I'm going to keep this short, because it is unfortunate that my return to Doctor Who—after an unscheduled but unavoidable hiatus—happens to coincide with the return of writer Mark Gatiss.
"Sleep No More" is the eighth episode Gatiss has written since Doctor Who returned in 2005, and so far I have liked exactly two of them, and those but mildly: 2005's "The Unquiet Dead" and 2011's "Night Terrors." Otherwise, the 2006 episode "The Idiot's Lantern" was a passable (if utterly forgettable) bit of mid-level mediocrity, and the remainder of Gatiss's output—"Victory of the Daleks," "Cold War," "The Crimson Horror," and "Robot of Sherwood"—were, for me, pretty much as bad as Doctor Who gets. "Under Gatiss’s pen," I wrote in my review of "Cold War," "Doctor Who becomes what people who don’t really watch Doctor Who imagine it to be: a silly sci-fi romp. It becomes a monster-of-the-week show. It becomes Scooby Who."
All of which probably suggests that I was predisposed to dislike "Sleep No More," and—let's face it—I was. But I really do go into these things with as open a mind as possible. Gatiss, after all, has written some very good episodes of Sherlock, the fantastic series he co-created with Who showrunner Stephen Moffat. I would be neither terribly surprised, nor at all disappointed, to discover he had penned a truly excellent episode of Doctor Who.
And, you know, for about the first 10 minutes of "Sleep No More," I actually hoped he might have pulled it off. Unlike the painfully tongue-in-cheek, fatally unfunny historical romps that comprise the bulk of Gatiss's output, "Sleep No More" looked to be a more serious and substantial endeavor. It had some genuine atmosphere; it seemed to treat the Doctor and Clara with dignity; and—with its found-footage conceit—it promised a new (to Doctor Who) and potentially interesting approach to storytelling.
Unfortunately, while his tone and tricks may have changed, Gatiss remains the same. "Sleep No More" is to Doctor Who horror precisely what "Robot of Sherwood" is to Doctor Who comedy: an appallingly slapdash affair that betrays, at its heart, a contemptuous lack of respect for both the show and its audience.
"I did try to make it exciting." — Rassmussen
While found-footage is a painfully overused device in horror these days, the idea of doing a found-footage episode of Doctor Who is not a bad one. The show has flirted with the format before—as in the 2013 minisode "The Last Day"—but an entire full-length episode that committed to the device could be very effective. (In fact, given Moffat's obsession with locating danger in seeing—e.g. the Vashta Narada, the Weeping Angels, the Silence—it's a wonder he hasn't tackled the idea before.)
But "Sleep No More" not only squanders all the benefits of the format, it actually magnifies every disadvantage. How we apportion the blame between Gatiss's script and Justin Molotnikov's direction could be the subject of debate, but there's no denying that "Sleep No More" features some truly wretched visual storytelling. The patient simplicity of found-footage is what makes the device so effective, but this episode (literally) butchers the effect by constantly editing what we are seeing, jumping from shot to shot, and from angle to angle. The result is an overly processed mess that loses the impact of watching raw video, and becomes distinguishable from the average hour of television only in the general crappiness of its images and the incoherence of its storytelling.
The same mistake is made with point-of-view. Again, this is one of the brilliant effects found-footage can provide, and what makes the device so effective for horror stories: the immersive sense of being—even of being trapped—in a first-person point-of-view. And again, "Sleep No More" utterly squanders the advantage, going out of its way to avoid the suspense that found-footage can generate so powerfully. There are precious few moments of true POV, and we are never in anyone's point-of-view long enough to feel genuine suspense. What's worse, the added conceit of floating dustmite cameras that can shoot from anywhere on the ship—seriously, what the hell?—means that we are not even locked into anyone's point of view. One wonders, frankly, what the point of doing a found-footage episode was, if the show was going to refuse to commit to the device and so completely fail to capitalize on its thin but effective strengths.
And this is where I have to get specific about my problems with Mark Gatiss again, because, at its core, this failing seems endemic to his approach to Doctor Who. By which I mean, I honestly believe there was no point, other than being shallowly enamored with the idea of doing a found-footage episode and delivering the "twist" at the end. Again, I'll come back to "Robot of Sherwood," so different in tone but so similar in approach. That seemed like an episode that began simply with Gatiss saying, "Wouldn't it be fun if the Doctor met Robin Hood?" (Forget that Robin Hood is fictional—we'll simply make a feint at acknowledging that and then never bother to deal with it again.) Gatiss seems to think Doctor Who is a show that exists purely for momentary effect, and is thus utterly disposable: each hour exists in service of the writer's whim and mood, and is thus subject to no rules of continuity, plotting, even characterization. Gatiss seems to think he can serve up any nonsense, and it doesn't need to make sense, even internally. "This doesn't make any sense," the Doctor says here, in a smug moment of authorial self-awareness. "It's like it's all for effect, like a story."
It is the creeping element of disdain that I feel in Gatiss's scripts that causes me to be so hard on him. God knows, he is far from alone in writing insultingly awful episodes of Doctor Who. (Last season's "In the Forest of the Night," written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, was truly terrible, and yet neither it nor Gatiss's "Sherwood" was bad enough to win my trophy for Stinker of the Year; that prize that went to Steven Moffat's own "Death in Heaven.") But Gatiss's scripts offend me on a different level than the others, because I don't believe Gatiss thinks Doctor Who needs to be anything better. He seems to think as long as the show delivers a few laughs, or a few scares, then it's done its job.
