Doctor Who: 9.09 Sleep No More
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Mark Gatiss is one of those great writers who should produce great episodes of Doctor Who. After all, this is one of the key men behind Sherlock and yet his episodes always provoke radically different reactions. From the good (Charles Dickens and Christmas ghosts in The Unquiet Dead) to the silly (last series' Robot Of Sherwood) he can make episodes of varying success. Few episodes create as many Marmite reactions as Victory Of The Daleks (personally I like lots of it).
So given the extremely high standards of series nine (possibly the best series yet?), we were all expecting Gatiss to deliver one of his greatest episodes. After all, it's another claustrophobic horror story on a space station which perfectly suits this year's atmospheric tales and it has a rather innovate approach; the found footage format.
It has been done of film numerous times but rarely TV and for much of the episode it really works. There is no title sequence, no music, just a series of scrambled recordings that show the Doctor, Clara and the unfortunate crew sent in to rescue survivors hunted down by monstrous beasts in the dimly lit corridors. The strongest element of the episode is its ability to be claustrophobic, unnerving and at moments rather scary. You rarely see the monsters and the deformed Sand Men, cast in shadow are sure to frighten the younger audience members. There are some tense moments too, like when Clara, the Doctor and Nagata find themselves trapped in a walk in freezer as the monsters attack and the moment the ship starts plummeting towards Neptune.
In fact given the setting, the early parts of the episode reminded me of the underrated sci-fi horror movie Event Horizon at times. Thanks to the recording from Reece Shearsmith's Rassmussen you know that these characters aren't going to survive and that sense of dread permeates the episode. There's even an uncertainty over how the Doctor and Clara are going out and for thirty minutes this is some edge of your seat stuff.
Unfortunately it is tempered by a number of things that don't quite make sense and sadly undeveloped characters. It doesn't help that we had Under The Lake a few weeks earlier, which does everything Sleep No More does, only better. The characters here are barely given room to develop; Elaine Tan's commanding officer Nagata is the most engaging but that is mostly done to her close proximity to the Doctor and Clara for much of the episode. I don't think I learned anything about her before the end and considering she did make it onto the TARDIS, it is a shame there wasn't more of a 'yes!' moment when she survived.
There has also been a lot of talk about transgender actress Bethany Black appearing in this episode. I'm not saying she needed to be a dynamic, barrier breaking transgender character but she is lost too in the mix as a slightly interesting clone 474. The only interesting thing 474 does is save Neet Mohan's Chopra from the monsters but considering they both die shortly after there is little investment or pay off. Oh and Paul Courtenay Hyu's Deep-Ando dies so early on there isn't much of a chance for character there either. Considering we had great characters like Cass and Lunn in Under The Lake there is little to measure up here.
Gatiss's The League Of Gentlemen writer / co-star Reece Shearsmith as Rassmussen, inventor of the sleep deprivation machine, is the only one you can really engage with. He is essentially a mad scientist, creating a way of removing the need for sleep with his invention and inadvertently unleashing a monster that could destroy mankind. His 'death' half way through is shocking as we have seen him retelling the tale on camera and it quickly becomes one of a mysteries running through the episode. Like how are we seeing the viewpoint of characters like Clara and Nagata when they don't have helmet cams? And how did the sleep that crusts in the corner of your eye manifest into these terrifying monstrosities?
Had this all been explained satisfactorily then this episode might have come out far more favourably. It had plenty of tense moments and big scares, an intriguing mystery (a great performance from Peter Capaldi as always) and the chance to hit the audience with an Oooooo! moment in the final ten episodes. Unfortunately a lot of people will reach then end of the episode more confused than ever. Was it all a story? If so, how were the Doctor and Clara there? How was Rassmussen walking around if he has (we assume) been dead for ages? Why didn't he look like the other Sand Men? And most importantly what was the point of the whole episode?
I had to watch it a second time in order to provide some clarity. The spores in the sleep in the corner of your eye was just a red herring. The Doctor, Clara and Nagata's crew encountered the crew of the space station who had been transformed into Sand Men because of the same signal Rassmussen sent at the end of the video. And that signal has now been transmitted across the solar system, turning the rest of humanity into these monsters...we assume... Because even then there are still things that don't make sense. If it was just a story created by Rassmussen with plenty of drama and scary moments, then how were Clara and the Doctor there in the first place? And did the whole sleep dust hijacked into become the camera footage throughout the episode actually work?
Mark Gatiss tried to do something really clever, possibly really meta but the ending doesn't really work either way you look at it. To leave audiences scratching their heads and completely unsatisfied is a terrible shame because it could have been another brilliant episode in an otherwise brilliant series nine.
Sleep No More had a great premise; the madness and horror that comes with no sleep. It had a great setting and the found footage format is a bold idea that is keeping with this series of Doctor Who's ability to switch things up each week. I can't call it terrible but I can't call it great either. A story lives and dies by its ending and this episode had one that tangled itself up in knots trying to do something clever and just leaving the audience confused. It's fine to leave the story with plenty to ponder about. But trying to work out exactly what was happening shouldn't be one of them. As a self contained 45 minute episode it didn't even fall into the series seven trap of rushing the ending either; there was enough time to resolve it, Gatiss simply failed to do so effectively.
Doctor Who is always going to have a mix of ups and downs - it comes with the weekly interchangeable genre format that it does so well - so to have one episode in nine that falls short has done little to dampen my enthusiasm for series nine. It is still perhaps the best series since the revival (assuming the last three are good) but after this week, it isn't quite the perfect home run we were hoping for...