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Doctor Who: Sleep No More (Review)

“No. No no no. You don’t get to name things. I’m the Doctor, I do the naming.”

Sleep No More is not a bad idea by any stretch.

One of the defining features of the Moffat era has been a willingness to engage directly with imagery and metaphors tied to the history and culture iconography of Doctor Who. The show has played not only with monsters, but also with the idea of monsters, frequently creating conceptual nightmares that have undoubtedly cost many viewers (young and old) a few nights sleep. The Weeping Angels are monsters that can only move when you can’t see them. The Silence exist in the gaps in your memory. Last Christmas even has the Doctor confront the idea of Santa Claus.

What? No HD feed?

What? No HD feed?

In many ways, Sleep No More feels like a logical continuation of this trend. In a way, the episode doubles-down on the show’s scariness, offering viewers (particularly children) monsters that are immune to (and even capitalise on) potential defenses against scary episodes. If Weeping Angels of Blink are monsters designed to be especially scary to viewers hiding behind the couch or covering their eyes, then the “Sandmen” of Sleep No More are intended to be particularly unsettling to viewers who already have trouble falling asleep after a scary story.

The biggest problem is that the episode is written by Mark Gatiss.

Guess Who?

Guess Who?

Gatiss is very much a conservative and traditional Doctor Who writer. This makes a great deal of sense, considering his own interests. Gatiss is one of the creative minds responsible for The League of Gentlemen, a comedy throwback to classic horror tropes. Gatiss has written and presented insightful and thoughtful documentaries on the history of the horror genre. Gatiss knows his horror inside and out, appreciating classic tropes and old-fashioned storytelling.

Even within his work on Doctor Who, Gatiss has tended towards the familiar. When Russell T. Davies resurrected the show, Gatiss was the writer entrusted with the third episode; The Unquiet Dead was very much a loving tribute to the Hinchcliffe era. There is a strong strain of nostalgia that runs through Gatiss’ scripts, evident in the setting and values of The Idiot’s Lantern, the classic monster and “base under siege” format of Cold War and the sensibilities of The Crimson Horror.

Meat bag...

Meat bag…

Indeed, Gatiss is a writers whose biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses are tied up in his traditionalism. Gatiss is so fond of classic horror and science-fiction tropes that he tends to lack self-awareness in their application. In adhering to an old-school horror template, The Unquiet Dead is effective horror with an uncomfortable xenophobic undercurrent. The ending to The Idiot’s Lantern hinges on unquestioning traditional values. Cold War suggests the Doctor is okay with genocide so long as a race he knows is responsible.

Gatiss is not necessarily the best idea for a postmodern horror story about how staying awake after watching a scary episode only makes you more susceptible to the monsters. On paper, this should be terrifying. Sleep No More should catch the viewer in a feedback loop of horror and anxiety. If the viewer goes asleep, the monsters await in their nightmares. If the viewer tries to escape those nightmares, they run the risk of creating their own real-life monsters. That thought should be as unsettling as the Weeping Angels or the conceptual monster from Listen.

"Doors always work, right?"

“Doors always work, right?”

Indeed, the final act of the episode does suggest a number of sly self-aware twists. The final scene finds Rassmussen threatening the audience with his weaponised narrative; pointing out that he warned the viewer not to watch the episode, he suggests that they have been contaminated and infected. Staring out the screen at the audience, he points to something that he sees… “just in the corner of your eye.” The obvious inference is that the viewer at home as been affected and transformed, that they will breed their own monsters.

It is a nice twist, very much in the spirit of the revelation that “the image of an Angel becomes an Angel” in Time of the Angels. Can the audience conjure a monster into being through their imagination? Can an idea be dangerous? Does the suggestion of horror contaminate and infect? It is a very clever use of the episode’s central conceit. As is the idea that the “found footage” narrative is not simply an attempt to tell a story, but is in fact a carefully calibrated and manipulated object.

Enter sandman...

