TV As a multi-format franchise platform, Doctor Who has found its narrative being not just being communicated through television, but books, audiobooks, audio plays, theatre plays, short fictions, comics, graphic novels, computer games, sweet cigarette cards and even interactive exhibitions. Much of the time these are generally conventional applications of the usual ingredients of a Who story (as explained by Paul Magrs here) rendered in text or sound or pictures with the general ambition of suggesting a story which might other appear on television if only the programme makers had an infinite budget and schedulers the wherewithal to dedicate many hours to the same scenario.
But every now and then a writer decides to be a bit experimental and offer the kind of adventure which could only be told in that way in a given format by utilising its unique properties. Amongst the BBC Eighth Doctor novels we find stories written as memoir (The Turing Test), gothic romance (The Banquo Legacy) or popular history book (The Adventuress of Henrietta Street). At Big Finish there are pieces like Flip Flop in which two pair of episodes can be listened to in any order and there have been several musicals (Doctor Who and the Pirates). Then there’s James Goss whose writing for AudioGo who turned their presumed audiobook licensing limitation into a strength, with the award winning Dead Air in which the Tenth Doctor himself tells a tale in the first person eventually tipping out over into something akin to drama, but not quite.
The television series itself has remained relatively unadventurous, especially in its first television run, sticking for the most part with classical narrative storytelling. Apart from Bill and Tom breaking the fourth wall now and then, Spearhead from Space is the notable departure but apart from being needfully shot on film due to strike action in such a way as to resemble one of those ITC adventure series the Pertwee years otherwise aspire to be, it's script might have worked perfectly well shot on video in a multi-camera set up. Rarely did it do anything as radical as becoming animation or mimicking a Rupert the Bear strip as happened in Doctor Who Magazine. Anthony Root did not attempt to mount a story in the style of a Horizon documentary, for example.
Now we have Mark Gatiss’s Sleep No More, which with its found footage format and third person shooter aesthetics is about as radical as Who has been since its resuscitation. The first television episode ever without a traditional title sequence - replaced instead with the digital word search above (leading to the continuity announcer actually telling us the title of the episode and its author beforehand), it also shares with Love and Monsters, perhaps the shows most radical episode until this point, an unreliable narrator. But unlike Elton, Reece Shearsmith’s creepy Rasmussen is a rare example of an antagonist as our point of view figure cynically dragging us through the expected functions of a Doctor Who story for his own nefarious ends.
The “found footage” genre has become a bit of spent force in cinema. Box office is dwindling on the Parisnoremal Activity series and there’s a sense that viewers have become too accustomed to its tricks, of having to mentally justify just why its characters persist in films even when their lives are in mortal danger, why there’ll always be shots which would have been impossible to capture and how inopportune jump cuts provide an opportunity to either move the story along or bewilder the audience as to the action in between. Plus there’s always the moment when the writer has to explain exactly how all of this b-roll ended up being edited into something approaching a story, especially if it’s being sourced from multiple cameras.
As if to head off some of this criticism, Gatiss ingeniously makes the collection and editing of the footage not just central to the mystery but also the horror. How early are we meant to notice Clara’s participation in the surveillance? Even if eagle eyed viewers might have noticed that Morpheus has infected her early on, they might have been thrown by the design of the soldier’s helmets, which subtly suggest the idea of a camera without confirming it. Also the episode is careful to cut away from the point of view of the characters when addressing each other until it’s absolutely necessary to save the thing from resembling an episode of Peep Show and no takes longer than a few seconds so we’re not thrust into a Strange Days like nightmare.
Except, and you can tell how important this use of “except” is since I’m deploying one of my prop words when I’m trying desperately not too, I wasn’t scared. Not at all. Ever. I was unsettled, I’ll give them, unsettled. By throwing out the title sequence, Gatiss disorientates the fan trained to expect the usual scream and crash into the music so that he can deploy numerous moments the Ron Grainer theme would surely intrude and confuse us as to how long we’ve been watching the episode, assuming we’re watching in the dark and can’t see a nearby clock. But this arguably also has a distracting, Brechtian alienation effect as we’re constantly wondering why the title sequence hasn’t happened yet.
