Tuesday, 17 November 2015

When it was first announced, Mark Gatiss’ found footage-style Sleep No More was pitched as “a unique episode of Doctor Who”. That’s kind of ironic, considering that found footage films are getting increasingly repetitive; it’s also kind of a tautology, given that each Who episode, with its own setting and guest cast, is unique; most of all, it’s no guarantor of quality.

On the space station Le Verrier, in orbit of Neptune, Professor Rassmussen (Reece Shearsmith) has invented a device that prevents the need for sleep. But it’s all gone predictably tits up, creating evil dust monsters, and a rescue squad – joined by the Doctor and Clara – are sent to extract the crew.

With this story shown to us through what initially seems to be footage from the soldiers’ helmet cams and CCTV cameras, this found footage idea is a new type of Doctor Who horror story, and the episode deserves praise for its attempt to shake up the format (though this style must have been seen in hundreds of films by now). The twist is particularly clever; I'd noticed Clara and Rassmussen’s POV shots and thought “those two don’t have helmet cams, they’ve mucked this right up”, but was very impressed when this turned out to be deliberate – “there are no cameras”, the Doctor observes. Unfortunately, the alternative explanation given doesn’t make a lot of sense. So the footage is being shot by hyper-evolved sleep mucus in everyone's eyes, as well as by the dust in the air (pretending to be CCTV cameras), and somehow transmitted around the station for anyone with a sonic device to intercept? You what, mate?

And that’s a recurring problem with this episode – there are a lot of ideas, but they don’t slot together, resulting in a plot crammed with too many confusing elements. The Doctor's final line, "none of this makes any sense", is very appropriate. For example, why jump so quickly to the conclusion that sleep is a necessary part of life? The satirical gag that corporations want to keep their workers awake for longer is nice, but hardly justifies Rassmussen’s technology as inherently bad. The plot becomes particularly muddled when it comes to the final act and Rassmussen’s evil scheme. What exactly is his motivation? If he’s one of the Sandmen, how has he managed to keep human form? If the Sandmen can’t see, how can he? 

The problem here, I think, is the disparity between the Sandmen as accidentally created mutant monsters and as scheming galaxy-conquerors. “We can’t leave this place until there’s no trace of the dust, or that’s it for [the human race]”, says the Doctor, but the only encounter with the Sandmen before that point ended with one getting defeated by having a door slammed into its arm. Perhaps the story could have benefitted from a dose of simplicity, with the Sandmen not as a threat to the entire human race but simply a very dangerous menace to those trapped on the station with it, taking an extra cue from the minimalist found footage horrors that inspired this episode – after all, the witch in Blair Witch Project isn’t trying to take over the world, nor are the spirits in Paranormal Activity.

On a visual level, too, the episode could have mimicked the popular found footage films more confidently; though it starts out by setting up the creepy atmosphere well, later action sequences drop the ball by having so many cuts and unbelievable angles that it’s not particularly distinguishable from a usual Who episode. Lingering on the CCTV shots for longer, à la Paranormal Activity, or showing scenes through only one character’s point of view, à la Blair Witch or Cloverfield, could have made the tension work a lot better.

My other problem with Sleep No More is that, perhaps as a result of the plot complexities getting in the way, the characters are very under-developed. Out of the rescue squad, the only ones with any real story are 474 and Chopra, but even that doesn’t go much further than the cliché of him realising the errors of his prejudice when she sacrifices herself for him. The Doctor himself gets some nice, if understated, moments of investigation, and gets to quote both Shakespeare and Oliver!, but Clara, as has been the case too often this series, finds herself sidelined – the only thing she does to advance the plot is get dragged into a big box and have a nap. I do like that she gets to name the creatures, bringing to mind the Doctor’s final speech from Flatline, and so a subtle reminder of this series’ arc of her becoming more like the Doctor – but so close to her leaving, the arc should comprise of more than subtle reminders.

A disappointing step down after the last four episodes have been fantastic, Sleep No More fits into a category of Doctor Who episodes labelled “well, at least you tried”. It has strong ideas and some spooky moments, but with a more coherent plot and more confidence in its visual style, may have been able to give its characters depth and push the scares further. 


  1. The Zygon Inversion
  2. The Zygon Invasion
  3. The Girl Who Died
  4. The Woman Who Lived
  5. The Witch’s Familiar
  6. Under the Lake
  7. The Magician’s Apprentice
  8. Before the Flood
  9. Sleep No More


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