The eighth episode of the ninth season, entitled Sleep No More, written by Mark Gatiss, will go down in my opinion as the weakest story of the season. Which is unfortunate because the episode is competently produced, and follows its own rules to the letter.
Unfortunately, by embracing the “found footage” model of storytelling, Sleep No More, leaves me unsatisfied, not because of any failure of the storytelling or the direction, but because by staying true to the rules of the conceit, Mark Gatiss could not give me what I craved the most: resolution.
A full spoilers review appears after the break.
Gatiss sets the parameters of the story up at the beginning. With no title sequence, we are instead treated to the start of a video recorded in the midst (or near the end) of all the action. Sagan Rassmussen warns the viewer not to watch the video but explains that he’s the sole survivor on the Le Verrier space station orbiting Neptune. He explains the station has recently been boarded by a rescue she from Triton bearing four people: commander Nagata, soldiers Chopra and Deep-Ando, and 474, a bio-engineered individual bred without much intelligence to act as a grunt. The soldiers explore the deserted station and discover, to their surprise, the Doctor and Clara having arrived to do their own exploring.
The Doctor’s psychic paper forestalls any tough questions, just in time for the group to be chased by creatures who appear to be made out of crusty sand. Taking refuge in a laboratory, Clara is inadvertently sealed into a pod, which releases her moments later. The pod is identified as a Morpheus sleep pod — a technology invented to compress a whole night’s worth of sleep into five minutes with no ill-effects whatsoever. Before anybody can say “what can possibly go wrong”, they discover Rassmussen hiding in one of the other sleep pods.
From this point, the episode’s “found-footage” trope matches up with Doctor Who’s “station under siege” trope, and the two do go quite well together. The found footage provides some nice in-the-moment tension, and Gatiss does write up the characters with care. Chopra and 474 share a rather touching story of affection and understanding, and the Doctor gets several opportunities to pronounce the Morpheus technology as a disaster waiting to happen. There’s even some nice action scenes as the space station’s systems fail, and the place starts to fall into Neptune.
Unfortunately, the near-crash scenes do generate physics hairballs. Why would the gravity suddenly get more intense if the anti-gravity engines switch off? As we see from the International Space Station, any object orbiting Earth is constantly falling, and the people inside are weightless. If, possibly, the space station is being held at a fixed point above Neptune, rather than orbiting — like a platform on an invisible support pole — then maybe the gravity would be more intense, requiring anti-gravity to keep the occupants from being crushed.
Unfortunately, shutting off the anti-grab while allowing the space station to go into free-fall should not increase the gravity on board the station, but decrease it. The occupants should be floating. And if I can come up with this off the top of my head, you’ll understand why Erin wore the most skeptical expression while the scene was going on.
Pretty soon the truth comes out. Morpheus is allowing an alien intelligence to take over people through the sleep dust in their eyes (whaaaaa?), and the potential exists for this disaster to be exported to Triton where similar (but less advanced) machines are in abundance.
And then the story basically just ends. The Doctor realizes that the situation is being choreographed to trick the rescuers into bringing the influence to Triton, and he responds by shutting off the gravity shields, crushing the sandmen with Neptune’s heightened gravity. The Doctor hauls Clara off — leaving Rassmussen behind — muttering vaguely about heading to Triton to shut down Morpheus once and for all. And then comes the sting, where Rassmussen reveals that the entire found-footage episode was a trick to get people to watch, and have the Sandmen influence ported into their brains by a glitch in the video signal. Rassmussen appears to get the last laugh as he disintegrates, and the credits roll.
As I said, Sleep No More was technically competent. Director Justin Molotnikov keeps up the tension and wisely keeps glimpses of the Sandmen under shadow and shaky camerawork. Gatiss shows his knack for dialogue and pulls out some nice subplots. He also embraces the found-footage style of storytelling and maintains its complete integrity. And that’s what makes Sleep No More so frustrating.
Sleep No More is a tightly bound visual artefact. Its narrative device depends on it embracing the fourth wall and acting both as story and plot device. We watch it and are supposed to suspend our disbelief enough to believe, even momentarily, that we’ve been infected by the Sandmen’s visual virus. Ooooo! Scary!
Except that you know the Doctor is coming back to kick the Sandmen’s butts. He would not leave the situation hanging. He explicitly states that he intends to go to Triton to destroy the Morpheus machines. Then there’s the fact that Clara slept in one of those machines, and that’s one way the virus gets into you. We know the Doctor is not going to lose, but we never get a chance to see him win.
As a result, Sleep No More feels unfinished and unsatisfying. I don’t know if that’s a flaw inherent in the found footage model itself, or if something could have been done to the tale to fix the problems (a further scene of the Doctor speaking to camera, telling Rassmussen, “that’s what you think!”), but this unfortunately lends Sleep No More less weight, in my opinion, than the multi-part stories around it.
Mark Gatiss is an excellent writer — plenty of evidence can be found on the screen. We should also be pleased to see Doctor Who take more risks and try new styles as it continues along its fifty-two-year-journey. I wouldn’t go so far as call Sleep No More as misfire, but I feel the show could do better, and has done much better, with other episodes this season.