You must not read this review. I’m warning you. You can never unread it…
This week Doctor Who ventures into the unknown, providing its very first take on the found-footage horror genre. You know you’re in new territory when for the first time in its fifty-two year history there are no title credits. No familiar sting followed by the dunna dun duns and woooo-ing; instead we get a frantic Reece Shearsmith (slotted inside episode no 9 by fellow League of Gentlemen member Mark Gatiss) warning us not to watch the horrors that will unfold. Now this sounds interesting.
This episode aired with a lot of pre-expectations for me. It’s been talked about for some time now as the proper scary episode of the series and much has been made of its experimental format. First what worked; the found footage aspects were on the whole engaging and added to the story. I felt immersed in the action, involved in the danger the characters were facing. As an audience member you could feel an honorary companion for the week as the Doctor looked straight down the camera to address you. The cuts back to Rassmussen (slimy Shearsmith) added a sense of foreboding to events, if not a little confusion when he was swallowed whole by a Sandman. The basic concept for this cautionary tale also strikes me as a great idea on Gatiss’ part; a future where we barter away sleep and how this comes back to haunt us. So why didn’t this episode go down as one of the greats?
I think on the whole it boils down to slightly messy storytelling. The Sandmen were visually scary and I couldn’t help but laugh at the Doctor’s tantrum when he was pipped to the post at naming them, but they just weren’t explained properly. I can get on board with them being made of sleep dust but how do they form and what makes them tick? The resolution of the plot also felt rushed. It’s refreshing to see the Doctor losing a battle for once but in the confusion the consequences don’t really seem to sink in. I’d like to see this plot revisited as there’s real potential for a story that terrifies as well as makes you think. Unfortunately this wasn’t quite it.
The guest cast played it well, though many were just monster-fodder. Shearsmith’s reveal as the real villain was a good one and the image of him crumbling to dust is surely one that will stick in the mind. Bethany Black (Doctor Who’s first openly transgender actress) showed her acting talents in a Sontaran-like portrayal of grunt 474, and the future continues to be presented as a place of equality as Commander Nagata (played by Elaine Tan) fought to save her crew and put the Doctor in his place.
The found-footage aspect helped this episode feel real, so when the slightly muddled reveal came I suppose many like me couldn’t help checking that something was in their eye. This episode was an ambitious experiment with many ingredients for a winning formula. Unfortunately it falls ever so slightly short of its goal but you have to admire it for trying.