TV Bye then Clara. Killing off the companions in Doctor Who is a relatively rare occurrence. The classic series brought an end to Katarina, Sara Kingdom and Adric and some people are less than convinced that the former two even really are companions anyway. Technically none of the TARDIS team members have actually died in the revival, since Amy and Rory were really only zapped back in time by a weeping angel, trapped perhaps but still breathing. Donna’s knocking around, albeit having had her memories of her time with the Doctor erased. The spin-offs have been a fair old massacre but even then plenty of the Time Lord’s friends were resurrected by the climax of the Eighth Doctor novels even if he couldn't remember who half of them were.
So when it was hinted this would be Clara’s fate, I didn’t really expect it to be true and mores to the point still don’t. With two episodes left of the season and so many unanswered questions, even with her broken body on the cobbles of Doctor Who’s version of Diagon Alley, even with Murray Gold’s utterly superb score with its many callback to the Clara’s theme, the teary performance by Jenna Fucking Coleman, even with Sarah Dollard’s debut script absolutely capturing her relationship with the Doctor and understanding his potential reaction to her passing, I don’t think she’s gone. As Dubya said, “There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.” Which was true of the dvd release of The Underwater Menace and feels true again. Not Clara, not now.
Perhaps that’s why I didn’t cry. Social media’s awash with anguish and yet, although the corners of my mouth were certainly pointing downwards and I found myself utterly thrilled with Capaldi performance notably the moment when presented a grief I don’t think we’ve seen from him before, these eyes, these eyes which sobbed at the sight of Leo falling off a raft in Titanic and Kirk’s “Oh my…” in Star Trek: Generations and can’t even get to the end of Who's own Journey’s End (Sarah Jane and the leeveeerrrr....) without stinging towards blindness remained resolutely dry. Perhaps after having been unable to cope with real world events lately, my brain can’t process the poignancy of a fictional event and when I watch it again in a different light, if we have confirmation of her temporarilty, I’ll be able to process these moments differently.
Part of my lack of ability to acknowledge that any of this is true is because it doesn’t fit. Given Clara’s origins, the fractured pieces of her across time, this impossible girl saving the Doctor here, there and everywhere still (as confirmed by Jac Rayner’s superb DWM comic Blood and Ice in with Clara meets one of these facets and has to deal with the consequences of her existence), to have her die in a situation which has no thematic connection to any of it doesn’t fit. It’s also strange that none of this was even acknowledged, no mention from the Doctor about her being “the impossible girl”. For her to be snuffed out by these previously unmentioned death method with a complicated set of rules lacks dramatic unity. Chekhov’s rifle has not gone off. It remains hanging on the wall.
Yet, professional publications are treating this as her egress so perhaps I’m just in denial. It is true that companion exits, like regenerations, do tend to be more like narrative happenstance than anything planned ahead. Adric could just as easy as fallen off the roof of Cranleigh Hall as brought about an extinction event. But in the revival there’s more often than not a question answered. When Rose is trapped in the alt.universe, it’s the culmination of a collective story arc which included the introduction of that universe earlier in second series, watching the death of her real Dad in Father’s Day. Martha Jones left acknowledging she didn’t need the Doctor any more. The horror of Donna’s loss was that she was effectively being rebooted back to becoming the monster from The Runaway Bride.
Plus and it’s let’s not pass on before acknowledging this, the cover of this month’s committee invective and pages twenty-six and twenty-seven which could just as well be opposite shots in a particular scene. Now, it’s true that I haven’t read any of the actual text yet, spoilerphobe that I am now, the BBC’s press office not really helping in this situation, but I find it deeply unlikely that those photos would simply exist for the purposes of a photo shoot, a way of underscoring an undoubtedly clever strap line on the cover. Unless the text does say this and I now look like a fool and not for the first time. Unless she’s one of the aforementioned facets and the bookend to the story of Clara Oswald is for Jenna Coleman to be playing a different version of her, just as she did at the beginning in Asylum of the Daleks and we’ll have joy of hearing her American accent.
