Doctor Who – “Sleep No More”

This terrifying story is assembled from footage discovered in the wreckage of Le Verrier Space Station.

Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in Sleep No More.

X X X X X

Cast
The Doctor – Peter Capaldi
Clara – Jenna Coleman
Professor Rassmussen – Reece Shearsmith
Nagata – Elaine Tan
Chopra – Neet Mohan
474 – Bethany Black
Deep-Ando – Paul Courtenay Hyu
Sandmen – Paul Davis, Tom Wilton, Matthew Doman
Morpheus Presenter – Zina Badran
Hologram Singer – Natasha Patel
Hologram Singer – Elizabeth Chong
Hologram Singer – Nikkita Chadha
Hologram Singer – Gracie Lai

Written by: Mark Gatiss
Director: Justin Moltinikov

Trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3F9elGIeH4

Gifs by: J-Ru

X X X X X

When a show has been part of pop culture for over five decades, it’s important to try new things every now and again. A new cast member, different narrative directions, a change in the budget; anything to spice up the show’s familiar trappings with a fresh coat of paint. However, one can’t just throw a new coat of paint on the wall and call it a day. Trying something new solely for the sake of trying something new can lead to the original object looking faded and frayed. The new thing has to mix well with the old thing, much like how this opening paragraph needs a much better set of analogies to go along with its attempt at a central idea.

Sleep No More is a neat experiment – an episode of Doctor Who told solely through “found footage.” It’s a bold attempt at storytelling, putting the viewer directly in the heart of the action as the Doctor and Clara find themselves under siege by a relentless new foe. But a concept episode such as this one only works if the story and narrative are good enough to carry it. If they’re not then it doesn’t matter how bold or innovative the episode is. It will simply fall flat and lifeless.

Orbiting Neptune’s moon of Triton, the The Le Verrier space station has gone dark. A four-person rescue team has landed in an attempt to establish communications and determine what has happened to the station’s workers. The team encounters the Doctor and Clara who have also found themselves drawn to the deserted station. It doesn’t take long for the team to encounter the station’s sole survivor, Doctor Rassmussen. But before they meet him, they encounter the creatures responsible for the death of the station’s crew – creatures who appeared to be comprised of congealed sand and spring from the depths of human sleep…or lack thereof…

If there’s one thing I can say about Mark Gatiss, it’s this – he writes episodes of Doctor Who. Gatiss is one of the United Kingdom’s most influential entertainment figures as an actor and writer, starring in shows such as Game of Thrones as well as serving as co-creator for The League of Gentlemen and Sherlock. Gatiss has also been a fan of Doctor Who since childhood, writing for both the television as well as penning two stories for Big Finish and the 50th anniversary television movie An Adventure in Space and Time about the early days of the show and appearing as the villain in the Tenth Doctor story The Lazarus Experiment. While there’s no denying his love for the show, his writing efforts haven’t quite lived up to expectations. His slate of episodes have been uneven and divisive among the fan base, running from “serviceable” (Cold War, Robot of Sherwood) to “what could have been” (The Idiot’s Lantern, Victory of the Daleks). It’s not a knock on Gatiss…for the record, I’ve enjoyed the majority of his output both in and out of Who…but with his writing pedigree comes some expectations with regards to his stories.

Sleep No More is ambitious, told solely in the first-person in a “found footage” style. The viewer sees the story unravel from the direct point-of-view of the characters and security cameras. It’s a style popularized by the release of The Blair With Project in the late 1990’s as a low-budget way to tell stories. The format has continued since then with releases such as the horror movie REC (and its American remake Quarantine), the monster movie Cloverfield and the comedy movie Project X, as well as a new style of making…ahem…adult movies. Done right, the format can tell a gripping and engaging story. Done badly, the story gets lost in the throes of “shaky cam” and confusion of who is filming and who is talking. Sleep No More both works and doesn’t work in this regard. It works in the regard that there’s a sense of urgency that comes from the viewer being directly in the action, not just when the Sandmen attack but when the Doctor is staring the viewer directly in the face. It’s one thing to see the Doctor in profile, boldly telling off the monsters. It’s another thing to have him looking at you, giving you a full look at his intelligence, his wonder, disdain, and his annoyance. But it doesn’t work in terms of editing and direction. With five characters and the security cameras, it’s very hard to determine who is talking sometimes and who they’re talking to, meaning there’s a lot of off-screen dialogue and quick pans/cuts between the characters. It would have been to director Justin Moltinikov’s benefit to use a less frantic style with regards to the helmet cameras and for Gatiss to have tightened the script a little more to ensure both the action and dialogue was easier to follow.

(I do need to point out that both the story’s “twist” about the footage and the occasional bridging piece by Doctor Rassmussen doesn’t make this a true “found footage” story, but it’s close enough for government work in my eyes)

It’s also important for an experimental episode for the plot to…well, make sense. There’s the seed of a VERY good idea here. In the 38th century, the corporations on Triton have come up with the Morpheus Machine, a machine that compresses a month’s worth of sleep into five minutes, ensuring workers can work 16 hour days without worrying about fatigue or loss of productivity. The Doctor’s reaction to this concept is just perfect.

