Doctor Who Review: Sleep No More

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Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor shall sleep no more. Macbeth shall sleep no more.

I’ve been looking forward to this for a very long time – ever since it was first announced that it’d be a found footage episode, actually, for two reasons. I always enjoy Mark Gatiss’ scripts, and to see him engage with a more modern horror trope sounded pretty exciting. That, and any attempts to play around with the format are always fascinating to me – it’s new and exciting, and it pushes the boundaries of what Doctor Who can do, crashing into different genres and telling new types of stories.

The found footage element, in the end, was actually really impressive. I thought it was really clever that the central conceit of the episode – the framing device – became a mechanism for the monsters to spread and attack further. It was a rather clever twist on the concept, actually, in a uniquely Doctor Who way. The final twist, with regards to the nature of the story and the transmission of the virus, was genuinely very clever.

What I really loved, though, was the slow reveal of the fact that no cameras existed through the direction. Obviously, Mark Gatiss deserves plaudits for the concept, but Justin Molotnikov, the director, did a genuinely fantastic job of hiding clues in the camera work. The switch to Clara’s perspective – and the use of Rasmussen’s perspective, when he appears – is a little difficult to notice at first, but as soon as you realise, the tension ramps right up, and the stakes are significantly higher. It’s a genuinely impressive use of the format, and it’s a really compelling, nuanced little trick, which is used very effectively. The whole episode was genuinely quite tense in places; some of the scariest Doctor Who we’ve had all season.

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I was similarly impressed by Reece Shearsmith, who gave an excellent performance as the villain of the piece. Essentially he carried it, for a rather long time; his character very much provided the focus of the piece, akin to the Elton Pope or Sally Sparrow of the episode – the episode positioning the Doctor and Clara as outsiders in their own story this week. That’s always a risky decision, that lives or dies based on the strength of the actor given such a responsibility, but thankfully, Reece Shearsmith managed to pull it off with aplomb.

The Sandmen, as the monsters to go with Shearsmith’s villain, were… interesting, as concepts. They made no sense, obviously; that just isn’t how eye dust sleep stuff (which has no proper name, weirdly) forms. All the blood and mucus that the Doctor referred to simply wouldn’t build up at all in the five minutes that people spent in the Morpheus machines. So, you know, utterly nonsensical monsters, and there were probably much more interesting concepts that could have been examined… but, to be entirely honest, it didn’t count against my enjoyment particularly. They had a clever hook with the found footage device, and an impressive visual design. I’m willing consider these monsters a success, even if they’re not the best things Gatiss has ever come up with.

Admittedly, though, the strengths of the episode do begin to run dry after that; there’s simply not a huge amount going on, and it’s debateable as to how successful it is. There’s not a huge amount here for the Doctor and Clara to do, for example, and the supporting cast here are even less developed than those who appeared in Under the Lake Before the Flood. On top of that too, actually, the resolution was a bit lacking in some regards. Whilst I’m aware that there’s going to be a sequel next year, and it was impressive to see the villain of this piece actually win, I do think that perhaps the end of the episode could have been tightened up a little bit.

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Honestly, though, it doesn’t feel like a huge detrimental factor to this episode. Where I marked Toby Whithouse’s two-parter down for the lack of characterisation of the guest cast, that was because it had little else going on – Sleep No More is making a very clear and deliberate effort to find something new to do, and provide Doctor Who like we’ve never seen it before. I’m a lot more inclined to allow some things past; the characterisation isn’t as much of a problem here as it has been in previous weeks because it’s simply not the focus of the episode.

Sleep No More is an odd one, it must be said. Certainly, I enjoyed it more on my first viewing – curtains drawn, dark room, very atmospheric – as opposed to the second time – in a brightly lit room – where I knew the majority of the plot beats and twists ahead of time. I feel like perhaps this is the sort of episode where it won’t hold up so well to repeat viewings; part of the tension came from not knowing what was happening, and that was undercut somewhat the second time around.

There’s a genuine chance that Mark Gatiss will be the next showrunner for Doctor Who; I really hope that, if he is, there are more experimental episodes like this. And, frankly, even if he isn’t, I’d like Doctor Who to be a little bit more bold, playing around with the format more. Next year, I expect a musical episode!

I enjoyed this episode a lot. I admire it a lot. And I’ll give it 8/10.

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

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