Having burned through six paragraphs explaining why I don’t think Clara Oswald is really dead (and would Moffat really let someone else write her out?), what about the rest of Face The Raven? Well … yeah. I like it. Did I think it was dramatically strong enough to be Clara's final episode if indeed it really is? No. The notion of a safe haven for aliens hidden in the middle of London is so good it’s surprising one of the spin-off series hasn’t already thought of it and hopefully it’ll be returned to either there or in the television version. The process of finding it was also fun, reminding me of a good episode of Elementary (which I’m currently bingeing), the idea of trap streets being just the sort of thing Joan might remind Sherlock of (or at least which he’d pretend he didn’t know about so that she can feel like she’s making a contribution) (and I’m not at all convinced this isn’t what happened here) (the Doctor can be strangely ignorant at times).
For all her part in Clara’s downfall, Ashildr or Me still feels like a narrative anomaly, a character waiting to actualise. Bolting on these extra powers, the result of a different pact devalues the already tenuous final moments of The Woman Who Lived. There’s a general sense of wanting to simply furnish this character things to do having given Maisie Williams a comic-con pleasing place in the series, rather than a well planned out character arc. Rather like Danny Pink last year, it’s the show making a misstep in assuming the audience finds a character more interesting than we do, like trying to manufacture a River Song or Strax, incidental figures who we demanded to return even though that was never planned. Williams seems more assured in her performance on this occasion but I’m still not convinced. Where’s Rufus Hound?
To an extent this whole construct is filling a gap left by Torchwood, and has even absorbed some its methods, the intrusion of retcon into the main series something of a surprise and it’s pleasing that their properties are entirely consistent with how they’re used in that series. Is this another facet of this series theme of not being about the tenth anniversary even though that’s exactly what it is? The structure of the episode almost mimics the shift between showrunner eras, or at least the public and critical perception of the them, opening in the very urban landscape of the RTD era with its high rise estates and in the tattoo counting down contemporary visual, giving way, as the characters step through the “portal” to the mythological references and imagery of the Moffat era (even if both eras have contained elements of both).
Rigby’s generally being set up as a potential new companion here and I’d welcome it, a refreshing change to have a young chap in the TARDIS although it’s unlikely he’d leave his new family. The brief moments the Fourth Doctor and Adric spent together, the magician and his apprentice, are an under-appreciated seam in the mythology and you could absolutely imagine a similar dynamic with the Capaldi version as he is now, generally kinder, more resonantly caring about human life but retaining this eccentricity. Perhaps there’s a untold version in which the Doctor actually takes the whole family around the universe. It’s interesting, although more like a budgetary issue, that we weren’t properly introduced to his wife. In other series there’d be a particular casting reason for that …
For all my scepticism of the outcome, there's no denying the dramatic power of the final scenes especially the Doctor's wrath in the face of this creation of his which has gone oh so bad. A return to the dangerous figure of the previous series perhaps, one who uses the Daleks as a threat but whereas in season eight you might imagine him actually going through with it, that man has (thankfully) gone. As Clara says, it would end as soon as he saw the pain of a child. If nothing else, and the elegance of the writing and understanding of the characters really shines here, it's Clara seeing him again, the man who stood on Christmas for a thousand years, defending the generations in a village looking out from underneath those eye brows. Not that I'm not unconvinced we'll have some major coup in the final two episodes and David, Matt or even Paul aren't going to return for the final big push.
All of which said, we are at the start of the three episode finale arc, the U in SOD U LOTT if you will, so actually how well this works won’t really be revealed until the beginning of December. The manic ratings desperation of the BBC PR synopses pretty much says what Doctor’s journey will from now onwards and who’s apparently been in touch with Me, or Mayor Me and asked for her aid in capturing the Doctor, all of which makes sense dramatically and Chekhov would be pleased with. If Face The Raven underscores anything so far, it’s how strong this series has been and how even if it’s not always been brilliant, it’s ideas never entirely in focus, it’s not been anything less than entertaining and something to look forward too. Which is pretty much what it should be. Really.
Art All art is about memory. Actually let me clarify this grandiose statement, because everything in life is about memory. Walking down the street is “about memory” since we’re creating a memory of walking down the street for ourself and others, especially if we trip over a flagstone or absentmindedly walk into a bollard. It’s clearer to say that all art is about the representation of memory. All of it. From Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings which records the process of the period in which he made the painting to the representations of horses in the Chauvet caves of Southern France in which the painter attempts to capture their memory of the movement of the beasts to Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree in which we’re confronted with a beaker of water sat on top of a glass shelf which represents our memory of what an oak tree looks like.
