Contains spoilers to keep you awake.
Whatever else you might say about Mark Gatiss, you really have to admire his range and diversity when it comes to the stories that he’s written for Doctor Who across the years. From Victorian ghost stories guest starring Charles Dickens to haunted dolls houses on a modern council estate, subservient Daleks making tea for Winston Churchill to murderous BBC continuity announcers in the 1950s, not to mention reviving the Ice Warriors to a soundtrack of 80s pop classics and the real-life origins drama An Adventure in Space and Time. His most recent story contributions have been his most out-and-out comedic, although the gothic black comedy The Crimson Horror and the bright and the breezy historical romp Robots of Sherwood could hardly have been more poles apart.
Just when you think you’ve got a grip on what he’s going to do next, Gatiss tends to want to spin off in a whole new direction – and that’s exactly what he does with this week’s season nine entry. You might not think it would be possible to create a brand new story that is simultaneously equidistant from every single one of his previous seven contributions, but that’s precisely what he does with the highly experimental “Sleep No More” as he conjures up a pure science fiction horror story that’s singularly and surprisingly lacking in laughs despite guest starring his old League of Gentleman pal Reece Shearsmith in a leading role.
The one thing that is always consistent with Gatiss’ contributions is that he delivers an incredibly rich script packed full of ideas – some of them borrowed but equally as many of them fresh and original. There’s usually so much going on that the stories threaten to spin out of control, fizzing so violently that they fly apart or spontaneously implode and combust. As a result the stories rarely all manage to work completely for everyone, but they’re never dull. For the reviewer, however, there’s a risk that any analysis of a Gatiss story will end up becoming a checklist of influences and concepts in play rather than a proper look at the story as a whole. Apologies in advance if that turns out to be the case here.
Let’s start with the most obvious aspect of “Sleep No More”, the facet by which it will be known and defined for all time: the found footage conceit. Now I admit, my heart sank when I heard that this episode of Doctor Who was going to be based on that sub-genre: I enjoyed it well enough for The Blair Witch Project in 1999 but it’s an idea that quickly overstays its welcome and becomes tired and repetitive, and I really wasn’t optimistic that it would be a useful addition to the show’s canon of work. However the production team were fully committed to doing it and certainly went in with no holds barred, even sacrificing the show’s iconic opening titles and theme music for the first time in series history to establish the proper mise-en-scene from the outset.
And you know what? They pull it off, rather brilliantly at that, and totally won me over as a result. Partly that’s because it’s incredibly well directed by Justin Molotnikov with lovely production, lighting and sound design making the ‘found footage’ look both wonderfully authentic and really rather beautiful for all its shabby military chic. The video ‘glitching’ seemed a little overdone and slightly annoying, only for it to be revealed at the end that this had rather been the point all along; and even the usual conceptual weakness of found footage projects (namely: why would anyone keep filming when things start to get really dangerous?) turned out to be a key part of the plot rather than an awkward excuse. But by far the best aspect of it is that the found footage style brought us right into the action: when the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) or Clara (Jenna Coleman) turn round and address their dialogue direct to camera it’s as if we’ve stepped directly into the episode and are physically part of the team rather than sitting back watching a TV programme. It was a slightly dizzying, almost vertiginous feeling at times – and really quite excellent.
Almost as impressive but in a lower-key way was the world building that Gatiss pulls off in a very economical manner. Legendary classic Who script editor Robert Holmes was famous for the way he could create the sense of an entire off-screen civilisation purely from a detail here, a choice of name there, or by the mere phrasing of a line of dialogue. Gatiss does something similar here and you barely realise just how densely he’s packing the 45 minutes and what a vivid picture of a wildly different 38th century Earth he’s painting while your attention is being held elsewhere. Mentions of the Great Catastrophe and shifting tectonic plates are backed up by the diverse casting of the guest roles to support a completely new sort of Earth society, which is given appropriate cultural depth and added realism by the striking communications protocols they use over their radios (always starting with the hail “May the Gods look favourably upon you”). The production team also contribute heavily and with unified purpose, with everything from the superb projected computer graphics interfaces to the subtle Indian/Japanese influences to some of the sets and costumes.
What we do learn about 38th century Earth doesn’t make it sound like a very nice place to live or work. The grunt work is now done by sub-human clones who are grown (in a Sontaran-esque touch) from hatcheries and given just enough brain power to do as they’re told and programmed. Not satisfied with that, the corporations are also intent on making sure that the traditional human workforce is also exploited to its ultimate potential, including those hours that would previously have been the preserve of sleep. This is the focus of Professor Gagan Rassmussen’s (Shearsmith) work – his Morpheus sleep pods are machines that can pack in all your sleep needs into one five minute nap so that you can get straight back to work again. The Doctor, naturally, is appalled at this perversion of one of the few natural universal traits of living creatures, and his concern is quickly proven correct when it emerges that the process ends up spawning monsters created from the build up of sleep in the corner of the eye of any user of the sleep pod. Looking something like a golem of ancient legend but formed out of dust and human detritus rather than mud, these creatures ultimately devour their maker and go on to seek other sources of sustenance. If not stopped here and now and somehow manage to escape from the Le Verrier Space Station which is in precarious orbit around Neptune, they could form an unstoppable plague across the galaxy.