Leaving aside the fact that I think Gatiss is adept at delivering neither laughs nor scares, I happen to think Doctor Who is a more valuable property than that, capable of greatness and worthy of respect. It's a grand old theater that Gatiss rents out for cheap vaudeville acts and kiddie birthday parties.
"None of this makes any sense." — The Doctor
I honestly can't summon the energy to discuss the story of this thing—carnivorous eye boogers?—let alone pick it apart. Leaving out the (disastrously employed) found-footage conceit, and the absurd twist at the end (which we'll discuss in a moment), the rest is dull and derivative: a typical "base-under-siege" tale told less successfully than most. When I discussed "Under the Lake," I talked about how such stories only work if we are at least a little emotionally invested in the supporting characters, and we are not here: they are all underwritten, and the jumping POV device actually makes it harder, not easier, to understand or empathize with them. The Morpheus system—which concentrates a month's sleep into five-minute power naps—is potentially an interesting idea, but it would be interesting only as an exploration of the human need for sleep and dreams, not as a device to bring forth ambulatory eye boogers. (Give me a better version of this story that centered on human psychosis, or even on nightmares somehow made manifest by lack of sleep and dreams, and I might have been on board.) The scenes of navigating the blind generic spore monsters suggest to me that Gatiss has been playing a lot of video games—specifically, if I had to guess, The Last of Us—and other elements, such as the security door programmed only to open if one sings, seem lifted straight from other, better base-under-siege tales like Season Three's "42."
And, as the Doctor keeps saying in a pathetic meta-commentary designed to stave off criticism of the episode, none of it makes sense. And, it turns out, none of it was supposed to make sense. The big "twist" at the end is that what we have been watching was manufactured by Rassmussen (Reece Shearsmith) for the sole purpose of convincing us to watch. "I did try to make it exciting," Rassmussen says. "All those scary bits, all those death-defying scrapes, monsters. And a proper climax with a really big one at the end."
It's hard to imagine a more perfectly honest expression of Gatiss's contempt for this show, and for its audience. Did any of it really happen? Did none of it really happen? Since Rassmussen apparently succeeded in his ludicrous, unmotivated, and fundamentally stupid plan—which he's confessing for no reason—did the entire human race die and turn into Boogermen? Did we, because we watched this nonsense?
It doesn't matter, as long as we watch. None of it matters. None of it is supposed to matter, because Gatiss doesn't think Doctor Who matters. "Sleep No More" is a throw-away episode of Doctor Who, because there's nothing else to do with it: it's impossible to make sense of, impossible to reconcile with any other episode, impossible to even treat seriously as a story. It says nothing, it means nothing, it matters not at all. Its sole purpose for being is to deliver a couple of (ineffectual) scares, and build up to the sort of twist that seems creepy and clever at a glance, but is actually both dumb and derisive.
The episode ends, quite literally, and quite appropriately, with a thumb in the eye, a contemptuous insult to anyone who actually pays attention to this show, and expects it to mean something.
Whenever I find myself railing against an episode like this, someone inevitably feels the need to remind me that Doctor Who is a show for children, and tells me I'm taking it far too seriously. Believe me, I know it's a show for children, but it should never be a show that talks down to children, or insults their intelligence. Children can follow a well-constructed plot; children can process complex ideas; children can absorb profound meanings from fantastic fables. At its frequent best, Doctor Who is capable of delivering truth, and beauty, and wonder, and mind-blowing ideas: it is for children the way the Narnia books are for children, or the way Madeleine L'Engle's books are for children. At its worst—which seems to be whenever Gatiss is writing it—Doctor Who becomes Goosebumps: a disposable bit of pop-culture fluff without substance or meaning or the expectation of quality.
It seems I am far from alone in hating "Sleep No More": currently, on the "audience appreciation index" that gauges the reception of programs in the U.K., the episode holds the lowest rating since 2006's "Love and Monsters." What bothers me about that is only that "Love and Monsters" maintains a lower rating. Yes, "Love and Monsters"—long derided by the fans as the worst episode of the Russell T Davies era—has some painfully silly elements, including a preposterous monster and some unfortunately blue jokes about a paving stone. Nonetheless, "Love and Monsters" is, for me, a better example of what Doctor Who can do—and should do—than "Sleep No More." "Love and Monsters" is fun; it develops genuine, even moving characters; and it uses its silly setup to say some authentic and powerful things about loneliness, and fan-culture, and the pathos of being ordinary in an extraordinary world.
"Sleep No More," on the other hand, seems to say nothing but a big "Fuck You" to its audience, young and old alike. It says we neither expect nor deserve stories that make sense. It says Doctor Who is a machine for generating disposable moments of reaction, not genuine moments of emotion and wonder. It says that we'll watch and appreciate any old sort of crap, as long as it has scary bits and a big monster at the end.
It's insulting, it's cynical, and most of all it's just plain wrong. It's by far the worst episode of Doctor Who—since at least 2005—and it turns the show into something that I would neither watch, nor encourage my children to watch. We all deserve better.
"You must not watch this. I'm warning you: you can never un-see it." — Rassmussen
If only we'd listened.