“Sleep No More” is the penultimate episode of Doctor Who’s ninth season, the usual calm before the storm of the season finale. In a season full of two-part stories (and even a three-part finale), “Sleep No More” stands out as the only forty-five minute standalone adventure of the bunch, which would otherwise be the norm in any other season of Doctor Who. It’s also probably the adventure with the smallest sense of scale in this season, being set entirely inside a haunted space station that’s orbiting Neptune, though the ending of this episode does have some pretty large and morbid ramifications for the future history of the Doctor Who universe, which will always be left up to the audience’s imaginations.
“Sleep No More” is written by Mark Gatiss, who has returned to the series as a guest writer on an almost regular basis since Doctor Who returned in 2005. Something I admire about Mark’s writing style is that he always tries to tackle a different film genre in each of his episodes, and he never writes the same kind of story twice. Some of his experiments are more successful than others, and “Sleep No More” is one of his most divisive outings that received a very mixed reception when it aired back in 2015 – some people admire it for its ambition, while other think it’s a boring slog. This episode does have a number of flaws: the found footage style of filming makes it hard to keep track of everything that’s happening onscreen, the villains of the week are not very threatening, and the ending doesn’t really have a strong enough pay-off to make up for all of its shortcomings. “Sleep No More” was supposed to have a follow-up story in Series 10 that was later scrapped in favor of “The Empress Of Mars”, a loose follow-up story to Series 7’s “Cold War“. And in my opinion, I don’t really think it needed a sequel: I think it functions well enough as a spooky one-off adventure with a rather dark twist ending.
In a large departure from most Doctor Who episodes, we spend the first five minutes of “Sleep No More” following the perspective of the guest characters, which allows us to see just how strange our two leads can seem from an outsider’s perspective, once they finally wander into the narrative. The Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) are in a pretty laidback mood this week. They trade a lot of snark and banter freely about the Sandmen (including what they should actually call the creatures), and as tense as their situation can get sometimes, there’s very much a sense that this adventure is just a regular day at the office for them. However, it is nice to see the Doctor and Clara just spend some time together, bonding, in this episode, because they’ve been separated a lot this season, and “Sleep No More” is their last normal adventure together before the events of “Face The Raven”.
When the Doctor and Clara get drafted into the rescue mission of some solders, the Doctor is willing to play along and let the others think they’re in charge for a while, just so he can find out what their goal is. But he quickly puts his foot down and asserts his own authority when he learns what has caused so much death and destruction on the space base, and just what’s at stake if it manages to escape to other worlds – he’s determined to stop the Sandmen from infecting the rest of humanity at all costs. Clara tags along with him as usual, and she’s pretty at ease with their investigation, because after two and a half seasons, she can definitely be considered a veteran companion. Mark Gatiss gives her the traditional companion role of accidentally stumbling into the villain’s plan, giving us some early clues of what’s going on with the Sandmen when they discreetly hijack her vision.
The Doctor and Clara once again serve as this show’s moral center, as they call into question some of the more questionable things that have been normalized in the 38th century. Clara thinks the military’s practice of genetically breeding clones to be mentally stunted cannon fodder is disgusting, and she’s the only other person besides Chopra and the Doctor who’s repulsed by what Morpheus is. The Doctor is more at ease with some of the culture shock: he’s been a time traveler all his life, so he’s used to seeing a different brand of morality than that of a 21st century school teacher (to say nothing of all the shady stuff his own home-world took part in over the years). However, he’s just an indignant as Clara when he discovers what humans have been doing to themselves with Morpheus, and he makes his disapproval known by scolding them for it every chance that he gets.
Throughout the Moffat era, the show has occasionally raised the question of whether or not the Doctor sleeps, and what he actually does at night while his companions are resting. “Sleep No More” finally confirms that he does sleep, albeit nowhere near as much as humans do. As such, even he understands just how vital and precious the natural process is, and what sort of dangerous consequences might come about from messing with it, for no reason other than pure greed. The Doctor constantly suspects that there’s something not quite right about Rassmussen’s story, because he has good instincts. He almost but doesn’t quite manage to figure out what the villains’ true plan is in time, and since he fails to do so, “Sleep No More” is one of the rare times where the antagonists actually get what they wanted. This is an unexpected surprise but a very welcome one to me, since I always like to see the show demonstrate that the Doctor is not infallible by having him lose a battle for once.
The side characters in this episode, a small platoon of soldiers on a rescue mission, are a pretty likable bunch, but they’re mostly here to be cannon fodder. Chopra is the hotheaded one of the group, who often starts arguments with his comrades about his disdain for the Morpheus technology, because he thinks it’s dangerous and exploitative. 474 is the muscle of the team. In the 38th century, armies like to breed super strong ‘grunts’ like her with limited intelligence, to be their obedient soldiers. 474 has a very childlike mindset, and she’s clearly infatuated with Chopra, which he finds to be creepy. In fact, he’s pretty hostile towards grunts in general. Chopra’s suspicions about the Morpheus technology are eventually validated when the Sandmen are unleashed, but he doesn’t get to enjoy the vindication for very long. 474 also gains the respect of her crush, after she saves his life, but she doesn’t get to enjoy it for very long either, since both of them are killed soon after.
