Sunday, 15 November 2015

DOCTOR WHO, 9.9 – 'Sleep No More'

Sunday, 15 November 2015


I appreciate episodes of Doctor Who that do something different, even if the experimental nature isn't particularly unique in its genre. The 'found footage' idea isn't new and is rather overplayed right now in cinemas (thanks especially to the Paranormal Activity movies), and that didn't really help "Sleep No More". Of course, it's still intriguing to see what a show like Doctor Who could do with the format, but Mark Gatiss's script just felt half-baked. I wouldn't be surprised if it was intended to be another two-parter, but got reduced in scale and Gatiss had to lose a lot of material.

Arriving on a rescue ship on its way to the stricken Le Verrier Space Station, in orbit around Neptune in the 38th-century, The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) find themselves amidst four soldiers about to dock and investigate—Nagata (Elaine Tan), Chopra (Neet Mohan), Deep-Ando (Paul Courtenay Hyu) and a cloned 'grunt' known as 474 (Bethany Black).

What follows is a bog-standard episode of Who, involving a ragtag crew fighting monsters—'The Sandmen'—created from the 'dust' that collects in the corners of sleeper's eyes. Confused yet? Well, the Le Verrier Space Station's sole survivor is Gagan Rassmussen (Reece Shearsmith), inventor of a sleep pod called 'Morpheus' that condenses a normal human sleep cycle into just five minutes. It's a great way to boost productivity, as people usually sleep for a third of their lives, but the side-effect appears to be... uh, creating large malformed monsters made of rheum.

If it wasn't for the added interesting of this episode being in the 'found footage' sub-genre, "Sleep No More" would ironically rate as one of the laziest Who episodes ever made. Everything about it just felt very dull and ludicrous, with poor characterisations and lots of moments where logic takes a backseat and you're just expected to roll with it. Of course, most things in the found footage genre aren't especially complicated stories, because the joy of them is the feeling of being placed in the headspace of the characters. Of going with them on a journey in a much more personal way, or playing voyeur. "Sleep No More" doesn't benefit from the camera being shakily present amongst the actors, because it just makes the whole production look slightly cheaper than usual, and the reason for there being omnipresent 'cameras' is eventually explained as sand particles hanging in the air that contain the optical nerves the (blind) Sandmen don't have. Yeah, I don't buy it either. Should have just given them all helmet-cams.

To its credit, the last scene does attempt something quite interesting—as a video diary from Rassmussen, who has been playing 'narrator' for the story, having apparently compiled this footage to show 'us', is revealed to be a Sandman himself and the episode we've seen is actually part of a signal being transmitted to turn viewers into Sandmen. I liked the sense of interactivity with the storyline, and the way the whole episode therefore plays as a sort of long-form trap. The special effects of Rassmussen's face crumbling were also very well accomplished, and one of the scariest visuals the show has produced for awhile.

It's just a shame this story's fun 'twist' and a few smart visuals (the appearance of the Sandmen with their gaping mouths and warped bodies were very cool), can't compensate for a script that isn't very fresh and, occasionally, outright dumb. One particular problem is that Rassmussen's hand-holding throughout the episode completely eliminates any feelings of uncertainty, undoing one of the main reasons audiences like found footage stories (we ditch the usual framework of visual storytelling, which makes things feel unpredictable and dangerous). Having Rassmussen pop up on-screen to explain things to us just worked against itself.


  • Reece Shearsmith is one quarter of The League of Gentlemen comedy troupe, along with writer Mark Gatiss. He's also one half of the creative behind excellent horror anthology series Inside No.9, which I like to think is the reason this episode is the ninth of the ninth series. Shearsmith also played Patrick Troughton in Gatiss' TV Movie, An Adventure in Space & Time.
  • If 474 is a genetically-engineered soldier, more brawn than brains, why didn't they cast someone more obviously athletic and strong in stature? Bethany Black actually looked like the least capable of the team.
  • This is the first episode in Who's history that dispenses with the usual opening credits, to keep a sense of realism within the found footage format.
  • I didn't realise until this week that Series 9 is also the first run of Who where permission has been granted to use red blood.
written by Mark Gatiss • directed by Justin Molotnikov • 14 November 2015 • BBC1

Next time...