Doctor Who has always been a show that broke the mold of television. The very concept was something nobody had ever seen before. It has endured, I think, because it has never been predictable and safe. Sleep No More is an episode that fits right into the portfolio of what is perhaps television’s most experimental show, and I think it succeeds where other programs might have failed.
Sleep No More plays around with the show’s usual cinematography. Perhaps even more surreal than a Doctor Who “found footage” episode, however, is the omission of the beloved opening title sequence. I don’t really think the lack of title added to the “authenticity” of the filming style—after all, it’s still a TV show—but I do like it as an artistic decision. The whole episode is jarring throughout, giving the audience a chance to experience that same sort of suspenseful storytelling pioneered by earlier episodes such as Blink, or Midnight, two of the revival’s best.
Creepy, seemingly abandoned, occasionally haunted space stations have been a longtime favorite setting for Doctor Who writers. Mark Gatiss paints a hopeless picture right from the start by introducing a squad of soldiers investigating an already abandoned space station orbiting Neptune. You know pretty quickly that some of these soldiers aren’t making it off the station alive. But hope unexpectedly arrives when the squad hear voices. Clara and The Doctor are already investigating the station when the squad encounters them.
The Doctor and Clara lead the investigation as they track down the source of horrific moaning. Soon they’re all quickly on the run as the unidentified life forms skulking in the shadows give chase. It’s good to see monsters that actual feel threatening. Much of the early revival featured monsters that were fun and cool but ultimately laughable. We’ve come to a point where every episode feels like a genuine risk. The monsters and enemies The Doctor encounters have regained a sense of danger that makes the stories far more engaging.
The episode’s documentary style doesn’t feel so out of place as one might think. A few episodes this season had a similar feel. Having the characters address the cameras directly makes this episode in particular feel more raw than others. At times every successive shot is from a different filming perspective; helmet cam, station security recording, and something else linked to the story itself. Together they make what could have been an otherwise average Doctor Who episode stand out more than it should.
The malevolent being of interest this week is someone, or rather something, called Morpheus. Morpheus is a technology that reduces months of sleep into a few moments, since sleep wastes so much time better spent on other pursuits like working, making profit, and working on making profit. It’s actually a little more complicated than that, but suffice to say, it’s not the most benevolent of technologies.
The Doctor surmises that the monsters hunting them all are life forms resulting from the reduction of peoples’ sleep, formed from the sleep sand in the corners of our eyes. Literally, they’re angry humanoid piles of eye-goop! Yeah, it’s out there, but in the grand scheme of things it’s no stranger than any other monster on Doctor Who. And for some reason it’s not even that important, since the episode works surprisingly well despite the crazy monster of the week. I can’t explain it. I should be complaining about how dumb the monster is but it just doesn’t become as dumb as it should. Sometimes you just have to roll with it, and Sleep No More is a case where you just enjoy it because it’s a fun ride.
The “Sandmen” as they come to be named, are actually pretty cool outside the context of their origin. The threat they represent is interesting, and they follow in the long trend of making the mundane something to be feared. They do look pretty cool as well. Of course they represent a new challenge for The Doctor, but of course he eventually figures out their Achilles Heel. What throws a hitch into the resolution is that we may have seen the beginning of Clara’s demise at the hands of the Morpheus Program. Its effects have already begun to take hold of her, and when almost dismissively assumes The Doctor will fix it his assurance isn’t very convincing.
Sleep No More is one of the best atmospheric episodes Doctor Who has ever done. A ridiculous monster somehow becomes interesting, and a story based on it becomes very effective. The choice of filming was integral to the episode’s success, really succeeding where it could have easily faltered. What could have come of gimmicky actually became part of the story itself, and highlighted a masterful use of the “found footage” technique. With only a few episodes left this season, it is very clear that the path towards Clara’s departure is dimly lit. If the tone of this season is any indication, Clara won’t be leaving with a smile.