Deep Ando is the practical jokester of the group, who tries to bring some levity to an otherwise tense unit. Since he’s one of the most affable and well-adjusted members of the team, he’s naturally the first one to die when he gets separated from the others and targeted by the Sandmen. Lastly, Nagata is the strict leader of the team, who often struggles with maintaining the chain of command with her troops, considering how young she still is. When her men start dying one by one on her watch, she clearly has a lot of regrets about not being able to do more for them, along with how she just followed the latest Morpheus craze and didn’t even consider the danger Chopra warned her about until it was too late. Surprisingly, she’s the only one of the soldiers who manages to survive the slaughter and escape the base with the Doctor and Clara at the end.
The entire plot of this episode is set inside a lonely, isolated space station that’s orbiting Neptune in the 38th century, and it’s shot just like a horror movie – specifically a found footage movie. As the first act unfolds, it slowly becomes apparent that the base is abandoned because all of the crew have been killed by monsters, creatures who have completely taken over the ship. The catalyst for this massacre turns out to be Morpheus: a revolutionary invention that allows humans to condense a whole month of sleep down into just five minutes, so they can stay awake for as long as they like. Professor Gagan Rassmussen, the creator of this project, claims that he just wanted to do his part to help humanity, but it’s pretty clear that everyone involved in the making of this contraption just wanted to turn a bigger profit for themselves.
You see, in the 38th century, people can work more and sleep less now. Is it any wonder why money-hungry businessman and opportunistic military leaders would want to fund that kind of research? The average Joes of the world treat Morpheus like it’s the latest fad – a cool new way for them to make the most of their day, and make their lives so much more convenient than they were before. No one seems to care about the potential risks of tampering with basic human nature – their own basic nature – until it’s too late. In true sci-fi fashion, their lack of foresight winds up creating a new breed of monsters that want to wipe out humanity and replace us as the dominant species in the galaxy. Since the Sandmen are a product of both hubris and mad science – future humans failing to consider the possible consequences of their actions, so long as they can make their lives easier and more cost-efficient – this episode reminds me a lot of “The Rebel Flesh” from Series 6, and the ganger uprising in that story.
While we spend a good amount of time with the Doctor, Clara and the supporting cast in “Sleep No More”, the villains are the true focal point of this episode, and how much you like them tends to be a major factor in how much you like this story as a whole. The Sandmen are sleep dust monsters (in the Doctor’s own words) who mutated from the corner of people’s eyes and gained sentience because of the Morpheus technology. From there, they grew to consume their hosts in their sleep pods and took on humanoid form. “Sleep No More” tends to strain a lot of people’s suspension of disbelief, in the same way “Kill The Moon” does, because a lot of people feel the backstory for these creatures sounds really ridiculous. Personally, I’m less bothered by their origin story and more bothered by their designs.
They’re obscured in the shadows of the base for a long time, and when we finally get a clear view of them, they look way more goofy than creepy – like giant lumps of clay, or oatmeal, or earwax. If you’re making a horror-themed episode, and your monsters wind up being more comical than menacing, then you’ve got a problem. Professor Rassmussen plays a big role in this story as well. He’s the narrator of this episode, and the one who compiles all the found footage together, even after he seemingly dies twice. To the Doctor and his friends, he portrays himself as a terrified victim of his own mad science, who’s helpless to stop his creations. In reality, the Sandmen converted him a long time ago, and he’s now in league with them. He orchestrated the plot of this entire episode to get them what they needed. In hindsight, we all should have seen the betrayal coming: the sole survivor of an offscreen massacre turning out to be a double agent is the exact same trick the Zygons pulled on Kate in “The Zygon Invasion“.
“Sleep No More” does some pretty neat things with the found footage genre of horror movies, by making the main gimmick of this episode a core part of the plot. “Sleep No More” leans on the fourth wall quite often: usually with Rassmussen’s narration, but also with the Doctor’s comments, that feel like they’re aimed at the audience as much as the characters around him. Most of this episode is shot from the first-person perspective of the cast, though we also get some black and white establishing shots whenever we cut away to surveillance footage throughout the base. Nagata eventually reveals that none of the soldiers have helmet cams on them, which was foreshadowed very early on. After Clara went inside a Morpheus pod for a few seconds, we started getting POV shots from her perspective as well, when she most certainly doesn’t have a camera on her.
