I generally enjoy Mark Gatiss’ episodes of Doctor Who. I’m not arguing that they are always great episodes (yes, I’m looking at you “Victory of the Daleks”), but I think most of his episodes have interesting characters and situations. Therefore, I was looking forward to “Sleep No More,” his episode for this season. After viewing it, I admire the attempt to try something new, but I don’t think it succeeded.
There was much ado about the lack of opening credits in this episode (the first time in the history of Doctor Who). This is because the entire episode plays as found footage, put together by Professor Rassmussen. While I am not a huge fan of the found footage horror genre, I didn’t mind it so much in this case. At least we didn’t get that shaky, hand-held effect that sometimes makes me feel nauseated.
What did disturb me about the found footage idea was that the dust was recording the events. This fact was just thrown in there, but it made no sense (like many ideas in this episode). Let me see if I’ve got this straight, the sleep dust from our eyes has not only achieved sentience (I’ll get to that in a moment), but it has developed the capability to record? It is rather a stretch. I think I would have preferred it if the base had had cameras and the team had helmet cams. And why was the Sandmen’s eyesight hijacked? Only some dust had the ability to see and record?
I found the message of this episode interesting and I wish it could have been developed further. It’s an intriguing idea that society split into two types of people: the ambitious people who are willing use Morpheus to trade their sleep for the opportunity to work more and those who see Morpheus as an assault on one of the last areas that belongs completely to the individual. This episode could have been a satire on our culture’s value of productivity above all else, as Mark Gatiss has mentioned he wants it to be. Unfortunately, the story veers from this idea pretty quickly. Even the idea about the cloned grunts is casually tossed aside, when it feels like the Doctor should maybe have a bit more of a opinion about something like that.
Reflecting on the episode, I’ve come to realize that logic is…not this story’s strong point. Rassmussen is another in a long tradition of Doctor Who villains with a rather complicated plan. After seeing the episode twice, I’m still not completely sure why he did everything that he did. What was up with “patient zero?” Did that actually mean anything at all? What on earth would cause dust to become sentient? Does all dust have this capability, or is it just eye dust? What exactly did Morpheus have to do with the sentient dust? Why did the machine pull Clara in? The episode left me with a whole lot more questions than answers.
I know this episode was supposed to be scary, but I just didn’t think it was. Aside from the completely bonkers origin of the monsters, I wasn’t invested in any of the characters. None of the characters really made an impression; I can’t even remember any of their names. I even had to look up Rassmussen’s name for this post, and he was the most memorable new character we meet. One of the strengths of a Matk Gatiss episode is usually the memorable characters; unfortunately, the crew of the mission felt completely disposable to me, and that takes away from the scariness of the episode. You need to care about a character to be concerned for her or his safety. All we really learned about the new characters we were told in the beginning (by an unreliable narrator, no less).
The “twist” ending was a clever way to end the story, it just, like much of this episode, ended up confusing me. It wasn’t shocking to learn that Russmussen was, in fact, working with the Sandmen (if anything, this season has taught that you should never trust anyone who claims to be the sole survivor of an alien attack). It was surprising to learn that Rassmussen was one of the Sandmen. And it was just kind of cool to watch his head dissolve. That part of the ending worked for me, although I’ve seen many different opinions about it online. I think the varying opinions largely revolves around the fact that when you have a narrator as unreliable as Rassmussen, how do you know what’s real and what isn’t? Personally, I think it’s clear that everything that we saw actually did happen, we just didn’t see everything that happened because Rassmussen had the power to edit.
What did confuse me was the idea that this was a film with a signal hidden in it that would “infect” whoever watched it. This episode had an ending much like the horror movies it’s referencing, and that didn’t bother me. Much like The Ring, where the video is still circulating, the Doctor does not appear to have actually stopped the spread of the Sandmen. I was okay with that ambiguous, slightly disturbing ending; this is the second time in a Gatiss episode that the Doctor hasn’t really won (The Daleks really come out on top in “Victory of the Daleks”) and it can be an interesting change of pace. What bothered me was the fact that the signal transmission idea came out of nowhere. So Morpheus had nothing to do with the spread of the Sandmen? It made the entire story feel like a waste of time. Ultimately the ending undermines the story that precedes it, when it should cause you to reevaluate everything you thought you knew.
That being said, I did enjoy the humor in the episode. As usual, the Doctor/Clara banter was a high point; it even addresses more of those nitpicky fan things like how the Silurians got their name. The “space” discussion in their first scene was one of my favorite parts of the episode (and I couldn’t help but think of Troughton at the mention of space pirates). I would have liked to have seen a bit more of it in this story.
Overall, I can’t really say that I enjoyed this episode, but I can’t say that I have a strong feeling one way or another about it. It doesn’t really tie into any of the reoccurring themes of the season and I’m curious to see how it relates to “Face the Raven,” but as of right now, it doesn’t feel connected to the rest of the season so far. Despite all its flaws, it doesn’t really stir up much dislike in me, but it feels like the forgettable episode of the season. I have a feeling that when I look back on season 9, this will be the episode that I have the hardest time remembering. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking, because just trying to make sense of it for this post is giving me a headache. Call me crazy, but I don’t think Doctor Who should need to be taken with an aspirin.