Doctor Who reviews: Sleep No More

I’m finally caught up on my Doctor Who viewing.  Here are a few thoughts on the episode “Sleep No More” written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Justin Molotnikov.

1) Found footage

I am generally not a fan of so-called “found footage” movies.  I found The Blair Witch Project to be one of the most overrated pieces of $#!+ that I have ever seen.  On the other hand, I did enjoy Paranormal Activity, although part of that may have been due to not having very high expectations in the first place.

You can imagine how I felt when I started watching “Sleep No More” and realized that it was that type of story.  Fortunately this was actually a good episode.  Gatiss wrote a scary, unnerving script that made very good use of the format.

Molotnikov did very solid work directing.  Rather than the confusion and motion sickness that Blair Witch left me with, “Sleep No More” with its cutting back-and-forth between security cameras and character POVs resulted in, for the most part, genuine suspense.  While there were chaotic moments of storytelling, for the most part those contributed to the atmosphere of the story, since the audience was left just as uncertain about what was going on as the characters.

Sleep No More poster

2) In space no one can hear you sleep

Humanity once again manages to make a mess of things.  Yeah, leave it to capitalists and scientists to get together for the oh-so-brilliant idea of cramming people’s need for eight hours of sleep into a mere five minutes, leaving us able to work non-stop for almost an entire day.  I’m sure that in the real world there are people actually attempting to find a way to do just this, all in the name of greater profits.

Of course, since this is Doctor Who, things inevitably go pear-shaped.  The Doctor falls into his standard role of calling out humanity on its arrogance and short-sightedness.  Due to the format of this episode Peter Capaldi only has a couple of short monologues regarding the foolishness of the Morpheus program.  Nevertheless, in these few brief moments he invests them with both a genuine sense of outrage at humanity’s audacity and a philosophical contemplation of the value of sleep.

3) Enter Sandmen

The Sandmen are, when you come down to it, a ridiculous concept.  Fortunately the episode moves at such a fast clip that you aren’t left considering for too long that a bunch of people-eating monsters have been formed from “dream dust.”

The low lighting and herky-jerky camerawork also, for the most part, results in the Sandmen not being seen too clearly.  Good decision, since from the few good glimpses we get of them they look very much like humanoid lumps of oatmeal.  I expect that it a well-lit room they would appear quite silly.  Molotnikov did a pretty good job filming the Sandmen in an effective, menacing manner.

Sleep No More promo image

4) Universe building

If you ever watched any of Doctor Who stories made in the 1960s and 70s that were set in the future, for the most part everything was very white and very British.  That began to change a bit in the 1980s, and since the show returned in 2005 we really have seen a number of future eras occupied by different ethnic groups.

Gatiss had an interesting concept in “Sleep No More” for how in the 38th Century India and Japan combine into a massive superpower with colonies throughout the solar system.  It gave “Sleep No More” a distinct flavor and backdrop.  As with the best universe building, Gatiss mostly leaves these as background elements and hints of a larger culture.

5) To be continued?

“Sleep No More” appears to end on a cliffhanger, which left me believing that this was another example of the two episode structure that has occurred throughout Series Nine.  So I was a bit surprised when I then watched “Face the Raven” and it was completely unrelated, the first installment of a three episode season finale.

I wonder if at some point the dangling plotlines of “Sleep No More” will be picked up in a future episode.  After all, the character of Nagata, played by Elaine Tan, survives.  She heads off with the Doctor and Clara in the TARDIS to Neptune, where they hope to shut down the Morpheus program.  Or perhaps we really are going to be left with the episode’s final unsettling minutes, kept in the dark as to exactly how things worked out in the 38th Century.

Doctor Who reviews: Robot of Sherwood

The third episode of Doctor Who Series Eight, “Robot of Sherwood” written by Mark Gatiss, is something of a comedy. After the grim tone of the previous week’s “Into the Dalek” this makes for a nice change of pace. The episode further develops the character of the recently-regenerated Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his changed relationship with Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman).

