Monday, 16 November 2015
Doctor Who: Sleep No More (Episode Review)
You know, by this point we might as well start on a "This Doctor Who episode could have been great but..." line, just starting to hammer in where they screwed up. Last time we had the staff letting a terrible writer beat a message over the audience's head at the cost of story quality. In this case we have a good writer trying to twist things up and be overly intelligent, only to have the story collapse under its own weight. There was so much here which could have easily worked, any part of this story's key elements, but it jumbles them together so badly you're just left with a confusing mess.
The story this time follows not the Doctor but a small military unit. With an orbiting research station having fallen silent, a team of marines is sent in to check it out and report for survivors. They find the power out, half the place in ruins, and also the Doctor and Clara strolling about the place. Unfortunately, it soon turns out they're not alone.
Now, from that small description you might have guessed this is Doctor Who's stab at doing an Aliens episode. You're actually not that far off overall, as with have the immoral businessman angle, a bit of bad science, a group of overtly confident soldiers and more than a little body horror. The problem is that, whatever his failings when it came to Avatar, James Cameron and co. created some very likable, confident soldiers who at least seemed to know what they were doing. In this case, you get half of that impression for a while, until all professionalism falls away entirely and you realise you didn't like any of these meat shields to begin with. Oh they do well to start with, but then it sort of all falls to bits on the writing end of things.
Up to about the end of the first act, the story is actually not all that bad in all fairness. It's more or less like another Kill The Moon where you're left with a hopeful impression. We see very little of the monsters, and what little there is sends the armed soldiers into full retreat in moments, or crumbles to bits in seconds. Even after meeting the Doctor, there's a good sense of mystery and real horror here. If the episode had just kept on track then it honestly wouldn't have been all that bad, but then it starts trying to be intelligent. You know. that kind of faux intelligence the series has become obsessed with, where everyone in the writing room insists that overly complex stories barely anyone can follow equates smart storytelling.
Still, you want to know the exact moment the episode goes to hell so badly it might as well be high-fiving Virgil on the way down? The monsters are produced by sleep replacement machines, and are made out of man-eating rheum. Yes, you just read that, and to make matters worse the episode goes so far as to suggest this might not even be mutated rheum. This might just be your common or garden rheum, and sleep is how we prevent eye-gunk creating humanoid abominations. On, and the same rheum serves as particles in the air which act as cameras for some bigger intelligence.
The story not only jumps the megalodon at the monster reveal, but it starts opening up plot holes as if its future depended upon it. Perhaps the worst offender in this regard is how the story never stops to actually explain a single damn thing and keeps abandoning stuff at a moment's notice. For example, in one kill the idea of a potentially psychotic or unstable station computer is introduced. Okay, fun idea, but then it's forgotten and abandoned in the very next scene. Right after that, a soldier breaks into a storage room to hide, only for the monster to somehow phase through a locked door between cuts and kill the guy. How did it pull this off? Couldn't tell you even if I wanted to.
We have about four or five different explanations for what created the monsters, several of which are all dropped in the last five minutes. To make matters worse, it then opts for a kind of non-ending which makes The Big O look conservative by comparison. Rather than simply being an apocalyptic log, apparently the entire found-footage documentary was being made by someone to beam a message into the audience's heads so they might become mucus monsters themselves and everyone will die. This would be jarring enough, but the story actually opts to completely abandon any kind of proper resolution in order to do this. To make matters even worse, it promptly creates a raging cluster-fuck of plot holes and unanswered questions which rips the episode a new one. The most prominent of these is when the main villain, editing together the episode, somehow knows and picks out the names and identities of each soldier at long range. Oh and, for no apparent reason, picks out "DOCTOR WHO" in an electronic word search, rather than doing the usual opening credits.
You know what might have saved it? If this has been just a normal base under siege episode. Abandon the goo-monster angle, abandon the Evangelion level "WTF reactions equates intelligence" ending, and just tell a story with the Doctor and some monsters. This really shouldn't be all that hard, and when trying to make things complicated royally buggers up a story this straight forwards, perhaps the writers should stop doing it for a while. Doctor Who lasted decades without needing to turn everything into a David Lynch production written by M. Night Shyamalan. Perhaps its time the people running the show damn well remembered that.