Saturday, 11 August 2018

Sleep No More

Chapter The 96th, please wake me when it's over.

Plot: 
A broadcast of found footage is shown, presented by a scientist called Gagan Rassmussen; it depicts a rescue ship arriving on the deserted Le Verrier space station orbiting Neptune in the 38th Century. Gagan has edited the footage together and narrates as the rescue crew meet up with the Doctor and Clara to investigate what happened to the station's inhabitants. They get attacked by lumbering sand monsters, find Rassmussen hiding, and it comes out - amidst death-defying scrapes and dangerous confrontations during which the crew are picked off one by one - that the monsters have been created because of his revolutionary Morpheus machines, which compress a month's worth of a person's sleep into a few minutes. These machines have turned the space station's crew into the gunk that you get in your eye, and it's formed into monsters and also into floating particle cameras, I think (it was all dark and runny and shouty when these explanations were being delivered). Rassmussen is in league with the evil eye gunk stuff, and has a plan to convert everybody in the whole universe, but the Doctor defeats that plan, while admitting that it doesn't all add up. He and Clara leave (with the one surviving rescue team member... at least I think they take her - it's dark, runny, and shouty again). But it turns out there might have been more to the footage we've seen than first appeared.

Context:
Myself and the family (the Better Half, boys of 12 and 8, and girl of 6) have recently been on holiday to Tenerife. Having achieved a first by watching the previous Doctor Who story covered by the blog on a phone screen during said holiday, I followed it up with another novelty. I watched Sleep No More on the flight home. I'd downloaded it using the BBC iplayer app at the same time I got Vincent and the Doctor, and the entire episode was reviewed 8 miles high. Now, this might seem like dull everyday science to you, but to me it's bordering on magic! I don't know whether it enhanced things particularly: I might have got a 4D experience on the cheap had we got turbulence during the sequence where the space station drops alarmingly out of orbit, but luckily we did not. It is interesting in these days of personal hand-held entertainment that the previous rules for avoiding alarming aviation-related in-flight material have disappeared; airlines used to avoid or cut films that might cause distress because they involved plane crashes and the like, but now anyone can watch anything they like, I guess. I don't know how I'd feel if someone was watching Nightmare at 20,000 ft on an iPad next to me on a long haul flight, though.

First-time round:
One of a few stories I have covered so far that have come up randomly for viewing later but were first shown during the lifetime of the blog. As I always think when I come across one: why did I not start a viewing diary to help me with these First-time round entries in years to come? Reader, I am lazy - that's why, although half the fun is seeing what impression a story has left upon me and the family, unaided. This one hasn't left any impression on the family as they haven't seen it. The standard pattern for the first couple of Capaldi seasons, with a couple of our kids still relatively young and sensitive, was that I would screen the episode (usually accompanied by the Better Half) sometime on the Saturday evening of its BBC1 debut, time-shifted; if it was deemed suitable, the kids would watch again with me Sunday morning. Almost always, the eldest would be allowed to watch next day, even if his younger siblings couldn't. This is one of those few that I considered too frightening for all three kids.

The Better Half meanwhile was finding the 2015 series increasingly hard to endure for different reasons, and by the end of the Zygons two-parter, had announced she wasn't going to bother watching any longer. By the time of the story following Sleep No More, I'd been a bit spoilered and knew that significant things were going to happen in it and the two episodes following, so I managed to persuade her to return to watching, though I don't think she enjoyed much until Bill arrived (but that's for another time). She's not managed to catch up with Sleep No More since, leaving it as the only new Who episode she's not seen to date.

