Does it deserve the criticism? A look back at Doctor Who’s Sleep No More
For a television series so reliant upon change for its longevity, the response to many significant innovations in the making of Doctor Who has been surprisingly negative. In 2015, one episode turned the usual format on its head with an experimental pastiche of found-footage drama, but has since attracted substantial criticism.
Sleep No More, written by Mark Gatiss, ranks lowest of the Twelfth Doctor’s era with an IMDb score of 5.8, but as we’ll see this response underestimates the quality of the episode’s core conceit and the production team’s initiative in tackling a radically different approach to an episode of Doctor Who.
Let’s start with the central concept at play in this episode: sleep. How disturbing is the idea that something as benign and pedestrian as sleep could be turned against you, and that the ‘sleep’ in your eye – or, to use the medical terminology, rheum – could then evolve into a monster that proceeds to stalk you down a shadowy corridor? Truly chilling.
Speaking of chills, one of the most impressive elements of this episode is its atmosphere. The action occurs on a space station adrift in the middle of pitch-dark space, where the corridors echo with ghastly howls; these are the tools of horror that, when effectively realised as they are here, are disquieting and gripping. The CG realisation of the planet Neptune and surrounding space as seen through station windows is gorgeous, and really helps sell the existential dread of the setting and the atmosphere of the entire episode.
The gamble taken the by production team to shoot in the found footage style is commendable. The end product is certainly innovative and unconventional, and the effectiveness of the conceit depends on the viewer’s fondness for found footage science fiction. The lack of traditional opening titles and theme tune, admittedly, is strange, and will no doubt lead many viewers to watch, half-distracted, in anticipation for them to arrive, before eventually realising they won’t.
The execution of the Sandmen, although fantastic in principle, varies in quality. When glimpsed at the end of a corridor, the creatures prove chillingly effective in producing a fright; up close, they are less effective. Still, director Justin Molotnikov uses the found footage format to his advantage by resisting the temptation to focus on the Sandmen for too long, which helps suspend the audience’s disbelief.
When it comes to the performances, Peter Capaldi does a fantastic job as usual. His interpretation of the Doctor as a brooding and enigmatic figure prone to sudden flashes of fierce empathy, is developed consistently across the course of series eight and nine and is on full show here. Clara, in her penultimate appearance pre-death, exhibits more of the risk-taking, Doctor-like qualities that precipitate her demise in Face the Raven.
The main guest star Reece Shearsmith is another highlight, and the end twist involving his character Rassmussen comes as a shock. There are some entertaining metafictional elements, with the notion of the whole episode existing within the story world as a recording, described by Rassmussen as "compulsive viewing" with “death-defying scrapes” and a big climax – and these are, in reality, all typical elements of any good Doctor Who episode.
The other supporting characters do not necessarily create the same lasting impression, although the casting is admirably diverse. But the episode is notable for the first appearance of an openly transgender actor in the show, Bethany Black.
The sprinkling of references to Doctor Who lore (such as the Doctor’s history with the Silurians) and relevant mythological and literary allusions (Morpheus as the god of dreams; the title referencing Shakespeare’s Macbeth) enriches the tale. The Morpheus jingle, too, is actually a real song – “Mr Sandman” by The Cordettes – and, frankly, achieves its purpose of getting stuck in your head for a long time afterwards.
It would be good at some point to see the reported sequel to the episode, as planned by Mark Gatiss, be put into production – perhaps as a Big Finish audio drama – and witness Sandman-Rassmussen’s further machinations. As it is, Sleep No More does a marvellous job at creating an atmospheric, chilling and ideas-rich piece of experimental television that gets far less credit than it deserves.