Enter sandman…

A couple of times over the course of the episode, Sleep No More draws attention to the unique format of the episode. Around the midpoint of the story, the Doctor suggests that the editing and structure are as more for the benefit of Rassmussen than anybody else; the suggestion is that the footage represents an attempt to “get [his] story straight”, which is certainly true. More to the point, the fact that the villain has control of the narrative is renders the plot as a very literal device. “It wasn’t just my alibi,” Rassmussen explains. “It’s my plan.”

The problem is that all of these elements feel like they were added on to a very conventional episode. These postmodern self-aware twists feel like they have been grafted on to a standard “base under siege” tale, a cynical effort to add something just a little unique to a story that Doctor Who has told dozens of times before. In fact, the ninth season already had an effective “base under siege” two-parter in Under the Lake and Before the Flood, rendering another such story redundant.

Candid camera...

Candid camera…

The last minute threat from Rassmussen feels more like a stinger or a punchline than a core concept. For all that Sleep No More adopts the basic trappings of a “found footage” horror – with no title sequence and no ambient music – the episode never capitalises on the creative opportunities presented by the departure from the norm. Up until the stinger, it would be reasonably possible to convert Sleep No More into a more standard episode. The Doctor and Clara arrive in a scary location, discover a mad scientist, fight some monsters and escape.

There is surprisingly little ambition to Sleep No More. The idea of doing a “found footage” episode of Doctor Who about the horrors of a world without sleep is very exciting. Instead, it leads to a lot of standard running through corridors followed by monsters made out of dust. Calling the monsters “Sandmen” and suggesting that they are composed of dust from the corner of a person’s eye allows for some clever wordplay, but it doesn’t feel like anything too far outside the norm. Despite all the potential of the premise, the execution is far too conventional.

... in a pod...

… in a pod…

Any number of possibilities present themselves. The idea of watching Doctor Who from a subjective (rather than an objective) position is intriguing. What does the Doctor look like to a bunch of strangers? What does psychic paper actually look like when it works? What would it be like to actually be a character in a Doctor Who episode? There are any number of narrative possibilities presented, but Sleep No More quick devolves into a fairly generic episode with a wry self-aware narrator and a selection of distracting camera angles.

The dialogue is very fond of expressing bold ideas and clever concepts. Stripping away sleep is a very clever hook for a Doctor Who story, given the tendency of scary stories to keep people awake at night. The focus on generic critiques of capitalism feel like a wasted opportunity. The more interesting themes are rooted in how that relates to Doctor Who itself. Given that the show has been accused of giving children nightmares and keeping them awake all night, Sleep No More would seem the perfect place to touch on those ideas.

Waking up to the horror of the situation...

Waking up to the horror of the situation…

Instead, the dialogue hints at bigger themes, but there is no follow-through. “Sleep isn’t just a function,” the Doctor remarks. “It is blessed.” He insists that sleep “keeps us safe. Safe from the monsters inside.” It is a line that sounds clever, and feels like it should build to a better episode, but which ultimately never pays off. It is very hard to argue that the monsters inside of us are all blind carnivorous dust monsters. Similarly, the Doctor’s observation that “the monsters have been with us all along” would be a nice pay-off in a smarter episode, but never feels earned.

A lot of the ingredients in Sleep No More feel recycled and familiar, which is a problem when dealing with an episode that is very consciously trying to be different and new. The “grunt” is a rather bland take on the classic science-fiction trope of the “slave race.” The “grunt” lacks the character or nuance that defined the Ood or even the Gangers. Similarly, Rassmussen is a cookie-cutter mad scientist. His breakdown feels more driven by the necessities of plot than by any internal logic. His claims to have created “a new life form… a better life form” are just stock ranting.

This sort of thing's not his bag, baby...

This sort of thing’s not his bag, baby…

These are classic Doctor Who tropes, and they would not feel out of place in a more conventional episode. Given Gatiss’ affection for those sorts of clichés and familiar storybeats, it makes sense that Sleep No More should include them. The problem is that they feel at odds with the unique format of the episode. Despite the fact that Sleep No More literally places the audience in the midst of the action, the entire world feels stock and generic; there is nothing tangible about the horrors on display there, they all feel recycled.

