Doctor Who Series 9: A Siege Too Far?

Doctor Who Sleep No More
“Okay guys – may we should just sleep on it?”

The Sixth of a series of essays inspired by the stories of Doctor Who Series Nine. Sleep No More could lay claim to being the series’ first single-parter proper. It was the regular outing for recurrent writer Mark Gatiss who dwelt on one of those concepts in the best Doctor Who tradition… But was it a mistake to pick on the grand old base under siege story once again this series?

Trapped, as well as inspired, by Sleep No More.

“Don’t watch this!”
“It’s like a story!”
“I did try to make it exciting”

SLEEP NO MORE SURE SET ITSELF A STEEP CHALLENGE WITH A FOUND FOOTAGE CONCEPT THAT RELIED ON SCARING VIEWERS OFF. IF YOU THOUGHT THE SERIES NINE MARKETING THAT HINGED AROUND THE UTTERLY GIPPING CONCEPT OF “SAME OLD, SAME OLD” WAS DRIPPING WITH HUBRIS, THIS ISN’T GOING TO SWAY YOU. Sleep No More has duly sunk to the lowest point of the series in terms of audience appreciation, but that’s not too surprising. It was a throw-away single-parter for all the talk of a sequel being in the works, amid many two-parters that lacked names among guest star packed casts. Reese Shearsmith seemed more of an inevitability. After Daleks, ghosts and Zygons its threat was an unknown quantity. However, it was siezing the nearest thing to the Blink spot in this restructured series and certainly wasn’t as derivative as some of Mark Gatiss’ concepts – the third of these essays dwelt on the horrid historical froth of last year’s Robot of Sherwood.

Amid the blunt Shakespeare it really grabbed hold of a key staple of Doctor Who: The Base under Siege story. But unfortunately, in settling quickly into that classic mould, it wasn’t unique this series. And set an even steeper challenge for itself considering how well Under the Lake had managed it.

Look the doors

Base under siege stories dawned with a Doctor whose name they become synonymous with…

It’ll be easier to reluctantly refer to the base under siege format as BUS for the sake of this essay. Try not to think about busses, but taut and dangerous tales that have been with Doctor Who since near the beginning. In fact, the BUS concept has become a very familiar part of the show’s heritage, dawning with a Doctor whose name it’s become more synonymous with than any other: The Second Doctor. After three long years the show hadn’t wandered into a siege of note, but then in one fell swoop, the swansong of the First Doctor introduced Cybermen, regeneration and the BUS structure. If the regeneration hadn’t worked out, the show would have ended on a high.

The Tenth Planet was broadcast between 8 and 29 October 1966 and established the confines of a BUS for the Second Doctor’s tenure to fine-tune. For a successful BUS, the TARDIS must arrive in or near a small or isolated area, populated by a small group of characters, usually facing an indirectly related crisis. Whether a space-liner, facility, outpost or any enclosed area meeting that criteria, it will come under or already be subject to attack from an enemy force. And if they haven’t already gained entry, they soon will. There’s normally a control room, or one and two rooms in which the Doctor is usually a great help in helping some of the crew escape. While any companions often prove excellent at speeding up the siege or placing themselves in extreme danger, it wouldn’t be a classic of the genre if the small crew already on the base weren’t picked off one by one.

In The Tenth Planet the TARDIS crew arrive in the South Pole in the near future of what we now call 1986. There’s an Antarctic base manned by a distracted band… And outside a group of robotic humanoids suddenly appear.

Doctor under Siege

The show’s first post-regeneration story threw the Doctor into another base under siege story

The trick is how the episode tilts from the crisis preoccupying the core group to the realisation that it’s connected to or far less threatening than the opposing force. In The Tenth Planet the Doctor fell into the mystery of the Zeus IV probe before the introduction of the Cybermen both solved the puzzle and became the pressing concern. The First Doctor didn’t make it out of that story alive, and curiously the next serial, which would become the show’s first post-regeneration story, would throw the Doctor into another BUS story. This time the TARDIS landed on an Earth colony on the planet Vulcan in the far future where the crew were confronted by… Daleks. Power of the Daleks, which thanks to a strong story and mostly the first scenes of Patrick Troughton undertaking the most difficult job in the show’s history, remains one of the most sought of the show’s horribly lost serials. Despite the immediate challenge posed by the Doctor’s greatest monsters, the new metallic pretenders would return with extraordinary speed to make BUS stories their own. The established Who trope, cliché to some, of a base under siege may have the Cybermen to thank.

