Sunday, November 15, 2015

Doctor Who Season 9, Episode 9: Sleep No More

What the hell did I just watch?

This week's episode of Doctor Who begins with a character warning us not to watch it. If only! I've watched it twice now in preparation for this review and I still have no fraking idea what happened.

This is the first standalone episode of Season 9, which up to now has consisted of two parters. Oddly enough, it ends on what appears to be a cliffhanger. At least I think it did. I'm not quite sure about anything I saw in this bizarre and frustrating episode. 

There are a couple of other firsts this week. Sleep No More is the first ever found footage episode of Doctor Who. Oh boy. My all time least favorite film genre has now infected the series. I don't mind the series trying something different now and then in an effort to keep things fresh, but why did it have to be found footage? Let's hope this is the first and last time they try this.

This is also the first episode in the history of the series to not feature the traditional opening title sequence. The story starts right up, with just a brief glimpse of the title hidden in a jumble of fake computer code. I'm assuming this was done to help sell the whole found footage conceit.

Lastly, this is the first time Doctor Who has featured a transgender actor. British trans comedian Bethany Black plays the genetically engineered grunt 474 in the episode. I'm sure the LGBT community will be thrilled when they find out she's playing a dim-witted, barely sentient simpleton who's considered expendable.

Sleep No More is yet another "base under siege" story. These episodes are a long-time Doctor Who tradition, dating back to the earliest days of the show. But this one comes just a month after Under The Lake & Before The Flood, another siege two parter! Feels like it's high time to retire this worn out trope for a while.

Mark Gatiss is the guilty party responsible for writing this week's episode. Gatiss is a very uneven writer, whose output is either just OK or downright awful, yet somehow he keeps on getting work. He wrote The Unquiet Dead (OK), The Idiot's Lantern (meh), Victory Of The Daleks (not bad), Night Terrors (yikes), Cold War (good), The Crimson Horror (meh) and Robot Of Sherwood (OK). He's also starred in several episodes, including The Lazarus Experiment, Victory Of The Daleks, A Good Man Goes To War and The Wedding Of River Song.

For months before this episode aired, much was made of how scary it was and how terrifying the monsters would be. They're anything but. The notion of blind, shambling mounds of eye boogers that eat people and randomly turn into piles of dust is more laughable than frightening. Doctor Who's never been much for scientific accuracy, but this episode falls firmly into Ed Wood territory.

So far Season 9 has been a vast improvement over Season 8, but they finally stumbled this week. It's not quite as bad as last year's abysmal Kill The Moon or the preposterous In The Forest Of The Night, but brother, it's close.

Every TV series pumps out the occasional dog of an episode. It's  a fact of life— they can't all be gems. But it's especially troubling when Doctor Who fumbles. The show puts out just twelve to thirteen episodes per season, as opposed to American shows consisting of twenty four. If the creative team can't come up with twelve decent stories per year, then maybe it's time the BBC looked for someone who can.


The Plot (such as it is):
We begin with a grainy, glitchy video of a Professor Rassmussen telling us "You must not watch this. I'm warning you. You can never never "un-see" it." Truer words have never been spoken. He pops up throughout the episode, letting us know what's going on (well, sort of) and telling us know who's about to die, which sucks any sort of tension out of the story.

The Doctor and Clara then arrive at Space Station Le Vernier, in orbit around Neptune in the 38th Century. They run into a small rescue party, consisting of just four soldiers-- Nagata, the leader, Chopra and Deep-Ando, and the artificially grown grunt 474. They were sent to find out why the station went silent a few days ago.

Several blobby monsters suddenly appear, and the group runs through a series of corridors (natch) and barricade themselves in a lab. There the Doctor sees the Morpheus Pods. Clara examines one, which unexpectedly sucks her inside it. It releases her a few minutes later, and she claims she's been asleep for hours. 

