Doctor Who Series 9, Episode 9
“Sleep No More”
Posted by Sage
I’m sorry, Rasmussen, but no. “Sleep No More” won’t be added to my list of surefire Doctor Who conversion episodes. It’s not an episode to hook a pre-Whovian. It’s not even an episode in which a crazed fan like myself can find much to love. I embargoed my own opinion until after my second watch of the episode, and that viewing simply confirmed what I suspected on my first: “Sleep No More” is inelegant, toothless, and an irksome waste of our last weeks with the Doctor and Clara. It breaks my heart to feel this way about a Mark Gatiss episode when the man has given me so much. I’ll never forget “The Sign Of Three,” Mark. Not the meat dagger or the waltz lessons or the stag party. We’ll always have “clueing for looks,” you and me.
And I feel a little used, I gotta say. Because “Sleep No More” could have been great. Unfortunately, the plotting and pacing were such that I don’t feel that a traditional recap structure even makes sense. And regardless, that’s not the way that I can come at this one. Festivus is just around the corner anyway. Thus, an airing of the grievances is timely. So, I present to you, my four major complaints about “Sleep No More.” If you don’t have anything nice to say about subpar episodes of Doctor Who, come sit next to me.
1. Found Footage Can Suck A Dick
I really hate that I can see the origin of this idea in the way that it was shot. The gimmick of the episode being presented in all “found footage” was so obvious and transparent that I was immediately questioning where the rescue crew’s “helmet cam” feeds were really coming from. I’ve never seen a Paranormal Activity film, but I have seen other horror movies that tried to copycat and then twist the device. It’s happened so often in the last 10 or so years that any savvy viewer is bound to be looking for the twist: who’s filming, who’s watching, and why. There’s always an attempted rug-pull and it never has the desired impact. At least for me.
I want to believe that Doctor Who has enough momentum in the tenth year of the reboot to ignore trendy techniques in the name of just telling the story. Especially one that’s so clearly on its last legs. Also, I’m not getting any younger and found footage makes me dizzy. I don’t want to suffer through my TV.
2. The Villain Was Weak Sauce
We haven’t had the monster romp yet this season. (The Zygons so don’t count.) And the monster romp is a perfectly welcome departure from the mythological arc of any series of Doctor Who. I can get down with the silliest ones – never forget that I am and forever will be a “Love And Monsters” defender – but the “Sleep No More” story left much more sensible ideas on the table. As the Doctor and Clara wander a dead space station orbiting Neptune in Earth’s 38th century, they happen upon a rescue squad from a moon called Triton who are there to find out why the base went dark and what happened to the operational staff. The whole group end up being pursued by giant, dull-yellow dust monsters with gaping mouths, no visible eyes and a hunger for humans. Certainly, these creatures are responsible for the disappearance of the other crew. The audience makes the connection between the Sandmen and the experimental sleep pods on the base before even the Doctor does. The only thing I should know before the Doctor does is who or what has a crush on him. Also frustrating is that the purpose of the station itself was never adequately explained. I assume that the Morpheus pods were being “tested” there, since Rasmussen was dogged in his attempts to unleash the Morpheus signal on Triton. Of course, the reveal of his plans in the final act negates the only information we have been given. Why were there multiple Morpheus pods if the pods themselves were unnecessary? If Rasmussen only needed to blast the signal into universe to spread the seed, then why did he need the rescue crew to nap inside the machines? And when did they even do it? I’m getting ahead of myself and the plot holes are piling up like my laundry. BACK TO THE MONSTERS.
Sleep is my reason for being. Sleep, chunky peanut butter, and Harry Styles. I only leave my bed in the morning because I know it will feel like actual sweet heaven to return to it at night. I agree with the Doctor: “Sleep isn’t just a function. It’s blessed.”
3. The Reveal Fell Flat
Is there a more exasperating turn in a story than a reversal that wipes out everything that’s come before? The best jaw-droppers change the audience’s perspective on a character or an idea, but leave the rest of the story in tact. Take the most obvious example in modern film: The Sixth Sense. (Imma say spoiler alert here, though it pains me to do so. I AM CONSIDERATE.) Everything is static. All the events of the movie happened. The relationships, even, were real. The reveal of Bruce Willis’s character’s death wasn’t a bait-and-switch, just a perspective shift that didn’t occur to most of us. It should have though, because the proof was always there. That’s why audiences feel satisfied by that twist instead of manipulated.