The Doctor: “Sleep, that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care. The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath. Balm of hurt minds, chief nourisher in life’s great feast.” Congratulations, Professor! You’ve revolutionised the labour market! You’ve conquered nature! 

Rassmussen: Thank you. 

The Doctor: You’ve also created an abomination.

The lack of sleep has long-term ramifications leading to the rise of a new species of monster – the Sandmen. There were so many places Gatiss could have taken them – creatures from the id ala Forbidden Planet or perhaps the Creepypasta The Russian Sleep Experiment where denying sleep to political prisoners leads to creatures from beyond breaking down the metaphysical protections that only sleep provides. Instead…the Sandmen are created from rheum, aka the dust that collects in the corner of your eyes, aka “sleep boogers.” Yes, the monsters in a Mark Gatiss script are comprised of a whole bunch of eye boogers. I am not making this up. It’s just…of all the things, sleep boogers? Really? There’s also a couple of minor quibbles – the door being locked and coded only to open to the singing of “Mr Sandman” was jarring and out of place, as was the clone that was bred for war succumbing from walking through flames two inches high as well as a group of trained soldiers hardly using their guns the entire episode (and the one time the Commanding Officer uses the gun, Clara yells at her “is that your solution for everything?”). But it’s the monsters, who look incredibly disturbing, that just fall flat.

Now, here’s the thing – the final twist looks fantastic and incredibly creepy and attempts to explain just why the story is so disjointed and weak (at one point, the Doctor just flat out yells “this all makes no sense!”). The whole episode was just a story told by Doctor Rasmussen to hold the viewer’s interest because it’s not the Morpheus Machines that create the Sandmen – it’s the signal that is embedded with the video that makes up the episode, and now the viewer has a little something in their eye…

It’s a very Twilight Zone/Outer Limits type of hopeless ending with a hint of Joseph Lidster. But it also feels like it’s an excuse that can be used to ignore the flaws and plot holes in the rest of the episode. And Gatiss is a better writer than that. If you’re going to utilize an ending like this, the rest of the episode has to be an absolute grabber, one that keeps the viewer’s interest the whole way through. Blink was a perfect example of this; a unique type of episode that was gripping and featured the “any statue could be a Weeping Angel” montage at the end. I don’t think I took my eyes off-screen the entire time. During Sleep No More, I kept glancing at my phone and wondering when I could go upstairs to play some Fallout 4. The ending to this episode just feels like an attempt at a big twist, but if you’re going to pull off that twist the rest of the episode has to hold up or suffer from just the events of the twist, not minor quibbles like doors locked by song or soldiers who rarely use their guns.

I wish I could find some good in this episode, but I really can’t. The introduction of the rescue crew by “chance of survivability” was neat, but beyond that I couldn’t tell you anything about the rescue crew, save for the clone 474. She’s played by Bethany Black, the first transsexual actress (actor?) in the show’s history who portrays the simple soldier bred for war with some wonderfully sparse and direct dialogue (trivia note – she is a lifelong Doctor Who fan and confused Mark Gatiss by asking if this episode was tied to the Fourth Doctor episode The Sun Makers since both are set in the 38th century!). Reece Shearsmith also deserves a shout-out as the creepy Doctor Rassmussen, drawing from his experiences with The League of Gentlemen and Pyschoville to play the true antagonist of the episode. It’s not just the unease he exudes, but his pride at the creation of the Morpheus Machines as well that shows just how off the character is. Beyond that not even Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi could save this episode. It wasn’t just the format which meant that the pair couldn’t rely on their body language and facial expression as much as they normally would. It was the writing for both of them being so below the usual mark that it dragged down both characters. It feels like it’s been a trend all season of Coleman and Capaldi pulling the scripts up towards them when needed, but they just couldn’t keep a firm grip this time out.

I’m still waiting for the knockout Mark Gatiss episode. I know he has one in him somewhere, as he’s just too damn talented for the slate of “C+” stories that he’s given the show. Sleep No More is an attempt at a unique, original episode that just falls apart as the separate pieces fail to fit together and the ending doesn’t excuse the mistakes with the rest of the story.

Although, the twist ending could just be the set-up for the inevitable sequel that Gatiss and Moffat have both gone on record as planning…

Random Thoughts
– The Great Catastrophe mentioned at bringing India and Japan closer together has been confirmed by Gatiss as being the same disaster that afflicted Earth in the backstory for the Fifth Doctor story Frontios
– This is the first episode of Doctor Who not to have the familiar opening title sequence.

– I just want to put this picture here for no reason.

Cobi’s Synopsis – An experiment episode in the “found footage” style, Sleep No More fails to click thanks to a disjointed script, monsters with a truly silly origin, and a final scene that attempts to excuse the story’s weaknesses via a Twilight Zone twist.

Next Up – With a death sentence hanging over their heads, not all of the intruders will get out alive.…

Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in…Face the Raven.

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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One Response to Doctor Who – “Sleep No More”

  1. You capture my thoughts almost exactly. I appreciated the effort to attempt something completely different, and it wasn’t the uniqueness of the episode that put me off. It was that the story just didn’t hold my interest. There were just too many things that didn’t make sense and none of the characters was all that interesting.

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