As it turns out, the Morpheus Pods were invented to give the employees of the 38th Century a full night's sleep in just five minutes, so they can work round the clock. The Doctor makes the preposterously intuitive leap that the monsters chasing them are composed of "sleep dust"-- the gunk that forms in the corner of your eye when you don't get enough sleep. Apparently the entire population of the Le Vernier station used the Pods to stay awake indefinitely, and all their accumulated "sleep dust" somehow formed itself into carnivorous creatures. Creatures made of eye boogers. Yeah, I know.

There's lots of running around as the soldiers are predictably picked off one by one by the Sandmen (which Clara dubs the monsters). The Doctor hacks into the Nagata's helmet cam and plays back footage of the attacks. He then realizes none of the soldiers are wearing cameras, and the video feed is coming from the various particles of sleep dust floating in the air, and also from inside Clara and Nagata (both of whom have been inside a Morpheus Pod). 

The Doctor then faces Rassmussen, who invented the Pods. Rassmussen knows of the horrific side effects of his creation, and welcomes the fall of humanity that they'll bring. He then reveals a Pod containing Patient Zero, a person who hasn't slept in five years. He plans to send Zero to the nearby Neptunian moon Triton to spread the scourge of the Sandmen there. 

Rassmussen opens the Pod, and Patient Zero turns out to be another Sandman. Nagata shoots Rassmussen dead, and she, the Doctor and Clara flee. They make it to the TARDIS and hightail it off the station (to where, I have no idea).

In the final scene, Rassmussen, apparently still alive, appears onscreen. He says the Morpheus Pods generate electrical signals that affect and change the sleep centers of the brain. The signal is in the recording we're watching, appearing as a short video glitch. By watching it, we've been affected. He then dissolves into sleep dust.

That's it! The episode then abruptly ends, as if the producers realized they were out of time.

 How much of what we saw in this episode really happened? Rasmussen admits that he edited footage together to make it interesting, so his victims would watch it and become infected by the embedded signal. 

I'm assuming this is why the Doctor says everything seems like it's happening for effect, and that none of it makes any sense (you got that right, mate!). So did any of it happen? Or did it happen, but in a much different form than what we saw? Your guess is as good as mine.

The only way this episode makes any sense at all is if none of it happened, and Rassmussen— or rather the Sandman who takes the form of him— created the entire video out of whole cloth, as a way to distribute his signal. If you look at it that way, then all the incongruities in the story— the makeup of the Sandmen, the impossible camera angles, etc.— suddenly make a semblance of sense. 

Of course if this is true it means we all just wasted forty five minutes of our lives watching a story that didn't really happen to the characters and doesn't count.

 So I guess the Doctor lost this one, eh? At the end of Rassmussen's brain-altering video, he, or I guess a Sandman that looks like him, says he's just transmitted it throughout the entire solar system. I guess this means that from the 38th Century on, everyone in our solar system is dead, right? They're all either eaten by giant eye boogers, or transformed into dust. That's how I interpreted it.

And by the way, if the Rassmussen we saw was really a Sandman, then they must have the ability to take on human form. So why didn't any of the other Sandmen do this throughout the episode? Seems like that would have been a tactical advantage for them. Did anyone proofread this script before filming it?

 The concept of a society that forgoes sleep in order to work harder is an interesting one, and quite relevant to our times. Americans in particular are working longer and taking fewer vacations than ever before. Hopefully no corporations watch this episode and get any bright ideas!

As soon as they introduced the Morpheus Pods, I thought the plot would involve a sleepless society whose dark and disturbing subconscious thoughts became real and destroy them ala Forbidden Planet. Although derivative, that would have been far preferable to the murky and muddled mess of a story we got.

 The space station was named after French mathematician Urbain Le Vernier, who used orbital mechanics to predict the existence of the planet Neptune. 

 When they first arrive on the station, Clara asks the Doctor if he's brought her to a "space restaurant." The Doctor scoffs, saying that no one puts "space" in front of a word just to make it sound hi-tech or futuristic.

Oh really? What about "space station?" You know, that thing they're currently exploring? Space ship? Space helmet? Space pen? I get that it was a joke, but there's far too many examples of it really happening for it to make any sense.