Eventually, the Doctor realizes that the footage is being filmed by particles of dust floating around the base, watching the cast at all times, which was also foreshadowed early on by a comment 474 made. Rassmussen and the Sandmen staged most of this episode: they put everyone in danger so they could get some good footage of their demises and broadcast it to the whole solar system. They essentially weaponized the basic formula of Doctor Who and created a thrilling hour of television, so they could hook all their viewers at home. So long as people kept watching their horror film, they could infect them with the Morpheus signal and convert them. And despite the Doctor’s meddling in their plans, their scheme is actually successful in the end – this corner of the galaxy in the 38th century is going down. In true horror movie fashion, “Sleep No More” wraps up with a really bleak twist ending: giving the folks at home one last scare that will linger in their minds afterwards.
“Sleep No More” is directed by Justin Molotnikov, who does a solid and serviceable job of handling this episode. I’ve never been much of a fan of found footage movies, and whenever I rewatch “Sleep No More” I’m usually reminded why that’s the case. Shaky cam is used extensively throughout this story, to put us right in the middle of the action as the characters make their way down dark hallways, that are filled with shadows everywhere. The constant motion blur makes it very difficult to tell exactly what’s happening a lot of the time, especially during the chase scenes. The set designers do a commendable job of bringing the grey, grungy, space station setting to life, because the world of this story feels just as fully realized as the underwater base setting from “Under The Lake“, earlier this season.
I also have to give my props to the show’s editors, because this episode had to have been even more difficult to cut together than usual, with so many shaky cam shots from so many different angles that all had to line up with each other – and for the most part, the transitions between shots are always handled seamlessly. The CGI from the show’s visual effects department is on top form this week, because we get some very nice shots of not only Neptune from orbit, but also the Sandmen disintegrating into dust. I appreciate the fact that Murray Gold’s score is used very sparingly in “Sleep No More”, with the exception of a tense, electronic piece called “The Morpheus Song“. For the most part, the acting, directing and blocking are left to speak for themselves when it comes to building up tension. None of his usual themes for the Doctor and Clara are used in this episode either, which makes the soundtrack for this story stand out from most of the other Capaldi era episodes.
All in all, I wouldn’t say “Sleep No More” is a bad episode of Doctor Who, because in spite of its flaws, it does have a lot of good qualities to it as well. I would say that it’s a rather ambitious experiment that wound up being one of the more average episodes that Mark Gatiss wrote for Doctor Who, but it’s still better than “The Idiot’s Lantern“.
* “So, what, you are a rescue mission? Of four?” “Cuts, pet”.
* “Eyes. Watch. Eyes in sky” I appreciate the implication that 474 is not quite as oblivious as she seems. She picks up on the fact that they’re being watched by someone long before anyone else does.
* “Morpheus? Named after the God of Dreams? Oh, yeah. Ooh, yeah. Not just ‘this'”.
* “That’s insane, that’s horrible!” “Finally, someone who sees it for what is is!”
* There are multiple instances of Peter Capaldi looking right into the camera in this episode. staring straight into your soul, and it makes me feel kind of uncomfortable.
* “Congratulations, Professor. You’ve revolutionized the labor market. You’ve conquered nature. You’ve also created an abomination”.
* “You can’t just throw accusations like that around! That’s slander!” You’ve got to give it to Professor Rassmussen: he’s a good actor and he’s really going all in with his façade.
* “What about us? We’ve all used the pods back on Triton?” “Not all of us” “This isn’t a good time to be smug, pet”.
* “It’s adaptable, it’s clever, and it’s coming for us”.
* Deep Ando being forced to jump through hoops because the ship’s crew apparently reprogrammed the computer systems feel very reminiscent of “42“. And of course, you have to feel bad for the guy on rewatch, once you know that Rassmussen and Sandmen set all this up to play sick mind games with him before killing him off.
* “Argh, this day couldn’t get any worse!” Clara, why on Earth would you say that? You know better than to say that.
* This episode is named after a line in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, and the playwright himself gets namedropped by the Doctor. As you’ll recall, the Doctor has actually met Shakespeare before, in Series 3’s “The Shakespeare Code“.
* I laugh every time 474 announces that she’s going to save Chopra, and then she promptly punches him in the face, knocking him out.
* “You don’t have a camera, Clara. But you will have by now, sleep in your eye”.
* Poor Chopra. He makes it back to the rescue ship just a few minutes too early, and he gets killed off by the Sandmen before the others arrive.
* “And that’s what you want? You’re helping them wipe out humanity!” “Things have been made very clear to me!”
* I unironically love how Clara is outraged that Nagata would shoot Rassmussen like that. Meanwhile, the Doctor doesn’t give a single flying fuck about him, and instead focuses all of his attention on the ship’s computer. Yeah, that seems pretty on brand for Twelve.
* “It doesn’t make sense! None of this makes any sense!” I feel like that line could be used to describe so many episodes of Doctor Who over the years.
* “There’s nothing left of Rassmussen any more. Only us. Only us. You will show this film to your family, won’t you? And your friends. And everyone, really. Then we can all be together, dust to dust. Excuse me, you’ve got something there, just in the corner of your eye“.