In my miraculous and unformed head canon of this episode, there’s no twist ending. It’s unnecessary. Rasmussen is a shady character from the jump. His motivations are muddied and he’s just not written that well. I was waiting for him to pull something on the Doctor and the rescue crew; it was too convenient that he would be the only survivor of the attack that crippled the station. His Real World style confessional videos were shoved into the episode unceremoniously. Another writing pet peeve I have as a viewer is a scene that can’t possibly make any sense to me until I have a new piece of information. Again, the writers who do these kinds of surprises best are the writers who can compose a scene where nothing seems missing and then make me think about it in a different light once the new data arrives.
Instead, the denouement was slapped together and hastily served. The Doctor, Clara, and Nagata run away to the TARDIS and get the hell out of dodge, even while the Doctor is proclaiming that “nothing makes sense!” I CONCUR. Rasmussen finishes up his broadcast by informing viewers that they aren’t watching a janky version of Paranormal Activity, they are actually watching a janky version of The Ring! The Sandman in the pod, the gravity shield fuckery, the chasing through corridors, and all the death – they were all part of some little teleplay he was staging to be then be the Trojan Horse for the digital signal that will turn everyone who watches the video into one of those creatures. “I did try to make it exciting,” he says. But why? Why any of the theatrics? Does the signal need to be observed for a certain amount of time before it takes hold? Why didn’t Rasmussen just toss the signal into a fake distress call or the director’s cut of Magic Mike XXL? Why would the person who watches it be like, “hey family and friends, want to watch this space snuff film I found?” How did Sandman Rasmussen retain human form when all rest of Morpheus’s victims didn’t? If it worked – and we have no indication that it didn’t – then why isn’t every species in the universe converted to Sandmen post-38th century? And why didn’t anyone catch how similar this subliminal message plot is to the “image of the Angel” upgrade in “Time of the Angels”/”Flesh and Stone”? Thoughtful television should raise questions, but this is ridiculous.
4. I Know You’re A Shakespeare Guy, But That This Entire Script Was A Lot Of Trouble To Go To Just To Pad Around A Macbeth Reference
A Bard reference is never out-of-place in Doctor Who; he is a big fan of Willy Shakes, after all. But the rest of the episode didn’t live up to the title or the verse that Gatiss borrowed from the Scottish play. “Macbeth doth murder sleep” is a powerful phrase and would have been a an asset to a script that had larger themes at work, or at least ones that were better expressed.
I keep returning to my disappointment that the crime of distorting humanity was all but forgotten by the end. The Sandmen absorbed people and acquired them. Aside from Rasmussen, there’s no other example of what that symbiosis looks like or if it’s even symbiosis at all. The monsters are a cop-out that leave all kinds of other threads hanging. Among the rescue crew are the Deep-Ando and Nagata, the officers who are “just doing their jobs”; Chopra, the moral dissenter; and Grunt #474, the childlike innocent. In this century apparently, Grunts are humans who are bred to service and specialize in labor and combat. I have a lot of issues with this character, including but not limited to: a) she speaks in broken English and is shamed for it; b) she exists simply to sacrifice herself for one of the more “whole” characters; c) the episode takes no position on this futuristic cloning/slavery program except for Clara saying that it’s “disgustin'” and the Doctor basically blowing her off; and d) she’s played by Bethany Black, the first openly transgender actor to be in Doctor Who, and that’s a milestone that deserves a fully-realized character.
“Sleep No More” isn’t making the case for standalone episodes, coming as it is after four mostly well-reviewed two-parters. Series 9 could have done with a comedy like Gatiss’s series 8 contribution, “Robots of Sherwood,” in place of a poorly-structured slog that did nothing to illuminate an issue or even a single character.
Timey Wimey Observations:
- “You must not watch this.” Rasmussen’s plan is built entirely around reverse psychology. How very Zack Morris of him.
- “Consider yourself -” “PART OF THE FURNITURE.”
- Maybe the use of “Mr. Sandman” was an homage to the song’s second life as a horror movie moodsetter, but no soundtrack’s goal should ever be “reheated version of Halloween II.”
- Only plus to the found footage conceit: Kim leaned over to me when we were watching for the first time and whispered, “The FBI has nothing to hide.” Iconic.
- “I will hold Clara’s hand, but that’s it.” We’ve come so far, my friends.
- “We’ll sort you.” WE GET IT, CLARA IS DEAD. Just pull off the band-aid, already.
- Okay but all Deep-Ando had to do was sing the song and he clearly knew the words. I refuse to mourn him.
- “No, you don’t get to name things.” The Doctor will be the Cisco Ramon here, thank you.
If the rumors about “Face The Raven” are true, then Kim will need you here next week to hold her hand through that recap. In the meantime, please feel free to tell me that I’m totally wrong about “Sleep No More” in the comments below.