Mark Gatiss, inside Doctor Who fan circles, has tended to become known as a master of historical pastiche…
A Renaissance man who has achieved greatness in other spheres – in the company of other extraordinary gentlemen, in his work on Sherlock, and in his marvellous Lucifer Box books – but has, in his writing for Doctor Who, consistently been a safe pair of hands.
This week, however, in Season 9’s most proudly experimental offering he chooses not to play it safe – and, in doing so, delivers what may be the most divisive episode of the run yet.
The setting for ‘Sleep No More’ is a space station in the 38th century which, thanks to the hubristic endeavours of scientist Gagan Rasmussen (Reece Shearsmith), carries a less than benevolent life form – one which has its origins in the kind of nature-subverting ambition which never ends well.
So far, so traditionally Doctor Who.
What’s less traditional, however, is the form of ‘Sleep No More’. A found-footage story, it assembles the episode from various different points of view, even abandoning the title sequence in favour of something more in-context – and herein lies the ambition.
No one could assume that this episode was easy to put together. Everything from the visuals to the eerie sound design (there’s little of Murray Gold’s traditional music) has to evoke a disjointedness that is also utterly coherent and clear. Full credit to the team that, within these parameters, they succeed in producing 45 minutes of intelligible Doctor Who.
If you love the episode – and there will be those that love it – this is what you will love it for. It may be also that you have a taste for the kind of Doctor Who that juxtaposes the lunatic trappings and conceits of the modern series with the quaintly old-school story forms we remember from decades gone by. Look past the breaking of form, and at its heart this episode is another spin on that classic story staple, ‘Agatha Christie in space’.
There’s decent stuff, then, in embryo here. The central story idea – the given reason for Rasmussen’s experiments – is a great one, and the story leaps that follow it, however improbable or barmy, are at least extrapolations from that central conceit.
However, for us, while the breaking of form is well accomplished by the production team, it doesn’t feel so innovative a thing (The Blair Witch Project was 16 years ago now) to distract from the challenges to our credulity.
In modern Doctor Who, particularly over the last five years, high-concept storytelling has often been the order of the day; but inevitably, anyone who chooses to tread on Steven Moffat’s territory faces a risk. Dare to match the master, or else come across as a purveyor of Moffat fan fiction. Get it right and the story somersaults are thrilling. Get it wrong and you achieve only a kind of weary preposterousness.
Gatiss’s voice – decent, companionable, urbane – is usually a welcome fireside companion; but here, as his predilection for darkness plays out in a sci-fi setting, the act of ventriloquism falters.
In fairness to Gatiss, there are no story twists here that are any less ridiculous than the Moon being an egg or a parasite god being placated by a lullaby. Even so, while we obviously can’t say much about the direction the story takes, there is, in the USP and modus operandi of the monster, the kind of meta-fiction at work that has become increasingly stale in Doctor Who, through overuse.
In part, the problem is one of presentation. This episode is drastically under-lit, ridiculously so, to the extent where it really hinders our grasp of the supporting characters we are being introduced to and, who are, necessarily, a fairly generic bunch in any case.
We’ve commented a little about the over-grading and under-lighting in parts of the season thus far, and – while we admire the cinematic aspiration – here it actually becomes an impediment to connecting with, and thus caring about, the characters. Aside from Shearsmith, only Bethany Black (474) is anything other than just another redshirt. Indeed, in at least one respect, these characters feel less like real people and more like a collection of Top Trumps…
As for Shearsmith himself, there can be no doubt that the part was written for him, so completely does it match his brand of creepy disingenuousness. If you’re a fan of Shearsmith, it is very much the performance you expect from him.
I didn’t love ‘Sleep No More’, you’ll have gathered that much. But, more than in any other show on TV, one fan’s 2-star episode is another fan’s 5-star episode, and that’s half the fun of investing in this mad old show.
Still, while this episode left me disengaged, it didn’t leave me feeling angry. Instead, after what has been, for the most part, a consistently well-delivered run, I’m holding onto the hope that next week will deliver something more to my personal taste.
Judging by the intriguing next time trailer for ‘Face the Raven’, I should imagine that’s more than likely…
Airs at 8.15pm on Saturday 14 November 2015 on BBC One.
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