Writer: Mark Gatiss.
Director: Justin Molotnikov.
Main Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Reece Shearsmith.
Hello, Whovians! After a series of (admittedly rather cracking) two-parters, we’ve come to the ninth episode of the season, the only one unrelated to any of the others as it happens! It’s a unique story as far as Doctor Who goes, giving us our first found footage episode in the show’s history (with one minisode exception, but I’ll get to that)! It’s the future, we’re in space, and a mysterious science project has caused things to go horribly awry. This is ‘Sleep No More’!
WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD.
Normally I open these by detailing the pre-credit sequence, but due to the found footage format this week there actually isn’t one, as there are no credits to precede! We open the episode, however, to a scientist by the name of Professor Rassmussen who is evidently recording some sort of post-event log. With no fourth wall in place as appropriate for this manner of story, he tells us with emphasis that we mustn’t watch whatever is about to occur. He informs us that he is aboard the Le Verrier lab, a space station in orbit around Neptune. Before he can continue, monstrous, wheezing groans interrupt his monologue from elsewhere. Clearly unnerved and panicking, Rassmussen says that he has collected the footage we are about to see and attempted to place it into some sort of correct order, to make the events that have evidently transpired clear. With that, a single screen of text appears, the words ‘Doctor Who’ highlighted to serve as rudimentary credits, and the episode begins…
I’ve made a point about Series 9’s generally-excellent openings so far, and this one fills that niche quite nicely. It’s hasty, it sets the scene for dramatic events to come, and it’s unusual, putting the audience on the edges of their seats. Unfortunately, from that point on the episode takes a nosedive and it rarely surfaces again. ‘Sleep No More’ is a story with a tremendous amount of potential that fails to live up to, essentially, any of it. The narrative is choppy, leaping from event to event with very little coherency in between. Circumstances seem very contrived and overly-hurried for most of it: as an example, there are three usages of the exact same conveniently-timed plot device. While most Doctor Who episodes have one, I feel like one is probably the most you’re allowed before it starts to feel a bit absurd!
The origin story for the monsters is hazy at best, and not in the good ‘Midnight’ or ‘Listen’ kind of way. The first explanation presented is ridiculous, even by Doctor Who standards, and the second, while certainly cleverer, comes far too late into proceedings and also is a touch too similar to other previous alien baddies. The episode fails to convincingly tie things up in that regard (a noted problem of ‘Sleep No More’ in general). Writer Mark Gatiss takes some ambitious strides towards establishing a brand new culture for this small subset of future humanity, but with no time given over to it it feels forced into the plot and leaves us with basically no more understanding of it than we had when we started the episode. Lacking in subtlety is a real problem for the story throughout, it must be said.
‘Sleep No More’ is hard to follow as it progresses for several reasons. There are numerous moments of unnecessary padding and unusual distractions in the episode that, without hyperbole, literally could be excised from the story and you’d only notice because it’s shorter.
The found footage format is naturally the thing people are going to be paying the most attention to, but unfortunately it falls flat (in all fairness, it was always going to be a risk for the show). Chiefly, I feel that it’s down to the sheer number of perspectives on display. Found footage films in general that shift between an abundance of perspectives rarely work too well, and in this case doing so actually takes away from the impact of many of the events. The episode does make a very clever bit of foreshadowing out of the different viewpoints, to its credit, and it’ll likely be niggling at the viewer’s mind until they see the end result. As something of a meta twist, the episode does attempt to insert some sort of last-minute reconciliation for the more noticeable of the story’s plot holes, but it’s an equally unsatisfying one and delivered in an incredibly underwhelming way (that also takes more than its fair share of inspiration from several prior Doctor Who stories). Those looking for things to be wrapped up neatly will be extremely disappointed.
We’ll move onto the cast and crew as per the usual, and even here I don’t have particularly much to say. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman aren’t given the chance to display their ever-increasing chemistry and quite astounding talent properly due to the format, as the role of protagonist essentially remains up in the air for the entire episode. They’re written quite poorly, to boot, with the Doctor having some very odd out-of-character moments in particular that actually quite annoyed me. In a series with such strong characterisation so far, there’s no excuse for something like this to still be happening. Series 8 had a few moments like this which we allowed as the ‘warming-up’ period for the Twelfth Doctor, but not now. I can’t really talk much about them, unfortunately, and that’s a real shame. Capaldi still manages to bring a few dominating performances, of course, but he can only do so much with the constraints of the episode and format.
Reece Shearsmith, previously having briefly portrayed Patrick Troughton in Gatiss’ docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time, makes his proper Doctor Who debut in ‘Sleep No More’ as the enigmatic Professor Rassmussen, and I am happy to say that he’s quite a highlight for most of the episode. Serving as narrator for many of the events and later making an appearance in the story’s proper chronology, his performance is a good one for much of the tale. It’s hard to pin down which side he’s on for most of the episode, which is always quite engaging. That said, I feel like the story is presenting the character as a very big deal when, in fact, his motivations are murky and ill-defined, and rather stereotypical when they’re eventually revealed.
The episode does have something of a guest cast in the team sent to Le Verrier on a rescue mission, but sadly they’re barely worth mention. Their performances are uninspiring, their characters are basically unimportant and devoid of any real relating traits; they feel more like a collection of situation-appropriate one-liners and technobabble than characters in their own right, there to argue amongst themselves, argue with the Doctor, and get killed off without making us particularly care for them at all. The support cast was never going to feel particularly brilliant in any case given the episode, but in a season that has already showed us one of Doctor Who‘s best ensembles in ‘Under the Lake’/’Before the Flood’, it stings all the more. It’s quite a shame for them, particularly in the case of Bethany Black, Doctor Who‘s first openly transgendered actress, that they’re used so poorly.
All in all…well, blimey. You know how long it’s been since I’ve done a Doctor Who review this negative? I can’t even remember! ‘Sleep No More’ is an episode that tried to experiment, and unfortunately that experiment failed. It feels like a clever idea that should have been given more due consideration, for there is not nearly enough meat in this story to have filled an episode. Perhaps it could have worked as a minisode, as with previous (extremely well-done) found footage minisode ‘The Last Day’, which took advantage of the format and used it properly. Nothing quite lands the way it should, it’s cliché-riddled and full of plot holes, and the good ideas that the story has are simply not enough to save it.
The weakest episode of Doctor Who in recent memory. Thoroughly disappointing.
Do join us next week, Whovians! It’s a story with many a return and what promises to be a shocking episode in ‘Face the Raven’…