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Monday, 16 November 2015

Doctor Who S35E9: Sleep No More

Doctor Who
Series 35, Episode 9
Sleep No More

You know, when this episode started, I was immediately determined not to like it. Quite apart from the fact that it begins with a man very seriously saying 'Don't watch this,' which is practically leaving the field wide open for an 'if only I could, mate, if only I could' it also uses a narrative device that I absolutely hate: Found footage. Found footage that looks somewhat more professional than most of the found footage you'll see in other places, but found footage nevertheless.

Found footage is really the televisual and film equivalent of the epistolary novel, which I'm not keen on either, but unlike epistolary novels, it almost always looks clumsy, jarring, and awkward. It is pretty much never an enjoyable experience.

We'll talk about how that determination panned out in a second.

In this week's episode, told through a series of recordings, the Doctor and Clara arrive on a space station orbiting Neptune, and join up with a rescue team sent to find the crew. It isn't long until they discover something terrible has happened on the station: Machines meant to almost eliminate the human need for sleep have instead given rise to bizarre sand monsters, and the rescue team is now in deadly danger.

Silent Hill has really felt the impact of the recession.

Okay, so I wanted to hate this episode, but I didn't, actually. It's not a stellar episode, I wouldn't give it an award - and it's not even the best in this series - but it is enjoyable. The basic concept ('the Doctor arrives on a space station and also there are monsters') is pretty much pure Doctor Who, and even though most of the plot twists are utterly ridiculous (the monsters are made of mucus and skin cells, for example), the story's never boring and, in a refreshing turn after last week, never offensive or unpleasant.

The found footage element is an important part of the episode's plot, but it's also the weakest part, and the point where it gets tied into the plot is the point where the plot starts to break down: Basically, spoiler alert, the whole found footage thing was put together by the villain and contains an encoded signal that will cause people to stop sleeping and start manifesting sleep monsters. It's a very Blink ending, although it feels quite abrupt - especially when it's coming after a very busy, rather hectic climactic conclusion to the story that felt rather rushed and jarring.

So mechanically, the episode's not great, although it's definitely one of the better episodes in that regard this series. But the plot ideas at play here are interesting and have a lot of potential: The idea of humans eliminating the need for sleep, and that leading to horrible problems, is fascinating; sand monsters could be used in interesting ways; there were some nice moments with the space station being cheerfully evil at people (which is a cliche, but a fun one); and some interesting worldbuilding sections were dropped in by the rescue team that could make fascinating episodes in their own right.


There was social commentary in this episode too, of a much more subtle and tasteful variety than that of the last two episodes - it still wasn't gigantically subtle, Doctor Who has always been a bit anviloid in how it deals with its social commentary - as we learn that the moon of Triton, where most of the characters come from, is obsessed with industriousness and work, with the commentary taking aim both broadly at people working too much and (possibly) more narrowly at the Tory obsession with people working more and more.

I'm still not keen on it, but god knows that didn't make me uncomfortable like the last two episodes did. 

It feels like Mark Gatiss had some good ideas for this episode and was hamstringed by the found footage concept - I'm not sure whether that was dictated to him from on high or if it was his own idea, but I'd actually lean towards it being the latter - which not only makes the episode awkward to watch, but whose inclusion in the plot is largely the reason for the convoluted, rushed, rather jarring final ten minutes of the episode. Mark Gatiss isn't the strongest writer at the best of times, even though I usually enjoy his work, so a better writer might have been able to balance the disparate elements of this episode a bit better.

The set design is also, you know, fine.

Still, I don't hate this episode, and if I was compiling a list of episodes to watch in this series, it would so far be the first four and this one. I'm also looking forward to the next episode: It has Rigsy, from one of my favourite episodes of the last series, back, and it also has Maisie Williams, who hopefully will be putting on a better performance than she did in the first two episodes on this show. More than that, the concept looks really interesting, with shades of Neil Gaiman, and I'm interested to see how that turns out.

Although, really, guys. The plot. I don't know what the plot for this whole series is. Give me something more than a few recurring themes.

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