New Series

Sleep No More: None Of This Makes Any Sense


Mark Gatiss’ latest script struck me as 40 minutes in search of its admittedly impressive final minute. In that regard it was cut from the same cloth as many of Gatiss’ other episodes of Doctor Who: a cute notion, a striking visual sell or – in one case – a smart-arse title.

The polymath writer has tended to produce rather shoddy episodes that have strong concepts at their core but either devolve into pastiche or simply fizzle out. Of his eight scripts for the series few would suggest that, beyond The Unquiet Dead and The Crimson Horror, there’s much to commend them.


I quite enjoyed Sleep No More, though I wasn’t giving it my undivided attention. In its own right it was a very average runaround (the word ‘romp’ is forbidden in these parts) with a found-footage device, Moffatian monster and nonsensical twist. At times it reminded me of Night Terrors – in that it was the only other time since Doctor Who returned when the production felt lacking.

From the blank-slate supporting characters (making someone say ‘man’ and ‘pet’ every other word is not characterisation), some very wobbly acting and some confusing direction, Sleep No More felt decidedly wonky at times. The plot, if described, is hardly convoluted yet it wasn’t always clear what was going on during the episode and some of the dialogue was wince-worthy.


Worst of all, though the final reveal was the most atmospheric part – and was of a sufficiently Vine-able, GIF-able nature to send a few chills around social media and watching kiddies – there seemed to be absolutely no point whatsoever to it, as Reece Shearsmith’s Gagan Rasmussen admits.

To have the Doctor repeatedly stating that nothing in the narrative made any sense – something known as lampshading – only adds to the suspicion that the episode was written around the very same conceit that ends Ghostwatch. Lose it and the whole thing was, by definition, pointless.

Does that mean there were not moments to enjoy? No, but it does make Sleep No More once of the shonkier, more disposable episodes this season. An unreliable narrator, a first-person shooter directorial style, a enormous twist that almost takes a pot-shot at our predilection for watching things we shouldn’t and a very bad Geordie accent (literally no-one in the north-east calls everyone ‘pet’ – in fact I’m one of the view few who calls anyone pet) and it’s all a bit of mess.

Throw in two of Steven Moffat’s greatest hits – the corner of your eye trick from The Eleventh Hour and the angel is Amy’s eye in The Time Of Angels – plus a handful of sci-fi and horror tropes and Sleep No More adds up to a very odd episode that, like most of Mark Gatiss’ efforts, really doesn’t quite feel finished.


This is the third time in one year where the title sequence has been messed with for reasons that don’t feel like much more than desperately trying to do something different with the damn show. It’s a touchstone in an episode where a shedload of ingredients are hurled at the wall in the hope that no-one notices the paucity of whole.

And that – of the most part – is Mark Gatiss’ contributions to television Doctor Who summed up. He really should adapt Nightshade.

New Series

Robot Of Sherwood: Wouldn’t it be funny if…

Wouldn’t it be funny if the Doctor could talk to babies; wouldn’t it be funny if he could talk to animals; wouldn’t it be funny if he could win a sword fight with a frigging spoon. Wouldn’t it be funny if the Doctor met Robin of Sherwood and Clara wore a dress and it was a pastiche of Errol Flynn films and there were some robots in there for some reasons.

No. No, it fucking wouldn’t. But that seems to be the sole basis on which these episodes are shat out by Mark Gatiss and Gareth Roberts every year or so, presumably because Moffat knows they can deliver a solid ‘oh it was OK I guess’ episode with a minimum of fuss and deliver some cheap column inches.

The problem is the “wouldn’t it be funny if…’ line of reasoning is the worst case of diminishing returns. If The Doctor can literally do anything then why should the audience care less? If he’s just the vessel for magic shit to happen then how can he ever be killed or defeated? If he parachutes into what is not really a genre pastiche, but a genre parody, replete with winks to the camera and the sort of Who-ish banter the Tennant and Smith eras were so sickeningly full of, why should the audience bother watching what is acknowledged to be a show in need of a large broom?

robot of sherwood

Supposedly Doctor Who’s ‘anything can happen’ set-up is its greatest strength. If you leave it in the hands of people who clearly don’t care anymore then it’s the greatest weakness. The quasi-historical has been as regular as it is unwelcome since Doctor Who returned, with only Mark Gatiss’ own The Unquiet Dead and Vincent And The Doctor really passing muster. The remainder are some of the most forgettable, unambitious and downright terrible NuWho episodes out there – strung together like a particularly crap equation. Robot of Sherwood is the worst yet; it’s one of the worst episodes yet in fact.