Reaction
This is a very clever narrative, excellently made, and I hate it. The world building is expertly done, with hints at a catastrophe that's reshaped the land masses of the Earth and little touches to subtly shade in how the society now functions. The concept of the Grunts, and Bethany Black's performance, is also strong, as are the other moments that colour in the theme of a space-age future corrupted by neoliberal capitalism (a theme that would be revisited in Capaldi's next season). The regulars are working at their peak, and there's some nice jokes including in-jokes ("It's the Silurians all over again"). The bit where the ship's computer has been reprogrammed so it won't open unless someone does something silly (sings a song in this case) is a rip off of the same gag in David Tennant story 42, but it still works, and this story is shot and edited much better than 42. The central twist, that the footage we're seeing isn't from cameras per se, is subtly hinted at before the big reveal.

In summary, it's an effective mini-horror movie complete with final eerie twist, sampling a sub-genre that had never been used in Who before. If it were one of author Mark Gatiss' BBC4 one-offs, I would have no problem. But as Doctor Who? Every time I watch it, it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, and feels like a bad fit for the show. I've never had much truck with people who say "it's just not Doctor Who" about any particular story, just because they don't like it (it's after all the show that can go anywhere and do anything), so I'm going to have to unpack this feeling a little to convince myself I'm not a hypocrite.

There's two main points that I can't get beyond that block me from accepting this story in a Doctor Who context. The first is that the story is unresolved from the protagonist's point of view, and he doesn't even know it. To quote the script, the following delivered by the Doctor: "We will sort this, Clara. We'll sort you. We'll sort Nagata, and everyone back on Triton. And then we will destroy Morpheus forever." A lot of people don't like this kind of showboating from the 21st century version of their hero, but at least he normally follows through on what he says. Here, he doesn't realise what the exact threat is and leaves without defeating it. The main character has made an explicit promise to the audience (which would have been implicit anyway if he hadn't been showing off) that he doesn't deliver on. If I'm very charitable, I can project events after the credits roll where the Doctor and Clara back on Triton realise what has been revealed only to the audience, and do fully destroy Morpheus forever. But it's a big stretch. Effectively, the story expects me to write its own sequel in its head, or else believe that the Doctor can't keep me and all the other children watching safe.

The second problematic point is that the piece as a whole is just too dark (literally and metaphorically), in particular the final shocking sequence. It's fine in a horror film to pull the rug from out from the audience and reveal that the horror has come back from the dead, literally or metaphorically; in fact, it's more than fine, it's expected. But here it's just another betrayal of viewer trust, and the very final moments (which I can't spell out as I don't want to spoil it for the uninitiated) go too far for a family audience. There's a combination of concept, dialogue and visuals which is very impactful, and which I'd more than appreciate in another context, but which pushes it well over the line of acceptability.

There are some bits that don't work on the story's own terms too: if this were one of author Mark Gatiss' BBC4 one-offs, or shown anywhere else, it would be called out for being wildly derivative of other sources. It's only because it hasn't been done in a Doctor Who context (and there may be a reason for that!) that found footage seems refreshing. The narrative isn't flawless either: for example, why let the Doctor go at the end? Things need a "proper climax", but killing the Doctor would do that, and there's plenty of opportunities for it to be done; letting him go leaves open the possibility that he'll rumble things and mount a defence from Triton. Gatiss tacitly seems to agree that there are loose ends, as he planned a sequel for a while before dropping the idea. I'm glad he did: Doctor Who should offer hope, without it needing to be tacked on after the fact.

Now, I appreciate that this was not the best one to watch on a very small screen, what with all those dark, runny, shouty bits; so, I may give it another chance in another couple of years perhaps. But, as someone who's become a Doctor Who pusher (see Deeper Thoughts for more details), I have finally found something I'd rather my kids didn't watch. "You will show this film to your family, won't you?" says Rassmussen. "No" says I.


Connectivity: 
Both Sleep No More and Vincent and the Doctor are Steven Moffat era one-episode stories which feature a piece of art being created which contains something horrific. Sleep features in both (this latest story revolves around it, and Vincent's snoring is commented upon in the earlier tale).

