Doctor Who Episode 9 review: Less sleeping, more yawning

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Doctor Who Season 9 Episode 9: “Sleep No More”

Eye-booger monsters? Seriously? Eye-booger monsters?

Okay, let’s back up for a second.

I’d like to affirm at the outset that Mark Gatiss is Doctor Who royalty. His name always comes up in discussions about whom might replace Steven Moffat as showrunner — the two friends created Sherlock together — so it is important to pay close attention to his work.

Most famous in the UK for his part in the excellent League of Gentlemen sitcom, most well-known in the U.S. for playing Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock, Gatiss is also a huge Who fan and a fairly prolific Who writer. Other than Moffat, Gatiss is the only person to have written episodes for all four of the revived show’s Doctors, from Christopher Eccleston to Peter Capaldi via David Tennant and Matt Smith.

And yet none of those episodes have yet joined the Who pantheon, to say the least. (Night Terrors, anyone? The Idiot’s Lantern? The Lazarus Experiment?) His most recent outing was Robot of Sherwood, the campy Robin Hood episode which we and many others ranked bottom of Season 8’s offerings.

The Gatiss episode you probably know best — other than his affecting An Adventure in Space and Time, a TV movie about the 1960s origins of Who — is The Unquiet Dead, because it was the third episode of the revived show and featured Simon Callow’s star turn as Charles Dickens. The highest-rated Gatiss episode in Doctor Who Magazine‘s most recent reader poll, coming in at number 83, was The Crimson Horror, better known as The One Where Matt Smith Turns Red.

This is where Gatiss, a refined northern Englishman, has been at his best: episodes with provincial Victorian settings. They were gothic horror with a good dose of comedy, much like the best of League of Gentlemen.

So it was surprising, but intriguing, to learn for this season he’d decided to write an episode set in outer space in the far future, and that the episode would be entirely comprised of Blair Witch-style “found footage.” So innovative was this notion that for the first time in Who history, there were no opening credits — just the words “Doctor Who” appearing, in acrostic form, on a screen featuring the names of the rescue team sent to a space station in orbit around Neptune to discover what had happened to the crew.

Gatiss’ fellow League of Gentlemen alumnus, Reece Shearsmith, easily the best thing about this episode (and Doctor Who royalty himself after playing Second Doctor Patrick Troughton in Adventure in Space and Time), popped up to tell us he’d assembled this footage in retrospect and that we really shouldn’t watch it. We leaned forward and prepared to leap behind the sofa.

Sure, the Alien-style setup of soldiers v. monsters in claustrophobic corridors seems older than John Hurt’s whiskers, but that’s never stopped Doctor Who in the past. Same goes for the cookie-cutter rescue team characters — the irritable one, the hapless one, the bold young female leader, the grunt (in this case, a genetically-engineered soldier actually called a grunt) — all of whom could have been lifted straight from this season’s base-under-siege episode, Under the Lake.

This show has spun gold from this sort of thing before, and the found footage thing made it fresh. Also the episode had in its back pocket a promising premise — that Morpheus machines have been invented, removing the need for sleep, compressing a night’s worth into an intense five minutes. Science-fiction novels have explored that premise plenty (I particularly recommend Nancy Kress’ 1993 classic Beggars in Spain), but this is its first outing on the best and longest running science-fiction TV show around.

No, the problem was that Gatiss undercut himself, throwing two massive road blocks in our path that made it nearly impossible to take it at all seriously — and that even contradicted each other, in a way. Firstly, the sleep monsters, or “Sandmen” as the Doctor dubbed them. (Was Neil Gaiman, Sandman creator and two-time Doctor Who writer, informed about this?)

The sleep monsters were composed of sleep. And if only Gatiss had meant that in some sort of ethereal sense — all that lost sleep manifesting into beings somehow, in some unknowable magical horror way — he might well have gotten away with it. But no, he meant sleep as in sleep in your eye. Also known as discharge, mucus,or the stuff you get with allergies or conjunctivitis. Also known as eye boogers.

Look, I get it. Doctor Who is fundamentally a family show; it has to appeal to kids who find everything in the world, including all the excrement of the human body, inherently fascinating and terrifying. Some of its finest episodes have revolved around turning mundane objects — stone statues, showroom dummies — into the most terrifying alien creatures imaginable.

But eye booger monsters? We’re really scraping the bottom of the mundanity barrel here. What next? Demons composed entirely of snot? The poop beast? (There, some ideas for your next Comic-Con costume.)

It’s possible that the monsters were more ethereal and ghost-like in earlier drafts, which would explain why the soldiers never once shoot at them. (If they’re composed of mucus, maybe just fire some Kleenex in their direction, guys?) The ghosts in the script for Under The Lake would then have required these creatures—as Hamlet would say— to become too, too solid flesh.

The second undercutting was the revelation that all of this found footage didn’t come from cameras — it came from the sleep itself, which was somehow attaching itself in camera-like places around the station and broadcasting like cameras. Huh?

This was treated like an exciting revelation; instead, it simply prevented the suspension of disbelief on which all horror relies. It was as if we were watching the classic tale of a young woman being told by police that her stalker’s calls are coming from inside the house — only to later discover the calls are being made via some sort of dust particle rather than a telephone. The extra twist is ludicrous, unnecessary and self-defeating.

The whole thing was somewhat redeemed in the somewhat spooky final scene, in which Shearsmith’s character literally falls apart as he explains that we’re all infected now because the sleep stuff has been manifesting as the found footage-style electronic glitches on our screen.

With a better setup, that would have been terrifying. As it is, it just sat there, a mucus-y mish-mash of unclear concepts. One of these days, sooner rather than later, if he intends to take the showrunner crown from Moffat, Gatiss is going to have to show us what he’s really capable of — because it has to be better than this.

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