Gagan Rassmussen: “You must not watch this! I’m warning you. You can never unsee it.”
Rassmussen could easily have been speaking about “Sleep No More” itself with that very first line of the episode. Well, the streak of perfection (or at least near perfection) had to end sooner or later, didn’t it? Season nine had been charging forward like some kind of long form narrative Roadrunner, and with “Sleep No More” it has smashed into one of Wile E. Coyote’s tunnel paintings. Proudly billed as Doctor Who’s first “found footage” episode, it seems as if the footage that would’ve made sense of the whole affair ended up on the cutting room floor (yes, a horribly outdated turn of phrase in the digital age).
To call it a mess, though, surely misses the point. The concept of a found-footage anything is messy by design, isn’t it? Admittedly, my experience with such concepts pretty much begins and ends with The Blair Witch Project, a movie so insufferable that it put me off the gimmick ever since. Now I’m in a position where I have to write about it, so forgive me any trespasses.
“Sleep No More” is as relentlessly unpleasant as any of the footage found in the Black Hills of Burkittsville, Maryland; maybe even more so, since it’s a part of our beloved Doctor Who. A 45-minute assault on the senses, the final seven or eight of which remain so indecipherable, Steven Moffat must surely have been in awe of his colleague Mark Gatiss. I’ve never given a Doctor Who episode one star. Even “The Time of the Doctor,” which I all but loathed, had a sort of elegance and poetry about it that ended up warranting two. “Sleep No More” isn’t remotely elegant nor is it particularly poetic.
“Sleep No More” purports to exist as an edited collage of events assembled by one Gagan Rassmussen (Reece Shearsmith, who among his many credits counts Patrick Troughton in An Adventure in Space and Time). “This is what happened here,” he tells us at the start. Aside from the found footage angle, it’s also a riff on the haunted house/mad scientist & monsters formula.
It’s set in the 38th century, on the Le Verrier Space Station, a lab orbiting Neptune. A mission from the moon Triton, consisting of three Indo-Japanese humans and one genetically grown grunt (more on 474 later), has arrived in response to the station going silent 24 hours earlier. They soon come across the Doctor and Clara who are simply passing through, unaware there’s a situation, though all the dark should have clued them in. The psychic paper takes care of any questions the soldiers may have about the time travelers (“We’re here to assess stress” is an amusing line), and soon enough they’re all six in it together, trying to figure out what’s happened.
The Doctor: “There’s something going on here — something we’re not getting.”
Beastly, lumbering monsters attack. Over lit and on videotape, they’d surely look an awful lot like a classic series Doctor Who monster, but brief glimpses of them in the dark are effective enough (though this viewer was mostly terrified at the inability of the picture to settle the fuck down). Everybody runs, some in different directions. Enter the Morpheus pods, a popular technology that allows people in the future to cram a night of sleep into five minutes. Why? To get more things done, of course. 21st century life would no doubt seem positively molasses-like to these people, who are increasingly dependent on the product – enough so that society has devolved into “wide awakes” and “rip van winkles.” Clara is lured into one of the pods, which play the fifties tune “Mr. Sandman.” Is pop culture so dire in 1,700 years that they’re still listening to music from the 1950s?
Rassmussen finally enters the story as a proper character, and it’s revealed that he’s the inventor of the pods. The Doctor theorizes that the monsters are made of literal sleep. Yes, that’s right, they’re hulking eye boogers, though how he comes to this most absurd of conclusions is never quite made clear. People have their limits with what they’ll accept within the universe of Doctor Who, and for me, monstrous eye boogers was a load too much. It’s not that it’s too weird or too silly (though it is both of those), but mostly it’s just too repellent. Gross.
As if the booger-men (OK, fine, Sandmen) aren’t preposterous enough, the Doctor, after hacking into the station’s video footage, also deduces that there are no cameras, so it’s actually the dust particles that are recording everything. It’s a cheat, because it allows any and all found footage in the episode to come from any point of view, so it’s really less a found footage episode and more of an exercise in headache-inducing shaky cam and schizophrenic editing. Honest to Pete, at this point, the tale has lost all semblance of reason, and characters can’t die fast enough. Rassmussen seemingly dies three times in this episode, but was it ever Rassmussen at all?
By the end, it’s unclear if anything we’ve witnessed is what we were told it was. More than a found footage diversion or haunted house gimmick, what “Sleep No More” in its final moments seemingly reveals itself to be is some sort of horror-infused shaggy dog story. The bulk of what we saw was nonsense created by the Sandmen to make a video containing a subliminal message (à la Halloween III) that they intend to send out into the universe, presumably to devour humanity. Did the Doctor and Clara really leave the Le Verrier without saving the day? Was Clara really infected? Did the bad guys win? If so, that might be the most radical aspect of the entire story.
The Doctor: “It doesn’t make sense! None of this makes any sense.”
Above all else, we already had a base under siege episode this season, in the form of “Under the Lake,” an episode that didn’t quite gel until it was completed by its second half, “Before the Flood.” “Sleep No More” has no second part, and so a group of people running from monsters in a claustrophobic, confined space is just that, and feels woefully undercooked in comparison to the previous eight episodes of the season.
Mark Gatiss is an extremely learned and talented man (and also a hell of a nice guy), and no disrespect is intended via this scathing critique. Some of his recent Doctor Who scripts (“Cold War” and “Robot of Sherwood”) were aces, and that’s to say nothing of the exceptional aforementioned An Adventure in Space and Time, which was also his baby. “Sleep No More” isn’t his finest Who hour; indeed, it’s surely his worst. Maybe it’s not his fault. Maybe freshman Who director Justin Molotnikov, who’s also helming next week’s installment (surely it’ll be better than this), is to blame. Perhaps something (or rather many things) got lost in translation. No, Gatiss is still something of a Doctor Who god. He must keep writing for the show, as long as it’s on. His next script, whatever it is, will be a return to form. The job of Doctor Who is to mix things up and experiment. It’s one of the great joys of the series. The price to pay for that, however, is the occasional disastrous misfire such as this.
Of course, what do I know? I’m the guy who worships at the altar of “Love & Monsters.”
Odds and ends
- Almost forgot, the grunt character 474 was, to be fair, a sympathetic, complicated creation brought to life by transsexual stand-up comedian Bethany Black, a casting first for the series. Black delivers some complex goods, as a character that seemingly possesses no sex, which makes this bold, inspired casting. It’s a minor miracle she manages to shine amid all the sound and fury.
- The title of the episode comes from a line in Macbeth, which the Doctor mutters at one point: “Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor, shall sleep no more. Macbeth shall sleep no more.”
- “The Space Pirates” is the title of a 1969 Patrick Troughton serial. Speaking of the past, yet another nice shout-out to “Doctor Who and the Silurians” — the gag here being that the Silurians were misnamed by humans, as that particular era of Earth history is not from where they originate.
- Though this episode, for the first time in Who history I believe, has no opening credits, contained in the brief flash of code at the beginning are all the character names as well as the title of the series.
- There are actually some pretty effective script elements aiding in the creation of a futuristic civilization, such as a belief in many gods (though again, like the “Mr. Sandman” song, this feels like some sort of digression on the part of society), the slave-like grunts, and vague talk of a Great Catastrophe on Earth, which appears to have shaped the rest of solar system.
- Tor published this fabulous sit-down with Mark Gatiss this week. Do check it out.
*Correction: A previous version of this post misidentified the century in which the episode takes place.