Sleep No More

Story No. 284 You must not watch this
Production Code Series 9, episode 9
Dates November 14, 2015

With Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Written by Mark Gatiss Directed by Justin Molotnikov
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: Recordings from the wreckage of the La Verrier space station suggest that monsters may have come from a device that bypasses the need for sleep.


Morpheus does murder sleep by Niall Jones 8/8/19

It would seem obvious to say that Sleep No More is one of Doctor Who's strangest episodes. Despite this, it fits smoothly into Peter Capaldi's era. Clara's assertion that she feels watched recalls Listen, while the Sandmen's disturbing combination of human shape and inhuman features suggests parallels with the Boneless in Flatline.

Given its parallels with other episodes from the era, it's worth considering exactly what it is that makes Sleep No More seem so different.

The most obvious of these is the use of found footage. By effectively handing control of the story to Gagan Rassmussen, played by Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss unsettles the Doctor's authority, as he and Clara are powerless to shape events, only able to work out what is going on when it is too late. The episode's use of found footage is not a gimmick but a clever frame that allows the plot to be manipulated in surprising ways. The audience is forced to place its trust in Shearsmith's unreliable narrator, with the switch from first-person to third-person perspective suggesting complicity with Rassmussen.

The presentation of Rassmussen as the story's narrator demonstrates the extent to which the use of found footage gives Sleep No More a metafictional quality. Rassmussen's comment that 'I do hope you've enjoyed the show. I did try to make it exciting - all those scary bits, all those death-defying scrapes, monsters and a proper climax with a really big one at the end,' is a knowing wink to audience, blurring the lines between narrator and author. It is also a deeply sinister line, suggesting that the story the audience has just watched was orchestrated and manipulated. This not only undermines the claim of found footage to present truth in its rawest form, but also reveals that the Doctor has lost, a revelation that is emphasised by Sleep No More's final, jaw-dropping scene.

Another, subtler aspect of the story that sets it apart from others is the extent to which context is a vital aspect of the story. References to 'wide-awakes' makes it clear that the deadly Morpheus machine has become a central part of 38th century life on both Earth and Triton. The suggestion that use of the machine has become a major political fault-line also demonstrates the extent to which Sleep No More sits in a wider context. While it may be Series 9's only stand-alone story, it feels connected to an outside world in a way that few Doctor Who stories do. Unlike most visions of the future, culture is not western but Indo-Japanese. Language is an important factor in expressing this; characters exclaim 'for the gods', suggesting that their society is polytheistic, while Japanese characters are visible across the Le Verrier space station. It's also possible, though not commented on, that the rescue team are not speaking English - Nagata's Geordie accent could simply be the TARDIS's English rendering of a Japanese regional accent. Yet this culture does contain western influences, with the inclusion of the song 'Mr Sandman' in the Morpheus advert suggests a link with western consumerism. Although its appropriation as 'The Morpheus Song' suggests that the its 1950s origins may be forgotten, the hologram of the Chordettes suggests a strange sort of nostalgia.

Interestingly, despite the significance of the context to the story, Gatiss initially planned to set Sleep No More on a City trading floor, with executives using the Morpheus machine to stay awake longer in order to be more productive. After writing the episode, Gatiss planned to write a sequel, which would have been set on Earth thousands of years earlier, suggesting that the questions raised by the Morpheus machine are highly relevant to our own society. While a sequel was never made, being replaced by Empress of Mars, the latent significance of capitalism in Sleep No More suggests that Series 10's Oxygen works as a sequel of sorts, despite being penned by a different writer.

The success of Sleep No More lies in the way in which it manages to incorporate so many different elements into such a short space of time. A whole society is evocatively sketched, despite the fact that the episode is set entirely on one space station, while complex ideas of narrative, spectatorship and truth are explored in just 45 minutes. While the concept behind the Sandmen does stretch the imagination, this is not necessarily a bad thing - surely part of the job of Doctor Who is to do precisely that. Sleep No More is an exciting, bold and unsettling experiment and one that is worth reappraising.

Bring Me a Dream by Hugh Sturgess 11/5/20

Like Face the Raven, Sleep No More is a seemingly unimportant, charming filler episode giving us a breather between the bulk of the season and the final two episodes. Unlike Face the Raven, Sleep No More is just as minor and inconsequential as it first appears.

Mark Gatiss is, in person, a very difficult man to dislike. He uniformly comes across as friendly, pleasant, funny and enthusiastic. He's having a ball in the job of his dreams. His work, on the other hand, is very easy to dislike. He's the most prolific New Series author after Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, and before that he wrote a brace of books and audios going all the way back to Nightshade in 1992. He's actually had the longest Doctor Who career of any of the current writers. As a result, we have a fairly good idea of what he does and (more importantly) what he does not.

