‘Doctor Who’ Review: ‘Sleep No More’ Is a Found Footage Horror Gem
Recap and review of Doctor Who – Season 9 Episode 9 – Sleep No More:
It doesn’t make sense! None of this makes any sense!” The Doctor bellows in the climax of “Sleep No More”, which is a fairly bold attempt at a Doctor Who found-footage horror movie. Doctor Who is a series that has always encouraged its audience to just go with the flow and suspend disbelief, but I would imagine “Sleep No More” will be a divisive episode largely because it asks so much of its audience. Sure, I had fun, but I can’t pretend that this wasn’t a jarring episode, in many respects.
Part of what made it so jarring was its structure. This felt more like a live-action Doom movie than that live-action Doom movie, as we saw the entire story unfold largely through first-person perspectives of each remaining survivor on the giant space station that provides the setting for our story. It’s a lot like “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood” from earlier in this season, as we follow a besieged group of survivors in a remote station, who are being attacked by a monstrous enemy that is consuming each of them, one-by-one. But that’s basically where the similarities end. For one, while elements of this story might resurface later on down the line, this is not a two-parter. Which is somewhat surprising, considering the cliffhanger-like nature of the episode’s ending. Our heroes (well, what’s left of them) escape, but they don’t really get any resolution on what happened, and not even The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) achieves a full understanding of this incident — which wouldn’t be such a big deal, except the ending implies the imminent destruction of the human race. So…yeah…there’s that.
At first glance, it’d be easy to dismiss “Sleep No More” as a scary bedtime story, with little or no substance beneath it. But I think the episode makes a larger comment on the nature of human existence. A quick recap: a rescue team is sent to the remote Le Verrier Space Station to save scientists who’ve gone silent while working on a device called Morpheus. Named after the god of dreams, Morpheus is a sleeping pod that, after a quick five-minute nap session, will allow the customer to then go a full month without sleep. Apparently, everyone on the surface below uses it, and productivity in the workforce has increased exponentially since its invention by Dr. Rasmussen (Reece Shearsmith). The Doctor and Clara (Jenna Coleman) find themselves transported to the station, and they quickly get roped into the adventure as the station is overrun by Sandmen, which we soon learn are the patients who’ve subjected themselves to Morpheus. It sounds a bit over-the-top, but I thought the richness of the backstory is what helped anchor the admittedly zany narrative.
This is a world in which an Indo-Japanese alliance that produces numbered clone soldiers rules the Earth, and society is ideologically divided between people who use Morpheus (“the wide-awakes”) and those who still rejuvenate the old-fashioned way (“the Rip Van Winkles”). What could easily have been a cheesy monster story plays out a lot closer to political satire, as Mark Gatiss’s script takes a poke at how zombified society has become in an age where people are essentially defined by their careers and tethered to the execution of those jobs. It’s almost a cautionary tale about the cost of defying nature, and sacrificing your own sense of identity in the name of getting that next big promotion. The script also couches its ideological divisions in terms of a conflict between people who want to embrace the technology of the future, and those who want to do things the old-fashioned way. We see this not only with the argument over the morality of the Morpheus, but in the treatment of the clone soldiers (“Grunts”) who are seen as disposable even by a naturalist, “Rip Van Winkle” like rescue teammate Chopra (Neet Mohan).
Team leader Nagata (Elain Tan) doesn’t seem as phased by the implications of the Morpheus, chiding Chopra early on by calling him “Rip”, but she doesn’t seem as cavalier as he does about the life of the “grunt” who goes by the number 474 (Bethany Black). The argument could be made that 474 provides the emotional through-line for the episode, as 474 is constantly disrespected and depersonalized by Chopra, until they find themselves separated from the rest of the group, at which point, Chopra seems to slowly gain respect for 474, culminating in the grunt rescuing him but succumbing to the Sandmen in the process. It’s an emotional subplot, and it’s helped immeasurably by the performers at its center. Earlier this year, Bethany Black became the first transgendered actor with a recurring role on British television, but here, she plays a cisgendered role. And you know what? I didn’t know until I looked up the cast information after the episode aired. Her gender identity has absolutely nothing to do with the character she plays, and it’s refreshing in much the same way it was in “Under the Lake” / “Before the Flood” when we were introduced to Cass, played by deaf actress Sophie Stone. Her deafness was remarked upon, but it was never a defining character trait, and it was handled with such deftness and grace that her deafness hardly even merited comment within the storyline of the show beyond the practical application of her ability to read lips. It’s the same deal here, as we learn to identify 474 as a person, irrespective of gender identity or — within the story of the show — the character’s allegiance to the “Wide-Awakes” vs. “Rip Van Winkles” conflict, if grunts are even allowed to have a side. I found it all very interesting, and it was part of a fabric of interesting choices this episode made.
Seriously, this is an episode that didn’t even have an opening credits sequence, eschewing the normal titles in favor of a minimalist, Matrix-like scrawl of letters and numbers that revealed the episode title. It helped orient us within the framework of the episode, since so much of it would involve flipping between various perspectives, whether it was Dr. Rasmussen narrating what happened from his “alibi” tape or whether it was Clara serving as a camera of sorts when the dust around her began documenting her perspective (yeah, I don’t really get it either). It all added up to a pretty thrilling conclusion, as we learn that Dr. Rasmussen staged this whole thing in order to get the Sandmen down onto the planet below. He rationalizes that they’re not the future evolution of the human race, but a new race altogether, adding that once the Sandmen get down to the planet, they’ll have an unlimited food source upon which to feast. The concept of someone who exists between two species — in this case, human and Sandman — once again highlights the hybridization theme that has been running throughout this season. Hell, this ends up being true in a literal sense when the final moments of the episode reveal that Rasmussen is part Sandman himself, and has been since the episode started. In fact, he declares that he’s more Sandman than human, with the Sandman side of his personality stating, “There is no more Rasmussen. Only us.” It ties into a great little twist that serves as our cliffhanger, as we learn that the process of turning someone into a Sandman isn’t through contact with one, but through an electronic signal in the brainwaves that Rasmussen has embedded into the video we’ve all been watching. This has the effect of making the audience a part of the story, since we’re all presumably doomed now…well, provided anyone ever sees the video. I just thought it was a terrific way to close the story, capping off a bold episode that, among other things, somehow found a way to take a saccharine pop melody like “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes and make it downright sinister.
While I’m a bit confused by the decision not to make this a two-parter, I’m also sort of relieved. While I enjoyed this episode as a fresh change of pace from the usual presentation style of Doctor Who, I don’t think I could have handled two back-to-back found footage episodes. As a one-off, “Sleep No More” is a lot of fun, and it has a depth to it that thankfully avoids come across as heavy-handed. That said, it’s probably my least favorite episode of the season so far. But when you consider how strong this season has been, it’s not even a damning statement to make about an episode.
But what did you think of Doctor Who, Season 9 Episode 9, “Sleep No More”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more Doctor Who, read our review of the epic conclusion to last week’s two-parter, “The Zygon Inversion”!