Published on November 16th, 2015 | by Brad0
Doctor Who – Sleep No More
For the past few months I’ve been grappling with an editorial on why Found Footage is just the worst. It’s been hard to properly phrase what it is about the genre that leaves me apoplectic whenever I see it, but Sleep No More, this week’s Doctor Who, is pretty prototypical of the Found Footage style, so I’ll try and break down some of the genre’s failings here.
The episode opens with a piece to camera by Gagan Rasmussen (Reece Shearsmith, completing the set of League of Gentlemen appearing on Doctor Who) warning us not to watch, as it can’t be unseen. Wise and prophetic words. He’s the last survivor of a mysterious attack on a research base in orbit around Neptune, and the inventor of Morpheus, a device which compresses a month’s worth of sleep into 5 minutes, allowing you to work around the clock. Shearsmith’s weaselly persona is a great fit for Rasmussen, and he’s definitely the best thing about Sleep No More. The worst thing about it is how this genuinely intriguing concept gets lost due to the problems with the form. After contact with Triton (Neptune’s largest moon) was lost, a rescue crew are sent to investigate. They bump into The Doctor and Clara, and so we begin.
The introduction to the rescue crew is done on their helmet cameras, and the episode plays out on a combination of those helmet cameras and CCTV throughout the station (except not, because plot twist). This is then presented as having been edited together after the fact by Rasmussen, in order to make some sense of what happened. To its credit, Sleep No More doesn’t fall into the “why the fuck are you still filming!?” trap that most Found Footage films do. The footage all being on cameras which make sense, rather than some idiot still hefting around their camcorder while the world is coming to an end, is a big plus. The CCTV footage is at least static, so you can see what’s going on, but as this is Doctor Who, a large part of Sleep No More’s running time is devoted to… well, running. The running sequences are all filmed using the helmet cameras, which means the camera is shaking around like no one’s business and you can’t make the slightest bit of sense of the environments or the monsters our heroes are being chased by. Obviously this allows for some slightly shonkier effects work than normal, as the monsters don’t have to look that convincing when they’re only ever glimpsed on a shaking camera in the dark.
One of my biggest issues with this genre is that Found Footage films often don’t really end, so much as they just stop. Particularly egregious examples of this include The Devil Inside and Devil’s Due, two of the worst films I’ve ever sat through in a cinema. Sleep No More falls very much into this trap. Having an episode end with The Doctor just sort of wandering off without solving anything doesn’t make for good Doctor Who; hell, it doesn’t make for compelling television of any kind, really. The twist ending was a particular slap in the face; it transpires that Rasmussen, secretly a sand monster himself, staged every step of the action in order to make the video compelling, as the video is a delivery signal for the monsters to infect you when you watch it. It’s a neat idea, one of many that episode writer Mark Gatiss had, but the problem is that in order for it to work, Sleep No More needs to have been a compelling episode on its own merits, and it absolutely was not. If it weren’t for the fact that it’s Doctor Who, I wouldn’t have watched this crap to the end.
Sleep No More is the worst episode of Doctor Who in a good while. It’s a shame, really – there’s a lot of potential that’s been squandered. The Morpheus machine is a great concept, there’s a really sweet performance from transgender lesbian actress Bethany Black as a simple, good-hearted soldier from a slave clone race called the Drones, sub-humans grown to serve as infantry, and the conceit that the villain is manipulating events on such a level that even The Doctor can’t properly perceive his invisible hand could have been a great reveal. It’s all rendered moot by the decision to make it Found Footage, unfortunately. It doesn’t look good. It looks like a terrible gimmick that’s been the scourge of horror-movie fans like me for years now. I watch film and TV to see this stuff done by professionals, but Found Footage deliberately looks amateurish, and unless you can give me a compelling reason for it to look amateurish, you’ve failed. There is no reason for an episode of Doctor Who to look amateurish. It’s a very poor stylistic decision which sadly sunk the entire episode.