Sunday 15 November 2015

Reviews in Time & Space: Sleep No More

Doctor Who s09e09 - Sleep No More

Once upon a time "found footage" felt like a new and exciting style of filmmaking. But ever since films such as The Blair Witch Project it's been emulated by horror films time after time, and now for every decent attempt at it you get at least five really awful ones. But while the horror genre may be absolutely flooded with them, a found footage style episode is definitely a first for Doctor Who. Penned by series regular and Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss, Sleep No More is quite unlike any Who episode that has come before it - bringing the show into that not-so-exclusive club of media that has attempted such a hit or miss tactic. Was it a success? You'll have to read on to find out, but you better make sure you're good and rested before continuing...

The opening titles
Puzzles now included!

The episode opens as Rassmussen, the lead researcher on the Le Verrier space station orbiting Neptune in the 38th century, creates a message to the audience - encouraging them not to watch the following video. However he does explain that this pieced-together footage will explain the recent events of the last few hours.

When the space station suddenly ceased all communication, a rescue ship from Triton arrive there in order to assess the situation. After abruptly meeting with the Doctor and Clara, they discover that the station is under attack from strange creatures seemingly made from sand. As the team try to contact one of their separated members, the Doctor investigates a machine names the Morpheus sleep pod - which can make a human experience a whole month's worth of sleep in a matter of minutes. After finding it's creator in one of the pods (Rassmussen) the group also discover the machines have a side effect - and now that side effect has killed the crew and is roaming the space station.

In 7 days you will die...

Sleep No More presents quite a few firsts for Doctor Who. Not only is it the first use of the "found footage" style of filmmaking, it is also the first truly standalone episode of season/series nine and more importantly the first time the show has ever dropped the opening theme and titles - opting for a custom made word search-style logo instead. Trivia like this will undoubtedly earn the episode a place among the history books, but in terms of overall quality Sleep No More doesn't quite hold up as well. The episode is a well of interesting ideas, but completely forgettable extras and an almost lack of true purpose don't do it any favours. Much like the Doctor it's an episode that will certainly keep you guessing (even if some of the revelations are rather clearly signposted), but as the end credits roll will leave you wondering what it was all for. One thing is for certain though - "Mr Sandman" will be stuck in your head for some time afterward.

An example of the "found footage"
Is it scarier this way?

The found footage angle only works so well, especially since the episode is constantly making frequent jumps between different perspectives and picture quality. It would be foolish to assume that something taking place in the 38th century is going to look like it was filmed on a handheld camcorder, but the jumps are more distracting than an indication that something is up with the whole situation. Especially as the viewpoints start to become more and more implausible, with the frequent near-overhead shots and see-through dematerialising TARDIS. What starts out as a rather powerful sense of claustrophobia unravels to feel like any other Doctor Who episode - just with the added bonus of a slightly different point of view and some irritating shaky cam thrown in now and again.

The Sandmen are another element of the story that don't quite have the desired effect. It's yet another attempt from Doctor Who to take the smallest real thing and turn it into something scary, but here it works better as an idea rather than a physical presence. Certainly the idea that sleeping is actually protecting humanity from creating these monstrosities works as a scare factor, but the walking sleep dust/mucus monsters aren't especially terrifying. Maybe it's because the episode gives us a good look at the creatures, when a better technique (that would have gone rather well with the found footage element) would have been to only give away glimpses of them. This in turn would have made the episode's ending feel all the more creepier - especially since as it stands it was already the standout moment of the whole thing.

The Sandmen

Though it's likely to spark quite a bit of debate among fans, Sleep No More really does feel like the first dud of what has been an otherwise top-notch year of Doctor Who. While certainly commendable for the scope of its ambition, it never quite lives up to this potential and the end result is expectedly underwhelming. Found footage was already becoming an incredibly tired cliche, and Sleep No More certainly hasn't done anything to change this fact. With Gatiss supposedly already asked to write a sequel story maybe a bit more development could see these creations truly come to life, but only time can tell.

Next week: The Doctor and Clara reunite with a few friends as they Face the Raven.

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