This notion is at the heart of Tate Liverpool’s new exhibition, An Imagined Museum: works from the Centre Pompidou, Tate and MMK collections which pulls together sixty works dating from 1945 onwards as a kind of “imaginary museum” within a supposed scenario, inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, that the works are on the edge of vanishing, disappearing from humanity’s cultural assets so that they’ll then only exist the memories of those lucky enough to see them. The show culminates in a two day performance event on 20-21st February when the objects will actually be removed from the space to be replaced by volunteers who’ll then be called upon to represent the works, and describe their memories of them to visitors.
When a friend first described the idea of the exhibition to me, it’s fair to say my reaction was emotional. There may have been tears. I remembered the scene from the film version of Bradbury’s book in which members of the commune are shown speaking the words of the texts they’ve been tasked with memorising, a library of human beings walking in and out of each, their own brains vulnerable recording devices containing the single surviving copy of these great works of literature. I thought about what it would be like to see a live version of that within a gallery space and how tenuous and fragile the task will be when it’s about a person’s perceptions of an object and the impossible responsibility of having to do it justice.
In the event, if the exhibition doesn’t quite live up to the version that existed in my head, which I imagined, it’s because the works selected are not necessarily from artists for which I’m a huge fan. We’ve discussed Warhol at length before, and although there’s plenty of conceptual art which I find appealing (and Felix Gonzales-Torres returns to Tate here with a similar idea to his clocks but with bulbs this time) I find myself mired in practicality when confronted with plenty of the work here, notably Marcel Duchamp or something like Edward Krasinski’s Ostrich egg. The concept for the exhibition could equally have been applied to any group of objects and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I wished there were more representational works.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of good surprises many of which key into the notional of art as memory. Rachel Whiteread’s resin imprint of a bath. Allan McCollum’s Plaster Surrogates, ceramic and plaster recreations of empty photo frames of the kind you’d find on sale in Rennies on Bold Street, potentially influenced by Paul Almasy’s also included famous photograph of the Louvre in during the Viche occupation in 1942 in which empty frames represented artworks removed and secured from Nazi plunder. Lawrence Werner’s STONES FOUND AND BROKEN SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE which writes that statement across a wall in English and German with the idea that a sculpture is created from it within the visitor’s own memory.
Although Chris Marker’s La Jetee also makes an appearance, the highlight of the exhibition is undoubtedly Dan Graham’s Present Continuous Pasts which I’m unable to talk about without spoiling the very thing that makes it an unforgettable experience and one of the most exciting pieces of contemporary art I’ve ever seen. Which is odd considering it’s as old as I am, produced in 1974, something which is odd only if you appreciate what it contains. Watch this video and read this explanation if you want to spoil the mystery but know that I spend a good ten minutes inside the room it contains walking about, experimenting, giggling and think of the Star Trek episode it reminded me of. If I didn’t work weekends, it’s this piece I’d certainly volunteer to replace in February.
Fittingly, Tate Liverpool hasn’t produced a traditional catalogue for An Imagined Museum which means that for the most part it will only exist in the memory of visitors, those chosen to be able to describe specific works and whatever material is distributed in the media. There is however a permanent record: the artist Dora Garcia has been commissioned to produce a newspaper, given away free in the space, which provides an inventory of the works on display along with texts rumination on the themes of the show and the fragile nature of artworks. Which does do the same job as a catalogue, I suppose, but feels more ephemeral because it will presumably end distribution when the show closes or at least continues its tour to the other venues. After that then.
Exhibition runs from 20 November 2015 – 14 February 2016. Free for Tate Members. Adult £8.80 (without donation £8). Concession £6.60 (without donation £6) (press day attended).
TV HMV have emitted details of a series of classic Doctor Who boxed set re-releases to coincide with no particular reason at all. Probably Christmas. So far there are three in all, each containing three stories.
An Introduction to the Third Doctor brings Spearhead From Space, The Dæmons and The Time Warrior.
An Introduction to the Fourth Doctor has Robot, Genesis of the Daleks (yes, again) and Pyramids of Mars (again).
An Introduction to the Fifth Doctor does Castrovalva, Earthshock and The Caves of Androzani.
