Up until its final moments, I was prepared to file “Sleep No More” under the category of “interesting idea, underwhelming execution.” With its stock characters and seeming inability to truly commit to its core concept, the episode seemed destined to go down as the worst episode of Season Nine so far. Instead, a literal last minute twist all but shifts how the episode should be perceived, elevating the hour from “meh” to a more memorable “oh, damn…”
As widely reported in the media, “Sleep No More” serves as Doctor Who’s dive into the “found footage” subgenre. Right off the bat, the creative team breaks precedent by eschewing the show’s opening credits in favor of a simplistic stream of code that acts as a titlecard by spelling out “Doctor Who.” Indeed, our guide through this experiment is Rassmussen (The League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith), the lead researcher of a space station that orbits Neptune. Rassmussen begins the proceedings by ordering the viewer to “not watch” this video, claiming they will not be able to ever “unsee” what is about to occur. What on initial blush appears to be your standard William Castle-esque hype takes on a much more sinister statement by episode’s end.
Rassmussen claims to be one of the last surviving crew members of a gruesome event. What’s more, he’s constructed the footage from the past several hours that will help tell the story of how this came to pass. The footage opens with a quartet of soldiers arriving at the space station in response to a sudden loss of communication. Finding the ship abandoned, the group eventually runs into The Doctor and Clara. Suddenly, the team is attacked by what appears to be carnivorous “Sandman” creatures. Taking refuge in a lab of some sort, Clara is abruptly dragged into one of several pods. The Doctor instantly frees her while a convenient hologram provides exposition—the pods are part of a newer program called Morpheus that, essentially, sends out electric signals to the brain which converts entire months worth of sleep into only a few minutes, allowing work to proceed uninhibited by the multiple hours needed for rest. The group soon finds Rassmussen, apparently the technology’s founder, in another pod. It’s here that The Doctor deduces what has occurred—the mucus, or “dust” that collects around the human eye during sleep has basically mutated in such a way that it consumed the hosts and created the Sandmen.
From here, the Sandmen—in the typical “base-under-siege”/horror movie story progression—begin picking off the crew one-by-one. Up until this point, there was plenty that I felt was lacking in the hour. First and foremost was the supporting cast who, with the exception of Rassmussen, were about as bland and archetypal as one can imagine (in summary, we have the leader, the boorish joker, the rebel and the grunt). Putting aside how the episode eventually develops, this is one issue that noticeably bogs down the whole affair. It’s all particularly unfortunate, given that the last “base-under-siege” story, the “Under the Lake/Before the Flood” two-parter, boasted several memorable characters whose survival we were actually invested in.
Also problematic to me was the episode’s general structure. As someone who’s actually a big fan of found footage when it’s implemented properly (i.e. Chronicle, the first two installments in the [REC] series), one of my biggest pet peeves is when the filmmakers cheat the premise by offering up so many differing perspectives that the final product ceases to have that claustrophobia inherent to the subgenre. Instead, it just becomes yet another thriller with shaky camera work. Such is the feeling I got watching most of “Sleep No More” since, besides the cameras that seem to be operating on the soldiers’ helmets, we are provides POVs from a multitude of other angles and locations, which seems to undermine the story’s aesthetic. What’s more, Rassmussen’s incessant narration and cut-ins bring to mind the horrible George A. Romero film, Diary of the Dead which drew unneeded attention to the film’s construction by having its obnoxious lead character explain that she’s edited together the footage and added music to “scare” the viewer. As with the plethora of perspectives, Rassmussen’s ongoing commentary can’t help but suck some of the tension out of the scenes by taking the film out of the “here and now.” At least, that’s what it seems like at first.
By the episode’s final stretch, The Doctor is utterly confused. As it turns out, the soldiers’ helmets have no cameras and the power outage means that there are no functioning cameras in the base. So, where is this all this footage coming from? As we later learn, what we’re seeing comes from the perspective of the “sand”/mucus itself, which has latched on to not only the crew’s eyes but areas all throughout the ship. Upon further reflection, it’s interesting to note that the only character POVs we don’t see are The Doctor’s (who never uses the Morpheus machine), and one other crew member who claims to hate the technology and refused to ever step foot into a pod. Of course, this also brings up the question of why some of the third-person omniscient footage is black-and-white beyond simple misdirection, but I’ll let that slide.
When only The Doctor, Clara and the rescue team captain are left standing, they discover that Rassmussen has gone mad and been working with the Sandmen all along to send Morpheus’ Patient Zero down back to the nearby planet of Trenton to begin infecting the rest of the universe with its spores. The captain kills Rassmussen before he can drive the ship any further and The Doctor demolishes the ship’s gravity field so that any remaining creatures collapse. Still, even as the trio escapes, The Doctor can’t shake the idea that none of this makes any sense, and that there’s something missing. What at first seems to be a writerly in-joke, semi-apology for an overly convoluted and half-baked concept, however, soon reveals itself to be something much more sharp and clever than any viewer could have ever predicted.
In his final video message, a still-breathing Rassmussen confesses that there were never any spores; rather, his technique for spreading the Sandmen infections involves the video we’ve just watched. Sporadically throughout the episode, there have been brief glitches in the image that anyone who’s ever seen a found footage film would naturally categorize as a well-worn technique meant to establish “verisimilitude.” In reality, however, these were the Morpheus’ electronic signals being shot into the viewers’ brains. Everyone who just watched this episode is now, essentially, infected. What’s more, by constructing a narrative designed to keep its audience awake and then subsequently unable to go to sleep due to terror, Rassmussen has assured that the “dust” in our eyes has ample time to mutate and spread. In one final twist, Rassmussen shows that he is not human but, rather, a Sandman that has evolved to the point that he could pose as a sentient human. The episode concludes with a nightmarish image of Rassmussen’s face dissolving into sand as he points out that there’s “something in [the audiences’] eye.”
In other words, the entire script ingeniously uses the very concept of a “scary episode” as a final second twist. It’s the kind of multi-layered, meta-textual gag that is as unprecedented in Doctor Who as the absence of the opening credits. Furthermore, it’s the sort of twist that does what any great twist is supposed to do—completely re-contextualize everything you’ve just witnessed. Upon further reflection, the episode still has its fair share of problems in terms of characterization and pacing—not to mention the fact that the whole ordeal prioritizes cleverness over legitimate scares—but it’s impossible to not at least remotely admire the sheer ambition of what the Doctor Who team has conceived. This is the story where The Doctor, for all intents and purposes, loses the battle.