THE WHO REVIEW: “The Zygon Inversion” / “Sleep No More”

Lee returns for another double-dose of Doctor action. Has the Time Lord mastered Found Footage?

Mixing up the formula with multi-episode stories seems to have been on the agenda for Doctor Who this series. Season 9 has had an exceptional Dalek double-bill, a time-travel twist on a base under siege story, and the immortality tale about Ashildr. With episode eight, the “inversion” in the title was not just a Zygon plan but a plan by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat to invert your expectations.

Building on the globe-trotting “Invasion” storyline with a large cast and three different plotlines going on at once, you would have expected a second episode to go even bigger. Instead, “Inversion” has a smaller cast and fewer distinct settings, but bigger emotional stakes when it comes to the future of human-Zygon relations on Earth. There also aren’t any guns in the climax of this story – just one survivor’s emotional plea for peace to remain.

When The Doctor helped to create the Zygon peace treaty in “The Day of the Doctor,” it was a vital day in his own history. He realised that he could bring peace to his home planet by saving Gallifrey instead of destroying it. His search for his home terrain continues, but knowing he saved his people from their death took a massive burden off his shoulders. His presence in the universe is assured; he’s there to cease conflicts or to stop them from ever happening at all.

The Doctor is a veteran of war, and his passionate speech as the two races stood over their choice of Truth or Consequences was one of the finest moments you will see on British television this year. His scathing attack was on both sides’ willingness to destroy the other. His grief over the happenings of the Time War were unleashed on Kate and Bonnie as they stood and listened whilst hovering over the Osgood boxes (well, of course there was two of them!) as the literal truth and consequences of their actions are lambasted by the angry Time Lord. It’s the exact same moral quandary The Doctor had with his Moment, even down to the design of the boxes.

The grief he still possesses spills into such raw emotion, and the kind that we have rarely seen from the Twelfth Doctor. The grumpy, emotionless character he has been so far has been softening ever so slightly. That’s not to say his speech was soft because it was so full of anger. However, it was anger with care for the future of two races. He forgives both sides and forgets their mistakes. Peter Capaldi has been nothing but exceptional in the role so far and this was truly his moment. A “Doctor Moment” or a “Capaldi Moment.” Whichever you choose, it will remain in your memory for a long time. It was a fitting scene for an episode broadcast during a weekend the UK stood still to remember those who perished in real-world conflicts.

It is The Doctor’s sleight-of-hand which wins the day and keeps the peace. Both boxes turn out to be empty, and the same scenario has been repeated fifteen times already. That memory wipe really gets a lot of use, as does The Black Archive, the Warehouse 13 of the show. The forgiveness of Bonnie turned out to be quite important as she now takes the form of a second Osgood, and we still don’t know which one is which. It’s a shame that she turned down a place on the TARDIS crew as everybody’s favourite Doctor fan has, again, been wonderful. Ingrid Oliver is charming in the role and we await her return.

The episode may have been centred around leading up to that big Capaldi moment, but there was plenty to enjoy elsewhere (as well as a few scares). Etoine, a peaceful Zygon, was forced to change back into human form leading to the creepy sequence of his body changing into Zygon suckers. It was a very disturbing transformation and well-realised. The resulting video of the event, uploaded by Bonnie, leads to The Doctor referring to her as “Zygella.”

Zygella may have dominated the episode, and the dark turn was rather well-played by Jenna Coleman, but it is her main role that has been sidelined again. Harking back to “Last Christmas,” Clara finds herself in a dreamlike state as her body walks around looking mean and blowing up airplanes. The scene where the two Claras talk to each other was just as well-performed by Coleman as Matt Smith’s double-take in Series 7’s “Nightmare in Silver,” with the good and evil sides fighting against each other for control. The reality is, The Doctor has been without Clara for three episodes in a row, effectively. The slow build towards her exit continues to be seeded throughout.

