Because Doctor Who constantly renews itself, with a new Doctor or companion coming on board the TARDIS nearly every season, and because the show dates all the way back to 1963, it can be easy to forget the middle ground between those two facts: The new series is now in its ninth season, and any show that has run for that long is going to have to be careful of telling the same old stories, of feeling stale. This season, one of the very few to carry over the same TARDIS team from the year before, has largely avoided that trap. The shift to making two-parters almost exclusively has helped, but it’s how Doctor Who has made the most of the narrative opportunities afforded by that expanded story length that has really impressed. “The Magician’s Apprentice”/“The Witch’s Familiar” wasn’t perfect, but it had tremendous fun taking a deep dive into the show’s mythos, locating genuine emotional connections between the Doctor and Davros and between Missy and Clara even as they tried to kill one another. “The Girl Who Died”/“The Woman Who Lived” broke all the rules of what a Doctor Who two-parter can look like, using a largely comedic opening episode to set up a deeper meditation on what it means to live forever. “The Zygon Invasion”/“The Zygon Inversion” began as commentary on contemporary issues and ended as a more universal condemnation of aggressive war.
That just leaves “Under The Lake”/“Before The Flood” and tonight’s episode, “Sleep No More,” both of which fit broadly into old school Doctor Who’s most famous sub-genre: the base-under-siege story. Now, the new series hasn’t gone to this particular narrative well as often as its classic counterpart, but there’s still a decent number that fit the bill of the Doctor and an isolated group trying to hold off some invading force. There’s room to debate the precise list, but I’d at least count “The Impossible Planet”/“The Satan Pit,” “42,” “Midnight,” “The Waters Of Mars,” “The Rebel Flesh”/“The Almost People,” “Cold War,” “Last Christmas,” and now this season’s two entries. Very few of those play the story type completely straight, with many mixing in larger philosophical arguments or engaging in wholesale narrative deconstruction. But what sets apart the best of these, what keeps them from feeling overly familiar, tends to be depth of character. The most effective stories on that list are not about the Doctor saving some anonymous group of soldiers, scientists, or vacation goers, but rather specific individuals for whom the alien threat means something more than just the universal impulse to stay alive.
And I suppose that’s the main reason why “Sleep No More,” though a perfectly solid episode, feels so disappointingly familiar. There’s plenty to like about this episode, but it has the same basic flaw as “Under The Lake”/“Before The Flood”: The guest ensemble here is so thinly sketched, and almost all their actions are driven by the needs of plot, not character development. It doesn’t help that the most interesting character, Reece Shearsmith’s Rassmussen, turns out to be a disguise for the Sandmen, meaning there are some fairly specific limits to what the show can do with him, as we learn his terror and desperation to leave are, if not precisely an act, then very much the manifestation of an ulterior motive. Beyond Rassmussen, the characterization is thin indeed. Chopra is the most clearly drawn as the political hothead who objects to the Morpheus system and the grunts, but beyond that? Nagata is the scared leader. Deep-Ando is the scared enlisted man. 474 is the dimly aware brute. And … that’s kind of it, really.
Now, characterization isn’t everything, and I’ll admit I care about that aspect of storytelling more than some probably do. If you’re watching “Sleep No More” primarily for a good, scary slice of sci-fi horror, then the episode is likely to be considerably more effective. But this reminds me of something fellow A.V. Club contributor Kate Kulzick once said to me, which is that the best Doctor Who episodes are those that marshal all their disparate elements and get them to resonate, to bring everything together to form a greater narrative whole. And with “Sleep No More,” it feels like the different parts of the story are working at slight cross purposes. Like his previous entry “Cold War,” writer Mark Gatiss crafts a lean thriller, one that works best when it’s as propulsive and stripped-down in its storytelling as possible. That worked so well in “Cold War” because the Soviet setting was, if not necessarily familiar to all viewers, then at least quickly recognizable, and the central threat of the Ice Warrior tied into the character development of the various submarine crewmen, all of whom were defined by living in the specter of war.
“Sleep No More,” on the other hand, mixes together some intriguing world-building about a corporatist future run by India and Japan, super-evolved sleepdust monsters who have consumed the body of their unwitting creator, and a found footage conceit whose purpose only really becomes obvious with a final scene that throws everything into question. Those are all fascinating concepts, and each of them works well in isolation. This isn’t a story that wants for ambition like some previous Gatiss efforts (looking at you, “Night Terrors”). But there isn’t that one overridingly compelling element that would synthesize all these ideas into something more. That, to the extent that it’s possible to characterize what makes a great Doctor Who episode, is what separates a solid entry like “Sleep No More” from an outright classic. Reece Shearsmith’s work as Rassmussen comes the closest, but the episode effectively turns his character into a plot twist, favoring horror over character. Which is fine, but it again speaks to how this episode ends up having to choose between its promising elements instead of getting them to complement one another.
