Netflix UK TV review: Doctor Who Season 9, Episode 9 (Sleep No More)
Mark Harrison | On 15, Nov 2015
This is a spoiler-free review. Already seen it? Read on at the end for spoilers.
Let’s talk about Marmite episodes of Doctor Who. Any show has divisive episodes, ones that fans either love or hate. For every universally loved NuWho story, there’s a Love & Monsters or The Rings of Akhaten. Last year, we even had In The Forest Of The Night, a great, truly unique episode that still drew mixed responses. It’s around the same time in Doctor Who’s world-beating run of great episodes that Season 9 gets its Marmite serving in the form of Sleep No More.
It’s the first single-parter of a series that has been made up entirely of two-part stories so far and, even more unusual, it’s the first ever episode of Doctor Who to adopt found-footage storytelling, a la The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. It leaves little room in the middle-ground.
The episode opens with Professor Gagan Rasmussen (Reece Shearsmith) warning us not to watch what follows. He’s seemingly alone on the Le Verrier space station, in orbit around one of Neptune’s moons, Triton. Using what is available, he’s done his best to cohere the footage of what happened aboard the station for the viewer in the dreadful aftermath of his experiments with the Morpheus program, condensing sleep into much smaller increments in order to increase the productivity of the workers on board.
A team of four comes aboard Le Verrier to rescue Rasmussen after a disaster left the station overrun by monsters. When two strangers called the Doctor and Clara get involved, the origin of the monsters is discovered and it becomes vital to keep the monsters from reaching the populated moon below.
Writer Mark Gatiss isn’t credited until the end of this one – like any legit found footage horror story, the episode foregoes the traditional opening title sequence in order to maintain verisimilitude throughout, just like the early Paranormal Activity movies. However, it also feels much longer than its actual running time, thanks to the inherent pacing restrictions of the format – just like the rest of the Paranormal Activity movies.
Even after sitting through all of that unlikely franchise, this writer has more tolerance for the found-footage format than most and even with that in mind, it’s fair to say that Gatiss makes surprisingly creative use of it here. Most films of this kind focus on who’s filming the action, making characters out of cameramen. It’s true enough that the point-of-view from which the “cameras” are shooting becomes important, but Sleep No More is one of the rare found-footage stories that bother to wonder who edited it together.
By the use of Rasmussen (played with unnerving efficiency by Shearsmith) as a narrator and editor from the very beginning, Gatiss interrogates the chosen format in a way that few other stories of this kind do. He also introduces a clever way around the usual “Why are these idiots still filming?” question that also means the show never cheats the format for even a single shot. In this regard, director Justin Molotnikov does very well, where most movie directors flounder.
However, it wouldn’t be such a divisive episode, if it were without flaws, either in the script or its execution. Outside of Rasmussen, the guest cast don’t have very much to them at all. The Indo-Japanese crew is led by Nagata, and Elaine Tan wields a supremely awkward Geordie accent in that role – given that Gatiss is originally from the North East, we’d hoped that he would be above the shoe-horning of “pet” onto the end of every other line. Despite the cultural mash-up, Chopra (Neet Mohan) and Deep-Ando (Paul Courtenay Hyu) get little to differentiate them, and while the team’s muscle, named only as 474 (Bethany Black), could have been fascinating, this episode doesn’t have a lot of room to explore the kind of character she presents.
And then there’s the monsters themselves. In the spirit of the episode, this review has been – and will continue to be – vague about them and their origin until we get into spoiler territory, but they are certainly the tipping point between loving and hating Sleep No More. On the one hand, they are an almost parodic version of Steven Moffat’s terror-forming of seemingly banal concepts – just as statues and darkness have been made scary in previous episodes, so Gatiss boldly attempts to do the same for something else that’s lurking in the corner of your eye, writing cheques that the show is unable to cash.
On the other hand, if you’re wearing your Who-brand suspenders of disbelief, the monsters here are effectively imaginative and creepy, if not quite enough to sustain an episode that drags in the way found footage stories inevitably do. As to the look of them, the very worst that you could say is that they look fine next to the most comparable VFX creation of recent years, which featured in a 2007 comic-book movie (they even share a name with that one).