Silver Sieges

Cybermen enact the BUS idea more than any other monster…

This anniversary Jokerside will look at the Golden Age of Cybermen that had them cross paths with the Second Doctor four times over three seasons. Many of those stories, gifted extra posterity by taking the brunt of the BBC’s episode cull in early 1970s, saw the constantly modifying cyborgs enact the BUS idea more than any other monster. The Moonbase found them assault the very same on the moon in 2070 – in televisual terms just four months after their first appearance. In that adventure, Hobson even describes the time displaced Doctor as “a proper Rip Van Winkle”. The Cyber’s record recall time for one of Doctor Who‘s finest BUS adventures was compounded when they appeared seven months later in season opening tour-de-force The Tomb of the Cybermen. This time, the small core group and TARDIS crew were trapped on the other side, in the stirring tombs of the Cybermen on Telos. Lost for many years, that story had achieved a huge amount of attention before its discovery revealed it to be slightly less atmospheric than fond memories had it. That same promise in absentia, but sadly not its reappearance, were matched by the Season Five finale: The Wheel in Space, where the Cybermen invade a deep space Earth space station. Fortunately, their next and final turn against the Second Doctor saw the upgraded Mondasians break the mould and eventually settle on a direct invasion in central London – in fact, chronologically the Invasion was the first time that humans encountered the Cybermen. After four rapid BUS stories, one of the catches attached to these claustrophobic stories was beginning to show. Repetition. And the Cybermen took the brunt.

The Mondasians had been burnt out by their quick and repeated schemes. When they returned, they would return to their base invading ways in 1975’s Revenge of the Cybermen, but following their greatest hour in 1968 they would only make three more appearances in the next 21 years of the Classic Series.

Classic Doctors in distress

Every Doctor has found themselves in a BUS story…

Since the shortened Second Doctor’s tenure ended every Doctor has found themselves in a BUS story or scenario. The template wasn’t set between the Cybermen and cosmic cobo Time Lord alone. The Fourth Doctor found himself facing The Horror of Fang Rock on the southern coast of Edwardian England during his middle years. The Fifth Doctor found himself facing the combined might of the Silurians and the Sea Devils in an undersea base of the late 21st century in Warriors of the Deep. The Sixth Doctor would confront humanoid and homicidal plant life on a luxury space liner of the 30th century in his final adventure Terror of the Vervoids. The Doctor’s third and seventh incarnations probably strayed the most, although elements reoccur throughout classics of their respective eras, like Day of the Daleks and Ghostlight. Another catch emerged during the remaining Classic years: BUS stories lend themselves exceptionally to dystopian or distant futures or atmospheric Victoriana. As if to prove the rule with an exception, the second Doctor’s finest BUS story was quite possibly The Web of Fear, set in the London underground. The roots of that story would be set in the Victorian set The Snowman starring the Second Doctor’s spiritual successor, the Eleventh Doctor.

The New Series Sieges

Base under siege are easier to spot in the New Series

Come the New Series, BUS stories became more prominent, or certainly easier to spot. A slight twist on the BUS staged the show’s big monster return in Dalek, this time underground in the near future of 2012. The Ninth Doctor would also tackle time disturbance in a contemporary BUS story during Paul Cornell’s Father’s Day. The Tenth Doctor didn’t waste much time in the town hall of The Christmas Invasion to the hospital of New Earth, but it was the wonderfully dark and crucially Victorian Tooth and Claw in his third story that paid the best tribute. He’d take it to the end of humanity in Utopia, onto a luxury space liner in Voyage of the Damned and the smallest under siege story of all time in Midnight.

