Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Sleep No More written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Justin Molotnikov

This story in a nutshell: I don't want to put myself through it again for the review...

Indefinable: Poor Peter Capaldi. He's practically holding this show up with his bare hands at the moment, finding nuggets of gold in some pretty unremarkable episodes. But he's fighting a losing battle with Sleep No More. Did the Doctor really visit Le Verrier space station? Was the footage real? Does anybody care? What shocked me was just how functional the dialogue between the Doctor and Clara was. It was painfully bland, standard Doctor/companion material 101. It could literally be transferred from any other set of regulars without changing a single line, that's how lacking in individuality and personality it was. What was even more telling was the way this episode was shot and how it shone a shocking new light on the twelfth Doctor and Clara. Take away the flashy editing, soft lense work and music and expose Capaldi and Coleman to handheld shots with extended pauses and they are left looking utterly uncharismatic and awkward. Which is perhaps not the best light to shine on your stars. Capaldi tries to injects some urgency into the revelatory dialogue but this isn't a script that is interested in exploring it's concepts, simply to throw the ideas at you and get on with more running about. He's trying to dramatise vacant dialogue. When the show can't even rely on Capaldi to bring it to life, perhaps the best actor to have ever played the Doctor then there is something fundamentally wrong with the approach the show is taking.

Impossible Girl: Duller than a dull thing with knobs on. Just leave already. I'm growing increasingly bored of Clara and am starting to wonder why she wasn't written out in Last Christmas when she was originally supposed to. I think I would have thought much more of the character had she gone out on that high. The situation rather reminds me of a frequent problem that occurs over at Big Finish where the creators of Doctor Who audio enjoy working with a particular actor/actress so much (in particular I'm talking about India Fisher and Philip Olivier) that they keep using their characters long past their ability to generate decent stories. The result? A character that everybody remembers for sticking around too long and dragging out their story, characters that would have had a much more memorable, truncated run. Always leave them wanting more, never leave them wanting less. I can understand why Steven Moffat wanted to keep Coleman around for another season, if she has hardly set the audiences world on fire Clara has at least become a recognisable figure and has comfortably bedded herself into the series. And for Coleman it is the security of another years work and an unwillingness to part with a character that has put her on the map. But I have seen very little material that justifies Clara's extended use, in fact if anything I would say that after a reasonable showing in series eight she has regressed in interest and personality to the sort of bland non-entity she was in her time with Matt Smith's Doctor. Coleman is likable but that isn't enough, Clara needs to exhibit some kind of personality, bring some kind of drive to the stories, to leave her mark with the sheer strength of her character. Instead she oftens blends into the background leaving very little in the way of an impression. I couldn't fathom Gatiss' approach with her character in Sleep No More, if this is a piece of fiction then there was a the perfect opportunity to have some fun with the character but even Rasmussen could not assemble this footage in a way that made Clara seem interesting.

The Good:
* I rather like the song 'Mr Sandman.'

The Bad:

* Here is a brief synopsis of this episode or at least my take on it: Rasmussen creates a technology that deprives people of sleep that goes tits up and transforms those who are exposed to the technology into Sandmen. They aren't just blobs of sleep dust but can effectively turn into anything. They want out of the technology and to spread into the solar system. They lure a rescue team into a trap on Le Verrier. The Sandman who has taken on Rasmussen's form constructs a narrative out of the footage on the station to spread the virus and turn everybody in the Solar System into Sandmen. The bad guys win. My question is this...how can you take hold of a synopsis as dramatic as that and produce a script as tedious as this? How can you gut a story that is potentially full of drama of practically any worth? Answers on a postcard please, Mark Gatiss and Justin Molotnikov. Or if you would like my more detailed take on the matter...
* I appreciate the show attempting to take on a fresh visual style. I have been highly complimentary about the location work this year and some of the more potent direction, it has been an extremely polished season on the whole. Sleep No More attempts to be ambitious visually with most of the episode being shot from the POV of one of the characters and via security footage, a bold idea utilising lots of handheld camerawork that brings to mind the look and feel of series such as 24 and Battlestar Galactica. As far as I can see though the director failed in his mission to bring this footage to life with any urgency. Much of the episode was paceless, ponderous and lacking drama. It took characters that were already lacking substance and left them exposed them as little more than monster fodder. There were lingering shots on the drab sets and the lighting failed to generate any menace. Also the disclosure of the sleepy gunk monsters was a massive mistake. I haven't been this embarrassed to see a monster in long shot since Nightmare of Eden. Like the Mandrels these nasties should have been kept to the shadows throughout. They lumber about even more precariously than the Fisher King and reduce the episode to something of a farce. It's all very trying to convince us that a monster is frightening but when the evidence of our own eyes screams otherwise it's a rather fruitless affair. Some people have observed that this had the feel of a computer game with it's multiple angles and POV shots. You're right, it does. But I don't play computer games and I don't watch Doctor Who to emulate their style...especially when the way the show is usually shot is much more effective.
* Victory of the Daleks. Cold War. The Crimson Horror. Robot of Sherwood. What do these episodes have in common aside from being unreservedly bland? Lack of characters. Oh there are people who feature in them...but they are shells of characters without essence or personality. It's a common problem to report in the Moffat era, a stress on story over character and it's why so many of his episodes lack the re-watch factor. If you don't care about anybody then what is the point of watching? You might find fault with The Unquiet Dead and The Idiot's Lantern but you cannot deny that they had heart and at the centre of both stories were vivid, defined characters. But that was Davies' speciality and clearly he gave both scripts a spring clean. Sleep No More is the worst example yet, even worse than Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS for facelessness. These are grunts, not characters. We even get a spec which says as much. The actors must have read the script and scratched their heads at how to bring any kind of presence to these people. I don't know who these people are, where they have come from, where they are going...or why I should give a shit if they live or die. The inference is that things have been edited in a particular way so it is very possible that for the benefit of dramatic effect Rasmussen omitted all the scenes that shone some light on their personality. But I doubt it. Half the battle for this kind of survival contest is making us care about the people who are being hunted. I was longing for them all to be slaughtered as soon as possible so we could get on with something else. The jigsaw puzzle POV approach hampered things even further, switching viewpoints made it impossible to focus on any one character and follow their development. One character was entirely defined by the use of the word 'pet'. Yep, this is sophisticated stuff.