The Sandmen are an excellent high-concept creation, right at the locus point between science fiction, horror, childhood fears and fairy tales that is always the best and most fertile ground for Doctor Who’s greatest inspirations. Unfortunately Gatiss can’t quite leave it there but has to go on building and building, and as he does so the purity of the original creation quickly gets somewhat lost and diluted by further developments such as the way each particle of sand can record images of what it sees. That leads to a Ring-style theory of propagation that means the Sandmen can spread even without physically getting off the station, and which also retroactively justifies Rassmuesen’s purpose as the unreliable narrator constructing the found footage episode in the first place. It’s clever, but perhaps a few too many layers and ideas than is altogether good for a 45 minute episode, and at some point the narrative fragments and collapses into its constituent parts rather than playing out to a satisfying conclusion.
Now, that sounds like a big criticism of “Sleep No More”; okay, it is a big criticism of the episode, or at least it would be if it was the result of bad writing or carelessness. But the thing is, I don’t think that’s the case here at all. The way the story breaks up and turns in on itself and becomes somewhat incoherent and confusing isn’t poor writing or simply accidental but absolutely the whole point, giving it the fractured feel of a half-remembered night terror or a particularly bad acid trip. Even the Doctor is left howling “This doesn’t make any sense!” at the end. Horror stories always finish up feeling less scary once we know and understand what’s going on, so how terrifying is it that the more you know the less you understand and the more confused you become? That sensation stretches right through to the unresolved finish, which leaves huge questions hanging over multiple aspects of what we’ve just seen. The lack of tidy answers makes it harder to sleep at night; and surely the whole point of the way “Sleep No More” becomes contradictory and confusing is to give us some delicious nightmares.
That said, the lack of – or perhaps more accurately the undermining of – a conventional narrative does mean that you have to be wide open to the new and somewhat experimental style of storytelling to enjoy this episode, otherwise you’re liable to find it frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying. It will, I’m sure, once again divide the audience into those who love what it attempts to do and those who just wish for a something a bit more … well, conventionally Doctor Who-y – at least as far as Doctor Who has ever been content to be safe and conventional.
I confess, the episode didn’t entirely work for me – I was so focused on following the plot during the first viewing that its high level of intentional incoherence started to annoy me. Once I pushed through that barrier and started to enjoy it just as a straightforward visceral thrill, I wished I could rewind back to the start and take in the whole thing in that vein rather than waste my time in unnecessary logical plot ruminations that had little place in the final analysis. In that sense, the past episode of Doctor Who that it reminded me of most was the season three adventure “42”, another experimental all-action affair, in this case one that played out in real time and which I really liked even though it’s never seemed to receive much love in fan surveys.
Even if you are willing to accept “Sleep No More” on its own terms, the episode still suffers somewhat from its place and context within season nine which until now has been a collection of two-parters constructed in a number of interesting and varied ways. This one however is a stubbornly stand-alone stay-at-home singleton, and while I’ve always said that the show should cherish and give better support to its one-off episodes rather than become fixated about long-running story arcs, the fact that “Sleep No More” is so pointedly the only one of its kind in the entire 12-episode run does give it a sense of gauche out-of-place awkwardness. It doesn’t even make any use of some of the recurring themes and tropes that Steven Moffat has woven through the rest of the series this year, and the Doctor and Clara seem to be removed from their regular selves and just there for the monster runaround pure and simple with little of the usual emotional shading the modern series insists upon. Perhaps that’s inevitable as a result of the found footage conceit and the idea that it’s been edited by Rassmuesen who has no particular interest in the strangers other than what they can contribute to his project. But even so, it felt strange to have an episode this far removed from the normal run of things: you could just as easily have dropped this script into any of the last four seasons without needing to make any major changes to it. Instead it lands in one of the most fiercely and overtly interconnected seasons we’ve ever had.
Moreover, it lands within a year of another story that was predicated on the dangers of slipping into sleep (“Last Christmas”) and just a few weeks after another very similar base-under-siege horror story (“Under the Sea”) which gave it unintentional resonances and similarities that took the edge of its uniqueness. Indeed, it looked to me that the Le Verrier Space Station consisted mainly of a redressing of the underwater base in that latter story – which isn’t a criticism, as it’s a very sensible and effective way of stretching the budget, one that enables the construction of significantly better sets than would otherwise be possible for two separate stories. However, the running-around-in-claustrophobic-tunnels-from-ghosts-and-monsters did feel very similar when separated on the schedule by just a few weeks, serving as a reminder that as much as I love the classic base-under-siege format, a little of it goes a long way and is easy to overuse and abuse.