Those who like “Sleep No More” more than I did will probably have responded to the episode’s horror elements, which are a definite strength. Much of that has to do with the episode’s found footage conceit, which sees the show eschewing the standard opening credits and theme tune in favor of a quick flash on a screen to indicate that, yes, this is still Doctor Who. Found footage has become a hideously overused gimmick, oftentimes working just as a cheap way—make that really cheap, given the average budget of horror movies made in the format—to create a more immediate, visceral experience for the viewer. Here, by contrast, the found footage does legitimately enhance the overall horror storytelling, with the Doctor gradually realizing that they are all being filmed, even though that shouldn’t be possible. While Gatiss’ script only briefly hints at the end of using Rassmussen’s position as storyteller as a way to deconstruct the makings of a Doctor Who episode, there’s rather more here examining and pulling apart the conventions of the horror genre and found footage in particular.
Both Gatiss and director Justin Molotnikov are careful to play more or less fair with the episode’s very specific rules of visual storytelling. The design of the soldiers’ helmets make it all too easy to just assume that they have helmet cameras on there somewhere. It’s perhaps a little bit of a cheat that the third-person footage is black and white, the better to make us assume those shots are from security cameras—those same shots appear to be in color when the Doctor accesses the archive—but that could be explained in terms of the Sandmen’s visual receptors getting stronger, or perhaps just a bit of additional subterfuge on the point of Rassmussen. Either way, the real stroke of brilliance here comes when we start seeing things from Clara’s perspective as well; even though the Doctor won’t have any reason to suspect something is wrong with her eyes for a little while yet, he does give one of his increasingly trademark stares of concerned bafflement, hinting to the audience that it’s time to start paying attention to whose perspective we’re seeing and whose we’re not. After totally missing the Clara twist in “The Zygon Invasion,” I’m inordinately proud that I realized neither the Doctor nor the Morpheus-avoiding Chopra was included as a source of footage.
The Doctor and Clara are again on good form here. The overheard conversation at the very start, as the two consider whether anyone really puts the word “space” in front of things, speaks nicely to the rapport the two have built up; it’s hard to even remember there was once a time when this Doctor’s best way of showing affection to Clara was to call her ugly, or something. To the extent that it’s possible, their introduction does convey some sense of just how weird it would be to run into these two weirdoes under impossible circumstances, and the found footage approach has the added benefit of giving Peter Capaldi plenty of opportunities to stare down the barrel of the camera.
Clara taking the moral high ground against Nagata’s violent approach is another well-integrated little reminder of how much like the Doctor she has become, and it’s always sweet when the show lets a companion (and not her Zygon duplicate) know some bit of trivia, as when Clara trots out her knowledge of the Greek god Morpheus. Speaking of which, the Doctor gets in some nice little observations about the value of sleep, pointing out how only humans would be foolish enough to try to defeat this most fundamental of necessities. These are some clever sentiments well delivered by Capaldi, though they feel a little abstract in the context of the episode; there again found footage might not be the best delivery mechanism for those ideas, as much as it serves the horror well elsewhere.
It’s more than a little odd that, in this season of two-parters, the first confirmed standalone episode we’ve come across ends on the biggest cliffhanger of the season. (Now that I’ve written that out, I do rather wonder whether that’s all by design.) It’s a dangerous game to have the Doctor exit the story by declaring that none of this makes sense, and I’ll admit I remain uncertain as to precisely where we leave things. As the Doctor observes, the Morpheus process has already begun in Clara, meaning the two of them should still have some unfinished business, even if the Sandmen’s plan doesn’t end up working, perhaps because the Doctor succeeded in crashing the space station before Rassmussen could transmit the message. Honestly though, it’s probably best not to overthink this, as this is likely meant to be more reminiscent of the ending of “Blink,” in which the episode decided to imply (falsely, based on everything we’ve learned since) that any statue, any statue at all could be alive. Which is to say that Doctor Who considered all the possibilities, and decided to do the thing that would scare viewers the most. I’m not necessarily opposed to that.
What that means we’re left with is a very good slice of found footage horror that doesn’t work quite as well as a Doctor Who episode. As a one-off experiment, everything about this episode, including that ambiguous ending, could well be justified, but I wish there were that one spectacular element here that would make “Sleep No More” feel special, if still flawed. As it is, I have no great issue with the finished episode. It’s just that this is the rare season of Doctor Who where that actually qualifies as a slight step down from the baseline.
- Comedian Bethany Black plays 474, making her the first openly trans* actor to appear on the show.
- Although he did already play Patrick Troughton in An Adventure In Space And Time, Reece Shearsmith makes his proper Doctor Who debut here, meaning he completes the set along with Gatiss and Steve Pemberton of on-screen League of Gentlemen members appearing on the show. If you’re not familiar with The League Of Gentlemen, just know that it’s probably the most demented sketch show ever made. Take a look…