* I think Reece Shearsmith is genuinely good actor. He's proven his versatility time and again in his worked with the League of Gentlemen and more recently in his superb anthology series Inside No 9 but something went disastrously wrong with his performance here. The part was underwritten for sure but there is something about the pressure of this episode that demanded a grander performance than he delivered. It's too subtle by half and as such I found the central villain of the piece too mild and lacking in menace. It wasn't until the final scene that he made any real impression on me at all and that was entirely down to the work of the special effects team. The vanilla villains (The Fisher King, the Space Viking, the Lion Man) of series nine have another member on their team.
* Monsters that are made out of the evolved gunk in your eye. We're really scraping the barrel now. Creatively, I mean. Visually certainly.
* What was the point of the truncated language of one of the characters? It was introduced but never explored. It made the character sound faintly retarded for no reason, which felt like a bit of an insult. I think it was just another quirky idea thrown into the mix without much thought. Gatiss is much better than this. Seriously, go and read Nightshade.

Result: Is it better to try something bold and experimental and fail or to churn out the same old guff that you know you have a chance of getting right? Before watching Sleep Mo More I probably would have gone for the former (indeed The Zygon Inversion was an attempt at something different that only went partway towards succeeding in it's goal) but now I'm starting to wonder if I have had it wrong. Over the past two years it has been the two episodes that pushed the envelope the most that have impressed me the least; In the Forest of the Night and Sleep No More. Gatiss' approach baffles me because he has taken what is essentially a simple story and butchered it with a found footage narrative device and turned it into a frustrating puzzle piece that bewilders and leaves a nasty taste in the mouth when you realise the reality of the nature of the episode. He's forgotten to include characters that might make this a worthwhile experience. He's neglected to include one line of dialogue that might engage with this viewer and bring the shaky premise to life with some significance. I'm a massive fan of the found footage horror genre (when a new movie comes out to employ this technique my friend Kate and I get terribly excited) and was extremely turned on by the premise (as I'm sure Steven Moffat was) and I am baffled how something with so much potential can turn out to be so vacant and devoid of interest. Losing the title sequence and music sounds like a good idea in theory but perhaps I am more of a traditionalist than I previously thought because it felt like a lesser piece for their absence. Sleep No More wants to hit you with a wham bang twist ending but it just leaves you scratching your head and feeling thick as shit as if you've missed something that was never there in the first place. It would be like an Agatha Christie novel climaxing with the reveal of a murderer that hasn't been mentioned or alluded to throughout. I like the idea of the bad guys winning for a change but pulling the rug from under the audience in such a deceptive way is inexcusable. Sleep No More should have been all atmosphere, it should have pushed the horror content of the show to its limit, it should have taken hold of a tired format and revolutionised it in a way only Doctor Who can. It should have been brave. I seem to be saying that a lot this year. Before the Flood could have been tragic, The Woman Who Lived could have been heartbreaking, The Zygon two parter could have been much more daring in it's handling of it's politically inflammatory content and Sleep No More could have been absolutely terrifying. Braver decisions are needed. This is a show that is losing its pulse. Let's not turn this into the season that could have been. Unbelievably almost completely devoid of engaging material, an astonishing admission given the head start this episode had. If this review is full of hyperbole that is because frankly because getting het up about how dull this was is just about the most interesting thing you can say about it. I can't say I wasn't warned not to watch: 2/10


Nick said...

It seems like this was very much a marmite episode. I know some people who loved it, others who hated it like you. For me it seems a lot like Love and Monsters (which I know you loved but I thought was an unspeakable abomination). I personally thought Sleep No More was an interesting attempt at something different that didn't really hit the mark.

Ed Azad said...

I should have known something was wrong when we rooted for Missy and Bonnie. It's like we've regressed to the Delgado days, where the good guys are saddled with functional-but-boring personalities.