Asked by the Doctor to choose a destination for the TARDIS, Clara decides that she wants to meet one of her childhood heroes, Robin Hood. The Doctor immediately dismisses Robin Hood as nothing but a legend. “He’s made up. There’s no such thing.” But Clara wears him down and he reluctantly sets the coordinates for Sherwood Forest in medieval times. Arriving, the Doctor is extremely surprised and annoyed to find that a very jolly fellow in green armed with a bow & arrow claiming to be Robin Hood is ready to steal the TARDIS.

“Robot of Sherwood” brought a big grin to my face on several occasions. Capaldi was excellent as the Doctor, who even at bow-point adamantly refuses to acknowledge Robin Hood’s existence, instead floating all manner of outlandish theories to explain away the presence of the prince of thieves and his band of Merry Men. Clara, in contrast, is utterly charmed and thrilled. Wearing a beautiful red period dress, she is ready to dive right in, much to the Doctor’s disgust.

One of my favorite moments came early on when Robin (Tom Riley) challenges the Doctor to a duel for the TARDIS. The Doctor accepts, but instead of utilizing a sword whips a large spoon out from his jacket. Capaldi’s enthusiasm and irreverence totally sells the scene. Of course the Doctor would be crazy enough to fight someone with a spoon!

Doctor Who Robot of Sherwood promo

Much of the episode is devoted to the Doctor alternating between attempting to prove Robin is a fake and showing up the archer. Quite clearly the Doctor does not want to be proven wrong. Neither is he comfortable with Clara mooning over the outlaw lord of Locksley, as the Doctor hates to be outdone by anyone.

During the famous archery contest organized by the Sherriff of Nottingham (Ben Miller) to trap Robin into revealing himself, the Doctor inevitably tries to grab the spotlight, attempting to out-shoot the legendary archer, and then finally resorting to blowing up the target with his sonic screwdriver. When the Sherriff orders his knights to attack them, in the resulting fight Robin hacks off one of their arms, revealing it to be a robot. Of course the Doctor is utterly jubilant, as this finally seems to confirm for him that everything that is taking place is a fake.

However, it does inevitably transpire that Robin Hood is the genuine article. Only the robots, and their spaceship hidden at the center of the Sherriff’s castle, are out of place. It takes Clara to figure this out, as she bluffs the besotted Sherriff into revealing how he plans to use these crash-landed automatons to seize the English throne. The Doctor and Robin finally agree to work together and, escaping from the dungeon, discover the control center of the robots’ ship. The Doctor is perturbed to learn that the ship had been en-route to “The Promised Land,” a destination that had also been sought out by the half-faced clockwork man in “Deep Breath.”

In a number of ways “Robot of Sherwood” is almost a love letter to the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who. The Twelfth Doctor’s costume has a more than passing resemblance to the Third’s. Capaldi’s performance certainly possesses some of the authoritative, bossy arrogance of Pertwee’s. There are parallels to the Third Doctor story “The Time Warrior,” with its spaceship crash-landing in medieval England, and a ruthless robber baron attempting to use alien weapons to expand his empire. “The Time Warrior” even had a robot knight, and “Robot of Sherwood” improves on that with a whole army of them.

Other instances that call back to the Pertwee era are the Doctor using a martial arts move to disarm Robin Hood, and his suggestion to Clara at the start of the episode that they take a trip to Mars to visit the Ice Warriors. At one point, trying to figure out the “truth” behind Robin Hood’s presence, the Doctor wildly guesses that they are actually in a Miniscope, a shout-out to the Third Doctor serial “Carnival of Monsters.” Miller’s theatrical performance as the black-clad, bearded Sherriff even brings to mind the Third Doctor’s constant adversary The Master, both in his physical appearance and in his propensity for wildly impractical schemes to conquer the world. I was left wondering if the Sheriff attended The Roger Delgado School of Villainy, as taught by head instructor Anthony Ainley.

