The Sandman: A Dream of a Thousand Cats / Calliope

“If enough of us dream it, it will happen. Dreams shape the world.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Well, that was a surprise. I don’t think I’ve ever known a TV series to spring a previously unmentioned episode on its viewers after the apparent conclusion of its run. Well done to Netflix and all concerned for keeping it a closely guarded secret until this new bonus episode suddenly appeared!

The new ep is also unusual (insofar as you can call a format unusual after a mere ten episodes) in that it’s a portmanteau, telling two standalone Sandman stories from the original comic. Such standalone stories were scattered throughout the comic’s run, and were often some of the most memorable – issue 13, Men of Good Fortune, already adapted and interweaved with The Sound of Her Wings, is a perfect example. In between the Doll’s House storyline and the comics next major arc, Season of Mists, were four standalone issues, two of which, issues 17 and 18, are adapted here. As two separate stories, with two separate production teams, perhaps they’re best considered separately…

A Dream of a Thousand Cats

By far the more abstract and lyrical of the stories adapted here, A Dream of a Thousand Cats was one for which I wondered how the show would reproduce the comic. After all, a tale of a secret midnight meeting of cats, in which virtually all the characters (including Dream) are actual cats, is a difficult one to pull off.

We’ve seen plenty of CG throughout, but CGing speech onto real animals is a bit of a mixed bag, as anyone who’s seen the live action Lion King could testify. They could have gone down the road of having human actors styled as cats by CG and costuming, but anyone who’s gazed in horror at Tom Ford’s adaptation of the musical Cats will know how inadvisable that would be.

What director Hisko Hulsing gives us instead is some of the most striking animation I’ve seen; not quite traditional 2D, it’s based on oil paintings rather than line drawings, then combined with real cat movements to give a lifelike effect. It’s visually stunning, and allows the more fantastic elements of the Dreaming to be seen in a new way.

The story itself is a seemingly tangential one to the themes we’ve seen the show explore thus far. It may be about the lives of cats, but Disney this ain’t, with kitten murdering, human hunting, and vengeance prevalent throughout. Amid a sea of brilliant voice actors, Sandra Oh stands out as The Prophet, a Siamese purebred who, after the removal and drowning of her halfbreed kittens, goes on an epic odyssey to find the Cat of Dreams.

The Cat of Dreams is of course another aspect of Morpheus himself – honestly, if some fans are bitter about race- or gender-flipping some of the characters, they might want to consider that the main character himself can, on occasion, be a cat. Dream explains to the puzzled Siamese that once, cats were bigger than humans, and ruled the world, hunting humans for fun. But that a Prophet also arose from among the humans, and by persuading a mere thousand of them to dream of a better world, changed the whole of reality so that cats had always been the small domestic pets they are now.

So away the Prophet goes, spreading her message that if even a thousand cats can dream together, they can dream the world back to what it had been. A hopeless task – as one of her audience drily remarks, “try getting a thousand cats to do anything at the same time”. But this is how the story does tie in thematically to what we’ve seen so far; the idea that dreams can change the world. It’s just that cats are too fickle, distrusting and individualistic to work together and achieve that. There’s a lesson there, probably.

It’s notable that, among a stellar cast of voice actors, the cast is actually packed with ones who had already ‘appeared’ in an adaptation of Sandman – the audio drama by Dirk Maggs for Audible Productions. James McAvoy, here voicing the human Prophet, originally played Morpheus, and did an excellent job of it; Michael Sheen, the voice of the heartless cat owner who drowns the Prophet’s kittens, there played Lucifer, while David Tennant, as the nicer human cat owner (accompanied by his wife Georgia as… er, his wife) previously played Loki in a concept of Norse mythology where all the gods have Scottish accents.

Sheen and Tennant also appear in Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens adaptation of course, the second season of which I’m looking forward to. But the best returnee from the Audible adaptation was none other than Gaiman himself, voicing the undead, skull-headed crow guiding the Prophet on her way. As narrator of the audio adaptation, Neil proved himself an excellent voice actor, and it’s good to hear him doing it again here.

In an hour-long episode, A Dream of a Thousand Cats is presented at an economical 17 minutes, slightly more than a quarter of the runtime. That’s fair – it is a slight story. But it also distils that theme of dreaming changing the world into something quite intense, and despite the anthropomorphised animals, determinedly unsentimental. If you’re a cat lover, you might look at your cute pet in quite a different way after you’ve seen a giant kitten rending a human with her claws before biting him in half.