From a fan perspective, I'd only quibble with the Tom release from the perspective that it only reflects the Hinchcliffe years and young fans might already have Pyramids after its inclusion on one of the SJA releases. I'd probably have swapped it out for City of Death, but I'm bound to say that.
The inclusion of the regeneration seems logical but also sort of odd because such things never reflect the given Doctor at their moment of apogee. In all three cases the version of the Doctor who appears isn't representative at all. Plus they were already included in that astonishingly weird Regenerations set from a few years ago.
Since these are bound to sell like hot samosas, let's see if I can guess what'll be on the other sets.
An Introduction to the First Doctor should have An Unearthly Child, The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Time Meddler.
An Introduction to the Second Doctor might have The Tomb of the Cybermen, The Mind Robber and The War Games,
An Introduction to the Sixth Doctor could have The Twin Dilemma, Vengeance on Varos and Revelation of the Daleks.
An Introduction to the Seventh Doctor will be Time and the Rani, Remembrance of the Daleks and The Curse of Fenric.
An Introduction to the Eighth Doctor will be the TV movie, The Night of the Doctor and a rerelease of Bidding Adieu. Or not. Frankly he needs no introduction. Ideally Big Finish will tie-in with Storm Warning, The Chimes of Midnight and Blood of the Daleks.
An Introduction to the Ninth Doctor will be Rose, Dalek, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways.
An Introduction to the Tenth Doctor. Oh I don't know. The Christmas Invasion, Blink, The Silence in the Library/The Forest of the Dead and Planet of the Dead.
An Introduction to the Eleventh Doctor. The Eleventh Hour, Vincent and the Doctor, The Girl Who Waited and Time of the Doctor.
It's increasingly hard to choose in the revivals because so many episodes are interrelated and the quality in some cases is so high. Also the consensus is pretty solid about the great works of the classic series whereas the revival is still in flux. The confirm classics of the Tenth Doctor era, Human Nature/The Family of Blood and Blink are about how he's absent.
What would you choose?
Film As I sat down to write this, or rather endured in the several hours worth of writer's block which happened while I was cogitating on how to write this, I remembered that my first encounter with Andrei Tarkovsky was not as I'd assumed whilst flicking through the course booklet for the Falstaff & Gandalf Go To The Movies module of the MA Screen Studies course I attended at Manchester University but my third year housemate Ed while I was an undergraduate when he mentioned to me one evening while I was preparing dinner that he'd watched this film called Solaris that afternoon, which was one of his favourite films and was a bit like the Russian 2001: A Space Odyssey.
There are plenty of reasons why I mustn't have taken him up on his suggestion. Since this was the third year I would have been knee deep in my dissertation and various other essays and although I'd gulped many of my first breaths of international cinema in the first couple of years (see later) (probably this time next year at this rate) the idea of sitting down to watching a three hour Soviet space film would have been last the last thing on my mind. Plus unlike the second year when I didn't really like being in the same house as my housemates so spent a lot of time in the library watching videos, in the third year I rather liked them a lot. Plus I was just round the corner from the Hyde Park (see last week) so there wasn't much need for the VHS format which Solaris would have been on.
Since I do have writer's block:
Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris and Stalker: The making of two inner-space odysseys
"Adding a frisson of autobiography, Tarkovsky initially planned to cast his ex-wife Irma Rausch as Hari. He then changed his mind, signing Swedish star Bibi Andersson, former collaborator of his directing idol Ingmar Bergman. But finally he settled on Natalya Bondarchuk, the beautiful Russian actor who had introduced him to Lem’s novel. Hari’s death scenes gained extra resonance in 2010 when Bondarchuk revealed she had an affair with Tarkovsky during the shoot, and attempted to kill herself after they split in 1972."
Auteur in Space:
"A new visual essay getting to the heart of Andrei Tarkovsky’s philosophical sci-fi masterpiece, Solaris (1972)."
One Scene: Solaris
"The first time I saw Solaris was on VHS in the mid-nineties. Even though the film affected me profoundly, I never watched it again until now. The richness of the images, the vividness of the mood, and the depth of the themes are so intense, they have simmered and lived in my mind for more than fifteen years just from that one viewing. Seeing it again, going from VHS to this new restoration, is truly a revelation. It's like owning a pristine 35 mm print."
