I’ve not written reviews of every story this season, but hope to get round to them eventually. However, I did undertake a review of Empress of Mars for the Doctor Who News Page’s reviews site. It’s best read over there…
I’m somewhat Whoed out after an enjoyable day at the Doctor Who Festival at ExCeL in east London, but still imagine the pressure to produce an early review, so offer that I was very impressed by Sleep No More. The performances of many of the guest cast were uneven and difficult to believe in, I found; but this is Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman’s show and it remained so, Capaldi channelling his actor’s professional intensity into the Doctor’s driven, directed curiosity and his concern for human good even when humanity has forgotten what that good is. Given Capaldi’s past statements might be read as suggesting his reservations about the commercialisation of Doctor Who, it’s not surprising to see him convey so well the Doctor’s digust at a human society where productivity, competition and profit have entirely overtaken the common good. Mark Gatiss has been an outspoken critic of attacks on the BBC and it’s not surprising to see him take on the cult of the financial transaction as the index of human relationships here; perhaps, without soiidarity and without the acknowledgement that we need time to distinguish our essential selves from our careers, our greed and desire for advantage, we might as well be no more than dead cells and mucus.
The realisation left a little to be desired; the sets were as stark and functional as one would expect, and the Morpheus pods a little more bright and exotic, as if representing a process which is sold to people with dancing and singing and sentiment dating from America in the 1950s, remembered (however selectively) as an age of optimism and prosperity. However, as has been the case for much of this season and the one before, lighting and grading conspired to lend a general greyness to proceedings when one needed the contrast between dark and what light there was.
I’d seen a Sandman emerge from behind the sofa shared by Mark Gatiss and Kate Walshe of Millennium FX on the Festival stage earlier; it was alarming then, and their appearances here were photographed to effect. Like the Silence, they draw on Munch’s Scream, but represent a further iteration of Hell on Earth; our fears, suppressed, now take life from our cast-offs and in this new form digest us. I had suspected the twist regarding Rasmussen would occur in some form and part of the tension came from wondering when he would take on sandy form.
I’m not familiar with the evolution of the found footage genre in cinema since the days of The Blair Witch Project, which is now an alarming distance away; no doubt if I was I’d have had slightly different expectations of this episode. The story, we assume for the future of humanity, continues successfully on Triton; the Doctor, Clara and Nagata persuade or subvert the authorities and destroy the Morpheus machines and remove or overwrite the signal which triggers the Sandman-creating process. Nevertheless the horror is supernatural and potentially able to replicate itself; and according to this interview with Mark Gatiss at Blogtor Who, the Doctor has lost this round and there will be a rematch. The disintegration of Rasmussen will surely linger in children’s memories.
Lastly it was good to see Jenna Coleman playing Clara for an entire episode and not being overwritten or marginalised; while her curiosity compromised her – though the incorporation of an assertive and inquisitive companion into a ‘system’ reminded me of Sarah Jane Smith’s cryogenic preservation in The Ark in Space – she took charge and in two symbolic instances, naming the Sandmen and in opening the TARDIS door (and there was, I note, presumably sand in the keyhole with time-travelling aspirations) asserted her right to be considered a magician herself, not just the apprentice. Festival-goers were warned by Steven Moffat that what is coming for Clara is tragic and life-ruining. As we enter the gateway to the finale, tonight’s heroic dash to the TARDIS might be a last hurrah.