Analysing why an individual isn’t scared by some horror is probably as foolish as attempting to understand why some people don’t find a joke funny. Old school horror fans tend to find the jump scares of the films produced by Jason Blum or James Wan pretty tedious, but the box office on the likes of Sinister and The Conjuring have been enough for them to spawn sequels and franchises. Most of the one-word adjective direct to stream horrors listed on Netflix all look the same to me (even after I’ve watched them) but there’s clearly enough of a market for them to remain in production. A glance through social media suggests that Sleep No More did work for a few people and that’s good.
Let’s be foolish, nonetheless. Perhaps part of the problem is that for all the extensive world building, the actual supporting characters are hopelessly generic and lacking in dimension, which makes them difficult to relate to for the purposes of peril. Unlike the aquatic based two parter earlier in the season, apart from some incongruous religious conviction, we learn little or nothing about the soldiers visiting the station beyond what morsels flashed past our eyes at the start of the episode, but unlike The Waters of Mars which utilises a similar tactic, few of them make enough of a mark for us to care about their demise. While I’m not expecting something of the magnitude of the chops in gravy scene from Planet of the Dead, there’s plenty to be said for inserting some character as well as plot.
The monsters are disappointing too. For all its improvements in the writing of its main character and general intrigue, this season’s new alien interlopers have either been memorable for the wrong reasons or simply lacking in form, which is a pretty literal description of the sandmen. Found footage films tend to have pretty indistinct adversaries so as to hint to the viewer as to the horror which may leap out at them from the shadows in the corner of the frame because as Kirk Douglas’s film producer character in The Bad and the Beautiful says, “the dark has a life of its own. In the dark, all sorts of things come alive.” The directors of The Blair Witch Project took this a step further by scaring the bejesus out of its own actors during production and having them video the results.
But they rarely stay there and the reveal is usually horrendously disappointing. Cloverfield becomes considerably less interesting when the beasty is presented in full and the same occurs here. Although they’re centrally linked to the premise of the story in a way which is familiar to listeners to the less experimental AudioGo exclusives, exactly how the sandmen can kill you is never properly shown and when they do appear it's for just long enough for them to look like nothing so much as a CGI element. From the minute the hand is to dusted as a door closes, the section of my brain which deals with suspension of disbelief and the uncanny valley went on strike and decided to take a hiking holiday which meant that at no point did I feel that any of these characters were under threat.
The idea of a corporation designing a product designed for mass surveillance which not only turns insomnia from a bug into a feature and provides the ability to record everyone's movements without them being aware of it is especially apt at this moment when everything we do online is being recorded on huge databases apparently accessible by the security services. With other things on its mind the episode doesn't really explore this idea in detail and perhaps that is another criticism, that Gatiss packs in enough ideas for a whole season of Doctor Who without giving them lip service. Imagine if Big Finish or a novelist had run with the idea of a planet whose entire population doesn't sleep. Perhaps their nightmares come to life instead.
Nevertheless, the episode isn’t a complete failure if you remove the horror baselines. A piece of genre television this experimental simply can't be. One of my favourite moments of this series is when we see the usual expositional post-TARDIS landing business between the Doctor and Clara from the viewpoint of the secondary characters as they approach them rather than the usual reverse and we can appreciate just how eccentric they can seem. I can't really hate any episode with a Doctor Who quote as a title which then takes a few moments out in the middle to explain where it's from. Also, was it a conscious decision to pay tribute to Back To The Future so close to its anniversary?
If the all too spoilery publicity synopsises for the final three episodes are a guide, the show’s experimentation doesn’t end here. Given how none of this season’s episodes have been stand alones, will Clara’s condition continue into Face The Raven and be part of the reason she ends her time on the TARDIS? Or will it, as the Edgar Allen Poe piece suggests, be linked to her addiction to being in the Doctor’s company and what of his slightly odd suggestion in The Zygon Inversion that he’s missed her for a month rather than five minutes? My theory is that we’ve been watching this season in the wrong order for reason to do with mortality and time travel. Is it possible that the impossible girl won't have a happy ending?