“The Zygon Inversion” will be remembered as Capaldi at his absolute best in the role, and is an instalment he will find hard to top. The episode as a whole rounded-off an excellent Zygon adventure and continues the excellent form the team at BBC Wales are on right now. Series 9 continues to shine, one inversion at a time.

It had been well-reported that “Sleep No More” would be a so-called Found Footage episode. This was certainly made clear to us early on, as the usual notes of the theme song were missing and replaced by code that spelled out “Doctor Who” and “Clara Oswald” amongst other things, once again showing that this series is not afraid to mix things up. The whole thing was shot in first-person despite the crew not having cameras attached to their helmets. Even the format of the story was used as a plot device. Professor Rassmussen (Reece Shearsmith) has a sinister plan to get his “Sandman” virus to remove humanity’s need for sleep – a twist that was brilliantly delivered by Shearsmith whose performance was excellent.

At the outset, the concept seemed like a great idea, so what is wrong with “Sleep No More”? When you base an episode around a found footage gimmick, having a character narrate the story to the audience doesn’t really gel with the style. Rassmussen’s inserts take you away from the atmosphere that the rest of the episode is trying to create. The story was very complex and dealt with many issues, ranging from politics to slave labour to capitalism. So much is going on that the inserts are a necessity to hold the hand of family audiences, but it just leaves the episode feeling disjointed. Found footage has been done better elsewhere, and is being rather overdone, too.

A story like this also needs en effective monster. In the early stages, the enigmatic terrors worked well. We could barely see the menace running after the crew as the dark corridors and shaky first-person views kept the mystery going. That fear turns to laughter when you realise these Sandmen are monsters completely created from sleep dust. Yes, the dust you wipe away from your eyes after those forty winks! With that logic, the show could probably make a monster out of the dust Gatiss left after he scraped the barrel on this one. Even if you can accept the origin of these monsters, they still look horrible when you see them up-close. They simply aren’t well-designed or realised.

The biggest problem with “Sleep No More” is that it is rather dull. It just wasn’t fun to watch. This is the first time this reviewer has almost fallen asleep watching an episode of Who, which is somewhat ironic given the title. When you have decided that the concept doesn’t work and the monster really sucks, the enthusiasm for the rest of the episode promptly drains. Not that the story really wanted you to care for any of the characters. This was a cannon fodder crew simply there to be killed and guide the heroes around. Nothing memorable about them.

Despite all the negatives, there were a few positives to take from “Sleep No More.” Rassmussen’s final speech was incredibly performed and graphically realised. It was as grim as it needed to be. The later time slot certainly allowed for such a wince-inducing final shot to be included, as well as the use of blood during 474’s (Bethany Black) final moments. The twist that the video was setup to send the Sandmen code out across humanity was the only redeeming feature from the plot, and The Doctor leaving without having a clue is a rare treat. He got away but he never won.

The found footage experiment may have failed but seeing Capaldi as The Doctor in first-person view was wonderful. All those facial expressions and the “attack eyebrows” were up-close! He is completely mesmerising.

Only a couple of moments really fed into the subtle overarching narrative. 474 was yet another hybrid who turned up; a genetically-engineered soldier made simply to fight. Another grunt through which to channel The Doctor dislike for humankind’s dependence on combat. Meanwhile, Clara’s dependence on danger and control continues. She went straight into the sleep deprivation pod quite rashly without considering the consequences. She also decided that she should name the Sandmen, making The Doctor humorously reference the Who in-joke about the incorrect naming of the homo-reptilian race, The Silurians. Clara’s end is imminent as her attempts to be The Doctor continue.

Series 9 has been very different so far, and Doctor Who should never be afraid of experimenting with its formula. Sadly, “Sleep No More” was one experiment too far. In a series full of multi-episode stories, the only standalone present had to standout, and that it did, but for all the wrong reasons. Gatiss has said he has plans for a sequel to this episode. Maybe he should sleep on it!

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