as an egg last year), but here it's just a little too convenient. How exactly do the station's systems access what the dust is recording? It's true we don't get the full story and there may be lies and false deductions occurring, but unlike the Doctor's possible error regarding the dust also being the monsters themselves, there's not much to contradict the dust being cameras. After all, we get to see things from virtually every possible perspective.

I think it would have been much more effective to only see point-of-view shots from the characters and maybe a single camera in each room. As it is, a big deal is made of the fact that we don't get Chopra's point of view since he has never used the Morpheus sleep machines. Yet that is completely undermined by giving us his gun's point of view or various angles in the locations where he's present. If Rassmussen can acquire any point of view he wants for his story, there really isn't any point having points of view in the first place. There have to be limits, regardless of how advanced Rassmussen's powers or technology are meant to be.

Apart from too many cameras, however, I would say that “Sleep No More” uses found footage to pretty good effect. The episode also does a good job of twisting the format itself with the Doctor starting to realise they're all part of a story and the narrator turning out to be the villain.

Outside of the found-footage aspect, there's the start of some nice world-building in this episode. From the “Catastrophe” to the frequent statements of “May the gods look favourably upon you,” we start to get an idea of what the future world is like. There is also a bit of political satire here. A world where they try to eliminate sleep to get more work out of the people is a commentary on our real-world society that demands longer and longer work weeks for less and less reward. Clara and Chopra condemn this, but the episode goes even further by basically stating that if we keep going the way we're going, we're just going to destroy ourselves. Mark Gatiss doesn't tend to put this kind of satire into his scripts, so it's refreshing to see it here, even if it's not particularly nuanced.

There's also a bit of a moral lesson in tolerance and acceptance with the story of 474 and Chopra. 474 is clearly meant to be an analogy for real-world marginalised people (she is even played by Bethany Black, the first trans actor to appear in Doctor Who). Chopra throwing slurs (like calling her a “thing”) at her echoes the treatment trans people and others actually receive. It's deliberately meant to be uncomfortable. Eventually, Chopra begins to accept 474 as she saves his life and ultimately sacrifices herself for him. But this is undermined somewhat by the fact that, although Chopra has begun to have a change of heart, he dies soon afterwards before that change of heart can have much of an effect. The intended message is noble, but I think the story falls a bit short of effectively delivering it. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that neither Chopra nor 474 get much in the way of character development.

This is true of all the characters in this episode—even the regulars. Nagata and her soldiers deliver their lines and perform scripted actions, but at no point do we ever feel we know these people. Rassmussen tells us at the beginning not to get attached, but really, he needn't have worried. There's nothing to these characters to get attached to. And Rassmussen himself is rather bland. Perhaps this is because he's really one of the sandmen and this is to illustrate that fact, but... There needed to be something more there.

The Doctor seems somewhat more like his Series 8 self in this episode, his comments having just a bit of bite to them. However, this continues the rather inconsistent portrayal of the Doctor this series. It's becoming increasingly difficult to describe the twelfth Doctor's personality. This wasn't a problem last series, but it has certainly become one now.

Clara continues to have little to do, and I must admit, I'm more and more perplexed. Considering this is her final series, I would have expected more to be done with her to lead into her eventual departure. There were some token attempts early on to draw attention to her becoming more Doctor-like, but nothing's been made of that in the last few episodes. Instead, we've had episodes with her almost completely absent (“The Woman Who Lived” and “The Zygon Invasion”) and others like this one where she just doesn't really do much. Still, I suppose her departure won't end up being as poorly handled as some classic Who companion departures were (Leela suddenly announcing she's marrying someone she hardly knows; Dodo being absent for half her final story and then sending the Doctor a note to say she's staying behind; Liz Shaw not even getting a departure, just there one episode, gone the next).

Some final thoughts:

  • The use of the song, “Mr. Sandman” is great. It both adds to the creepy atmosphere and illustrates the shallowness of the world the story takes place in. I love the scene with the reprogrammed door that will only open if you sing “the song”.
  • Is Clara still infected by the Morpheus machine? Will this be a problem in the future?
  • The lack of opening titles is a brilliant move. It further cements the viewers as characters in the tale. After all, the real world doesn't get interrupted by title sequences. Unfortunately, the next time trailer at the end ruins the effect.
  • Sleep No More” continues this series' improvements in casting diversity. From the show's first trans actor to multiple people of colour, Doctor Who is really starting to pave the way for diversity. It's a huge improvement.

Overall, “Sleep No More” is a very brave experiment, one that I personally enjoyed overall, but I can understand why many people might not. The script is clever—albeit too clever to the point that it sacrifices character development. It does a good job of making and maintaining a creepy atmosphere, and the closing scene is one that will terrify the children watching and make them really want to sleep no more. This story will never likely be considered a classic, but it is one that will inspire a lot of debate and discussion for years to come.

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