In these quasi-historicals – you can hear the word romp coming from them at a billion miles an hour with all the destructive power of a Z-Bomb – everyone involved goes on some sort of quality holiday. The writer recycles every received-wisdom cliche of the genre with some reflexive lines referencing how hoary and how cliched it is; Murray Gold revisits his 100 Greatest Genre Pastiche Music playbook; everyone overacts wildly. And we’re supposed to find this funny and clever.

The thing is, it’s not funny – nor is it clever. It’s actually insulting and a colossal indulgence. I can watch the Beeb’s tedious Robin Hood and Merlin programmes if I want some desperately unambitious retread of a familiar Anglo-Saxon myth. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to view these lazy pastiches as a bit of a waste of 50 minutes of Doctor Who as a result.

What’s so dispiriting is that we see this again and again. A kissing cousin of the quasi-historical is the genre pastiche. In Pirates of the Caribbean the Doctor stumbled across a lot of hoary old cliches, played out all the usual hoary old cliches and then discovered that the real story was a Moffat-esque technology-gone-bonkers swerve in the end.

That’s exactly what happened in Robot of Sherwood.

In Curse of the Black Pearl the Doctor met some fucking pirates and got into a thinly-disguised my-cock-is-bigger-than-your cock battle with the pirate captain.

That’s exactly what happened in Robot of Sherwood.

In That Shit One With The Pirates the companion discovered a hitherto-unknown fascination for the situation the Doctor has landed them in, puts on a costume and starts acting as if they’re in a panto.

That’s exactly what happened in Robot of Sherwood.

That title. It says it all. Aren’t we funny? Aren’t we clever? Depressingly you can figure out most of the stuff that will happen from the title alone. Just as, like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, you know that the title probably came first – from Moffat’s shagged-out imagination – before the story.

It allows the audience to immediately recognise – and feel comfortable with – everything that’s happening and likely to happen. It’s basically a set of cue cards with familiar images painted on them. A flashing sign to tell people when to gurgle and chuckle indulgently.

I don’t understand why Robot Of Sherwood exists. Why give Doctor Who such a colossal boot up the arse – certainly an intended boot up the arse – with Deep Breath and revert to type so quickly, so badly?

“I’m bored with spoon-feeding television,” Colin Baker once said in an interview on how Doctor Who was the perfect platform for challenging, thoughtful, original and innovative television. Well so am I.

Here’s the thing. I could write Robot of Sherwood. I could write something every bit as good as Robot of Sherwood. That is no claim to my qualities as a writer; quite the opposite. But I could retread some smart-arsey, half-baked pastiche – just as anyone who uses words for a living could if they put their mind to it. Anyone could write Robot Of Sherwood – so why is Mark Gatiss writing it?

Here – in two minutes – are some suggestions you just know would be spot on if they went down these routes.

Doctor Who And The Shit Quasi-Historical Genre Pastiches

The Doctor meets Captain Nemo and has an underwater adventure in the Nautilus. A Kraken that threatens the ship tuns out to be a Nestene, who just wants to go home. Captain Nemo is discovered to be an Auton, for reasons. Danny Pink’s favourite kids’ book was Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The Doctor can control the weather.

The Doctor meets Sherlock Holmes and they compete to see who is the best. Martin Freeman raises his eyebrows a lot. Mycroft is The Master, who regenerates into Zawe Ashton. Something about the river Fleet, the London Underground, red telephone boxes, tea and cricket. The Doctor says “The game is afoot!”. There’s a picture of Tom Baker playing Sherlock Holmes in that badly-received play.

The Doctor visits Henry VIII and makes a lot of jokes about his wives, returning every five years or so. Ann of Cleves turns out to be the Doctor in disguise and there is hilarity. It turns out that Ann Boleyn and Catherine Howard are actually Zygon agents who crash landed on earth in Tudor times and oh for fuck’s sake I can’t even finish this paragraph.