“Things have changed, my love, my twin. There is a dream vortex, the first for a long time. And it is a woman.”
After last ep’s beautifully contemplative interlude, with ep7 of The Sandman it’s clear we’re onto a new story. That story is the second one in the original comics run, The Doll’s House; I’ll not set out here what it’s about, and besides it’s clear that a number of changes will have to be made to the story for it to work in the framework of this TV show, so my impression of it from the comics might be plain wrong anyway.
Nonetheless, it could be a bit jarring for non-comic readers that, just over halfway through the season, the show is effectively starting again from scratch. A whole new set of characters are introduced, necessitating a bit of a reset and a slower pace again as they’re built up so we can get to know them.
Chief among the new characters is Rose Walker (Kyo Ra), a young woman in an odd situation. Not only has her mother just died, not only has her brother gone missing, but she’s been summoned from Florida to England to discover that she’s the great granddaughter of Unity Kincaid, the sleeping sickness victim we previously saw in 1916 in ep1. Oh, and she’s a dream vortex – whatever that may be.
I must say, given that she looked about 8 in 1916 and is therefore about 114 years old, Unity (Sandra-James Young) looks pretty spry. It’s necessary to the story that she still be alive, and the show has added an extra generation separating her and Rose, but it does rather stretch credulity that she looks as hale as she does. Then again, this is a fantasy show, and her family clearly have some link with the Dreaming, so who’s to say what’s possible?
After a brief and ominous chat with the Fates, who pop up in a broom cupboard, Rose is off back to Florida to begin the search for her brother, and it’s here we meet a whole raft of new characters, the main players in this story. They all reside in a Cape Kennedy B&B that (as in the comic) oddly mirrors Unity’s old doll’s house from 1916.
They’re certainly an eccentric bunch, headed by landlord Hal, who moonlights as a drag act at a local bar; quite the casting coup to get John Cameron Mitchell, creator of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, to play the part, and he’s perfect for it.
The house’s other residents are an eclectic bunch. There’s Zelda and Chantelle (aka The Spider Women), a pair of goths clad in black lace veils whose relationship to each other is not entirely clear. There’s the so-normal-they’re-weird couple Ken and Barbie (they’re aware of the irony of their names). And the mysterious Gilbert, who sits reading in his attic and is rarely seen.
All these are lifted straight from the pages of the comic, and the casting is again perfect. In particular, Stephen Fry could have been born to play Gilbert, who Neil Gaiman based on GK Chesterton; there’s a nice little nod to that when Gilbert comments that time got away from him because he was reading Chesterton in his room.
The lion’s share of the ep is spent introducing these characters and the premise of Rose searching for her brother, so while it’s engaging, it’s slow-moving; it feels like a second pilot. This is of course the problem with basing a TV show so closely on a comic book, which starts a new storyline with new characters every six or seven issues. Those of us who are comic readers probably won’t find it too much of a surprise, but I do wonder about casual viewers.
That’s not to say there aren’t other plot threads linking to this one though. In the Dreaming, Lucienne, Abel and Morpheus are fretting about some missing nightmares, and this new vortex is a cause for concern; Dream is keeping an eye on her, but even he looks rather surprised when she pops up in his castle to ask where her brother is. We also get to meet a new character here. Though he’s colourful and fun, Merv Pumpkinhead the janitor, whose name matches his appearance, seems unlikely to be a major player, merely one of the Dreaming’s ensemble of comic sidekicks to Morpheus. Still, it’s great to hear the ever-flexible voice of the magnificent Mark Hamill incarnating the cantankerous jack o’lantern.
We also get to meet another of the Endless, as the manipulative Desire summons their twin sister Despair (Donna Preston) to assist in their scheming. True to her name, Despair is pretty sceptical about the success of whatever Desire is cooking up this time; but it’s clear that they played at least some part in Dream’s century of imprisonment, and are directing events here now. That being the case, Desire is obviously the bigger bad than the Corinthian, and he’s merely a player in their schemes. I wonder if he knows that?
Speaking of the Corinthian, he’s obviously aware of Rose’s importance, and visits her apartment trying to find her, pausing for a brief bit of casual sex with her handsome housesitter, who, surprisingly, he doesn’t kill. There’s apparently more to this than we first think though – why does Rose have a framed photo of Judy, one of Dee’s victims at the diner two eps ago? As a sidenote, speaking as someone who wears glasses, I have to say I’m extremely sceptical that the Corinthian could have sex without at least slightly dislodging his shades; still, if that’s the only thing I’m having a hard time believing, the show’s doing its stuff pretty well 😊
But the Corinthian too is distracted. A trio of weirdoes who meet up in Alabama diners are trying to catch his attention by staging copycats of his now-notorious killings, snatching eyes left, right and centre. They’re ‘collectors’, eager to get him to appear as a star guest at their convention of those with… similar interests. Which, as the dialogue makes clear, means serial killers.
It’s another thread straight out of the comic, and it’s noticeable that they’re desperate to secure him because their previously booked star, the Family Man, has dropped out. It’s not necessary to know to follow the story, but the Family Man was actually killed by John Constantine in a concurrent storyline in Hellblazer; I wonder if Johanna will pop up to acknowledge that?
So, a fresh story, a fresh start, and a fresh set of characters – though the usual bunch are still involved, and their involvement will clearly get greater as the story progresses. As I say, this is a familiar thing to comic readers, but casual viewers may wonder why the narrative has been reset with only four episodes to go. In that sense, as in the comics, it’s understandable that the previous standalone ep was put in as a buffer between the two stories. Nevertheless, fun though this was, it felt like a bit of a step backwards in TV terms. The rest of the Doll’s House storyline does get more enthralling as it goes on, so hopefully this necessary scene-setting is only the start.
Next time – just what is happening to Rose’s brother at the hands of those abusive foster parents, and why can’t he be found in the Dreaming? The answer may lie in one of those missing nightmares…