Saturday, 21 November 2015

"Sleep No More"

The ‘found-footage’ premise has become a very popular approach since The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999, where it has been used to add a degree of verisimilitude to various genres and it is now the turn of our favourite hero to have his tale told in this manner. Immediately, this story looks different, because, for the first time ever, the Doctor Who opening sequence is completely absent from a story. Gone, too, is Murray Gold’s incidental music. We are left alone with the sets, the lights, the cameras and the actors…

It is fitting that, as with other unusual stories, this episode is helmed by a newcomer to the series, in the shape of Justin Molotnikov. The camerawork is either static or hand-held and we are initially led to believe that the sources for the images are helmet cams and security cams. Molotnikov effectively builds up tension and real scares when the Sandmen attack as well as brief, but awe-inspiring views of Neptune from orbit and, of course, the end, which is genuinely unsettling. The set design is as good as ever and, with no non-diegetic music, the sound plays a more important role than usual.

There is effective world-building – the Indo-Japanese fusion, the genetically engineered Grunts and, most notably, the concept of Morpheus, the system that compresses sleep into five minutes. Characterisation is, perhaps inevitably, sketchy, but this is helped by some good guest performances, notably Amy Tan as Nagata (Indo-Japanese-Geordie, going by her accent!) and Bethany Black as Grunt 474 – designed to be less than human, yet involuntarily striving to be more so. Best of all is Reece Shearsmith as Rasmussen, the final member of the League of Gentlemen to appear in the programme. The regulars are more reactive than is usual, but this is no Eric Saward script and the Doctor soon takes charge. However, there is more going on in Mark Gatiss’s script than meets the eye. There are no cameras either in the helmets of the troops or the station itself. Moreover, events occur seemingly only for effect. In an inspired twist, it turns out that the episode itself is the means for the infection to spread, in the most metafictional the programme has been. It is therefore not, found footage after all – it is an edited mixture of a sinister reality version of Peep Show and the video from The Ring. It is a real pity, therefore that the script shows all the marks of a first draft. Personally I don’t find the idea of sleep dust forming the base of a malevolent new entity particularly ridiculous, especially when the realisation in as effective as it is here, but the way in which the plot develops, though understandable, is oddly paced and resolutions are few. Perhaps this is intentional – even the Doctor says that events make no sense – however, there is a slight sense of dissatisfaction left at the end, which is only partly assuaged by the promise of a sequel.

Nevertheless, this is a gripping tale that definitely works. I hope that the sequel (which I hope is called "Rheum With a View") builds on the foundation laid down.

NEXT: "Face the Raven"

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