 The Doctor wets his finger and tells Clara they're in the 38th Century. Specifically sometime after the "Great Catastrophe." 

When Clara asks what the hell the Great Catastrophe is, the Doctor says, "Well, you've got all that to look forward too, haven't you?"

Um... is he just being philosophical here, or does he really think she's going to live seventeen more centuries?

He then goes on to explain the Great Catastrophe, saying, "There was a tectonic realignment. India and Japan, they were sort of merged." So I guess it involved a massive earthquake that somehow smushed the two countries together? It must have been a REALLY big one, because India and Japan are currently nowhere near one another. They're separated by Korea and most of China.

 The Doctor confirms that the Sandmen are made of eye boogers saying, "Well, when we sleep, the mucus crust builds up in our eyes. Blood cells. Skin cells. That's what dust largely is. Human skin. But your meddling has evolved it. Hot-housed it. What used to be sleep in your eye has turned into a carnivorous lifeform." Gross!

Jesus Christ! I'm having a very hard time accepting this concept. How many millions of these eye crusts would you need to build just one of those creatures? And assuming they mass together to form a humanoid shape, how the hell does it become alive?

Ironically the Sandmen are blind, but apparently they can hear just fine, and even roar. 

I have a feeling the Sandmen were an attempt at creating another one of those monsters that Stephen Moffat seems to like so much. You know, the ones that take a perfectly ordinary thing like a statue or dust mote and turn it into a terrifying creature. Unfortunately monsters made of eye boogers fall far short of the mark.

I can't wait for next season, when Gatiss and Moffat cook up a monster made entirely of discarded toenail clippings or shedded ass hairs.

 The 38th Century greeting "May the gods look favorably upon us all" sounds a lot like The Hunger Games' "May the odds be ever in your favor."

 Doctor Who continues to fascinate me with its bizarre diversity. Only on this show would you find an Asian woman with a Scottish accent.

 The Doctor claims that even he sleeps, although I don't think he's ever been shown doing so on the series, unless he was drugged or knocked out.

 Wow, what a difference a season makes. Last year Clara stepped to the forefront as she practically became the Doctor. This year she's been shoved firmly into the background, having little more to do then ask, "What is it, Doctor?"

I wonder if this is a result of actress Jenna Coleman changing her mind about leaving last year? 2014's Last Christmas was supposed to be her final episode, but at the last minute she decided to stay, forcing a hasty rewrite of the ending, and most likely many of this season's stories. I'm betting that's why she hasn't had much to do this season.

This diminishing of her role is all the more unfortunate since it's her last season on the show.

 The Doctor discovers that the found footage is actually being filmed by particles of sleep dust that have infected everyone who's used a Morpheus Pod. In particular he seems upset that Clara's been infected. He tells her not to worry, and he'll "sort her out." 

And then the episode abruptly ends. So is Clara doomed to become a Sandman? Or was she never infected in the first place, and this was all part of Rasumssen's story? Did ANY of the events that happened to Clara and the Doctor really occur? I honestly have no idea.

 There are some genuinely creepy bits peppered throughout the episode. Unfortunately a few effective scenes do not a good episode make. 

Among the effectively scary bits: As the episode wears on, we gradually become aware we're seeing things from Clara's point of view, despite the fact that she's not wearing any kind of camera. Sadly, the reason why turned out to be utterly ridiculous. 

Similarly the Doctor's realization that he thinks he's watching the soldiers' helmet cam feeds, and finding out they're not wearing cameras was actually chilling.

The design of the Sandmen wasn't bad, evoking Clayface from the Batman comics. Alas, the absurdity of their origin undercuts any sense of eeriness.

The final scene of Rassmussen dissolving into sleep dust was also quite effective. It's just too bad these effectively frightening bits weren't supporting a more coherent story.

 According to writer Mark Gatiss, showrunner Steven Moffat was so impressed with the Sandmen and this episode that he wants him to write a sequel. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

1 comment:

  1. Just watched this last night. Head-scratchingly awful. Plus, if the eye-booger-men were blind, how did one of them assemble a found-footage documentary?


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