In ‘Sleep No More’, written by Mark Gatiss, something has gone very wrong on a space station orbiting Neptune. The crew are dead and rescue effort is about to meet similar disaster. These events are assembled from recorded footage, slowly revealing how the Doctor and Clara were involved and how the viewer is in danger from the threat.
Presented as found footage this is an interesting experiment in making the format of the episode part of the story. With a unique take on body horror and a sinister twist this is a new take on the familiar ‘base under siege’ story let down only by some shallow characters and lack of development.
Spoilers From Here On In!
The plot is fairly typical of Doctor Who. On a space station in 38th century Morpheus sleep pods condense rest periods to just 5 minutes, allowing workers to be more productive. An upgrade to the pods creates sentient sleep dust which devoured the crew and now want to spread to other worlds (starting with Titan).
It is the way that the episode is presented that makes it stand out and will determine whether this is a hit or miss for the viewer. It feels very much like the kind of experiment that Big Finish have tried with their audios (such as ‘Flip Flop’, ‘Ish’, ‘Creatures of Beauty’ and ‘The Natural History of Fear’.) Sometimes those experiments succeed and sometimes they fail.
Here the concept is both its best and worst point.
The best part is that it gives the viewers the perspective of those involved, as we see everything from their eyes. The technique should be familiar to any view of ‘Peep Show’ and gives the episode a more realistic and tense feel.
When used well it captured the chaotic feel of events unfolding in real-time by viewers missing certain events because no one was looking the right direction (such as Clara being pulled into a sleep pod) or important things not being framed in the centre of the screen as normal (such as the holographic introduction to the sleep pods).
With strange noises and horrible monsters creeping around there is more tension because the viewer doesn’t know where the threat is going to come from as they are limited to the POV of the characters.
The format is vital to the story itself. The fact that there is a live stream of what everyone is seeing despite not wearing cameras (although they do have cameras on their guns) is a major plot point. A vigilant viewer might spot this, especially as we begin to see things from Clara’s perspective after she has been in the sleep pod.
The static and distortion also plays an important part in the twist ending. It is revealed that this was a means of infection and so we too will now be devoured by the sand men.
This is a clever way to draw the viewer into the narrative and hiding something in plain sight, reminiscent of the Star Trek Voyager episode ‘Ex Post Facto’ which also hid important information in the perspective of a character.
The intercutting does lead to some nice foreshadowing when we cut to security footage of a sleep pod being transported to a shuttle while the main characters are unaware of the impeding danger.
The problem is the linking material provided by Gagan Rassmussen, played by Mark Gatiss’ ‘League of Gentlemen’ colleague Reece Shearsmith. Rassmussen has apparently assembled the footage to explain what happened and will occasionally deliver exposition or narrate the action.
Unfortunately this ruins the pacing of the story, just as the court room scenes in ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ did. They also add little more than what the characters learn themselves so feel largely unnecessarily.
There are only a few moments were they pay off (other than the ending) such as when we witness Rassmussen apparently being killed by the sand men only to continue his linking narration pointing out that he obviously isn’t dead.
The ‘in the moment’ style of most of the narrative of story also prevents most of the characters from having much development and Rassmussen’s profiles are not much of a replacement for actual depth.
Deep-Ando, played by Paul Courtenay Hyu, is labelled as the team joker and is just as annoying as that sounds. The first to die he does get a nice scene in which his escape from the monsters is barred by a computerised door that has been programmed by the previous crew to only open up to those who sing ‘Mr. Sandman’ as a drunken joke.
Chopra, played by Neet Mohan, is the cynic whose refusal to use the sleep pods has spared him from infection. This does have the consequence of making him abrasive, especially in his interactions with the love sick genetic grunt 474, played by Bethany Black.
The grunt is a wasted opportunity and seems to be a homage to the genetically engineered life form Dagwood in ‘Seaquest DSV’ who shared similar facial tattoos and limited intelligence.
The ethics of her creation is briefly condemned by both the Doctor and Clara but we never get a sense of what makes 474 different. Her self-sacrifice is touching but dampened by the fact it largely happens off screen.
The leader of the rescue team is Nagata, played by Elaine Tan, is largely defined by being Geordie and ending virtually every sentence by saying ‘pet’.
Reece Shearsmith works best when he has someone to play off and Rassmussen is just the sort of snivelling character he plays well. You get a nice sense of his desperation and madness as he reveals how the sand men have influenced him.
When alone, during the linking material, his delivery is a little flat. This is no doubt to hide the characters true motivations but those scene only really shine in the final reveal, as his body disintegrates.
The central monsters, the sand men, followed Moffat’s template of creating horror and fear from aspects of our everyday lives. By the end the viewer has reason to fear the sleep dust in their eye and dread its irritation.
The shambling, gapping mouth design of the monsters are nicely done, augmented by some CGI effects when they disintegrate. They might have benefited from having more onscreen at anyone time but the reveal of Rassmussen’s true nature is a good climax to their appearances.
The plot is clever, revealing that parts were staged and edited together to keep people watching, but maybe a bit too clever. I’ve seen more than a few commentators state that they thought the whole episode was fabricated.
There is also more that could be done with the found footage format such as editing out certain footage or twisting other sections to change the context. It feels like a strong concept that could have been developed further.
It is a bold decision to allow the villains to win here. The Doctor and the others escape in the TARDIS, unaware of the actual plot (although the Doctor does think things don’t make sense).
Gatiss has indicated that he might write a sequel to this episode but as it stands the sand man infection will spread to Titan. A dark outcome for Doctor Who.
My personal feeling is that the positives outweigh the negatives. I appreciated the presentation and the set design of the base and the associated world building created an interesting setting that was reminiscent of the ‘Alien’ films (particularly the computer game ‘Alien: Isolation’).