Doctor Who Robot of Sherwood Sheriff

Although “Robot of Sherwood” is a humorous tale, Gatiss’ script does also take a bit of time to reflect on the character of the Doctor. Concerning Clara’s fondness for Robin Hood, the Doctor asks “When did you start believing in impossible heroes?” One suspects that this is as much directed at how Clara feels about Robin as she does in the Doctor himself, who seems to find her faith in him misplaced. At the end of the episode, when Robin, referring to Clara, says to the Doctor “You are her hero, I think.” The Doctor merely replies “I’m not a hero.”

It is actually very appropriate for the Doctor to have this self-perception, and to be dismissive of his accomplishments. It has sometimes been observed that real heroes do not think of themselves as heroes; rather, they are just people who are merely attempting to do the next right thing in a difficult, complicated world.   And that can certainly apply to the Doctor.

Some fans may have been put off by the whimsical tone of “Robot of Sherwood.” Myself, I liked it. One of the great strengths of Doctor Who is that is can support episodes that are diverse in tone and style. This was humorous without being silly, a fun story that entertained while continuing to develop the character of the Twelfth Doctor.

Doctor Who reviews: The Crimson Horror

Things have been really busy, and I didn’t have an opportunity to watch last week’s Doctor Who episode, “The Crimson Horror,” until this afternoon.  Thank you, DVR!  So here, at last are my thoughts on it.

The year is 1893.  Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax are in Yorkshire, investigating a rash of mysterious deaths that have left people colored blood red, the eponymous Crimson Horror.  The last victims of this strange ailment were investigating Sweetville, a model community that has been organized by Mrs. Gillyflower and her blind daughter Ada as a supposed refuge against the coming apocalypse.

Jenny, posing as a convert to Gillyflower’s movement, infiltrates Sweetville.  There, hidden in a locked room, she finds none other than the Doctor, himself a victim of the Crimson Horror.  He is still alive due to his alien physiology, but mostly paralyzed and in terrible pain.  Jenny manages to get him into a revival unit in the factory and, restored to his usual eccentric self, the two go in search of Clara.  She, along with most of the other recruits to Sweetville, has been frozen in suspended animation.  Gillyflower intends to unleash a prehistoric plague to wipe out humanity, and then revive the assembled population of Sweetville to form a “perfect” community on the now-desolate Earth.

The highlight of “The Crimson Horror” was the casting of Diana Rigg and her daughter Rachael Stirling as Mrs. Gillyflower and Ada.  Writer Mark Gatiss had been working in a play with Stirling and, learning that she had never acted opposite her mother, drafted this episode exactly with that in mind.  I quite liked Stirling’s previous Doctor Who performance in the Big Finish audio play “Trail of the White Worm.”  So it was nice to see her make the leap to an actual television episode.  And, of course, Diana Rigg was amazing.  Even at age 74, she’s still a real firecracker, and can probably out-act most people in the profession who are a third her age.  Gatiss really came up with an interesting, complex, troubled mother-daughter dynamic for Rigg and Sterling to act out in this story, and both play their roles extremely well.

It was an interesting choice to have the Doctor and Clara absent from the first fifteen minutes or so of the episode, having the story told from the point of view of Vastra, Jenny, and Strax.  I did enjoy seeing Jenny, portrayed by Catrin Stewart, getting to work solo for some of the episode, and then do a bit of ass-kicking, coincidentally or not coming across much like a later day Emma Peel.  She’s certainly a credit to Dame Diana’s proud legacy of tough, independent women.

No, really, all you need is an umbrella to go with that bowler hat, and you'll look just like Patrick MacNee.
“No, really, all you need is an umbrella to go with that bowler hat, and you’ll look just like Patrick Macnee.”

