Perchance a Dream

Review of Sleep No More
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

Mark Gatiss scripts are always hit or miss for me. I have really enjoyed a couple of them, especially The Unquiet Dead, but others have fallen flat for me. This entire season has been really strong (in my opinion), though, so knowing Gatiss was the writer on this episode, I went in feeling cautiously optimistic.

I came out the other end of the story rather confused—not by the plot itself so much as by how I felt about it all. After my second viewing, though, I think I finally figured out where I stand: with opposing opinions depending on how I look at it. As a writer, I found the episode to be a fascinating experiment using a worthy storytelling conceit; as a fan, I didn't particularly like it.

Much of the online reaction I've seen centers on the "found footage" style. Some folks are touting it as a bold, new direction, while others feel it was a mistake of epic proportions. As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere between the extremes. Given the nature of the story, the found footage format (say that twelve times fast) strikes me as a perfect fit. It adds to the creepiness and makes the camera POVs part of the narrative itself. However, I found it incredibly off-putting. I've simply never been a fan of that style of film, and found it difficult to look past.

The whole "sleep dust is going to consume you and turn you into a monster" thing is just another twist on Moffat's tried-and-true plan to find something ordinary and make it scary, done Gatiss style. That's brilliant. But it didn't work for me. I mean, I'm sure some viewers found it terrifying (there are undoubtedly plenty of newly traumatized children out there this week). As a concept it's great. I simply couldn't buy into it.

In fact, I found it so pedestrian, I barely have any notes on the story, and much of those are quotes I liked. For example, I loved when they first heard the howls of the Sandmen and the Doctor says to Clara, "Hold my hand."

"I'm okay," she replies dismissively.

"I'm not."

That exchange, along with the part where the Doctor exhorts Chief Nagata not to leave the cold room to go after the others and presumably die almost instantly—"They wouldn't thank you for that. Nor you, Clara."—makes me think he's still brooding on what he knows of Clara's impending fate. Perhaps it's been too strongly telegraphed as such for it actually to be her death (Moffat does like a good, old-fashioned bait and switch), but regardless, we've been given further clues in this episode that he knows it's coming, whatever "it" is.

I also liked the lampshade about the more mundane moments of the Doctor's existence. "Even I sleep," he says.

"When?" Clara asks in an incredulous tone.

"Well, when you're not looking."

There were some nice callbacks to earlier eras, too (as there usually are with Gatiss). One exchange that brought up a non-UNIT dating controversy:

"No, you don't get to name things. I'm the Doctor. I do the naming!"

"All right. Sorry."

"It's like the Silurians all over again."

Then there was the moment the Doctor channelled his Second incarnation: "When I say 'run,' run!"

From a writing standpoint, I can appreciate a lot of what Gatiss did with this script. He offered little insights into the Indo-Japanese culture of the 38th century (e.g., characters' frequent use of the phrase "may the gods look favorably upon you"), he gave even poor 474 her own minor character arc, and he hit all the usual beats for dramatic tension—while drawing attention to the fact that he'd done so.

Was Clara's exclamation that "This day couldn't get any worse!" supposed to be real coincidence, some influence of the Morpheus machine, or dubbed into the film later by the Rassmussen Sandman (because it was exactly the kind of storytelling cliché that Rassmussen's film needed)? That's the kind of ambiguity that will keep fans arguing about whether this episode was brilliant or pants for years.

Of course, if Gatiss ever writes the next part of the story (originally it was a two-parter, and there's been reference to him possibly writing a sequel at some point), maybe we'll learn more. The Doctor's clearly aware that something's off here, and the fact that even their escape was orchestrated will eventually become clear to him as he ruminates on the way everything unfolded "like a story," so perhaps he'll have a plan by the time he encounters the Sandmen again.

Until then, I prefer to pretend this whole episode was just a dream. Maybe then I can forget it.

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Comments

Well, they've broken their streak. Until this episode they hadn't insulted my intelligence this season. I can buy that the Morpheus Machine can pump you full of chemicals that would ordinarily be produced in the human body by sleep. I can buy that artificially producing these chemicals might change your brain chemistry. I do NOT buy that these changes in brain chemistry would turn you into a pile of sleep goo. It's stupid. And like you I found the monsters unoriginal and instantly forgettable.

I'm not a huge fan of the found footage genre but I did feel that it fit the story well. If you have to have it this was a good story to put it in. I like that they are trying new things and filming styles on Doctor Who and with any experimental technique sometimes you are going to knock it out of the park and sometimes you'll strike out. You can't succeed if you don't try.

I did feel that as the second "base under seige" story this season (and the previous story was a two parter) it felt just a little tiresome. Too much creeping fearfully down dark corridors looking over your shoulder for monsters gets old. Perhaps they should have saved this script for next season.

I did like the narration from Rassmussen and it was awfully creepy when he crumbled away at the end. I also liked the non caucasion characters and a brief glimpse of their society. Though I was disappointed that they had a gengineered soldier and pretty much threw the concept away. Genetically engineered humans and whether or not they have rights and how they would fit into society could be the basis of a very interesting script. Blade Runner explored this issue but it could use more exploring.

It was disappointing that we don't find out what happened next. How did The Doctor cure Clara and the soldier he did save? How did he prevent the video that was broadcast from infecting more people? I can see how this was supposed to be the first part of a 2 parter because it doesn't feel complete.

Still, with all it's faults it was a better episode than half the eps from last season and if this is the worst this season has to offer I'll think it was a win.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I agree that there is certainly more that could have been told here. Most of your stated views align with mine this week, too. :) The big take-away, in my opinion, is your last paragraph: basically, it could've been worse!

By mrfranklin

I liked this and I wonder if the general online discontent is that there appear to be a number of loose ends that need clearing up. To be honest, the Grand Moff has a variable track record in clearing some of these up.

I had to smile at "When I say run....."

I also wonder if we have got used to the two parters and reverting to the 45 minute format jarred a bit against that?

In other news I am glad to hear that recording for Season 10 has been confirmed, but I suspect transmission will not be until Spring 2017. Roll on "Class" for 2016?

By Wholahoop
mrfranklin's picture

I don't know whether or not either the loose ends or the sudden change back from two-parters is to blame for the generally negative reception I've seen online, but it certainly made a strong (bad) impression with a large number of fans this week. And while Gatiss is not Moffat, they're pretty tight, so who knows whether or not this will ever be "cleared up" to (majority) fan satisfaction.

Not making any assumptions one way or the other about Series 10 yet, but I will not be surprised if there are no new episodes in 2016.

By mrfranklin

If you remember I often commented last season about not being a fan of Capaldi but this season has won me over, until this episode. The truth is I don't think they should ever let Gratiss near an episode of Doctor Who again - it seems each and every season he gives us the worst episodes of the season and still holds the record in my mind as the guy who wrote the episode that would be difficult to defeat for the title of worst episode of the new series. This was just such a disappointment and I hope we get back on track now.

By Travis (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I've not been a big fan of Gatiss's writing overall, though I really enjoyed The Unquiet Dead (and at least one other). Granted, that was eight series ago...

I, too, hope that the series can finish strong. It has been so good up until now.

By mrfranklin
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