Doctor Who Recap: Something The Series Has Never Done Before (And Should Never Do Again)

The 2015 season of Doctor Who will be remembered as the year the cliffhanger returned.

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For many long-time fans, Doctor Who has been defined in a big way by its thrilling end-of-episode moments. From the show’s very beginnings it was a serialised story, and every episode and story alike would end with a sudden danger that would be resolved the following week. For fans, that tantalising moment before we whoosh into the end credits was a big part of what defined the show.

But when Doctor Who returned in 2005, there weren’t many cliffhangers to be seen. Despite mainstream UK’s obsession with soap opera serials, Doctor Who went with the hour-long standalone format, tied together with a season-long arc. There were a few two-parters each year, but they always seemed like the exception to the rule.

Picture shows:  Peter Capaldi as The Doctor and Jenna Coleman as Clara

In need of a rescue, Rassmussen employed subtle, sympathy-eliciting pop culture references.

But in 2015, showrunner Steven Moffat decided to shake things up by making every episode a two-parter. When the episode titles were announced this year, they took on a pleasingly connected format: The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s FamiliarThe Girl Who Died and The Woman Who LivedThe Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion. It seemed to be taking Doctor Who back to its roots, but in a way that felt exciting and new.

And that’s always been the key to Doctor Who’s survival. It’s thrived on reinvention, even when that reinvention has a tinge of the nostalgia about it.

With this week’s Sleep No More, though, Doctor Who attempted something it’s never tried before: found footage.

It’s a documentary approach often used to make a science fiction or horror film feel more real or present. But instead of pretending a crew is following the characters around, it imagines that someone came across some discarded footage somewhere and then edited it together to make a film. It became popular with The Blair Witch Project in 1999, and has been frequently used to varying success over the past sixteen years.

Picture shows:  Peter Capaldi as The Doctor and Jenna Coleman as Clara

It’s Doctors all the way down.

A found footage Doctor Who episode somehow feels both inevitable and completely unexpected, so it’s appropriate that it should work really well and also not in the slightest. It’s the sort of experiment that should be attempted, but really only once. After all, Doctor Who has been everything: it’s attempted every genre, it’s lived in every format. A show that is designed to try everything at least once is obliged to give found footage a shot; it’s mandatory, in a never-would-have-picked-it way.

We begin with a group of space marines on a rescue mission to a space station orbiting Neptune. When they enter the station, they come across the Doctor and Clara, who are doing their usual wander-about-and-have-a-gander tourist routine. Soon, they’re attacked by creatures that they discover are the physical embodiment of dangerous sleep deprivation experiments.

Writer Mark Gatiss does find a good reason for the found footage conceit, making both its form and its motivation part of the twist. And yet on first viewing, it’s a tremendously jarring and off-putting experience. The aesthetic darkness and choppiness is appropriate for the format, but never quite clicks into place. On the other hand, we can’t discount the fact that we naturally spend the majority of the story adjusting to this episode’s unique quirks, which makes me fairly confident that this is a story that will benefit from a second or third viewing. How much it will benefit is difficult to say.

Picture shows:  Peter Capaldi as The Doctor and Jenna Coleman as Clara

The Doctor was delighted that the candidates for his new companion were all taller than Clara.

It’s not just the form that’s disconcerting. There’s a lot of complicated plot stuff we have to keep up with that focuses on motivations and origins. It’s not enough for us to simply be scared by the monster coming down the corridor, because we’re not entirely clear what they are or what they want. All the necessary information does seem to be contained in the episode: there’s a lot of expositional moments of dialogue that happen on the left of the screen as we’re focused on the threat to the right, and these are the kind of details that emerge over multiple viewings. Basically, it’s an episode that I suspect a small contingent of viewers will be defending as an unappreciated classic, but not for a few years.

When all those twinned titles were announced for this season, the only episodes that didn’t appear to have an obvious connection were this one, Sleep No More, and next week’s, Face the Raven. As a result, it’s difficult to tell if we’re actually watching a two-parter this week or not. That is by design, and is not necessarily a bad thing. Was the chilling ending of this week’s episode something that needs to be resolved, or was it just a really dark open-ended conclusion? Tune in next week to find out.

Questions To Ponder

  • Is this the first episode in 52 years to not feature an opening title sequence? Yep. And I dig the word jumble alternative.
  • Does the Doctor really name all of his enemies? He seems upset that Clara names these creatures the Sandmen, muttering, “It’s the Silurians all over again”. The Silurian misnomer is a famous one, but getting to name his enemies isn’t all that common an occurrence. Perhaps he’s still coasting from nailing it with The Boneless.
  • Why was the space station called Le Verrier? It was orbiting Neptune, the planet discovered by (amongst others) Urbain Le Verrier. See, you always learn something watching Doctor Who/reading these recaps.
  • Was the “space pirates” reference a reference to The Space Pirates? (Feel free to use that as a warm-up, drama students.) It felt like it should be, but there wasn’t much to grab onto. It’s hard to tell what’s a deliberate reference any more.
  • Is opening an episode with “You must not watch this” a cleverly meta way of capturing the viewer’s attention (Doctor Who’s version of the evening news’s, “This report contains images that may disturb some viewers”)? Or a dangerous gambit if the episode turns out to be poorly-received by the majority of viewers? You can answer that one.
  • Was there a subtle Weeping Angels reference in there? In 2010’s The Time of Angels, dust came pouring from Amy’s eye like sleep. It’s inevitable that they’ll eventually commit to a Weeping Angels origin story. Let’s hope this isn’t it.

ThrowbackDid you enjoy watching the Doctor defeat a mad scientist who wanted to deprive people of sleep? Then you should track down 1985’s The Mark of the Rani.

The Doctor arrives in 19th century England to find that his old enemy the Master has teamed up with his new enemy the Rani, as she harvests sleep neurochemicals from the local miners for her experiments, thus making her only the second most dangerous woman that English miners faced in the 1980s.

Lee Zachariah is a writer and journalist, who tweets at @leezachariah. Read his Doctor Who recaps here.