This review contains plot spoilers.
In a break from series nine’s pattern of two-parters, this standalone tale is gothic Doctor Who at its most chilling, and it would have greatly benefitted from a Halloween transmission date. Somehow feeling as if it’s arrived a fortnight late, this is nonetheless a gift of a story. Atmospheric and disturbing in equal measure, there is little in the way of musical bombast or melody to lighten the load of this episode. Instead, the events we see unfolding are accompanied by electro ambience, by slowly creeping bass lines and by dark rumblings. It’s distinctly non-traditional in form – found-footage horror which sacrifices the programme’s title sequence in order to better convince as documentary Who – and yet also conventionally creepy in a host of ways: we get some brilliantly realized monsters, and characters are gradually separated from the rescue team, as is the time-honoured way of things.
Writer Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith (Rassmussen) are both very much playing to their strengths here; Gatiss as a skilled creator of unsettling worlds, and Shearsmith as our initially sympathetic narrator whose view of life is ultimately revealed to be dangerously askew. It seems as if Gatiss may have been inspired by Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, picking up on its theme of society’s apparent need for constant productivity. The Morpheus machines are a science fiction version of Crary’s cautionary tract, and Gatiss perfectly parodies corporate-speak in the Morpheus sales patter, and through that irritatingly jaunty Sandman song: “terms and conditions apply”. Meanwhile, Rassmussen is the obligatory Dr. Frankenstein-esque figure – an over-reaching scientist who has created monstrous new life. He suggests that human beings waste a third of their lives asleep, where “time is money”, and consequently he’s set out to remove this fruitless downtime, creating an entity which has gone without sleep for some five years.
In a sense, it’s a shame that Doctor Who didn’t do the found-footage thing when it was a fresher part of the horror genre rather than an arguably over-exposed and over-exploited trope. But that doesn’t really matter, because Gatiss uses the concept of found footage so brilliantly and so expertly that when you hear Chief Nagata’s statement about the rescue team’s “head cams” for the first time, like the Doctor you can’t quite get it to make sense. There’s a good, old-fashioned distinction in criticism, between content and form, and Doctor Who is typically more focused on content – what are the monsters? How will the Doctor and Clara escape and save the day? But here there seems to be very little mystery surrounding what the sleepmen, dustmen or Sandmen are: the Doctor nails this with a good theory about a third of the way into the episode, even if by the end we’re not quite sure exactly what’s been staged and collated, and exactly what’s actually happened outside of Rassmussen’s manipulation: ”none of this makes any sense”, complains the Doctor.
Because this is very nearly Meta Who; an episode that’s centrally about the form of the show, all direct address and signposted storytelling. Sometimes journalists (and some fans, and probably even some journalist-fans) complain that the series is too self-referential these days, all about knowing in-jokes and moments of spot-the-continuity. But these 45 minutes are properly and gloriously self-referential, ending with a discussion of how Doctor Who stories need to be shaped and structured. Sleep No More also hosts not one, but two of the sharpest pieces of misdirection in the series for some time – we assume that cameras must be everywhere within the Verrier station, of course, but at the same time we also assume that the recurrent, blocky glitches are nothing more than meaningless visual markers of the episode’s found footage gimmick. Marc Olivier has recently discussed what he calls “glitch gothic” (in the book Cinematic Ghosts), where the disruption of images signals the irruption of ghostly forces or the loss of reassuring vision, and Sleep No More’s most creepy moment resides in its closing example of glitching. The Sandmen surely aren’t going to escape into the world via physical objects or physical media, not in a world of digital, electronic signals… and Shearsmith’s final ‘piece-to-camera’ on the subject is thrillingly demented.
There's also some humour scattered through the shadows and pseudo-CCTV of Sleep No More. “Cuts, pet”, is how Nagata explains that there are only four members of the rescue team, while the fact that Nagata, the Doctor and Clara find themselves shut in with “dead meat” is also a deliciously dark moment. The computer voice’s refusal to allow Deep-Ando access, insisting that he “sing the song”, also offers a suspenseful but wry distraction from the episode’s underlying mechanics. And Sleep No More’s Shakespearean title is handily quoted for viewers; Peter Capaldi relishes the chance to break the fourth wall and address the ‘camera’ to eloquently educational effect.
Preceded by ‘Terror(ists) of the Zygons’, and even an eye-opener of a Genesis of the Daleks remix, Sleep No More is likely to be edged out in end-of-season polls. It shouldn’t be, however, because this is exquisitely constructed Doctor Who that doesn’t draw on monster nostalgia or on revisiting an all-time great. This is simply great-storytelling-about-storytelling meets great-camera-work-about-camera-work, all wrapped up in some clever twists and outstanding monster designs. It’s a sign of the production team’s confidence and ambition that an episode like this – surprisingly experimental for an incarnation of the show that’s in its tenth year – could and would be attempted, and there’s an energy and vitality to proceedings that really fires things up. Yes, it may be frustrating that we’re left wondering about the status of what we’ve see – somewhat like sequences of The Trial of a Time Lord, perhaps – but the ensuing debate on unreliable narrators is bound to be entertaining.
Found footage is usually deployed as a budget-saver, and so we’re brought back again to “cuts, pet”. If this was an experiment born, in part, out of cost-savings then it shows how austerity can sometimes – only sometimes – be the mother of invention. Gatiss delivers a finely tuned and seriously spooky script, and Shearsmith sells it perfectly from beginning to end. It’s also a relatively unusual episode insofar as neither the Doctor nor Clara ever seem to work out exactly what’s been going on: their understanding remains glitchy and partial. But the shock ending requires that, and so our leads are subordinated, for once, to the gothic form. Perhaps there’s a dangling thread here that calls for a sequel, but I’m tempted to say not – Sleep No More is wonderfully effective just as it is, and deserves to inspire plenty of “wide awakes” among the audience. I do wonder if it’ll spark discussion over just how scary the show ought to be (though being shown in a later time slot this year may protect it from that). Shearsmith’s final revelation could have been even more terrifying, however, had it been entrusted purely to the actor’s performance, or perhaps if it had involved just the first moment of dusty degeneration: the overall special effect that draws events to a close strikes me as excessively stylized and heightened, as if fantastically drawing attention away from the horrifying implications of Rassmussen’s speech.
But there are very few missteps here, and Sleep No More shows that there are still, even now, innovative and compelling new games that can be played with the format and the very form of Doctor Who. It may not quite be an instant classic like The Zygon Inversion, but mark my words, in years to come generations of viewers will remember ‘the terrifying one with all the cameras and the sleepy dust monsters’. Oh yes, this one will be a sleeper.