Warnings, threats and Sleep No More (2015)

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Apologies in advance, but this is all going to end in smut.

*****

It’s a bold story which thinks it can do without both the Doctor Who title sequence and its opening signature tune. But then, this is undeniably a bold story. And its central conceit – that we’re watching a visual history of events cobbled together from various sources- would be hard to sustain once the opening credits crashed in. So fair enough. This is not business as usual.

Instead it starts with a threat: “You must not watch this. I’m warning you. You cannot unsee it.” Dangerous words to start any TV program with, methinks. Don’t tempt your audience.

This is Doctor Who‘s ‘found footage’ episode. There’s a danger, I think, in that label, or in any label that favours the form an episode takes over its content. The risk is that the episode’s distinctive style overshadows its story. Will it be remembered as the tale of the Sandmen terrorising a desperate rescue team? Or will if forever be remembered as the show’s attempt to do The Blair Witch Project?

*****

Back in 1999, I snuck off to the cinema to catch The Blair Witch Project, the film which pioneered the use of ‘found footage’. It was an unsettling experience, and due to the shakiness of the handheld footage, a nauseating one. The ‘found footage’ style is inherently deceptive. It strives to tell a fictional story, through an ultra realist medium. It mimics real life experiences to make us forget we’re watching something made up.

Blair Witch worked because it tapped into a few primal fears; being lost, being hunted. But the use of its relatively young cast to shoot the footage themselves also plays on the narcissism of youth in constantly documenting their activities (considering how prevalent this is now in the age of social media, the film seems prescient in this regard). Then there’s also the unnerving sense of home movies going terribly wrong, and capturing events you didn’t mean to capture.

So Blair Witch has a number of thematic elements which it combines to make a harrowing whole. Sleep No More is an interesting piece of work, but its use of found footage as storytelling feels more gimmicky than compelling, and less thematically clear.

Perhaps its biggest issue is that this is a sci-fi story and found footage is a medium which rejoices in realism. Kids lost in a forest could be happening right here and now. Space troopers (oh yeah, I’ll put ‘space’ in front of another word) landing on a research station orbiting Neptune, is fantasy. Perhaps there’s a fundamental mismatch between the story and the way in which it’s told. Even the inclusion of our mates the Doctor (P-Cap, intense face) and Clara (Jenna Coleman, pretty face) jerks us out of the reality of the situation and reminds us that even without the title sequence, we’re watching our old familiar show. That ability of familiar starry faces to wrench us out of the fictional world is why the Blair Witch producers cast unknowns.

Then there’s the type of footage which is found. Blair Witch used handycams to say something about fundamental human fears. Sleep No More uses security camera footage and GoPro style helmet cams, and could have said something about our fear of being under surveillance. But it doesn’t really.

In fact it actively undermines this idea about halfway through, when the Doctor reveals that in fact, there are no cameras on the station. The footage itself was collected by accumulated sleep dust in the air, or something. It’s an unnecessary complication. It leaves the viewer thinking not “ooh, that’s clever”, but instead “um, how does that work?”

But Sleep No More is not designed to offer easy answers. Quite the opposite; it’s narrative structure sets out to obfuscate, not clarify. It’s certainly not the traditional Doctor Who template. Planets aren’t saved. Evils aren’t defeated. In a way, it’s reminiscent of The Caves of Androzani, in that the Doctor and his companion are flat out just escaping from a world gone to hell.

Still, it’s hard not to agree with the Doctor when he cries in frustration at story’s end, “none of this makes any sense!” Between that own goal, and “don’t watch this”, Doctor Who really should stop telling its viewers what to do. They might start listening.

*****

The story ends with Magnussen (Reece Shearsmith) turning out to be part of sleep dust monster itself, but this doesn’t feel like the end of the story. Questions remain unanswered – for instance, did head soldier Nagata (Elaine Tan) escape in the TARDIS with our friends or not? Did the Doctor ever make any sense of what was going on? To leave a story half explained is brave storytelling indeed.

But we know that Mark Gatiss was asked to write a sequel for Series 10 (Sleep No More Some More?) Perhaps it’s not so much a sequel, but the second part of this story. Maybe then some of these questions will get answered. A two-parter told in different seasons! This bold story might yet get bolder still.

SURPRISINGLY DIRTY PHRASES FROM DWM’s REVIEW OF Sleep No Mode:  finger-strokes, lusty prospects, an audible shift in buttocks, the high priest’s lipstick smear, the allure of the upcoming one-hander.

LINK TO: The Abominable Snowmen. Reece Shearsmith played Patrick Troughton in An Adventure in Space and Time.

NEXT TIME: To be complete, the syllogism only requires its grim conclusion… In my book, that’s Terror of the Vervoids.

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