What he does is uncritical pastiches and celebrations of pop-culture nostalgia. He actively seeks to recreate the images and conventions of the past, not to comment on them or to subvert them, but purely for the pleasure of doing so. What makes this at all bearable is that he has very eccentric interests. His Doctor Who work has, since 1992, paid homage to Quatermass, WW2 war films, Dickens, the ambience of the 1950s, penny dreadfuls, submarine adventures, Victoriana, Doctor Who itself in the Pertwee era... Gatiss is genuinely very good at creating atmosphere through tone and detail. He's immersed himself in a particular genre and knows how to evoke it simply and effectively.

But, every time, it's done just so Gatiss can exult in the joy of the conventions of the genre. His novel Last of the Gaderene was a pitch-perfect pastiche of an utterly conventional, by-the-numbers Jon Pertwee story, simply for the sake of doing so. The Sherlock special, The Abominable Bride, is crammed full of moments done just so the authors can enjoy them (e.g. the canonical Reichenbach). All of Gatiss's work is like that. Most writers who like to pay homage to older stories and genres eventually realise they need to do something with that material rather than just reproduce it. Gatiss doesn't.

That said, Sleep No More is something of a departure in two linked respects. Firstly, it draws on source material for which Gatiss is clearly not at all nostalgic. Secondly, it consequently lacks atmosphere. Obviously, it is tipping its hat to found-footage horror films like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, but it shows none of the indulgence for the form's tropes and conventions you expect from Gatiss. Certainly, this was a smart decision. If you are to make a Doctor Who version of a genre as well-worn as found-footage horror, you have to subvert the genre's conventions, not simply recreate them. The central idea is a clever and appropriately Whoish subversion of found footage: who is telling the story? The revelation that the entire episode was created by the villain as a weapon - weaponised Doctor Who - is one of those clever ideas that, once executed, becomes the only way it could ever be done. Making the story as a found-footage horror film is not a gimmick but in fact the entire point of the exercise. Gatiss's body of work for the series would be immensely improved if he subverted every genre he adopts like this one.

But, maybe because of that lack of nostalgia for and familiarity with the genre, the episode lacks atmosphere. In short, this is a horror film without any suspense and with no scares. Horror in general is a genre that plays on the limits of the visual - what is seen and what can't be seen. We can see things the characters don't (behind you...) and can't see what the characters see (off-screen deaths), and horror finds the fear in these liminal spaces. Found-footage, particularly, exploits the fallibility of the author, so we don't see what a normal "directed" horror film would show - important bits fall off the side of the frame, clues and hints are shown but not acknowledged.

Sleep No More occasionally tries to give us that, as in the first appearance of the Sandmen, of whom we only see glimpses as the other characters run away. But there is no suspense. The blame can't lie entirely or even mainly with Gatiss here, since the direction misses every trick to make scenes scary or tense. It jumps around between viewpoints too much (and way more than a traditional found-footage film), draining the scenes of claustrophobia and the unique possibilities of a single, fallible field of vision. Instead, the script simply tells us how frightening it all is. Rassmussen warns us that we "can't unsee" the events of the episode (though obviously this has a double meaning given the twist ending). Even the Doctor, uncharacteristically, gets the heebie-jeebies and asks Clara to hold his hand.

Without a richly evoked atmosphere, Gatiss's many other flaws are exposed rather blatantly. It is hard getting through such an utter desert of characterisation. The crew of the rescue mission are neither compelling, entertaining performances, nor do they serve a defined narrative role. They are just cannon-fodder with a few individual tics to give them the illusion of substance. Their identifying tics are actually spelt out to us in Rassmussen's opening narration (Deep-Ando the joker, Chopra the rebel). Bethany Black is utterly wasted as 474. (Her much-publicised behind-the-scenes quizzing of Mark Gatiss over whether Triton society is linked to The Sun Makers, given their shared 38th-century setting, is a wonderful anecdote of fannish enthusiasm that overlooks the complete absence of evidence that The Sun Makers is set in the 38th century.)

There is enough characterisation to appear meaningful: Chopra is defined by his refusal to use the Morpheus machines; 474 is a decent if unoriginal concept that mirrors the Morpheus machines as a symbol of unchecked commodification of life. These elements, particularly in a season as clever as this one, seem to hint at the arc of the episode. That is, that Chopra's status as the only one unaffected by the Morpheus process will be important, or that 474's different mental processes offer a solution. Yet they are just killed off randomly, which is, the episode explicitly states, their entire narrative function. I always hate it when reviewers lecture professional writers with things like "good drama comes from the characters", but that was what I was thinking all through this. There are no characters, so there is no drama. This could have been a two-hander between Capaldi and Rassmussen's Reece Shearsmith for all the difference the other actors made.

