I like it that Doctor Who is still experimenting in its 52nd year. But experiments wouldn’t be experiments if they never fail. Actually this wasn’t a bad episode (the low-for-Doctor-Who AI of 78 proves nothing, since Love and Monsters got 76, and no-one disputes how brilliant it is) but by the (incredibly strong) standard of this year, it’s the weakest episode yet. Maybe because it’s the second base under seige of the run (and it looked suspiciously like the same base), maybe because the disposable guest cast were rather forgettable. But it took some rather tasty concepts and wasted them.
Firstly, there’s the sleep concentration thing; it’s brilliant. Who wouldn’t use Morpheus if it could do that? But do we know enough about why we sleep to be sure that just because the machine gave us enough ‘concentrated sleep’ to function, we weren’t damaging our sanity? Scary.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t much explored. It might have been easier to relate to if this were a 21st century invention. But more importantly, there seemed to be no logical, figurative or moral connection to the consequences we were shown (the sandmen).
Secondly, the sandmen themselves were good Moffat-ey monsters (sleep dust as commonplace made scary, like cracks in the wall or shadows in the library). But in realisation we saw too much of them; slow, lumbering, blobby. All they did was boring roaring and some fairly conventional consumption of the cast.
The found footage conceit, while hardly new, was a nice idea. The execution was soggy. When I realised we were getting stuff from Clara’s point of view, I wondered if it was a mistake – no, that was deliberate, and clever. But the shots we were supposed to think were CCTV, weren’t – so why were they static? And why were they monochrome? The ‘rules’ seemed to relax later, with some non-POV shots moving and in colour.
To make it work, I felt it needed less frenetic editing. Fewer shots where the action was conveniently right in the middle of the frame. In short, to fully commit to the format. Conversely, it didn’t need to be lit so poorly. It felt like a messy compromise.
There was a lot to like about the script, though, with some affectionate nods from Gatiss to the ’60s and ’70s episodes (“when I say run, run” and “it’s like the Silurians all over again”). My favourite moment was the Doctor’s “hold my hand” when the monsters first appear (Clara: “I’m okay”, the Doctor: “I’m not”).
But the payoff, I’m not sure about. Did Rasmussen succeed and infect humanity in the 38th century? How come we’re watching it in the 21st? Will we find out next week, or was this a sequel-free one-parter?
Ultimately, if you have to tell the audience it is “compulsive storytelling” you’d probably need to check whether that’s true, because if your villain tells them it has “a proper climax with the big one at the end” they’re probably not just going to just take his word for it.