When a project is stuck in development hell for nigh over 30 years, any anticipation can drift away like a wakeless dream. The seminal 1989 – 1996 Sandman (original run) comic series, written by acclaimed author Neil Gaiman (Good Omens) is, to put a word on it, beloved.
Gaiman has tightly controlled his creation and been on record that he’d rather “see no Sandman…made” than a “bad Sandman” release.
Chart-topping viewing figures suggest that the dust has been blown from our eyes. Regardless of the intentions of any creative trying their hand, Gaiman’s The Sandman has been acknowledged by all as difficult to adapt.
The print series began as a horror revival of an established DC comics character (weaving in, often clunkily, other DC heroes and villains) but sprawled into a rich and complex collection of stand alone stories with arch overhanging themes and plots, all as written by a fledgling creator brimming with stories but learning how best to deploy them.
What Is The Sandman About?
A summoning ritual in 1916 fails to capture Death, but instead traps her brother, Dream aka Morpheus or ‘The Sandman’.
Dream (Tom Sturridge, in a piece of dream casting – ahaha) spends the next 106 years locked in the cellar refusing to speak to his captors. All while The Dreaming – Dream’s realm in which the consciousness of humans spend their sleeping moments – withers.
Stripped of his objects of power (his sand, his helm, and his ruby) a weakened Morpheus must escape captivity, reclaim his tools, and repair The Dreaming before humanity’s soul crumbles away.
The first half of the series, therefore, follows a ‘mission’ format as Dream seeks his objects. This section is stuffed with excellent guest stars and stand-alone moments.
Whether we be spending time with Jenna Coleman’s (The Serpent) no-nonsense exorcist Johanna Constantine or consumed by the glorious ‘game of wits’ battle between Dream and Lucifer (a radiant Gwendoline Christie, Wednesday), Dream’s journey takes us down resplendent paths that have beautifully brought to life the iconic artwork of the comics.
All this comes to a head in what has become a touchstone episode for viewers: ‘24/7’. This episode, in which manipulation of Dream’s ruby by a villainous David Thewlis (as John Dee) forces the residents of a diner to stay confined for 24 hours whilst unable to tell any lies.
Thewlis is stunning casting for this role and thankfully also threaded through previous episodes to give him a clutch of scenes to shine in. His ability to be troubled, determined, wounded, and vicious all at once brings the character to life, all while he toys with the lives of those he has trapped.
Is The Sandman Worth Watching?
Even the most ardent fan must concede that reconstruction work and edits were essential to bringing such a series to television, all of which were signed off by Gaiman.
The serialised nature of comics in general, and The Sandman specifically, do not lend well to a TV format with the need for arcs, episodic pacing, and accumulation into some sort of conclusion.
The escalation of ‘24/7’ into horrible consequences may have stunned newcomers but yet was wisely scaled back from the out-of-date shock tactics from the comic.
The role of nightmarish nasty The Corinthian (a wonderful Boyd Holbrook, Narcos) is beefed up as are Morpheus’ sounding boards Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong mixing subservient loyalty with newfound confidence) and talking raven Matthew (the always recognisable voice of Patton Oswalt).
By being so mission focused for the first half, the character of Dream himself is left lacking. This was true of the comics also and continues to be the case despite the best efforts of Sturridge.
That he can communicate so much with such minimal expression (and pout) is as outstanding as it is necessary! We don’t really get to know the somewhat mopey and petulant Lord of Dreams until stand out episode ‘The Sound of Her Wings’.
This episode – which also introduces a heart-filling Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Mr Harrigan's Phone) as Death – is the beginning of the pale goth pinup’s gradual warming as he follows his sister about her duties in the wake of his self-serving existential crisis.
‘The Sound of Her Wings’ builds on an authoritative yet lonely performance from Sturridge and allows him to act out a burgeoning empathy as evidenced by flashbacks to a friendship of sorts with the human Hob.
Aside from an opportunity to adorn Sturridge in a frankly exquisite amount of very sexy period specific outfits and haircuts, this episode is the one in which he fully embodies his role and fills the second half of the show with a much needed emotive connection to the audience. It’s a superb episode of television that turns the series on its head.
The Sandman Official Trailer
Thereafter we deal with The Corinthian, and a gathering of ‘collectors’ at a ‘cereal convention’ (mmm hmm) and another threat to the Dreaming as a human ‘vortex’ (Kyo Ra as Rose Walker) strives to find her brother whilst unaware that her existence could destroy the fabric of reality. Well, you wouldn’t, would you?
The cast is too large to shout out everyone (ok, one more to Mason Alexander Park’s devilishly androgynous Desire) but each has garnered well-deserved praise which thankfully offset the pre-release blithe howls of tokenism from certain subsets of the existing audience.
That such casting conversation is still considered a hot button topic yanked writhing and nightmarish from the Dreaming is wearisome. The amount of representation and sexual fluidity in the source text has always been richly varied, and it is welcome that criticisms of the original series’ lack of racial diversity have been addressed.
The Sandman is, and has always been, about embracing the deeply complex human psyche in all its appearances, moulds, and desires.
Moreover, The Sandman is about seeking connections and finding purpose, whether that be through humanity or the personification of our endless motivations (Dream, Despair, Desire, Delirium, and Destiny).
The Sandman adaptation gets this; understands that the material is more than a gothic romp through darkness. If anything, The Sandman proves that we must awake in order to reach for the light.
Words by Mike Record