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are very much on form as ever – look out for one unbearably cute moment involving them holding hands – although it doesn’t provide nearly as much of an exercise in character for them as the Zygon story, outside of lending credulity to an outlandish concept. That comes easily in any moment when Capaldi transfixes the camera with a glare as part of the story’s POV work – you have to wonder if the makers of Peep Show have ever tried to nab his attack eyebrows for a guest role.
The thing with found footage, and all of those Paranormal Activity movies, is that when nobody bothers to consider who collated what we’re watching, there’s no other ending but anti-climax. And while the ending of this particular episode is at once much darker and much more rushed than anything else we’ve seen in Doctor Who since 2005, it does stick the landing rather magnificently with a final scene that makes this well worth a repeat viewing, just to see what went on in that context.
If it sounds like we’re looking at this through rose-tinted Sonic Specs then let us be clear: Sleep No More is not up to the remarkably high standard of Doctor Who Season 9 so far, but even for a Marmite episode, the worst you could say about it is that it’s a noble failure as a result of an unprecedented experiment. It makes bone-chilling use of its format, but leaves the story feeling a little half-cocked on the way to its audacious ending. Love it or hate it, it’s a fascinating gamble.
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Additional notes (contains spoilers)
No bullet points for you this week, we have to get right to that ending. It’s an audacious move for Gatiss to present the episode as edited by the villain of the piece and you may have a hard time deciding whether that’s an inspired twist or a dreadful cop-out. That’s where a repeat viewing will decide it for you.
The monsters on Le Verrier are dubbed the Sandmen, a kind of mutation that has arisen from Rasmussen’s sleep-proofing Morpheus machines from the accelerated build up of “sleep in your eye”, which has become sentient and started eating people. If you can possibly buy into the idea that eye bogeys could mutate into a humanoid monster – especially one that looks a bit like the Golgothan demon from Dogma in a dim light – then you’ll probably be alright with this episode.
Like any contained contagion, the Doctor is concerned that it must not get out of Le Verrier, particularly not to the surface of Triton, but also comes to realise that the story as he’s experiencing it doesn’t make sense. He actually hollers “This doesn’t make any sense!” near the end of the episode, an in-built rallying cry for anybody who doesn’t especially like it.
However, we learn at the beginning that Rasmussen is the one who has put the story together and he gives us plenty of warning not to watch it. By the end, the Doctor has left with the apparently infected Clara and Nagata in the TARDIS and only then do we learn that Morpheus is not a contagion but still an electronic signal that meddles with the way we sleep and turns us into Sandmen – and the message is contained in the footage we have just watched.
A Sandman, disguised as Rasmussen, has smuggled the signal out into the solar system as “entertainment” to proliferate its own new species. He has even manipulated the story to fit our expectations to make sure we watched the whole thing, right down to “a fight with a big one at the end”. Having got this far, the implication is essentially that the Doctor loses this fight – he’s off to Triton to destroy the other Morpheus machines, but Rasmussen’s main gambit succeeds.
By bothering to question the modes of address in a storytelling format that feels utterly worn out, Gatiss manages to find a new, much grimmer than usual way of ending this tale. Rumours of a Gatiss-penned sequel about the Sandmen in the next season are already flying around, but frankly, none of the best found-footage movies have had good sequels. Paranormal Activity got ever more contrived as it wore on and the less said about Book Of Shadows (Blair Witch 2) the better. Sleep No More might have needed a Part 2, rather than a sequel.
While its detractors won’t be clamouring for a sequel, you sort of have to admire the risk in delivering a nonsensical Doctor Who story because it’s “written” by the villain in the editing room, because he thinks that’s the sort of thing you’d like. Whether the preceding build-up, with all of its muddles and flaws, earns such an audacious coda is probably the reason why this one has divided the audience.
Our advice? Sleep on it.
Photo: Simon Ridgway / BBC