Perhaps unsurprisingly considering how much the incarnation fed from his second, the Eleventh Doctor had a particular predilection for base under siege stories. Indeed, the final account of his centuries at Trenzalore might be considered the show’s ultimate BUS story. He didn’t have the greatest number of multi-part episodes, but they were almost exclusively BUS stories. The Weeping Angel two-parter, the return of the Silurians and finale The Big Bang in Series Five and then the Gangers story of The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People that stopped two-parters in their tracks during Series Six. Still, he could still tackle a good BUS within 45 minutes. While some of them soared, like Hide and Nightmare in Silver, others aboard the Black Spot or a Russian nuclear submarine (Cold War was Gatiss’ second stab at a BUS story following Series One’s The Unquiet Dead) quickly reminded the audience of their formulaic approach.

Hollywood pile up

Give us some good old-fashioned monsters the world cried…

A quick segue on the Hollywood pile up. That’s the awkward situation where two or more Robin Hood, Hannibal or Asteroid films come along at the same time. Much like a London red bus, it’s a combination of a small part studio intrigue and mostly human bloody mindedness seen through the cosmic joker’s magnifying glass. It happens in many walks of life, and Doctor Who is no exception. Gatiss’ Series Eight story Robot of Sherwood was unlucky to kick off a horrid run of robot stories that dented the middle of that year. Give us some good old-fashioned monsters the world cried. Likewise, it’s not unusual for several BUS stories to fall in one series as the earlier New Series list suggests. But come Series Nine, it’s unfortunate that Sleep No More has come so soon after a truly superior two-part BUS story. In good Doctor Who tradition, one of Series Nine’s BUS adventures took place underwater and the other in the far future.

Under the Lake

A welcome addition to the tradition…

The second story and second two-parter of Series Nine took Fifth Doctor’s underwater BUS story Warriors from the Deep and Second Doctor BUS Fury from the Deep as easy references. This time the TARDIS Crew arrived in the near future, manned by a small crew, isolated by the gallons above them. We see that crew first, this time engaged in the crisis of the mysterious spacecraft they recovered from the lakebed and the fact that their commander has been killed and reappeared as one of two hostile ghosts. Yes, Under the Lake really hit the water swimming.

As the generally thrilling Rebel Flesh two-parter during Series Six showed, it’s difficult to maintain a two part story using the base under siege concept. Even then, where the duplicated Doctor and that series’ heavy arc took up a lot of room, the second episode struggled to distinguish itself.

Toby Whithouse’s Under the Lake tackled this challenge in a couple of ways. Firstly by splitting the aggressor’s MO. The ghosts only attacked people who had laid eyes on a mysterious series of runes in the spacecraft, meaning that on first arrival the TARDIS crew weren’t victims. Secondly, the final part split the story onto another canvas. Before the Flood was half set in the past, as it title suggested. In one way that was a twist on the standard BUS story, in another the threat of incoming timelines acted as a more effective aggressor than the ever-present ghosts as it wove ontological paradox around the adventure.

This turned out to be the true root of the story, that neat conceit of ghosts underwater just the simple opening pitch. Still, it was an effective and fresh two-parter with more than enough corridor chasing and two key areas for the characters to run between. The base’s mess hall, with prophetical Norse mural on the wall, and Faraday Cage which could either trap the ghosts or the survivors. It’s a welcome addition to the fine tradition of BUS.

Sleep No More

Doctor Who’s first found footage episode

Four stories and five episodes later, the Doctor and Clara found themselves similarly arriving in a dimly lit sequence of corridors. This time, they didn’t meet inquisitive, inactive ghosts but a quad rescue mission. This time it was the 38th century, the far future and the crisis that had summoned the rescue mission is the space station Le Verrier’s cessation in communication. They are orbiting Neptune, that’s the isolation, and how the space station earned its name.

It’s not long before this group discovered mysterious, lumbering sand men stalking the ship and their complement were whittled down one by one. On the way they came across Reese Shearsmith’s brilliantly monikered Gagan Rassmussen, lead researcher and inventor of the Morpheus machine that’s condensed sleep with some nasty side-effects. The sandmen.

