“This is not for you.”
Mark Z. Danielewski
Sleep No More, the ninth episode of this current series of Doctor Who is the Scary One. Or, at least, it’s supposed to be.
Apparently compiled of found footage from a deserted space station in orbit around Neptune, it tells the story of the Sandmen, monsters created when a mad scientist (a Doctor Who staple) invents a machine that allows you to concentrate a month’s sleep into five minutes.
The Sandmen are, the Doctor tells us with an entirely straight face, made of the sleep in your eyes. If you don’t wipe it away in the morning then it builds up and you turn into a monster.
It was at this point that I stopped taking the episode seriously, which is an issue when something is setting out deliberately to scare you.
I actually think that the issue in this episode comes from the fact that screenwriter Mark Gatiss is interested in something that is, if not impossible, at least very very hard for Doctor Who to do properly. Because Gatiss isn’t really interested in the Sandmen – quite understandably, since they only want to eat you, and are thus pretty much the same as any Doctor Who villain ever. Gatiss is interested in the trappings of the found-footage genre: he’s interested in narration, in storytelling, and most importantly in gaps. It’s not a coincidence that the viral bits of the footage, the bits that Creepy Mad Scientist tells us are going to turn us into evil sleep monsters, are precisely the gaps in the footage (“tickles, doesn’t it?”), the bits that carry no semantic content but which remind us of the genre we’re supposed to be in. And what about that creepy bit where we’re told that nobody has helmet cams – so how are we watching this? There’s a gap in the story, and it’s a gap that draws attention to the text-as-object, to the story which is being told. And, of course, there’s that irritatingly meta moment where the Doctor tells us that nothing makes sense, and it’s all like a story – once again, there are gaps in signification which lead us inexorably back to the narrator, to the story, to the genre.
Which is all only to say that the episode is interested in the knife-edge between the speakable and the unspeakable, in the abyss between what is narrated to us, what can be narrated to us, and what actually is. Horror of this variety reveals that narrative (all narrative) is only a way of papering over the cracks of reality; allow the cracks to show and allow the irrationality of insanity to leak in (and we remember that sleeplessness is itself a kind of insanity), and reality becomes threatening, disordered, terrible.
This is great stuff, by the way. I love Gothic narratives and I love narratives which play with text, and this kind of thing is right up my alley.
Except. Except, except, except.
The kind of story Gatiss is trying to tell relies above all on irrationality. It relies on the fact that it doesn’t allow us to tell ourselves comforting fictions about the monsters it forces us to face, because it continually reveals the gaps in these fictions.
Doctor Who, on the other hand, as a corpus of work, is and has always been an exercise in rationality: it works on the fundamental premise that, actually, we can always work things out, get to the bottom of things, tell a convincing and complete narrative about reality. (Interesting fact: Doctor Who was first conceived of as an educational show.) Most Doctor Who episodes, especially the classic ones, are at root space mysteries: the Doctor turns up on a planet where something sketchy is going on and tries to work out what exactly it is without anyone getting blown up in the process. And that’s the function of mysteries: to restore the status quo, to destroy uncertainty, to return order to the world by applying logical thinking, by working things out. Mysteries, in fact, close gaps in the narrative; they hardly ever create them. So the minute we are told that the monsters are made of sleep dust which came from a sleep machine, the entire horrific edifice falls down. The minute the mystery of the Sandmen is solved is the minute when horror and Doctor Who stop talking to each other. The two elements of the episode – monster and narrator, plot and genre – just don’t work together. They’re fundamentally at odds, telling different stories about human experience of the world, which makes, unfortunately, for a clumsy, unsatisfactory and rather dull story about some monsters made out of the sleep in your eye.