'Found footage' stylisation and an unexpected twist ending delivers the stand-out episode of the ninth series (so far).
|Who's watching? (Image copyright: BBC)|
Mark Gatiss. Lovely guy and a modern renaissance man: The League of Gentlemen, Crooked House, Sherlock, actor, novelist and enthusiastic commentator on what used to be called cult TV and films. If I’m honest, though, I haven’t always warmed to his Doctor Who episodes. Although they’ve all been colourful, amusing and full of striking imagery, they haven’t always delivered in the final reel: the golden arrow in ‘Robot of Sherwood’ is a case in point. On the other hand, An Adventure in Space and Time is just sublime and ‘The Crimson Horror’ is one of my favourite Matt Smith stories, as Gatiss had the chutzpah to relocate an episode of The Avengers to the Victorian era.
For me, though, ‘Sleep No More’ is his best script so far. Maybe that’s surprising, as it’s largely free of his customary wit, is unremittingly grim and has a very bleak ending. Look closer, though, and Gatiss is on home turf with a classic base-under-siege/mad-scientist story. This staple Doctor Who concept is refreshed and revitalised by the innovative way it was executed, as a compilation of video footage of a military rescue team investigating a space station orbiting Triton, edited together and interrupted by an unreliable narrator.
Of course, that’s ‘innovative’ in the context of Doctor Who. This approach has been around since 1999’s horror movie The Blair Witch Project, to the extent that ‘found footage’ has become a sub-genre in its own right, from notable films like Cloverfield, Troll Hunter and Paranormal Activity to the host of their less notable imitators. It’s more than past time Doctor Who had a go; the closest it’s been before was in the point-of-view narrative of Elton Pope (Marc Warren) in ‘Love and Monsters’ (2006). ‘Sleep No More’ is a dramatic step forward. Its frenetic mix of colour, black and white, hi and lo res video, broken up by picture interference and camera shake, really heightens the tension and drama in a deceptively straightforward story.
Part of the found footage’s genre’s remit is to be deliberately distracting, so to anchor the visual collage Gatiss was really on form in a lean script packed with detailed world building. 38th century genetically engineered troops, ‘grunts’, with numbers instead of names – portrayed here by the quietly scene-stealing Bethany Black as 474 – talk of a cultural and physical collision between Japan and India, singing hologram idents for the sleep-devouring Morpheus machines, as well as an absent, partying crew reprogramming a door so users had to sing the pop song ‘Mr Sandman’ to use it, all helped convince you that you were involved in a lived-in world that had a life beyond the episode.
After the hit-and-miss satire of the Zygon story, it was gratifying to see something as subtly infuriating as the Morpheus machines that eliminated the need for sleep in humans. Going by our 24/7 culture, it’s a dead cert that someone, somewhere is developing something similar that will further erode our increasingly precious personal time in order to maximise profits. It was good to see the Morpheus devices follow another classic Doctor Who trope, that of corporations upsetting the natural order of things. The idea of carnivorous monsters involving from sleep mucus is both endearingly daft and poetically chilling, resulting in some wonderfully gloomy dialogue from the Doctor: ‘Sleep isn’t just a function… Every morning we wake up and wipe the sleep from our eyes and it keeps us safe from the monsters inside.’ While on the following- through-ideas front, exactly how video signals could be accessed through ‘sleep dust’ could have done with some clarification.
|Two gentlemen. (Image copyright: BBC)|
Make no mistake, this is ground-breaking stuff for Doctor Who. Stories usually end on an optimistic note, and on only four occasions that I can think of have the villains won, and three of those – ‘The Aztecs’, ‘The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve’ and ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ – were in the show’s ‘classic’ run. Not only that, but ‘Sleep No More’ scored another first with the Doctor never finding out what had really been going on or that he’d been manipulated.
Brave stuff, and I’d like to see more experimentation like this. The final frame of Rassmussen’s face disintegrating had me thinking about the story for a long time afterwards; I’ll also take a safe bet that, ironically, it caused a few sleepless nights in the under tens. In the circumstances, it’s just as well the episode finished with the reassuring ‘Next Week’ trailer and the end titles (which did jar slightly with the titles being deliberately dropped from the beginning).
An extra gold star to Mark Gatiss for using the title ‘Sleep No More’. Although it’s a quote from Macbeth (as the Doctor pointed out), I’ll wager that he knows it’s also the name of the second album by the vastly underrated New Wave band the Comsat Angels, dating from 1981. I always knew Mr Gatiss was a man of taste, but now he’s gone up even more in my estimation.
Bit to rewind: All of it.