To be fair, there some smaller good ideas. The use of the “found footage” format to provide exposition is very utilitarian. The show is able to take a lot of the burden of exposition away from the Doctor by having relevant information (like that the “grunt” is “programmed to respond to physical threat”) pop up on screen for the viewer to process. At the same time, this is undercut by the fact that Sleep No More then has the Doctor deliver the exact same exposition anyway, thus rendering the novelty obsolete.

Lost and found (footage)...

Lost and found (footage)…

At least the episode plays relatively fair with the audience. The decision to start cutting to Clara’s subjective point of view is a clever little touch that rewards attentive viewers; Clara does not have a helmet on her head and is not part of the military unit, so viewers who realise that the camera is recording the action from her perspective will quickly figure out that the “found footage” element of the plot is more than simply cameras woven into the fabric of this futuristic world.

The “found footage” format does bring other benefits as well. As Listen and Before the Flood both demonstrated, there are few pleasures in life that can measure up to Peter Capaldi addressing the camera in the character of the Doctor. As cliché as the set-up might be, Capaldi is a good enough actor that he can pull off a lot of moments that would seem ridiculously absurd. Peter Capaldi staring at the camera, warning the subject of his attention that they’ve “also created an abomination” is chilling, and effective enough that it almost justifies the “found footage” choice.

He won't lose sleep over it...

He won’t lose sleep over it…

Gatiss’ strengths might be ill-served by the choice of format and theme, but they are still present. Gatiss writes good banter and snarky dialogue. There are lots of pithy exchanges that demonstrate the chemistry between Peter Capaldi and Jenna Louise-Coleman, whether arguing over the use of “space” as a prefix or explaining that the Doctor does sleep “when you’re not looking.” These are elements that would work well in any episode, and which do not feel particularly tailored to the specific demands of Sleep No More.

Sleep No More is not a bad episode, but it does feel like a wasted opportunity.

9 Responses

  1. “I have no empty heroes. My goodies are good, and my baddies are bad. There are no schizophrenic goodies or sympathetic baddies. And children like it that way; it’s not confusing. And they want the goodies to defeat the bads.”

    — Brian Jacques

  2. You had me at this line – “The biggest problem is that the episode is written by Mark Gatiss.”

    OK, that’s a little unfair. His episodes have never been favourites of mine, but they’re enjoyable enough. Well, outside of Robot of Sherwood, and the subject of this review.

    I have to confess that this one struck me as a bit of a mess. Some good ideas, definitely, but too frenetic with a boring guest cast, generic characterization we learn via snippets of dialogue at the beginning, an origin for the monsters that makes no sense whatsoever – evolved from dust? The Forest of Cheem seem credible compared to that! The design of the Sandmen also took me completely out of the episode, resembling as they do the mumblers from the first Silent Hill game (no, I’m not suggesting plagiarism before anyone asks).

    I can appreciate what they were trying to do, and experimentation is certainly not something I’d discourage. But unfortunately, I’d have to class this one as a noble failure.

    • I feel like I’m mean to Mark Gatiss. Like I feel like I’m mean to John Shiban when reviewing The X-Files. I hope I’m not. They are competent writers who understand basic storytelling, which is an artform far more difficult than it sounds. However, they lack a lot of the strengths that I prefer in my writers and have some strong authorial tics that don’t sit comfortably with me. (In both cases, they are strongly traditionalist horror fans.)

      • Mean but fair, which is the job of a critic! I’d say the comparison with Shiban is a good one. He had some good solo stories – The Walk, The Pine Bluff Variant, S.R.819 – but worked best as part of the “John Gilnitz” collaboration.

      • I would agree with that. It’s worth noting that Shiban went from being one of the worst writers on The X-Files to being one of the stronger writers on Star Trek: Enterprise, which says a lot about the relative strengths of those shows and their writers’ rooms.

  3. Good review.

    I took Morpheus to be a critique of the way smart phones have encouraged the idea of the 24 hour work day among white collar workers – that someone is ‘always’ available (and increasingly expected be available) to send another email or work on a report. I agree with the Doctor there, the sleep deprivation machines are far more terrifying than the rather silly dust monsters.

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