The point is that there’s a lot of other programmes that would have called it a day before now, and that to keep a show fresh after fifty-two years – or even nine series for that matter – experiment and boldly go where no episode has gone before (I’m crossing the streams here a little, but you get the idea). Some of Doctor Who’s best episodes have come out of that mindset. ‘The Lodger’! ‘Midnight’! ‘Blink’! Then sometimes, sadly, you get this.
The plot is just one of your standard base-under-siege plot, as seen most recently in ‘Under The Lake’ a few episodes ago. So what’s the experimental part? Well, it’s all found-footage! Much like The Blair Witch Project, the episode presents itself as a montage of clips recovered from the station pieced together by enigmatic narrator Professor Rassmussen (Reese Shearsmith). Oh, and that means there’s no theme tune this time round, either, so I was sat waiting for it for fifteen minutes in the closest the episode brought me to actual tension.
So what did the found-footage element add to this episode? Not that much. There were the usual love-it-or-hate-it elements of jerky, blurry footage, and it was hard to tell exactly whose viewpoint we were supposed to be borrowing at any given time. Peter Capaldi got a middling speech to the camera; it’s not a patch on last week’s, but I guess “peace in our time” is a more grandiose moral than “go to sleep or you’ll turn into a sand monster” (more on that later).
One major flaw with this episode is that if you’re going to do the base-under-siege story – a small group of minor characters getting picked off by monsters while the Doctor scrambles to save them – it helps if those minor characters are developed enough so that it’s actually sad when they die. Whereas here, development’s seemingly rationed like the last bowl of gruel in the workhouse. The military squad in this episode get exactly one character trait each. One of them is the skeptic. One of them is the joker. The leader says “pet” a lot. And none of them have any more personality than a straight line drawn on a blank sheet of paper.
And then there’s the monsters themselves, the plodding clumps of dirt known as the Sandmen that are vaguely reminiscent of the zombies from ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’. But while those turned out to come from time distortions in the bowels of the police box, the Sandmen are eye crust. That stuff you wipe out of your eyes in the morning, that’s been allowed to build up through the Morpheus pods until they apparently became sentient and took over their hosts. Oh, and the creatures are blind but somehow every individual grain they’re made up of works like a HD camera, so that’s where the found footage comes from, leading me to wonder if eye crust is USB-compatible. No, I don’t know where Mark Gatiss got that idea from either. Maybe lack of sleep.
Granted, it is possible it could have worked. Sure, “sentient body fluids” is a tough sell, but this is Doctor Who, where the Moon’s an egg and living garden ornaments are the scariest beings in the Universe. But the way it was just casually brushed past was more likely to provoke laughter than the heebie-jeebies needed for a good horror story. Similarly, there was some nice world building, with the “Great Catastrophe”, the concept of human-built warrior drones and debates as to whether Morpheus was moral, but all that got pushed off to the side too.
To finish things off, the whole thing ends with the Doctor yelling “none of this makes any SENSE” – maybe just reading a script-supervisor’s note out loud – before…getting in the TARDIS and just sort of wandering off, leaving Clara infected with the eye crust and humanity in peril. Then Rassmussen pops back up, reveals himself to be a Sandman and declares that you – yes YOU! – have been infected by the signal from the Morpheus pods, because they made this episode themselves for that very purpose, mwa-ha-ha. Then his face dissolves, which I have to admit is probably one of the creepiest sequences we’ve seen on Doctor Who for a while.
But hang on, did the Doctor never even show up and was the whole episode just a fake? ‘Doctored’ footage, if you will? But then why would the fake Doctor start calling out plot-holes? If the broadcast got out – which was heavily implied by that “you’re infected too” twist – does humanity die out in the 38th century now? Clara’s still infected: will the next episode be a grumpy Doctor leading a Sandman around on a leash?
So, that’s ‘Sleep No More’: a confusing morass of boredom containing the very occasional bright spot. It tried to be experimental, which is laudable, it’s just a shame it couldn’t have been actually good, as well.
“You must NOT watch this”, intones Rassmussen at the very start of this episode. Honestly, I’d probably say the same.