At least with Matt Smith, I didn't like him or his companions. Nowadays I just don't care. And that's the worst part. One way or another, you need an emotion, you know? Getting hated is fine. Getting loved is fantastic. It's when people don't care that you're in trouble.

Anonymous said...

You can talk to your opinion but stop to act as if you it has the majority opinion of the public, extreme most people find this the best season of the new series and Jenna one of the best actresses to play a companion of the new series

Mr. Jordan said...

Your last paragraph really hits the nail on the head with this series. Each story has tried to reach for some lofty meaning only to land short thanks to ropey characterisation. Of course that isn't new for Moffat but now it seems the writers can't even be arsed to get The Doctor right!

As for 'Sleep No More'; everyone should listen to 'The Natural History of Fear' instead. Which is a comparison as unfair as it is apposite.

Anonymous said...

The only positive of this episode (and the majority of the Capaldi era) it is that many fans now realize that they have been unjustly harsh and critical toward Series 5-6-7A.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what happened recently, the show doesn't excite me as it used to to. Do you know what I miss? A Doctor and a companion who exit the TARDIS and look outside in awe (unforgettable Donna's first journey to the past in Pompeii and into her first alien planet, I so miss that kind of stuff). Clara is by far too assured and confident, she keeps her job on Earth and time to time travels with the Doctor and offers solutions. Remember Sarah Jane or Jo Grant? they were brave but they were scared when the situation was scary.

I didn't understand very much of this episode, but I liked Capaldi, I prefer grumpy-Capaldi than embarrassing-Capaldi (calling people dude, himself Doctor Disco, etc), I haven't any problem with an alien and brusque Doctor.

The program needs a brand new direction, a new producer, new people... I fear we'll end up suffering a JNT syndrome (too long in the job)

The next companion should be something more original than a 21th century Englishwoman (we have had only this kind since the new series reboot). At least in the Classic series they tried something different (companions from the past and the future, a tribal warrior, a time lady,a boy genius, American and Australian companions, aliens from different planets... I'm not saying all of them were successful but at least were more original than your typical contemporary londoner, as much as I love Rose, Martha and Donna)

Matt Smith said...

Ropey characterisation has always been a problem with Doctor Who so for it to be perceived as a Moffat-only problem is a bit much. If anything ropey-characterisation is typical of the horror genre. The Sandmen look absolutely terrifying, coupled with “Mr. Sandman” playing I can’t remember the last time I felt so tense watching a Doctor Who story. But criticism such as “I missed the opening music” I mean… really? My only objectionable concern was the fact that the first time a trans-actress appears on Doctor Who and she plays a “grunt”; it felt a little off for me. The cliffhanger was great and was regarded as one of the high points of the episode (Rotten Tomatoes). I can understand the criticism from the perspective that Doctor Who does not easily fit well into the “found-footage” genre but it’s not nearly as bad as it is made out to be.

Ed Azad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed Azad said...

"I prefer grumpy-Capaldi than embarrassing-Capaldi"

I agree with Vane. At the same time, one has to imagine the memory of Season 22 is still fresh at the BBC. They must be terrified each time a new Doctor comes along. I liked the new, angry Doctor, and I would've liked to see it reach a logical conclusion ("I'm an idiot, lol"), but it's hard to argue with falling numbers, and every Doctor since Three has undergone a change halfway into their run, so it's fine.

"JNT syndrome (too long in the job)"

Not to be a pedantic jerk, but JNT desperately wanted to leave the job, perks notwithstanding (philandering and so on). I'm sure there's a part of Moffat's mind that wants to break JNT's nine-year streak, just as he broke Sara-Jane's streak, and probably even match his Doctor streak (the eventual 13th Doctor will make three, or five if you count Eccleston and Tennant).

I mean, I trash Moffat all the time, but his high score is quite safe. Who else has the connections, the press savvy, and the stamina to last this long in the job? JNT was just a hired hand.

Spacedog2k5 said...

I have to agree w/Vane, as well as the blog's author, Joe Ford. I have pretty given up on NuWho (I since started calling it NotWho, b/c it seems a more appropriate description). The Doctor has become less alien, more loopy old weirdo. His companion has outstayed her time. I recently re-watched the 1st Doctor story, "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", and while I think it could have used some trimming, I still think it was better than anything I've seen lately. Thank god, we still have the DVDs, Big Finish audios, and the classic books.. I fear that Moffat will kill this show in a way worse than in JN-T's run!

Tango said...

Spacedog2k5: To be honest, from the human point of view, all doctors are smart loopy weirdos (especially the Fourth, Sixth and Eleventh Doctors). But undoubtedly Capaldi is more alien that David "emo teenager whiny" Tennant.

It's a shame that Jenna Coleman is suffering from "Sarah Sutton syndrome", a talented actress whose character is neglected to decent material. And like Big Finish Nyssa, Clara was very've outstayed her time but at least she did not fall in sappy plots as "being the bride of a genocide maniac as Magnus Greel"

David Pirtle said...

Unlike you, I really enjoyed this season, but I agree that this one is just awful, unquestionably the worst thing Gatiss has written for the revived program, and not particularly well realized, either. I even agree that Clara is dull this week, and I love Clara.