A cynic might say that a bland cast that exists only to die is a good imitation of a horror film, but this would entirely miss the role of death in horror. In horror films, deaths exist to do something - to provide a sudden, narrative-shifting scare, to raise tension, to reflect a character trait. A good "kill" might serve to permanently shift the story into a higher gear, or come after the character looks like they are safe. I'm not wild about the regular horror trope that young people who have sex should die, but at least it's saying that the behaviour of the characters matters, that the scene would be different if the characters were different. Here, the characters' deaths are interchangeable. Twice, characters get separated from the others for unclear, arbitrary reasons and then snuff it when a Sandman gets into the room with them and the screen cuts to black. All of the troopers play the same role in the story, so one is left feeling cheated that for ever investing in their differences in the first place.

Much of the characterisation seems to be done purely for quirkiness value. The scene in which the computer requires Deep-Ando to sing the Morpheus song is unbearable. Had Deep-Ando been an Alan Rickman-style prude, then forcing him to sing a jolly song would have been both funny and tense, yet Deep-Ando is explicitly the joker of the pack. It's quirkiness for quirkiness's sake, added to make the world depicted oddball and Whoish, when everything else has been so utterly drab it's indistinguishable from a straight-to-video sci-fi horror film.

This goes for the "Indo-Japanese" idea too. Perhaps Gatiss would have been just as willing to mash up the Anglo-Russians, but this is not the first time he has offered a wildly implausible take on Asian geopolitics. In his novel St Anthony's Fire, if I am not mistaken, he offers in passing some "quirky" (here we go again) future history in which Hong Kong conquers China (sic). There are a number of ways to parse that, but like "Indo-Japan" it is a superficial play with other cultures that could be seen as actually offensive. Mashing up two totally different cultures and then just giving us standard multiethnic space-Britons anyway (complete with a Christmas party!) that Clara immediately compares to an Asian restaurant is uncomfortably like wearing a turban or blackface to a fancy-dress party.

Clara is typically poorly treated by Gatiss's script, being reduced from the complex protagonist we've seen all season to a flashy and feisty smart-arse, a generic distillation of pluck and self-confident charm. The introductory dialogue between the Doctor and Clara ("Ah, see! Space pirates!") is bleakly unfunny. Her arrogant self-regard for her ability to recognise Morpheus as the god of sleep is particularly painful, given how common a piece of knowledge it is. There's also Clara's give-me-a-break right-on protest ("Is that your answer for everything?!") after Nagata shoots Rassmussen, when Nagata has not previously shown any trigger-happiness. This is Gatiss's fundamental weakness, beyond even his uncritical nostalgia: he does not create compelling characters or give them interesting things to do.

In giving Rassmussen, the episode's "author", dialogue about trying to make it interesting with scares and action ("Compulsive viewing!"), Gatiss is too clever by half. This is a Doctor Who episode made by the villain, so does it not reflect poorly on the series to make most of the plot entirely arbitrary? All the clues the episode has thrust in our direction are waved away as simply done by Rassmussen/Gatiss for effect. Maybe this could have worked, had it demonstrated the kind of deft narrative substitution of Face the Raven or Hell Bent, replacing the horror-movie tropes with something altogether different and stranger by the end. Instead, the Doctor falls out of the narrative, and the episode doesn't give us the wink we need to decide whether it knows how unsatisfying it is. Gatiss has outsmarted himself: what does it say about his own work that most of the plot is simply there because they are narrative conventions?

The shame is that the ideas on show here are properly brilliant. The rest time denied us by rampant capitalism literally rising up to consume us, our undreamed dreams made physical to hunt us in real life... These are wonderful, surreal, dream-like, angry and political - or they would be, if Gatiss pushed them a bit further. As they stand, they are like everything else, clever things we are meant to appreciate simply for their own sake.

Gatiss has his wheelhouse: tone, atmosphere, nostalgia, interesting genres and a flair for eccentric characters. But without meat on the bones - actual character, smart plotting, et cetera - it feels quite hollow. It's Doctor Who for the sake of making Doctor Who. In Sleep No More, when he can't fall back on a beloved genre or on humour, very little is left. He is not talentless by any means, but he never pushes his scripts beyond only a very superficial level.