Doctor Who S09E09 “Sleep No More” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on BBC One, Saturdays
Writer: Mark Gatiss
Director: Justin Molotnikov
Essential Plot Points:
- A mad scientist on a space station – who’s actually been possessed by his own sleepy dust – makes an episode of Doctor Who that contains a secret code that will make your sleepy dust sentient too.
- Not that the Doctor actually realises a lot of this…
Remember how Clara was did dream checks in last week’s episode? For some reason she doesn’t bother with them this week, despite a) at one point being kidnapped by a machine that forces her into a supernap, and b) being caught up events that would surely have anyone thinking, “I really shouldn’t eat cheese before going to bed.”
“Sleep No More” is a delightfully odd episode. Not add as in surreal which is what “an odd episode” usually means. This is odd because it breaks format in so many ways; something the fact that there’s no title sequence immediately clues you in on. Sadly, the episode doesn’t entirely work but you have to admire its audacity. Plus it sends you off with one of the cheekiest, most unusual and chilling final scenes ever on the show; a scene that pulls the rug out from under your feet and (almost) acts as the ultimate get-out clause for anything that hasn’t made sense for the previous 45 minutes. And there’s a lot that hasn’t, as even the Doctor points out.
Having said that, it can’t wipe the moment from your mind when you went, “Hang on, the monsters are WHAT?!?”
Sleepy dust monsters.
Yes the Doctor really did say that.
In an episode that wants to be part Alien, part Ringu, part Blair Witch, sentient sleepy dust monsters are an ill fit indeed. What next? Killer nasal hair? Nasty knob cheese? There may have been Who stories in which sentient sleepy dust may have seamlessly fitted in, but here it feels like Fozzie Bear telling Chewbacca, “I am your father!” in The Force Awakens. It’s the wrong horse for this course.
It’s a shame that – for the sake of saving that brilliant final image for a final twist – we weren’t allowed to see the transformation process earlier in the story, as that striking body horror image would have gone a long way towards selling the idea. Sadly this doesn’t happen, so you have a weird disconnect for much of the episode where you simply cannot picture how sleepy dust takes you over without smirking.
Hell, even after that image, you’re still thinking, “Yeah, creepy. But sentient sleepy dust? Come on…!”
And yet Clara never does a dream check. Go figure.
As for the found footage format, the episode has some fun with it – especially thatending, which thoroughly justifies it use (indeed, necessitates it – there’s no story without it). It’s also fun in a season that’s had a fair share of fourth-wall-breaking moments to see characters looking straight at camera and yet not being all meta and post-modern. Capaldi and Shearsmith both appear to be immensely enjoying playing around with the format.
In the end, though, it’s a really distracting technique. Not just because it makes the action scenes incoherent but because part of the problem with any found footage film or show is that you notice all the moments when the director “cheats” – or at least bends the rules. Of course, “Sleep No More” has its cake and eats it, because the Doctor reveals that whole “eyes in the sky” shtick – sleepy dust as omnipresent CCTV – which basically means anything goes. However, until that point – when you don’t know – it’s impossible not to be thrown out of the story by apparently impossible (or suspiciously convenient and well-edited) footage. After that point you just think, “Couldn’t they have picked better shots?” Especially during scene when patient zero wakes up. After all Rasmussen wants people to watch – so give them a decent monster reveal to thrill them, yeah?
The way the audience knows more than the Doctor for a change, right up until and beyond the end, is a clever inversion of the norm. Although you need to be paying close attention to realise all his questions are addressed in the episode itself. Otherwise casual viewers may assume the ending was a cliffhanger and will be confused by a Next Week trailer that doesn’t look at all like a part two…
As a tense, pacy runaround with a shock ending worthy of those lurid horror film Mark Gatiss loves so much, “Sleep No More” is an enjoyable romp with some wonderfully darkly comic moments. There’s some iffy acting from the guest stars and Shearsmith really only ever acts in one mode, but there’s been far worse in Who history. Plus, none of the guests characters has particularly meaty roles to chew on (they were straight out of the box marked “Stereotypes upgraded with one gimmick”). And maybe the freaky meta concept twist would have worked better in an episode that feature monsters straight out of Grimms’ Fairytales. There‘s a definite sense, though, that the plot is a little swamped by the various storytelling conceits.
One thing’s for certain – you won’t want to listen to “Mr Sandman” again any time soon.
- That final scene – a creepy concept; a totally original way to end an episode; brilliant effects; and it suddenly makes sense of most of what hasn’t been making sense throughout the episode. That alone made the episode worthwhile.
- The Sandman’s arm turning to sand when it’d cut off by the door.
- The “Terms & Conditions apply” gag.
- “What would you prefer then? The dustmen?”
- The Empire Strikes Back-style shots of the pod floating eerily to its destination
- “Oh, I’m not dead. You probably guessed that by now.”
- An episode that certainly keeps you guessing.
- Great-looking monsters with nightmarish maws.
- Some great horror special FX.
- The “found footage” conceit occasionally gets in the way of the storytelling; it make the action sequences especially difficult to follow, particularly when there’s a lot of exposition being yelled around too.
- On the other hand, there are some moments when it all looks a little too slickly shot and edited, like an ordinary episode with a bit of shakycam and more intense staring (and let’s be honest, actors are the only people who ever hold each other’s gaze for that long).
- The sleepy dust monsters idea is so ludicrous you half expect the Doctor to turn round and go,“Sorry – just kidding! You didn’t actually believe that rubbish, did you?”
And The Random:
- No incidental music; no writer/director/starring credits until the end; no title sequence. Well, not a traditional title sequence anyway…
- Right, who wants to do a wordsearch? Click on the image for the answers. (See, there is a title sequence of sorts.)
- “I’m the Doctor, I do the naming… It’s like the Silurians all over again.” The Doctor’s still seems annoyed that the Silurians – whom he didn’t name (presumably some other quickly-sacked UNIT scientist did) – didn’t originate from the Silurian era. (Actually, it’s been made entirely clear what era they did come from; the Doctor has said that they would be more accurately referred to as Eocenes, though that would have meant they wouldn’t have co-existed with the dinosaurs. They’ve also at times been given the scientific classification Homo Reptilia which is equally utter bobbins as “homo” would mean they’re of the human genus which they quite clearly are not. Why does nobody ever just ask a Silurian what they’d like to be called?)
- The Sandmen are hybrids, but the Doctor, surprisingly, never uses the phrase. However, there are a number of very pointed references to the season’s other great theme: storytelling.
Review by Dave Golder