Doctor Who’s first “found-footage” episode is as unmemorable as the movies it’s aping.
You must not watch this. I’m warning you…you can never un-see it.
While I’m the first to applaud Who experimenting with new things and taking structural risks (what else can you do after fifty years?), I’ve always felt the “found-footage” genre was just lazy filmmaking. They generate cheap thrills cheaply, and only rarely does the storytelling actually justify the approach. I’d put 2012’s Chronicle at the positive end of the spectrum, which used its cameraman’s telekinetic powers to cool effect; aside from the ever-diminishing returns of the Paranormal Activity films, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit is probably one of the worst examples in recent memory.
So when I heard that Who was taking on the genre in a Mark Gattis-penned script, I was intrigued, but wary. It’s all in the execution: who’s doing the filming, and why? How would Gatiss and director Justin Molotnikov plausibly graft a documentary structure onto the show’s standard “get chased down a hallway by monsters” formula? The answers, which get revealed in a series of twists, are at first obvious, than half-clever, than just plain strange.
One of the big problems with found-footage films is plain consistency. Often the director will have to bend over backwards to put their camera in position to get “the shot,” and the writer will go into all sorts of contortions to justify their character continuing to film despite the fact that it’d be much smarter to drop the thing and run. “Sleep No More” neatly solves that — at least at the outset — by relying on what we assume are the helmet cameras of the security force, as well as apparent CCTV footage on the base. Once you accept that this Rassmussen character has had the time to actually edit it all together, we get to see the events entirely from their perspectives, and Molotnikov does a nice job of building the tension in the first 20 minutes.
I particularly enjoyed getting to see the Doctor and Clara as the weirdos they are, wandering into someone else’s story. Nearly every Who episode is told — though not quite so literally — from the Doctor and his companion’s point of view, and breaking out of that formula has had mixed results. (On the one hand, “Blink”! On the other… “Love and Monsters.”) Limiting our perspective to the helmet-cams and surveillance-cams keeps our heroes at arm’s length, and actually gives a real sense of what it must be like to be around them.
As with so many “base under siege” episodes, we’re quickly introduced to a handful of cannon fodder characters and some wacky concepts. This week, Gatiss’s big idea is the “Morpheus Pod,” a semi-sentient sleeping capsule that allows users to catch up on a full night’s sleep in about five minutes, or the length of the The Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman” (why everything about the Morpheus interface has a kitschy 1950s vibe goes unexplained.) It’s also the 38th Century, when the world is apparently run by Indo-Chinese corporations, which gives the show a convenient opportunity to select an intentionally diverse supporting cast.
Unfortunately, none of them get fleshed out beyond a name and general role, and most have no direct affect on the plot at all. In fact, if you removed the “rescue crew” from the episode entirely, I don’t think anything would change about the result. They seem to only exist to 1) give Clara something new to get righteously indignant about in the use of the clone-grown, dim-witted “Grunt,” and 2) provide the red herring of the helmet cams — and by the time the Doctor realizes they’re not actually wearing any, half of them are already dead.
Yet I’ll say this in defense of “Sleep No More”: the found-footage gambit manages to slightly improve a fairly paint-by-numbers story, at least tonally. It keeps us from getting too good a look at the creepy, shambling, big-mouthed Sandmen — who are definitely not Space Pirates, or Space Hats — and those clichéd genre details, like Rassmussen explaining the video we’re about to watch, pay off in somewhat surprising ways. The second time we cut to something that could only be from Clara’s POV, despite her not wearing a helmet, it was clear there was something else going on.
That said, the eventual reveal that we weren’t seeing the footage from any characters’ perspective, but from the dust itself, only raised more questions: why are some shots handheld, and others stationary? Why are the Not-CCTV shots still in black and white, and how is it that the Doctor can still look directly “into camera”? The visual consistency that had held the episode together begins to evaporate faster than the Doctor can come up with explanations for it.
Confounding matters further is Rasmussen’s ultimate plan, to create the “viral video” to end all viral videos and infect the world with his sleep-dust monsters. And as the first truly stand-alone episode of the season, I can’t decide if it’s bold or just weird to end “Sleep No More” on a cliffhanger anyway, even one as deeply unsettling as the final image of the scientist’s head collapsing into dust. The Doctor and Clara have fled the station having programmed it to crash to the surface, but the mystery remains thoroughly unsettled as far as the Doctor is concerned. Furthermore, he believes Clara might still be at risk. Are we going to circle back to this at the end of the season, or will her eventual fate leave it all moot anyway?
It’s a thoroughly unconventional Who episode, right down to the opening titles, but doesn’t quite hang together enough to be more than the sum of its parts. Thanks for trying something new, Mark Gatiss, but more focus on character and less on the gimmick is always a better recipe.
- Some gems from an extra-combative Doctor this week: “I’m in charge!” Nagata: “You have no authority!” “No, but I’m…in charge!” Later, he gets mad at Clara when she dubs the monsters “Sandmen”: “You don’t get to name things!”
- More world-building ideas that went nowhere: who are these “gods” that the crew keep talking about? And why are the computers so passive-aggressive?
- And…that’s it. Sorry we weren’t able to cover last week’s “Zygon Inversion” — a scheduling conflict knocked us out of our regular rotation. For what it’s worth, I liked it, even though the Doctor’s “Osgood Box” solution probably won’t work in the Middle East.
- Next Week: the Clara Death Watch continues as someone must “Face the Raven.”