I enjoyed the whimsical, retro flashback sequence as Jenny is brought up to speed by the Doctor on how he and Clara got involved in the Sweetville investigation.  There is this faux-grainy film stock intermingled with still photos.  Very effective, and it suits the mood of the story perfectly.

As I mentioned in my review of “The Snowmen,” the character of Strax the Sontaran was rather annoying, and his constant use as comic relief fell flat.  I found him much more acceptable in “The Crimson Horror,” probably because he actually got to do stuff, rather than just stand around acting silly.  And when Strax was humorously oblivious or belligerent, it just seemed to work better.

The thing is, once the Doctor gets revived, bam, Matt Smith pretty much steals the show.  It felt like the Paternoster Gang was pushed off to the side in the second half of the episode.  So, I spent the early part of “The Crimson Horror” wondering where the Doctor and Clara were, and the later part hoping that Jenny, Vastra, and Strax would pop up again.  It was maddening.  We certainly didn’t see nearly enough of Madame Vastra, as played by the wonderful Neve McIntosh.

That was the episode’s major weakness: there were just too many characters fighting for screen time.  I really wish that this one could have been longer.  “The Crimson Horror” had a hell of a lot of potential, with solid writing and acting.  There were definitely a lot of great scenes.  But at the end it just felt like too much had been left out due to time constraints.

This is why I would so much like to see the Paternoster Gang receive a special or miniseries.  It would be great to see them step out from the Doctor’s shadow.  I definitely think that there is a hell of a lot of potential to Vastra, Jenny and Strax.

Anyway, yeah, while “The Crimson Horror” did have certain problems, on the whole it was quite good.  Not a perfect episode, by any means, but certainly not a bad one, either.  I guess I’d say it was above average.  That said, I wouldn’t mind watching it again, which is always a good sign.

Doctor Who reviews: Cold War

I was really looking forward to Saturday night’s new Doctor Who episode “Cold War,” which featured the long-awaited return of the Ice Warriors.  Yeah, I’m not really spoiling anything by giving that away, because if you are a Doctor Who fan with an internet connection, odds are you’ve known for weeks now that the Ice Warriors were returning.  That’s the thing about the spread of info on the World Wide Web.  You go onto Facebook to look at photos of cute cats, and next thing you know you’ve unwittingly found out such tidbits as Neil Gaiman is writing an upcoming Cybermen episode, David Tennant, Billie Piper, Jemma Redgrave & the Zygons are all appearing in the show’s 50th Anniversary special, and Gumby & Pokey are going to become the Doctor’s new companions in the TARDIS.  Okay, I made that last one up, but you get what I’m talking about.

First introduced back in 1967, the militaristic Ice Warriors are Doctor Who’s version of Martians.  They made a quartet of appearances during the Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee years, last showing up in the 1974 serial “The Monster of Peladon.”  Since then, even though they were absent from television screens (narrowly missing out on returning a couple of times in the mid-1980s) they’ve appeared in various novels, comic books, and audio plays.  The Doctor also gave them a shout-out in “The Waters of Mars.”

A major factor in the Ice Warriors’ appeal is that sometimes they were enemies of the Doctor, sometimes allies, and sometimes something in between those two extremes.  Unlike such out-and-out baddies as the Daleks or Cybermen, you never know quite what you’re going to get when the denizens of Mars pop up.

Writer Mark Gatiss does a superb job reintroducing the Ice Warriors in “Cold War.”  The set-up is an excellent one.  The year is 1983, and a Soviet submarine is patrolling the waters of the North Pole.  In command is the pragmatic Captain Zhukov who is constantly clashing with his second in command, the saber-rattling Lieutenant Stepashin, who believes war between Russia and America is inevitable.  Also aboard the sub is Professor Grisenko, an eccentric scientist with a fondness for Western pop music (his favorite song is Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf”).  Grisenko has located some sort of creature frozen in the Arctic ice, and the sub is transporting it to Moscow for examination.  Unfortunately, a bored, impatient crewmember decides to melt the ice.  And out emerges a very grumpy Ice Warrior.