Deeper Thoughts:
Adventures in Holiday Parenting (Part 2). So, to recap: I went on holiday with my family in two different times, and the two events were connected by some quirks of coincidence - it's a bit like Mawdryn Undead, now I come to think of it (and was just as fun!). In 1984, 12 year old me went to Malta with my mother, grandfather and sister (woman of 44, man of 69, girl of 9); our first foreign holiday. In 2018, my 12 year old eldest son went with me, the Better Half and the other two kids to Tenerife; the kids' first foreign holiday. On both trips I coincidentally brought with me the same Fighting Fantasy book, City of Thieves (but I'm an adult now so I brought a book that didn't require dice rolls too, which was Robert Webb's How Not to Be a Boy). In 1984, City of Thieves had been my saviour from boredom, when it rained regularly in that island republic; I had tried and failed during the 2018 trip to get my eldest, or his two siblings, to embrace the book similarly; but, not only did it never rain, they never got a chance for any constructive boredom, such are the wonders of portable entertainment and information devices. I did however succeed in introducing them to the continental wonders of Fanta Limón.

When I got stuck into Robert Webb's book though, I started to feel a little guilty about my actions. In his own words, the book is "a deconstruction of masculinity for comic & political effect though the lens of [his] childhood". It's a very good but chastening read, and it made me (as I suspect it will to any male partner or parent reading it) want to improve myself as a person, particularly in relation to my family. I wasn't being negatively gender-specific (I'd have been overjoyed if my daughter had wanted to try City of Thieves) but I was trying to influence them based on a pattern ingrained in me when I was young, which might not be that healthy. My nostalgia had made me a pusher, and I'd already got them hooked on fizzy drinks. It wasn't as if I was a one-time offender either. Almost every one of the Doctor Who stories that I've covered for the blog, I've tried to get the kids interested in too: is that part of the same pattern?

My grandfather had been stationed in Malta in the second world war, and he wanted to show it to us. My Dad, who took us to Spain in 1985, had previously been to the same resort when younger for holidays with his mates. I was now the third generation to try to relive old times through new people. I know it's ultimately harmless to want to interest one's children in things one is interested in, but it still gave me pause. Good or bad, though, it's almost certainly counter-productive. My Dad was interested in all kinds of sport, and tried to share this with his growing son, but - perhaps because of his avidity - I wasn't interested at all. He was probably dumbfounded as to how to connect with someone who was mad keen on Doctor Who, rather than Brentford FC, but he did make an effort to meet me some of the way.

Dad had two anecdotes about Doctor Who which he'd deploy of occasion throughout my childhood,  as if they were new and he'd never told me before. The first was about an evening sometime in the first half of the 1970s, when he'd vaguely recognised someone in a London pub as being off the telly, and had amiably mentioned this to the person in question. He had then been invited by that person to guess their identity. "You're not Doctor Who, are you?" said my Dad; "No, actually, I'm the Brigadier". This was followed by Nicholas Courtney and my father having a drink and a chat together. Nice bloke, apparently. I was (ungratefully) a bit disappointed that it never turned out to be Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker no matter how many times the tale was told. The second was a comment he'd often make in our living room: "Your Doctor Who's made in a place that's only about the size of this room, you know?!". Said room was indeed large, as the back of the house had been extended and it was the size of two large living rooms stuck together. I suspected at the time, though, and now know for sure, that it was still smaller than Limehouse D, let alone the Television Centre studios being used at the time the comment was made. He tried, at least.

The boot is on the other foot now, though, as my son - since the world cup, and perhaps because of a previous lifetime of his father trying to encourage him to like TV science fiction - only talks about football, and I don't even have two anecdotes to tell on that score. I'll have to try too. But not too hard; whatever they like is fine, whether it's something I'm into or not. Another lesson I've learnt is never to try to second guess them, as - to my surprise - when we arrived back to our home from Gatwick Airport, our sojourn in the Canaries over, one of the first things the children wanted to do was resume their watching of the recent Tom Baker boxset, even the football crazy eldest. So, that's something.


In Summary:
Less is more. Less of Sleep No More, please.

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