After several weeks of expansive storytelling with two-part episodes, Doctor Who returns with a self contained tale that also represents something of an experimental venture for the show. Written by frequent contributor Mark Gatiss, known to some for his acting roles in Game of Thrones, The League of Gentlemen, and Sherlock, Sleep No More embraces something of a “found footage” approach to chronicle a slice of Whoniverse horror.
Their latest journey deposits the Doctor and Clara in the 38th century on Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, now home to a research base headed by Professor Rassmussen (Shearsmith). He is working on refining his greatest invention, the ‘Morpheus Pod’, a device that allows people to replace their normal sleep cycle with a quick 5 minute treatment. But the base is under attack; bizarre monsters have started to appear and wipe out the remaining crew. The Doctor deduces that Rassmussen’s tinkering with the device and elimination of sleep has caused the mutation of the sand/sleep in people’s eyes and twisted it into these malevolent creatures. Through various POV shots, the tale of the survivors looking to escape the base is told.
With its found footage and use of the first person view, Sleep No More feels like Doctor Who by way of a video game with a healthy dose of Aliens thrown in for good measure. As an experiment in format, it’s certainly interesting, even dispensing with the title sequence to throw you right into the unraveling mystery. We cut between various character viewpoints so often you find people, the Doctor included, looking straight at you delivering their lines. It plays out like it could have been a live episode of Who, which would have been extremely compelling.
However, the explanations behind the threat are unconvincing. The episode tries a bit too hard to be clever and just ends up convoluted. Much of the logic and endgame of the ‘Sandmen’ is hard to truly fathom and seem a round peg forced into a square hole, ungainly fitted into the format of the episode. It’s a shame Gatiss went down a path of elaboration rather than leaving things a little more mysterious. A less technical approach would have helped the horror aspects come to the fore.
There are some great elements to the story. It shows a interesting time in Earth’s future where this sleep technology has spawned two factions, those who use it and those who don’t. As a result there are social and economic differences between them. It’s an interesting critique of the old adage “time is money.” We often think the increase in industry and workload is squeezing the souls out of people, only here it literally happens. Also props to the re-purposing of an old musical classic against a nightmarish backdrop, here the Chordette’s 1954 Mr. Sandman. It’s a technique that’s always effective.
Reece Shearsmith is a welcome addition as Rassmussen, an old collaborator of Mark Gatiss from their League of Gentleman days, fusing intense dedication to and belief in his research with a mounting paranoia. The show continues to showcase stores which require the skill of Capaldi to make it work. His eccentricity and quick switch in mood from playful to dark reflect similar choices in the scripts. Capaldi continues to excel. Jenna Coleman’s Clara continues to be oddly mishandled. After such a impressive arc for her character last season the writers seem unsure where to take her. The only obvious path is a growing antagonism between her and the Doctor, a slight “offness” to their banter.
Much has been made of Clara’s fate this season, with Coleman confirming her departure several weeks ago. The question is how will the show dispense of its longest serving companion. Death is a hard and unlikely choice; it’s still a kids show at heart. The buildup of Clara as a equal to the Doctor and at times surrogate for him in various situations speaks to a growing confidence and independence in her. One option would be to have a ‘fall from grace’, a mistake made after making a decision in the Doctor’s stead that forever undermines his ability to trust her or unleash her upon the galaxy again.
It would be a bittersweet end but certainly play into the the themes of power the show has recently explored as well as the lingering ‘prophecy’ driving this season, that the Doctor will create some sort of hybrid that will unleash devastation. Despite already encountering a Dalek/Time Lord race, Zygon/human cross, and a human meshed with alien technology to give her immortality, wouldn’t it be ironic if this hybrid was something far closer to home and less on the nose?
Sleep No More is something of a mixed bag. Good performances and a novel format make for a interesting outing but the science and explanations behind the plot was exceedingly tenuous and convoluted at times. Despite this, that final scene was perhaps effectively chilling enough to make you forgive those little sins.