• 20th November 2015 • Review by Ben Paddon •
It was bound to happen, wasn’t it? We’ve had eight phenomenal episodes of Doctor Who this series – a strong feat for any television show, let alone one that is now a few days shy of its fifty-second birthday. We were probably due a duff. Serves us right for getting our hopes up, really.
Alright, yes, I didn’t like “Sleep No More”. I’ve blown the ending of the review. I wish I were smart enough to say that this was a clever metatextual commentary of the episode, that by giving the game away at the top of the review I am astutely pulling a reversal of this episode’s own failure to justify its rigid adherence to structure with the revelation that it was all part of some nebulous bad guy’s plan all along, but the truth is I’m nowhere near as smart as I think I am on that front. Neither, sadly, is “Sleep No More” writer Mark Gatiss, who probably thought that lampshading the basic architecture of a by-the-numbers Doctor Who romp would make for great viewing. Instead, it just gave us a by-the-numbers Doctor Who romp.
Not to say that a by-the-numbers romp can’t be enjoyable. Hell, a good number of the show’s on-rails of romps can be salvaged with clever dialogue or a smattering of great character moments. But this had neither. In fact it had no character at all – none of the characters introduced in this episode, most of whose names I can’t even recall despite having just finished watching the episode for a second time not fifteen minutes prior to writing this sentence, have no defining characteristics to speak of. We’re told that one of the characters considers himself the joker of the group, while another is young and inexperienced, but we don’t actually get to see that on the screen. The characters introduced to us in this episode are, for the most part, disposable cardboard cutouts. Perhaps this was intentional on Gatiss’ part. If so, poor choice.
In fact the only character with any sort of definition is 474, a simple-minded but well-intentioned “grunt” – a grown soldier, we’re told – with a bit of a crush on one of the other characters and played by Bethany Black. Much has been made of Black’s casting – she’s the first openly transgender actor cast in the series, which is a huge move; but one can’t help but feel that casting a transgender actor in the part of someone with poor communication skills and a penchant for nonconsensual face-touching was not the brightest of ideas. I’ve seen some people compare Black’s character to that of Toberman, a strong but dim henchman character played by black actor Roy Stewart in the 1967 Troughton-era story “Tomb of the Cybermen”. Not strictly speaking a fair comparison, as Toberman’s character calls to mind a very particular and unfortunate stereotype about black people, but the fact that this is where people’s minds are going should be a cause for concern.
So, the format, then. Truth be told I’ve never been fond of found-footage style movies or TV shows. I recently watched the original Paranormal Activity for the very first time and found it to be one of the most boring films I have ever endured. However, with the series riding a high at the moment, I went in with cautious optimism. To my surprise, the episode does some interesting things with the format, playing with viewers’ expectations as well as drawing attention to some of the issues I usually have with found-footage stuff, such as “Why would they have a camera there?” The fact that the helmet-cam footage is revealed to be a feed of sorts from the sleep in the corner of Morpheus users’ eyes is, I think, a stroke of genius, and the moment you first realize that we’re seeing Clara’s point-of-view when we really shouldn’t be is both exciting and just a little bit scary.
But that scare factor, slim as it is, becomes somewhat diminished by the rather naff-looking Sandmen. They’re a brilliant design – that gaping maw is marvelous – but they look rather a lot like a bunch of blokes in rubber suits, and when you catch them at the wrong angle that mouth looks wrong. Their distracting cheapness outdoes that of the Slitheen from 2005’s “Aliens of London”/”World War Three” for suspension-of-disbelief-breaking fakeitude, and it’s been a while since we last saw a Doctor Who monster look so thoroughly unconvincing.
Then there’s that ending. Whether or not you like this episode probably hinges on whether or not you think the by-the-numbers romp is justified by Rassmussen’s explanation that he was trying to craft a compelling story. For my money, no. It felt too much like the episode trying to justify its sloppy execution, but more than that the fact that we are watching the video he release means that the Doctor has lost. That’s not strictly speaking a bad thing – the Doctor has lost before, notably in Gatiss’ own “Victory of the Daleks” in 2010 – but this time he doesn’t even know he’s lost. He doesn’t know the video got out, or even what its true purpose was. Rassmussen wins by default, which feels hollow and unsatisfactory. What’s more, the Doctor had previously stated in the episode that if the infection spread that could mean the end of the human race. Oh well. We had a good run, didn’t we?
(And what of Clara? Is she still at risk? I rather suspect the Doctor cures her off-screen between episodes, which is a bit of a cop-out – why imperil her like that in the first place?)
Gatiss recently did an Answer Time on Tumblr – their version of an AMA, more or less – where he said that the script for “Sleep No More” is the one he’s most fond of. Sadly, I don’t think I can agree. It’s definitely not Gatiss’ worst contribution to Doctor Who to date, but for a writer who has written for almost every series of the show since its return in 2005 it’s a shame to think he may never again reach the fantastic standard he set ten and a half years ago with “The Unquiet Dead”.
Ultimately, every series of the show has an episode or two that some will deem skippable. Hopefully, if we’re lucky “Sleep No More” will be the only series 9 episode you’ll want to snooze through.