Review: Doctor Who – 9.9 – ‘Sleep No More’

It’s only out of respect for the idea behind this episode that I don’t start my review of with ‘WTF was that??’

Well, I sort of did and I do echo the sentiments. What on earth was ‘Sleep No More’ about? More accurately, why did anyone sign-off on it in post-production?

To be clear: the idea behind this is genius. A found-footage style Doctor Who episode seems a little late to the game given how long the genre has been with around for in popular culture; really The Blair Which Project (although other definitive examples, like Cannibal Holocaust, existed prior to it).

From the get go it makes you think of the Churchill adage “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” Why the show hasn’t dabbled in this sort of thing before and why it has’t taken bigger leaps to break its own formulaic construction is something to ponder. Certainly the fact it has lasted more than 5o years suggests that change and familiarly are deployed in such equal measure that you can have a new leading actor and companion waltz in every few years and it continues exactly as it was before.

So maybe Doctor Who isn’t about change, but the illusion of change, and that’s what makes ‘Sleep No More’ a welcome idea, but a poorly executed one. For all I still love watching the Blair Witch Project, Mark Gatiss’ script is made to feel like a stage play produced by fandom that has a glorious premise but is let down by awkward pauses where you hope the audience will applaud you.

Alas, they didn’t. For a found footage film, even from the 38th century, it was too polished and lacking that rustic feel of damaged goods discovered amongst the wreckage that is only being viewed for the first time. It was perhaps too meta for it’s own good, The Doctor and Clara seemed like a tribute team, with their usual dialogue and style and the absence of music and dramatic tension feeling extremely set-up.

As for the villains: well, here’s my ‘WTF’ comment in one. What on earth were those monsters? Correct me if I’m wrong but I cannot recall a time that Doctor Who has produced a villain made exclusively from bodily waste. ‘Snot men’ and ‘shit men’ might well be the natural successors to the ‘sleep men’ if this is the way they are going. They were disgusting from concept to execution and, as above, the discussion of them by the main characters without any dramatic set-up was strained and conceited and remarkably childish in a season that has so far managed to push the boundaries of what is possible for Saturday night TV.

Perhaps my favourite reflection on this episode is that by the 38th Century, India and Japan might be one country but Britain seems to be as strong as ever given that they’re all speaking the Queen’s English with London accents. ‘TARDIS translation matrix!,’ I hear you scream. Au contraire, the recorded video side of this episode makes that a moot point and an obvious weakness in the realism it’s trying to establish.

On a closing note, Stephen Moffat has said he is eager to see a sequel to this episode. The ambiguous, but predictable, Ring-homage ending makes this possible but inadvisable in its present format. It will take more than dispensing with the show’s titles to redeem the production, but as the promise of the Doctor Who minisode ‘The Last Day’ showed, the idea can work if it dramatic rather than showy.