This is solidly Gatiss’s best-ever Doctor Who story. It is in several regards outright brilliant, in a giddy and brave way that makes a perfect little quiet breath of an episode in the tradition of Love and Monsters or Blink, which it most obviously resembles. I’ve not, obviously, run the timing of it, but it certainly feels like a Doctor-lite episode, sharing their structural trick of treating a Doctor Who story as a defined thing happening inside another story. But where those stories put the Doctor into a very different sort of story, here he’s put into a found footage horror film. The result, very cleverly, is a story that gradually unravels into two separate stories, with the Doctor falling out of the narrative instead of slowly overtaking it.
This unraveling is by some margin the highlight of the episode, and is done with deft panache. Information is conveyed through the subtle shifts of the narrative rules, so that the found footage approach moves gradually and cleverly from being a gimmick to being the entire point of the episode. This is handled smartly on multiple levels, including Gatiss’s script, Justin Molotnikov’s direction, and Reece Shearsmith’s performance, which is a beautifully clever blend of familiar forms of Doctor Who acting that shifts cleverly with each twist. The final scene is particularly beautiful, with just the right amount of ecstatic thrill in his evil plan and clear relish in his transformation into dust. What a finish.
On top of that, many of the ideas here are genuinely great. I imagine Jack and Jane will both be over the moon with aspects of this. The leisure time destroyed by unchecked capitalist growth rises up and consumes us, our dreams taking revenge on us for our failure to attend to them. The dust is watching us, and the story it tells about us will kill us. I mean, these are just the sorts of sentences you live to write as an anarcho-Marxist occultist television critic, you know?
There are, however, two significant weaknesses. The first is, simply put, the irreducible flaws of Gatiss. Even when he, as he does here, has genuinely brilliant ideas, he’s rarely inclined to push them particularly far. Given a concept with all the metaphorical heft and conceptual possibility of sleep monsters, we really should have something more interesting than the smashy brutes that are the Sandmen. He doesn’t even go as far as indulging in the obvious grossness of literal snot monsters with people getting transformed into Sandmen and crumbling to dusty snot as they die or anything. Just smashing, and a bunch of kills in the form of “oh no one got in the room with you and we cut to black.”
Beyond that, he remains infuriatingly rubbish at giving his characters interesting arcs or things to do. The supporting cast makes that of Under the Lake/Before the Flood look like Osgood or Ashildir; they’re banal cannon fodder for corridor runs. Clara gets to trip and fall into a box. The Doctor urgently explains the plot, only direct to camera. The clever ideas remain the only drama on offer, and one is never meant to do more than appreciate that they exist. And this is depressingly typical of him. Tndeed, it’s the “in a nutshell” problem with literally every single one of his scripts for both Doctor Who and Sherlock: interesting things happen, but not to people.
But the other real problem, oddly enough, is Peter Capaldi. Every actor to have played the Doctor eventually hits the episode where they go on complete autopilot. Capaldi deftly avoided it in Under the Lake/Before the Flood, where it would have been easy, but here, forced to do the same sort of filler dialogue only with the added constraint of having to stare down a camera lens for most of it he finally finds himself defeated by a script. He’s completely out to sea here, and by the time he has to wistfully quote Macbeth and then deliver an urgent moral lecture on the importance of sleep has visibly just given up caring about anything but what’s for lunch. It’s clear that he’s capable of doing interesting things with the shooting style, as with moments when he looks at an unexpected camera (most obviously the peering at Clara after she’s become a POV character and the look to “CCTV” camera immediately after the scene where he points out that there aren’t any). But there aren’t enough of them to keep him interested, and instead he just sleepwalks through an episode that, to be fair, asked for no more than that.
Despite this, it works and works well, simply because the ideas are good enough and there’s been enough work put into the structure to keep it going. (A similar case can be made for The Crimson Horror, Gatiss’s previous finest, and another structurally Doctor-lite story.) Like The Woman Who Lived, it’s genuinely nice to see Doctor Who willing to be a bit strange, even if there are some rough spots as a result. As an end-of-season palate cleanser, it’s very good, and certainly much more solid than In the Forest of the Night was. But all the same, “this is the sort of thing Gatiss is best at” is faint praise, even if it’s not quite clear what’s being damned with it.