The Doctor and Clara find themselves on the abandoned Le Verrier Space Station, a research lab orbiting Neptune and run by the scientist Rassmussen. They meet up with a rescue crew that has been sent to the station to find out what happened and soon find themselves
The current series of Doctor Who has been so good that the first slight misstep registers a bit more than it would in a run of mediocre episodes. Coming after the amazing Zygon two-parter was always going to be tricky so relying on the usually excellent Mark Gatiss should've been a wise move. Sleep No More is another episode that relies on something creepy stalking an abandoned location and picking off crew one by one. Had we not already had Under The Lake, this episode might have been given more of a break. Alas, Sleep No More is a hodge-podge of ideas that never quite come together to form one big sandman of an episode, but should be admired in its ambition to try something different.
Gatiss is a man extremely well-versed in its genre history and it shows here. The found footage format is one of horror's most prolific sub-genres in recent years, stemming back The Blair With Project. Likewise, these episodes always call to mind films like Alien with its dark corridors and stalking menaces; we even get an Ash style character in Rassmussen (played by Reece Shearsmith, who is easily the best thing in this episode), attempting to preserve the Sandmen.
We get just glimpses of the creatures, flashes down corridors in night vision or lurking out of the shadows. It's probably the most satisfying element of the episode, one which allows our imaginations to take over, filling in blanks that we know are there. The revelation that the footage is coming from the dust in the air, rather than any cameras, is a neat one, but also feels like a bit of a get out clause so that the episode never fully commits to the found footage idea.
The episode is framed by Rassmussen, functioning as both a narrator and creepy space station overlord, but it also strips away some of the tension of the episode. We realise Rassmussen makes it to at least string together the footage from various cameras across the station and that he's the bad guy doesn't really come as a shock. We also know Clara and the Doctor aren't going to die, at least not yet in Clara's case. The rest of the rescue crew aren't drawn well enough for the audience to care as they fight for their life. Again, going back to Under the Lake, each crew member was recognisably individual and their personalities came across. Aside from Chopra, the others barely get a look at any kind of development over the episode, and his is only brief.
The Zygon Invasion and Inversion took on the War on Terror as its central allegory, using its narrative to comment on events that have shaped our reality, sadly proving ultimately quite timely in its broadcast. At its heart, Sleep No More is attempting to do something similar, but with a criticism of capitalism and exploitation at its heart. The grunts, bred to do the dirty work without the brain capacity for any selfish realisation are pure Brave New World, a creation of humanity at its most basic working level to preserve higher human intelligence. The Morpheus machine is designed to monetise sleep and thus allow employees to now work through the night instead of wasting their time on sleep. The episode pays mere lip service to this rather than really flying with it.
It's the first single episode story we've had so far and it shows. Too much is thrown together in the shorter episode runtime and the breathing space that other episodes benefitted from is lost. The most frustrating part of this episode though is that its cleverest idea appears right at the very end as a coda to the rushed ending. Rassmussen revealing that he has been a Sandman all along and that he is using the video to transmit signals and turn any viewer into a Sandman should have been a story in itself. A found footage horror movie that transforms you into the horror monster? A much cooler idea than anything presented in the preceding runtime.
I suppose we were due a bit of a duff episode given the quality of the rest of the season, but that doesn't stop Sleep No More being such a disappointment. It's ambitious in a shift of form as well as the amount of ideas that it tries to pack in, but it never allows any of them to take centre stage and leaves the whole episode feeling like a patchwork of references and loose narrative threads. Look, it's even made me mix metaphors.
You can read Jen's review of previous episode, The Zygon Inversion, here.
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