Calliope

This one, adapted from issue 17 of the comic, takes up the lion’s share of the screentime and is told second, despite A Dream of a Thousand Cats being from the issue immediately following. You can see why – it’s an altogether darker, nastier story. It also expands usefully on Dream’s backstory, giving us reported glimpses into his past as a husband and father. As I recall, the original issue mentioned some of this but in nothing like this much detail. Here, we learn the name of Dream’s son, Orpheus, as well as hints of his fate (which, if you know your mythology, you’ll know is not pleasant).

Once again Gaiman delves into mythology for this one, specifically the Ancient Greek mythology of the Muses who inspired artists and poets. But it’s also a tale about writers and writing, and you wonder how much of its unsympathetic view of writers is based on Neil’s unflattering opinions of himself.

Richard Madoc (Arthur Darvill, who played Shakespeare in the Audible adaptation) is the author of a celebrated debut novel whose attempts at a much-anticipated follow-up are stymied by a severe case of writer’s block. Seeking unconventional help, he trades a magical artefact called a bezoar with an older writer, Erasmus Fry (Derek Jacobi, reliably brilliant) for a captive Muse – Calliope, the Muse of Homer himself.

Bound to Fry by magical rules, Calliope has been his inspiration – and his prisoner – since 1927. It’s implied that she might have helped him voluntarily, but his ego demanded subservience – and, as he chillingly puts it, “I’ve always found force to be most efficacious”. Which brings me to the part I was wondering about depicting onscreen – on taking Calliope home, in the comic, Richard’s first act is to rape her to force her into submission.

I always found that a bit jarring, even at the time I read it thirty years ago. Sure, by all means depict mad nightmares eating people’s eyes, or Dreamstone-influenced people tearing themselves, and each other, to pieces. But rape? That seemed a little too realistic, even then. And after the (justified) arguments about its depiction in Game of Thrones, I wondered if the TV adaptation might just skip this very sensitive aspect of the plot altogether.

Well, it didn’t, but it was dealt with in a reasonably sensitive way. So we see Madoc driven to desperation by his failure to write, and demonstrating that, nice though he may have seemed, he is still a weak, selfish man driven to force to get what he wants. And crucially, the act took place offscreen, showing more sensitivity than Game of Thrones ever did. It’s only Arthur Darvill’s open shirt, and the appearance of a cut on his face, that indicates it happened at all. Well, that and his sudden ability to write.

But this is a cautionary tale about being careful what you wish for, like Aladdin or The Monkey’s Paw. So Richard gets all the ideas, fame and adulation he was craving; but in the process incurs the wrath of the recently released Morpheus, furious at the treatment of his wife. “You want ideas?” Dream spits contemptuously. “Then ideas you shall have – in abundance”. Cue the perfect poetic justice, as the writer’s mind is so flooded by ideas he tears his fingers open to write them in his own blood, before begging to free the imprisoned Calliope.

It’s another salutary warning that whoever you may be, you cross the Lord of Dreams at your peril. But more than that, it’s another development of the idea that the previously inflexible Morpheus is capable of change after all. According to the Fates, his marriage to Calliope ended most acrimoniously, and he vowed never to speak to her again. Here, in an epilogue much expanded from the original, we see that he has mellowed; and unlike in the comic, he’s even prepared to let Calliope visit with him in the Dreaming, when the time is right. This is a Dream King much humbled by his experiences, who empathises with his former wife’s plight after a century of imprisonment himself. And if Dream himself can change, maybe there’s hope for us all.

This has been a superb series, exactly the adaptation I’d always hoped for. It’s faithful to the source material, but not slavishly so; ideas, themes and characters have been updated or modified to better fit with a different time and medium of storytelling. Despite the naysayers, the casting has been excellent throughout – obviously Tom Sturridge stands out, as the lead who has to carry the whole thing. But everyone was perfectly cast, particularly Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death and Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer.

I hope to see them all back, in a year or two, for a second season. Apparently work has already started in writing it, but Neil Gaiman himself has cautioned that, given Netflix’s current cash-strapped circumstances and the high cost of producing the show, a second season is by no means a foregone conclusion. So here’s what, Sandman fans. Watch it, and watch it again, and tell all your friends to watch it, and tell them to tell their friends to watch it. Because this is a show I really want to see more of.

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