Doctor Who has joined the found footage club. With this week’s episode “Sleep no More” the Whoniverse has joined the ever growing club of found footage with disastrous results.
This week felt like a budget episode. What I mean by that is traditionally many shows have had needed to save their budgets for a large finale or just needed a way to cut back on expenses for the season. Most series over the years used the concept of the one room or “bottle episode.” Every time you’ve seen a show trap characters in a closet or an elevator for the whole episode, that’s a bottle episode, a cheap and easy way to cut costs. While this week isn’t contained to one room, it is on a space station where the hallways and rooms all look suspiciously similar. While I can’t say so for sure, my belief is three sets were redressed over and over for the majority of this week’s scenes. Now bottle episodes can be very entertaining when done well but here … not so much. Also there is one moment where we are told about snake-like wires that moved on their own but it’s never paid off with us actually seeing this happen, it’s all done off camera.
Opening on a scientist/professor telling us not to watch this, the episode is confusing from moment one and never really recovers. We are told that this man, this professor, has compiled all the footage we are about to see to tell us about the events on his space station. Since the entire episode is supposedly made of found footage there were no real opening credits this week, a first for the show, I believe. There is a brief screen of computer code with the words Doctor Who spelled out vertically like a word search, which I suppose is kind of clever.
Clever is this week’s Achilles heel. This episode is a writer’s desperate attempt at being clever with very unsuccessful results. We follow a rescue team that has been sent to find the crew of a space station. Through security video and their helmet cams we see their timid investigation of the empty and foreboding station when they suddenly come across The Doctor and Clara. The few saving grace moments of this episode belong to Clara, talking to The Doctor about space restaurants and space this, space that. The Doctor tells her no one ever would really put space in front of everything to describe it, until one of the soldiers talks about space pirates. Clara’s reaction, while nicely underplayed, is charmingly pleased by herself. There are a few other fleeting moments of Clara being funny/charming, but the episode is severely lacking in the Clara and The Doctor’s interactions and the show is poorer for it.
We find out the base is being used by Rassmussen (the previously mentioned professor), the inventor of Morpheus, a technology that condenses a night’s sleep into five minutes. The pods used to do this also incessantly play the song “Mr. Sandman,” so of course the monsters this week? Yes, actual Sandmen, made from that gunk from the corner of your eye (sheesh!). Using old music, especially traditionally seen as happy tunes, juxtaposed with creepy settings has become a heavily used horror trope. One that I normally am a sucker for, but here it just feels too on the nose, too cutesy to get me to suspend disbelief.
The concept of found footage has been overused for years now. While it can be a great tool when properly implemented, it also can immediately taint a project when its use feels forced or gimmicky. Here it’s both. The quality of the camera feeds is all over the place. Some are color, some black and white. One viewpoint, in fact most, are crystal clear HD, then suddenly another angle is muddy or has digital breakup. There is never any real rhyme or reason to why the drastic changes. In fact, going by what we find out towards the end of the episode, how the hell did Rassmussen have enough time to edit so much footage together?
Speaking of Rassmussen, he pops up from time to time to give exposition. Almost never truly adding anything of value but trying to set up how dangerous everything was. This never comes across in the actual scenes though. No tension or fear really. A lot of that can be attributed to the fact we never really learn anything about these people, and as a result we just don’t care what happens to them. It also doesn’t help that, as the professor tells us, there are gaps in the footage, so the story is constantly hopping and skipping chunks. This results in an incoherent story that is disjointed and is hard to follow for any viewer.
Speaking of hard to follow, the angles of cameras is questionable if you are trying to pay attention. In fact, I thought I had found a glaring error at one point, when we see Clara’s point of view, until later we are told the soldiers don’t have helmet cams. Wait, what? So we find out that what we believed were helmet cam feeds are really a feed from everyone’s eyes. This could have been clever, except that several times we cut from someone’s perspective and that person’s head is turned completely away from what they were “looking” at. Other times, the person’s perspective is so focused on who they are speaking to it feels like a normal camera shot rather than POV.
The acting did nothing to help this week either. While Capaldi and Coleman were giving it their best, all the B players this week were just terrible. The whole thing felt like community theater. Added to this, our conclusion this week doesn’t give us any real closure. While The Doctor and Clara escape, Rassmussen concludes his video by telling us that by watching it we’ve been infected by the sand and he’s broadcasting it to infect people everywhere. It’s meant to be ominous and creepy but it isn’t a real ending, it’s not even a good twist. Are there stakes for our heroes going forward? We have no clue and it appears there is no follow up coming. By far this is the worst episode of this overall stellar season. It might be the worst of Capaldi’s whole run. Pointless, confusing, and forgettable.