This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
9.9 Sleep No More
“Calm down, pet”
I know it’s not part of the writing-for-the-internet training manual, but I don’t take pleasure really in penning reviews of things that I didn’t really like too much. Especially if there are interesting ingredients, that don’t really mesh together. But, after going through Sleep No More twice – once by myself, once with my kids – I confess I struggled with it.
It’s easy, after all, to jump on a hate bandwagon. I think this series and last of Doctor Who have been the best in years, and I was hardly writing letters of complaint to the BBC about the Matt Smith era before that. But Sleep No More never really took off for me.
It’s a coincidence that it’s first standalone story in a series run that’s been compromised of two-parters thus far. But as a consequence, writer Mark Gatiss gives himself a lot of work to do, to set up, explore and pay the episode off. Unfortunately, I found it a bit of a muddle.
“Even I sleep” “When?” “Well, when you’re not looking”
Taking it away from the superb Zygon two-parter that it followed, Sleep No More started intriguingly. It’s immediately different, after all, as Gatiss gets the tone of what was to follow over quickly and effectively. Guest star Reece Shearsmith kicks things off, talking to the camera, with the credits being replaced by swift computer text. If you were looking for clues that this would be the latest Doctor Who episode to take a left turn, there they were.
Gatiss then structured, with some discipline, Doctor Who‘s first found-footage episode, wrapping the camera points of view into the plot of the episode. We’re only allowed to view what’s happening either from the POVs of characters who are alive, or via flashbacks to Rassmussen’s (that’s Reece Shearsmith) video diary. It requires a minute or two of explanation, and then we’re down to business. So far so good.
The Doctor and Clara thus arrive on the space station Le Verrier, 24 hours after it happened to fall silent. There, he meets a rescue mission, and we explore just what’s happened from that point on. Gatiss fuses in Japanese culture into his 38th century story, and presents us with a disparate bunch of people, caught in the middle of a monster-on-a-spaceship story.
The episode certainly has things to say too, that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Take the cloned “grunt”, genetically engineered to be the brute force in battle. Right now, wars are being fought with drones, and Gatiss explores a logical extension of that. Then there’s the Morpheus technology at the heart of the story. A pod where human beings can trade in their need for sleep, in order to become efficient. Again: we’re in an era where more and more of us work longer hours, drink more coffee, and sleep less. Not for the first time in Gatiss’ Doctor Who writing, his finger is very much on a modern day pulse.
I do like the fact that there’s a good science fiction idea here, even if I struggled with the episode itself. It made me think of Russell T Davies’ Gridlock, which used science fiction thinking to logically expand on where things around us today would head, left unchecked. I wasn’t a mad fan of Gridlock, but its core thinking stuck with me. That may well be the case here, too.
Yet other parts of Sleep No More didn’t do much for me.
“You don’t get to name things. I’m the Doctor. I get to name things”
Let’s talk about the monsters, for instance, that came about as a consequence of Morpheus.
The idea behind them, of taking something as simple as sleep in your eye and turning that into a monster of sorts, was potentially creepy. Furthermore, credit to director Justin Molotnikov, who makes the most of the dark corridors, the abandoned sheep, and the shaky camera approach, to make them quite sinister at first.
Yet I just couldn’t really understand how they worked. And I eventually concluded that whilst that may not matter, if I’m actively thinking about it in the middle of the story, then the story can’t be fully working for me.
I may be having a dim day there – I do have lots of them – but after two viewings, I wasn’t much the wiser. There’s sleep dust. It adopts a human form. It wreaks damage. It disappears in a cloud of, well, dust. The dust also spies on people, giving us the point of view shots used throughout Sleep No More. Presumably, there are other things it can do, if it can make itself into a monster, or a camera, but I get that you need to choose something and focus on it.
Yet the way the idea of sleep in your eyes is used feels like the ball kicked wide of the goal. Steven Moffat, for instance, is expert at taking seemingly simple things – blinking, the things you spot in the corner of your eyes, even breathing – and turning them into effective Doctor Who threats. But the sleep feels like a device, rather than anything sinister in itself.
Another thing. I can’t honestly say that I was always on top of what was actually going on. We never really got to know the crew of supporting characters enough for me to pick them out when the ante was upped, and as they dashed around in the frame of shaky cam, on a darkly-lit set, there were a few moments where I couldn’t tell you what was happening.
To be clear: I don’t think viewers need to know everything, and keeping the audience in the dark, or holding back pieces of information, can be a very effective tool. Furthermore, as Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies showed, when you have a frantic fight, sometimes it’s more important to show you how panicky and messy it is, rather than who is throwing exactly what punch.
With Sleep No More, though, people were dying, and I didn’t always get a) that they’d died and b) who they were. And I think that’s a problem. The found footage approach was certainly worth a try, but it did feel like the episode became something of a hostage to it. That it was so committed to the idea, a fair amount of collateral damage was inflicted.
“Mr Sandman, bring me your dreams”
Probably the biggest criticism I have though was that Sleep No More wasn’t, for me, that entertaining to watch.
It’s a brave and bold move to commit to found footage for 45 minutes of Doctor Who, and I love that the show took such a risk. Yet it never gelled, and ultimately felt longer than its 45 minute running time. I found myself warming to some of its moments, but really not to its whole.
That said, I’m determined to end on a positive, and the moments where Peter Capaldi in particular started down the camera lens to deliver his lines were as magnetic as I’d hoped. I find Capaldi’s Doctor really quite unpredictable still – no small achievement after 22 episodes – never quite knowing whether he’ll crack a joke, or pull the floor from under a character with one perfectly delivered line. When he stares at me from the telly, I dare not avert my eyes.
Furthermore, I liked Reece Shearsmith here, and his ending monologue – again, delivered to camera – “excuse me, you’ve got something there” – was the most effective moment of the episode, and quite a chilling way to end.
I hope the rest of you got more out of Sleep No More than I did, though. It’s the first episode in a while I’ve struggled with. It’s telling, though, that even in the midst of a Doctor Who story I didn’t really warm to, there are plenty of things of note worth discussing.
Read our review of last week’s episode, The Zygon Inversion, here.