As the defrosted Martian goes on a rampage, and the sub begins to sink, the TARDIS materializes aboard.  The Doctor and Clara were on their way to Las Vegas, but they are obviously waaaay off course.  The Doctor, communicating with the Ice Warrior, learns this is the famed Martian hero Grand Marshall Skaldak.  Discovering that he has been in suspended animation for five thousand years, Skaldak realizes that everyone he ever knew is long dead.  Unable to make contact with any other Martian forces, and having been attacked by Zhukov’s crew, the mournful Skaldak decides to launch the sub’s nuclear arsenal and trigger World War III, wiping out humanity.  The Doctor desperately hopes he can find some sort of peaceful resolution to the conflict, recognizing that Skaldak isn’t truly evil, merely belligerent & misguided.

Cold War

“Cold War” is a tense, atmospheric tale, with almost all of the action confined to the narrow, dark corridors of the submarine.  It really brought to mind the “base under siege” formula seen in the old Troughton serials of the late Sixties.  This is quite appropriate, as that was the era which saw the debut of the Ice Warriors.  I thought Douglas Mackinnon did a fine job directing this story.

I liked how the Ice Warriors were presented.  They were slightly redesigned, giving them a more streamlined look, but they’re still obviously the same beings.  They also move a lot faster now (in their old appearances they lumbered along at something like five MPH) and their voices are much easier to understand.

The contrast between “Cold War” and last week’s episode, “The Rings of Akhaten,” is interesting.  That episode did an amazing job at creating this vast alien world populated by all manner of otherworldly beings, yet I felt the actual story never really came together in a satisfying manner, resulting in a merely average entry.  In comparison, “Cold War” is a rather more modest production, yet it is one of the strongest episodes of Series Seven.  This goes back to one of the strengths of Doctor Who from its original incarnation, when the shoestring budgets meant that the effects were primitive and the sets quite limited.  Given those restrictions, the production teams had to rely on their inventiveness, and on the strengths of the writers and actors, to create compelling episodes.  I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for episodes such as “The Rings of Akhaten.”  Rather, the lesson is that amazing special effects should complement good storytelling, not replace it.

Another reason why I was looking forward to “Cold War” was the guest appearance by the great David Warner.  He has previously acted in a number of the Big Finish audios, including “The Children of Seth.”  He even portrayed an alternate reality version of the Doctor in a pair of stories.  And he lent his voice talents to the animated special “Dreamland.”  So it was a pleasure to finally see Warner appear in a live action Doctor Who episode.  Professor Grisenko was a great role for him to play.  It is a performance that is both humorous and poignant.

Regarding the regulars, Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman both do good work.  Smith’s Doctor is an oddball with a steely determination beneath the babbling and flippancy.  I really enjoy that he tries to think his way out of a crisis, using either logic to outwit his foes or emotion to appeal to them, only using violence as a last resort.  “Cold War” showed off this quality very well, as the Doctor earnestly strives to get Skaldak and the Russians to see each other’s point of view, and to convince the Ice Warrior that his race is not dead, that the future has possibilities.

As for Coleman, now portraying the third incarnation of Clara (a mystery for another time), she has definitely growing on me.  We see a more vulnerable side to her character her in “Cold War.”  Before now, traveling with the Doctor has been a grand adventure, and she’s come across as the super-confident, almost infallible figure.  But seeing the submarine crew violently killed by Skaldak drives home to Clara that it isn’t all fun & games.  And that leads into a lovely moment between Coleman and Warner, as Grisenko take on a protective, almost grandfatherly role towards Clara.

“Cold War” was a very satisfying view.  It is definitely some of Gatiss’ best work on the show.  His script gives both the regulars and the guest cast solid material to work with.  I think the reason why it works well is because it so successfully blends the strengths of classic Doctor Who and the new series.  Intelligent writing, behind-the-sofa moments, great acting, and real character development are all present.