When I was originally mapping out what to say about this week’s story I was going to make the comparison that while “Under the Sea”/”Before the Flood” had been a story of unexpected depth (pardon the pun) and profundity thanks to its two-part format and mid-story switch of locales and time zones, “Sleep No More” was really all surface and superficiality with little else to it. But thinking about this over night I came to realise how gravely in error that glib judgement was, and that for all its surface ‘bling’ this latest outing is every bit as rich once you start noodling around in its entrails – it’s just that it wears that texture so lightly that you don’t see it initially underneath all the surface glitz and glamour. In that way, Gatiss couldn’t be any more different from his Sherlock collaborator Steven Moffat, whose complexity is always right out there on the surface for all to admire in everything that he does. Gatiss on the other hand is more subtle and sly, easy to overlook and miss on first viewing but nonetheless invariably there underneath when you take the time to look. That’s not to say it always works – sorry, but you’re never going to convince me of the merits of “Robots of Sherwood” – but a Gatiss story is certainly never plain or dull or lazy or careless.
Part of that is because he knows his Who lore so well, and there are some lovely little touches that the die hard fans will pick up on such as the Doctor’s insistence that he should be the one to name the sleep creatures because he doesn’t want to go through the embarrassment of the case of the Silurians (writer Malcolm Hulke misplaced them in the wrong period of prehistory and the debate over the scientifically accurate name of Homo Reptilia has raged in Who fandom ever since.) The amusing discussion between the Doctor and Clara about how you can’t just put ‘space’ in front of random words all the time to jazz them up is a lovely callback to an era of the show which used to do just that (“The Space Pirates”, “The Space Museum”), while Gatiss’ use of the Great Catastrophe is a direct nod to the fifth Doctor adventure “Frontios” and the Doctor’s use of his old catchphrase “When I say run, run” will delight fans of Patrick Troughton’s second Doctor. And perhaps not intended, but the opening scenes of “Sleep No More” depicting the rag tag bunch of ‘space marines’ reminded me of the way classic 1982 serial “Earthshock” started, although I suspect that the real inspiration for this was the 1986 James Cameron blockbuster Aliens crossed with a modern First Person Shooter console game.
That motley collection of space soldiers makes for a good supporting cast this week, even though Rassmuesen tells us from the very start while making introductions not to get too attached to them: as if we didn’t know already that they’re just classic horror flick cannon fodder. Even though the found footage conceit doesn’t allow for too much in-depth character development this week, some unusual writing and casting makes them very effective and memorable all the same. The mix of Geordie and Asian makes Elaine Tan’s Nagata a striking and effective commanding officer, while the oddball relationship between the naive and impetuous Chopra (Neet Mohan) and the squad’s grunt 474 (Bethany Black) will stick in your mind long after the end credits. Paul Courtenay Hyu’s Deep-Ando suffers from being split off from the main group early on, but he gets to have some effective solo scenes and his being forced by a reprogrammed computer to sing “Mr Sandman” before a door can be unlocked is one of the very few real comedy beats in the entire episode. Of course, Shearsmith is the principal guest star this week and gets to deliver several straight-to-camera speeches which he does very well indeed, proving once again what a good straight actor he’s become since the old League of Gentleman broad comedy sketch show days.
Overall then a good and effective episode, although one not without its frustrations: the found footage conceit means that the episode abruptly stops with little wrap-up explanation once the Doctor, Clara and the survivors enter the Tardis where the recording devices cannot convincingly follow. On the other hand, in its place we get perhaps the episode’s single best moment with a strikingly memorable and perfectly-executed final FX shot that is surely destined to be an all-time classic image for years to come, as Rassmuesen quietly falls apart before our very eyes like a desert mirage or a bad dream. Or more accurately, a nightmare.
And then we wake up, and it’s all been a very weird interlude. Business as normal resumes next week it seems, as a character from the past returns and the themes and tropes once more kick in ahead of the big climax to the season which follows. Maybe its one-of-a-kind status will mean that “Sleep No More” is quickly put to one side and forgotten, dismissed as a curio of little import; or maybe it will be regularly pulled off the shelf and rewatched as the sort of enduring classic standalone classic that the show has somewhat lost touch with in recent times thanks to its preoccupation with continuing storylines, recurring characters, series arcs, linking narrative themes and innovative two-parters.
It will be interesting to see which it turns out to be. Let’s sleep on it a while first before deciding.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings.
Advance notice: Next week is another of those work-heavy moments which means I shan’t be able to write or post a review until several days later, and it’ll probably be a brief one at that. Apologies in advance for anyone feeling even the slightest tingle of disappointment at this news!