Doctor Who: “Sleep No More”

I have mixed feelings about “Sleep No More.” On the one hand, I really liked what they were trying to do, namely tell a horror story in a way that Doctor Who had never done before, via first person “found footage.” On the other hand, 1) “found footage” may be new to Doctor Who, but it is everywhere in horror cinema these days and has pretty much worn out its welcome through overuse, and 2) I would have liked “Sleep No More” a lot better if it didn’t keep tripping over itself. Since we can’t do anything about #1, let’s talk about #2.

***SPOILERS FOLLOW***

At the heart of this story is a cool idea: the Morpheus sleep deprivation pods have so messed up the natural rhythms of the humans who use them that they have produced a monstrous side effect. The Sandmen are scary-looking monsters who eat people (I think; we’ll come back to this) and aren’t easily dispatched. Unfortunately, in my opinion the script by Mark Gatiss goes in the wrong direction when it comes to the Sandmen’s origin. What a horror story like this needs is nightmare logic, not scientific explanations. So while we’re told the Sandmen have evolved inside the Morpheus sleep deprivation pods from the human sleepers’ “sleep dust,” the hardened mucus that accumulates in the corner of your eye when you sleep — an explanation that is both gross and absurd enough to pull me right out of the story — imagine how much more frightening the episode would have been had we been told the Sandmen sprang from the subconscious of the sleepers. Imagine if a major problem with the Morpheus sleep deprivation pod was that it always gives its users nightmares, and this new version has somehow managed to pull those nightmares out of the sleepers’ minds and give them life. Well, I think that’s scarier than eye boogers, anyway.

The Sandmen themselves are also a problem. Are they a new lifeforms that grew from and ate the sleepers, or are they the sleepers themselves evolved into new lifeforms? Why is the dust able to record and transmit images but the Sandman, who are made of the same dust, are blind? Why are they blind when it’s revealed they can shapeshift into forms that can see? The episode tries to have it both ways on a number of details, which only causes confusion for the viewer. There is a possible explanation for the confusion (which we will get to), but I think the episode would have been stronger with a more consistent idea of how the Sandmen operate. The rules of the Sandmen don’t have to be logical, mind you, they just need to be consistent for the sake of the narrative.

Among the elements of “Sleep No More” that I did like are the cast, who were certainly game; the concept of “found footage” without the use of actual cameras (although this required the rather tortured explanation of the dust somehow recording and transmitting everything itself); the creepy look of the Sandmen; the Doctor’s slow-dawning realization that everything is being manipulated for show; and the twist at the end, which very nearly saves the episode in my opinion. One issue with “found footage” stories is that they often struggle to come up with a good reason why the story needs to be told that way at all. Sometimes, as with The Blair Witch Project or Cannibal Holocaust, it adds an extra layer to the story and gives it some background weight. But for every film with a good reason for “found footage,” there are tons that don’t have one. Cloverfield comes to mind, with its halfhearted “the world has to know what’s happening here” justification, and Paranormal Activity, which just wanted to have a spook house vibe. (I like both these movies, by the way, but I find their justification for “found footage” to be weak.) These movies only use the conceit for its immersive value, which admittedly can be very effective. “Sleep No More,” on the other hand, gives us a good reason for its “found footage” approach in Gagan Rasmussen’s trap: an embedded signal within the footage that will create more Sandmen (or turn the viewers into Sandmen; again, it’s not made very clear how this works). That was a nice creepy note to end on. (Mark Gatiss certainly knows his horror tropes. Check out his three-episode special series A History of Horror, it’s essential viewing for horror movie fans. I think it’s available on YouTube.)

There’s a funny bit where the Doctor says he wants to be the one to name monsters and “it’s like the Silurians all over again.” This is a reference to the 1970 Third Doctor serial “Doctor Who and the Silurians” (yes, that’s the official title!), in which the lizard men are wrongly identified as Silurians by a mistaken paleontologist. The Doctor more accurately places their origins in the Eocene era, but the term Silurians sticks. By the time they returned in the 1984 Fifth Doctor serial “Warriors of the Deep,” they are actually referring to themselves as Silurians. (And the Sea Devils are calling themselves Sea Devils, which is pretty weird.)

Interestingly, “Sleep No More” is the first standalone episode in a season that has been unique in having every story so far be a two-parter. I suppose the next episode, “Face the Raven,” will be a standalone as well, and then we’re back to two-parters with the finale.

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