15 November 2015

Doctor Who: Sleep No More

Sleep No More isn't trying to say or do anything in particular, it's just an experiment into uncharted territory for Doctor Who - but it doesn't work, writes Tom Newsom.

I’m sure some people must love it, but I never hear anyone admit that in public. The ‘found footage’ genre, normally for low-budget horror, has been ubiquitous in the last five (ten? fifteen?) years. I’m not an expert in it by any means, but it offers a very different form of drama to the one we’re used to in Doctor Who - something more distant. However given its widespread use, doesn’t it feel like a great fit for a scary episode? In theory, perhaps - but here it just left me cold.

You can’t call this episode conventional, in any sense. But I’ve surprised myself, thinking back, how many things it gets spot on: the monsters especially. Sleep, the sandman, it’s an irresistible connection, played to its full here. But the camera moving means that we barely glimpse them at first - a plus for anything trying to scare us. And then when we see more, it’s just a deformed blob with legs and a gaping mouth - eurgh. They’ve got one of the sketchiest backstories and behaviour - “sleep dust” is all there is to them - but they don’t half scare.

It’s a great production, especially when you consider it was filmed with the normal HD cameras, as opposed to smaller models attached to the actors. The camerawork can really make you feel the action even when people are standing still, and the editing is faster. Parts of this episode are INTENSE, the scary parts, which you don’t normally get with Doctor Who.

It’s definitely an episode that will be rated a ‘12’, in a series that’s had at least four of them so far - so god knows what young children thought of it. I remember being scared watching Jeopardy, a CBBC Blair Witch Project-style series, when I was younger - and that was just kids in a field with cameras, rather than full-blown Aliens.

But there’s only that intensity to parts of it. For the rest of it, normally the talky scenes such as at the start or with the supporting characters, it starts to grate. Yes, really - Doctor Who is a programme that actively tries to not be boring, always. But when it’s a group of guest characters who you barely even recognise (let alone care for), who are muttering in wide-shots with shaking cameras - well, you pray for a good closeup. Thankfully we get a few, of the Doctor especially (him and Clara are a welcome presence this week), because otherwise you’d struggle to feel a part of the action, even with the point-of-view business. At some moments it didn’t feel like television to me at all, more like a first-person shooter - really, for Doctor Who?

The helmet cameras, or lack of, was a good twist though, in an episode that had more standout moments than it deserved. The plot is involved just enough, building up and teasing out a few mysteries. Okay, I felt good about wondering to myself why we were seeing things from Clara’s point of view (or whether there was another soldier character I’d missed). The story about the Morpheus process was well told too, with its slightly creepy set-up involving “that song”. Less so about the hunt for the villain behind the piece - by then I was confused what the overall monster plan was, though so was the Doctor.

It would be cruel to sign off a review with the Doctor’s closing comment - “none of this makes any sense!” - so I won’t. Instead, I’ll highlight the cool and utterly terrifying closing shot of Reece Shearsmith. Good to have him in Doctor Who, and a perfect fit for this particular part. This episode feels like an Inside No 9 on BBC Two, if its budget was tripled overnight.

Really though, this is Doctor Who (and writer/horror fan Mark Gatiss) having fun with a particular genre. You can tell that through the ways they’ve tied it into the story - the ‘found footage’ of the “cameras”, and the message that frames the story. It’s not like a film, in that the director is using it to make a statement or a higher art-form. This is purely them trying new things, an experiment of an episode for this week’s audience.

I’m just not quite sure it works.

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