While the limitations of the BUS stories are clear to see, there are many benefits. You can easily slide into a story in medias res, shortcutting to danger with a format that audiences are familiar with. And with a limited cast and need for sets there are significant budget advantages. To flesh out the scares, almost every BUS adventure adds in some texture, something there’s plenty of room for. Under the Lake brought a UNIT dimension to an industrial team and an emotional exploration of the Doctor and Clara’s relationship. Gatiss went further with Sleep No More, setting it after The Great Catastrophe first mentioned in Season 21’s Frontios, when tectonic plate shifts had led to the indo-Japanese alliance, reflected in crew and design. This even brings a unified multi-theistic religion that almost every character references, and an apparent disregard for humanity where low intelligence grunts are cloned for the sole purpose of combat. Throughout, we discover more about the Morpheus programme, bubbling to the surface from early mistrust to main plot point. Gatiss even chucked in a bit more Shakespeare than the title. Without these elements, the story would certainly be a lot hollower, but it all feels a little token. And that’s mainly down to the distracting presentation. Sleep No More was Doctor Who’s first found footage episode. That’s a format ready made to inject some spice into the BUS format, but the poor decision to tie the twist into the footage rather than let it stand on its own robbed it of some necessary hermetic plotting.

Sleep proved an interesting concept – one of those classic Doctor Who conceits along with statues and trap streets – but when boiled down to the giving sentience to the rheum in your eye, it failed on the comprehensions takes as well. As good as the design of the Sandmen was, the lack of clear motivation or reason. Quite possibly, it would have stood far more strongly in the series had it not pursued the found footage format.

Most importantly, the end twist was intent on rendering the build-up pointless. In Before the Flood, the Doctor had cheated using an ontological paradox. Whithouse even took time for the Doctor to break the fourth wall and lecture the audience on this, an audacious move. This time round the series most noted cast member was soon revealed as a villain, and almost every incident of drama boiled down to an extravagant sleight of hand. And when your lead character tells you that it none of it makes sense, you really have an issue. Come the reveal of Rassmussen and the Patient Zero ruse, after the latter’s steady and eerie silent running throughout the ship, the found footage presentation was a distinct disadvantage. In its reach to fill out the BUS with a lot, and as enjoyably throwaway as it all was, much of Sleep No More proved to be mostly dust.

Perchance to dream…

If Sleep No More proves anything…

BUS stories have risen above their production benefits and dramatic shortcuts to become an expected story format in Doctor Who. This poses a challenge, as every one of them has to bring new elements to bear alongside the expected scares, murder and threat. This series Toby Whithouse served up a twist that slots very well into the grand tradition. Sadly, come the eye ripping close of Sleep No More, things were just a little too close to the dark socketed and disconcertingly effective ghosts of Under the Lake. That was the real, if only perhaps, misstep in its placement during Series Nine. In story terms, Under the Lake fell only two after the show’s last BUS story: The Alien tinged Last Christmas, but Sleep No More carried the can. BUS stories are heading nowhere. If anything, Sleep No More proves not they should be rationed out, but that they need not try so hard.

A sidestep in siege

One of Sleep No More’s greatest additions was Rassmussen’s eyewear…

Pleasingly odd considering the eye extracting ending, one of Sleep No More’s greatest additions was Rassmussen’s eyewear. A direct reference to brilliantly misguided scientist Dastari in 1985’s Two Doctors, these obvious glasses either have incredibly sticking power or prove how slow human development is… Having carried through from the Third Zone circa 1985 through to the Solar System in the 38th Century. The Two Doctors proves to be an excellent point of reference, not showing a BUS directly, but the potential after effects of a BUS story where the Doctor loses. The chilling first episode has the Sixth Doctor and companion Peri arrive on the deserted Space Station Camera, to find it riddled with signs of fighting and gunfire. They see the recording of the Second Doctor’s torture and then find his companion Jamie in a feral state, abandoned in the aftermath of the Doctor’s abduction…

That’s what can happen. An idea… “Just in the corner of your eye”

Jokerside’s Series Nine’s essays will continue with an end of an era. The Raven is coming…

Read the complete set of Doctor Who Series Nine essays.

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