[previous: “The Zygon Inversion”]
Doctor Who does found-footage… and it actually works in a way that most found-footage stories don’t even bother with anymore. It works because there’s a genuine rationale for someone — in this case, Rassmussen — to have assembled “extant” footage into something resembling a story. And that’s even before we learn that he has ulterior motives, and a secondary, hidden rationale for assembling the found footage. This is pretty brilliant. And it plays with our presumptions about genre, both about science fiction and found-footage: it’s because we’re so used to the idea of SF soldiers wearing helmet cams that we don’t need to be told that the soldiers are wearing helmet cams. Which, of course, they aren’t. The “twist” reveal that there are no helmet cams works only because we automatically presumed that they were.
Clever of writer Mark Gatiss to work in so many kinds of misdirection here. I did notice right away when we started getting Clara’s POV, which obviously could not have been possible if everything we’re seeing is supposedly only from the perspective of the soldiers and the station cams (which we also presumed, and which also turns out to be a wrong presumption). Eventually it becomes so obvious — we also start getting Rassmussen’s POV, and he’s not wearing a helmet that could have a cam either — that we’re clearly meant to be suspicious. Even so, I was inventing possible explanations that got nowhere near what was really going on: perhaps someone was actually asleep in a Morpheus pod and dreaming, or something along those lines? Of course, this would have been so much like other stories we’ve seen this season — like the other James Cameron-esque story, “Last Christmas” — but more samey-samey wouldn’t have been surprising. I’m glad that turned out not to be the case.
Still: the monsters were a bit rubbish. “Sleep dust” devouring humans? Something about concentrating a full night’s sleep into a few minutes makes the monsters inside us — whatever they are — manifest and try to kill us? Maybe if the idea were developed a bit more (instead of feeling like the Vashta Nerada warmed over) it could have worked. I’d have loved some exploration of the ramifications of humans abandoning sleep, which would be huge even absent any resulting monsters. Particularly if, as this episode hints at, not all people are taking advantage of the technology. (For a provocative look at such a scenario, see Nancy Kress’s brilliant novels about the Sleepless, starting with Beggars in Spain.)
I did really like this episode for its stylistic adventurousness, though. I like how Gatiss directly confronts the idea that stuff that doesn’t make sense sometimes gets thrown into Doctor Who simply as a calculated measure to keep the viewer in suspense. And I really love how the Doctor is himself flummoxed by the events he is caught up in. He knows something is wrong but never quite catches on to what it is, and he doesn’t actually fix everything in the end. He escapes, but he doesn’t win. Maybe, perhaps, we can presume that at some point, he does make everything right, just as he assures Clara that of course he’ll be able to stop the Mopheus process from doing her any longterm damage. But maybe not.
Random thoughts on “Sleep No More”:
• No opening titles! Just this:
And I didn’t even notice the D O C T O R W H O picked out among the text the first time I watched.
• The secret of the Doctor’s psychic paper is out across the 38th-century Sol System. Everyone can see that the paper is blank but that the person looking at it believes s/he is seeing something:
• “You don’t get to name things. I’m the Doctor, I do the naming… It’s like the Silurians all over again.” Good point about the misnamed Silurians, but just when I thought the Doctor had put aside his uncalled-for nastiness, it rears up again. Why can’t Clara name things? It’s not even like this one — the Sandmen — was a stretch.
• Hooray for another episode with a nicely diverse cast: white men are a distinct minority here. And the cast is really diverse: Bethany Black, who plays Grunt, is transgender.
• “Looks like a Japanese restaurant,” Clara says to the Doctor, and then gasps in delight. “Have you brought me to space restaurant?”
Why have all the amazing and delicious possibilities of foodie science fiction been ignored by this show? Let’s go to a space restaurant!
[next: “Face the Raven”]