Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 9 - "Sleep No More"
Horror-lite or mad scientist thriller? "Sleep No More" straddles genres like a jockey riding two horses at once.
Doctor WhoAirtime: Saturdays, 8.15pm
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Reece Shearsmith, Bethany Black
Subtitle: Series 9, Episode 9 - "Sleep No More"
Air date: 2015-11-14
Saturday’s ninth installment of Doctor Who’s latest series was a great big contradiction of an episode. It was touted as a story based around found footage, a la The Blair Witch Project -- which, in the end, it wasn’t. The title card -- made especially for this episode, an unprecedented move in the show’s history -- took the form of lines of machine code in which Clara's (Jenna Coleman) name figured repeatedly, disposing us to think that the story would advance her storyline, which it didn’t. And at the heart of it all was a good performance from Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentlemen, Psychoville), playing Rassmussen, a scientist who might, or might not, turn out to be at the heart of the Doctor’s troubles.
The other great contradiction about this episode is that it straddles genres like a jockey riding two horses at once. Is "Sleep No More" a horror-lite episode, in the manner of last year’s "Mummy on the Orient Express"? Or is it a mad scientist story, broadcast with uncanny prescience less than three weeks after the DVD release of the serial that gave that particular trope an almighty shove in Doctor Who’s direction, the Patrick Troughton romp "The Underwater Menace" (1967)?
There is no doubt about it: Rassmussen is A-grade bonkers. His aim is nothing less than the abrogation of sleep. After all, by the merciless logic of the rat race, sleep is for the losers, for the also-rans. The point is pushed home by the holographic recording of a huge disembodied head reciting a sales pitch for Rassmussen’s Morpheus sleep pods, devices that compress an entire month’s worth of sleep into five minutes, thus allowing the user to work continuously. As lunatic schemes go, it’s right up there with the burning of the rainforests, this-one-weird-trick diet plans, and the nomination of Donald Trump as presidential candidate. “We spend a third of our lives asleep, and time is money”, Rasmussen opines at one point.
Then again, we have the deplorable results of Rassmussen’s creation: the Sandmen. (It was odd, incidentally, that whenever the Sandmen were mentioned, it was the 1950s pop hit "Mr Sandman" that was referenced. With the Doctor’s new-found guitar chops, I’d have thought "Enter Sandman" would have at least got a look-in…) The explanation offered for their sudden appearance is that they are agglomerates of the sleep that ordinarily collects in the corner of the eye during the night, made sentient by some weird by-product of Rassmussen’s sleep pods -- a silly idea by any standards. But if their provenance is preposterous, their appearance is not; monsters with amorphous bodies and murky black apertures where a face should be, they terrorise the military unit sent to rescue Rassmussen from the space station on which he works.
Which brings us to yet another genre: military sci-fi. This episode's soldiers take their cues from any number of Hollywood blood-and-bullets sci-fi movies, but the chief interest here is 474 (Bethany Black), a grunt genetically programmed for fighting and survival. The resonances between Black’s forlorn soldier and, say, the replicants in Ridley Scott’s films Blade Runner (1982), or even the "artificial life form" Bishop (Lance Henriksen) in Aliens (1986), are palpable.
The script is all well-judged, with writer Mark Gatiss showing off his word-smithery to excellent effect, putting the most erudite of speeches into the Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) mouth on the subject of sleep and its centrality to the human condition. On the downside, however, there is some unforgivably lax pseudo-science here that would make any elementary science teacher blush in embarrassment: Rassmussen's station requires an "anti-grav shield" to stay in stable orbit around Neptune. The plot twist this scenario furnished the episode with could have been provided by any number of other sources of potential peril that didn’t make a mockery of orbital mechanics. Ah, well. At least no one mentioned trilithium or midi-chlorians.
Ultimately, what prevents this episode from being great is the fact that there is simply too much going on. The multiple talking points and moral issues raised would probably be enough to fill two episodes, making it a rather odd choice for a stand-alone story in a series dominated by two-parters. As it stands, too many plotlines are left dangling at the episode’s conclusion.
In the end, however, while I hated the episode’s cavalier approach to science and the needlessly thready plot, I applaud the makers and Mark Gatiss for having the guts to try something new. "Sleep No More" was by turns spine-chilling, dismaying, gut-wrenching and frustrating -- but one thing it was not, was boring.