Sunday, November 15, 2015

In Which I Review Doctor Who (9x9)

Here is what happened. When you stop to think about it, you will find that there are no words in the English language quite as scary or damning, when it comes to telling a story, as the sentence that preceded this one. Why? Because unless you are a third person omniscient narrator, there is virtually no way for you to construct and tell a story without some sort of perspective, bias, color, and prejudice. Objectivity does not exist, especially in storytelling, be it of the paperback variety or of the pixelated TV kind. We are all subjective creatures who see the world through our own eyes, our own psyche, and we color our experiences with those eyes and psyche. In other words, "here is what happened" is almost never what happened. This week's episode, "Sleep No More," tries very hard to demonstrate that rather complex thesis. We are presented with a story, shot from various first person perspectives--including that of a ship--and are asked some very basic questions: what is real? what is not? And most importantly of all, what really happened? It's a very intense exercise and experiment for the writers and directors but as an audience member there is one more question we need to ask ourselves: did this episode work? Wipe the sleep from your eyes and let's go! 

Usually, Doctor Who is told from a third person omniscient perspective. We see the Doctor as the writer and showrunner have crafted and created him, and while we get hints of how other people view him (the Companions for instance) the perspective is usually one and the same: mad man with a box who falls from the sky and, most of the time, manages to save the day with a wink, a joke, and some wonderful science-fiction-meets-magic moments. Here's a something to ponder: is this episode actually any different? Rasmussen is the creator of this little story that we are watching--though, we must always remember that Mark Gatiss is sitting in the real driver's seat. Rasmussen took what he shot and decided what he showed, what he did not show, and how he put it all together. The mad scientist tells us at the start that what we are about to see is incomplete--but in chronological order--and that there might be missing bits--though, to further complicate matters, we must stop and wonder if he's telling the truth in this regard or if these supposed missing bits are part of his larger narrative. So much of Rasmussen's story is built on the fact that he's a liar. See, this is going to get really complicated before we're all through. This episode wants us to believe that it's different. An experiment in type and form, if you will. Instead of seeing the Doctor and the plot through a third party that gets to see everything at once, we are only ever through the eyes of one character at a time; the various rescue mission members, the ship itself, and occasionally Clara, are our windows into what is happening. If we were to just stop there, then this episode might be called brilliant for the overall narrative concept. Writer Mark Gatiss is really creating a story about creating a story. The details, the different perspective, the notion that everyone has a vantage point that is somehow different from the person next to them and that no two stories are going to be the same, is an exercise in storytelling gymnastics. So for example, we see the Doctor through Clara's eyes and he's the same egotistical but lovable scamp he always is. When the perspective changes to someone who does not know him, his tendencies to speak in riddles or even quote obscure poetry come out making him more of an enigma.

If you sit and ponder the way it was set up, I'm not so sure it was different from other Doctor Who episodes. You still had the Doctor as a mad man in a box who fell from the sky and tried to save the day. Again, whether or not he succeeded seems up to each individual viewer. Rasmussen wants us to believe that the Doctor failed and abandoned the ship and let the Morpheus transmission go out, but the universal truth of the Doctor is that he wins and saves the day. Always. Perhaps those elements--the mad man, the box, the hero complex--are also simply universal truths wherever the Doctor goes (and my blog has largely argued that to be true over the years). At the end of the day, I think what Gatiss was really trying to do was challenge his audience. He doesn't want us to love the story and, while I'm sure he doesn't want us to hate it either, the writer in this case wants us to sit and ponder whether or not we loved it or hated it. Gatiss wants this episode to be an earworm, something we can't stop thinking about, even after the credits have rolled. He wants us--like Rasmussen--to share it with someone and see what they think. Our answer to whether we loved it or hated it comes down to individual perspective on what makes a good story. In that regard, with the concept (somewhat) firmly in place, then we might call this episode a stroke of genius at the most and something very new after fifty-years at the very least. The problem is that it's a terrible episode. In other words, Gatiss succeeds but Rasmussen fails (but does the latter mean that the former is incorrect? Or does the latter being true mean that the former is definitely correct? See! This episode is a challenge!)

Leave the high concept and storytelling somersaults alone for a moment and let's consider the story Rasmussen sets up with the help of his video cameras (that aren't really there?) and his expositional moments. If I said I was having trouble describing the plot of this episode, I would not be lying even in the slightest. From what my very jumbled notes can parse out, Morpheus is a new *mumble* science thing that is designed to eliminate a person's need for sleep; as Rasmussen intones, we spend about a third of our lives asleep and time is money. Imagine all the money making opportunities we are missing because we need at least eight hours of shut eye. Morpheus is, then, designed to help you sleep no more (roll credits!) and allow you to go months without needing sleep. The problem is that the gunk that forms in your eye builds up overtime and becomes Sandmen. It eventually consumes the person who is not sleeping and turns them into blind sand demons. Or something. This plot, this bare bones plot that I just gave, is like something out of a low budget B-level science fiction movie that you find on the SyFy channel at 3 am. Think Sharknado but with gunk (only Sharknado was surprisingly entertaining in its stupidity). Some B-level films can at least make for an entertaining two hours of TV, but this episode of Doctor Who, when we just consider the story Rasmussen created, is cliche, boring, and frankly silly. There are Doctor Who trappings by the bucket load this week--long and too dark corridors with lots of running and screaming; a team of red-shirt scientists who get picked off one by one; a silly monster with no agenda, no personality, and a truly eye-roll (pun intended!) worthy conception, who's only mission is to destroy for "reasons." There are several climaxes, long winded explanations, and, worst of all, it's deadly dull and seems to stretch on forever. The Doctor at one point yells, "none of this makes any sense!" and he's right. None of it really made any sense. Rasmussen is a poor storyteller because he fails to deliver any meaning or heart or just plain logic to his narrative; there are too many twists, too many turns, too many fast changes in what was really happening (or was it happening?) for any of his--Rasmussen's--story to be effective. However, we then come back to real life writer Mark Gatiss and whether or not in having Rasmussen lack all of those things Gatiss is succeeding in telling a story: a story about what makes a good story. Can you all tell that I'm slightly befuddled, amused, annoyed, and confused about this episode? I simply don't know if this episode works. It's experimental but also full of cliche; it might be brilliant but it's also barking mad and stupid. It's high art but also low budget horror films at their worst. With all that in mind, and admitting that I simply don't know where I really stand on this, I think it's time to go to bed. After all, sleep is essential if you don't want to become a gunk monster.

Miscellaneous Notes on Sleep No More

--I always rank the episodes of Doctor Who at the end of each season, so it'll be exciting to see where this one ends up because I honestly don't know right now.

--Not having any opening credits is a nice touch, reminding us that what we're watching isn't an episode of Doctor Who but supposed to be "found footage" of "real events" that "actually happened." The credits at the beginning would take us out of that moment. 

--"What happened?" "From the beginning of time? That's a very long story."

--"Hold my hand." "I'm fine." "I'm not." The fact that Clara will be gone soon made the Doctor wanting to hold her hand even more poignant. 

--Rasmussen's final explanation is a final break in the fourth wall that sounds almost too much like a Gatiss-insert: "I hope you enjoyed the show, I did try to make it exciting. All those scary bits, all those death-defying scrapes, and a proper climax...compelling viewing"

--Clara never gets to name things. Only the Doctor gets to name new creatures the duo stumble upon. How God-like of him. (Stay self-aware, Doctor Who!)

--One final Gatiss-insert: "I did tell you not to watch." So was that advice we should have taken? What, my dear readers, really happened?

No comments:

Post a Comment