In the Tarkovsky film "Solaris" what is the deal with the overly long highway scene through Tokyo?
"Do we "dream" when we get up in the mornings, only to return to the real world when we close our eyes and sleep at night, perhaps? Are our memories, residing within our minds and more directly personal and pure to us than incoming "new" interactions, more real than the world around us that we also experience strictly through interpretations of thing within our own minds? Can we perhaps be free to choose between the two, and what does the answer (be it yes or no) say about the human condition?"
Will Self and Mike Hodges on Solaris:
"Will Self and director Mike Hodges discuss Andrei Tarkovsky's film Solaris, based on Stanisław Lem novel."
Again, with 20% more existential grief.
"Steven Soderbergh: Well, I guess memory was an issue that I dealt with a couple of times before and this seemed to be a very interesting way of talking about memory - having a character that was a physical manifestation of someone's memory seemed like a very intriguing idea to me. And I wasn't at all of a mind that the Tarkovsky film could be improved upon; I thought there was a very different interpretation to be had. The analogy that I use was that the Lem book, which was full of so many ideas that you could probably make a handful of films from it, was the seed, and that Tarkovsky generated a sequoia and we were sort of trying to make a little bonsai. And that was really what we were doing - I took a very specific aspect of the book and tried to expand Rheya's character and bring her up to the level of Kelvin."
Life There's not much that can be said about Friday night's attack which hasn't already by far more articulate people than me and with much closer involvement but since this is what it is and even though in the past few years I've tended to ignore events such as this in order to concentrate on posting some links to something you've probably already read or a video of three people on a stage discussing a film you've probably never seen, I want to record this.
Paris is the only city I've visited abroad and even though it was for just three days in 2002, just after I began writing this blog so you can read something about the visit here, yet it's somewhere I feel like I know. I can still smell it, especially the cafe I stopped at on the Seine, and see it, mostly the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower. There have been many days since and yet those three days I spent in Paris remain vivid.
There was a time when this kind of story broke when I'd immediately turn on a news channel and be transfixed. But in more recent years I've decided that unless I'm directly involved it's best to leave well alone until the facts make themselves known, especially when it's an ongoing event. Before live television, news would often take hours even days to reach us and at a certain point I decided that it's best to wait until rather than hearing what's possibly happened to hear what has.
On Friday night that led me to sticking with Children In Need while the horrors in Paris unfolded across Tweetdeck. The effect was, as you can imagine, surreal. On television, Nadine from Girls Aloud was being crammed into a telephone box with Bernie Clifton and Wayne Sleep whilst my timeline was filled with breaking news about explosions and death tolls and a general sense of shock amid some obvious autotweets often badly timed.
As a television event, Children in Need isn't what it once was. Like Comic Relief earlier in the year, it's clear that the budget has been shaved so there's less variety in the special film material, a greater reliance on the live show expositing on donations made, a larger number of appeal films. This was the first time I'd watched in years, at least until after midnight, usually having bailed more recently once the Doctor Who scene had been shown. Star Wars superceded this year.
Some people moaned online about the BBC sticking with the charity event instead of dropping it in favour of coverage of Paris. Pre-Freeview this might have made sense as not everyone had access to the BBC News Channel and if it had been a night of pre-recorded programmes, perhaps. But what good would it have done to have stopped broadcasting from that studio, sending all the presenters,entertainers and audience members home and ending the appeal?
Instead they continued even as they must have known what was happening elsewhere. Some of the jollity in the Children in Need studio did feel forced. Every now and then there'd be a micro-expression from a presenter or entertainer which suggested they were wondering what they were still doing there, but they continued knowing full well that if they stopped it be giving in to the terrorist's demands to fracture normality, or what normality there was in watching Wayne Sleep dance.
Eventually I went to bed at 1am, waking the following morning to hear some of the aftermath on the Today programme. But I didn't really understand the timeline until seeing John Sweeney's superb report on tonight's rare live episode of Panorama which explained just how the atrocities were carried out and potentially by whom. As to the detail, I have few words. I don't understand why humanity as a species can be capable of so much love and yet all of this hatred too.
Lunch. £2.95. The Font, Unit 3, 1 Arrad St, Liverpool L7 7JE. Phone: 0151 706 0345. Website.
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?