2nd Opinion: Sleep No More
David Selby and Connor Johnston give their verdicts on the 9th episode of Series 9.
In some ways I was pleasantly surprised with Sleep No More, an episode I wasn’t particularly excited for. I’m not a fan of the found footage genre because widely speaking, it doesn’t work. One of the aims of found footage is to give the illusion that what you’re watching is real – assembled from ‘secret footage’ of ‘closely-guarded real life events’ to create a ‘realistic’ piece of entertainment with ‘genuine suspense’. As you can tell from my sardonic inflection, this usually isn’t the case, because most audiences are intelligent enough to work out that what they’re watching is fictional.
Sleep No More, then, provided an effective solution to this problem: the unreliable narrator. Not only were the events of the story warped, they also took a wonderfully metafictional turn, where the episode’s central twist was that Rassmussen big plan was to kill everyone with a good Doctor Who episode. This moment did raise genuine tension, because we really were duped; outwitted by the narrative we were watching. Similarly, this feels the perfect fit for Capaldi’s tenure, which has largely been characterised by the Twelfth Doctor’s control over his medium: he is able to break the fourth wall, change the way stories are told, and work the narrative in ways we have not anticipated, such as being prepared for Davros’ betrayal, or wiping previous conversations in the Black Archive from not just UNIT’s memory, but ours. Here, in a cynical turn, Twelve is the victim of his own tricks, with the narrative being used against him for fatal consequences.
However, whilst the analysis of the episode shows it to be a near-masterpiece, taking it from a straightforward critical viewpoint does raise some problems. For instance – and after the last paragraph, this may sound unexpectedly simple – the Sandmen were rubbish. Primeval did identical monsters a few years earlier and did them better. It’s hard to buy Rassmussen’s obsession with them when at the slightest tremor they fall apart. Another underdeveloped idea was sleep deprivation: it would have been interesting to see the results of being a ‘wide-awake’ on an actual human rather than a lumbering monster. As a found footage episode, and a piece of metafiction, I can barely fault Sleep No More. But as a Doctor Who episode, it stumbles over some serious problems.
And, to be completely honest – and you can take this criticism or leave it – it just wasn’t what I wanted at this point in the series. Next week looks as if it will be Clara Oswald’s final episode, yet Series Nine thus far has barely found anything to do with her. Not only was there a disappointing lack of interaction between Doctor and companion, but Sleep No More barely needed Clara – she didn’t even get given the Shakespeare line. It would have been nice, on her penultimate outing, to see a straightforward adventure with the Doctor: one last outing of business as usual. But to search for that, we’re taken all the way back to The Girl Who Died, and I cannot help but feel that this absence of content will be detrimental when it comes to her exit story. On the plus side, next week’s episode looks nothing short of phenomenal, and I’m more than certain that it will do the character justice.
“Sleep No More” is without question one of the most ambitious and risky episodes attempted in Doctor Who’s history. While it may not be as solid of a script in terms of its narrative progression and final outcome, it’s important to at least admire and appreciate the bravery of Mark Gatiss and the creative team in venturing out of familiar territory. If anything, the fact that such a level of experimentation is even possible speaks wonders of the strong and confident position the series finds itself in currently. However, as much as one can appreciate the effort and intentions of “Sleep No More“, the reality remain that the final product is one that is ultimately ridden with structural flaws and little narrative significance as a standalone adventure.
One of the strongest qualities of Gatiss’ episodes is usually the purpose of an episode’s contextual setting being made explicit through its narrative and themes. For example in “Cold War” this was achieve through the concept of “Mutually Assured Destruction” being channelled through Skaldak’s actions. Similarly in “The Idiot’s Lantern” it was the decade’s infatuation with domestic modernisation that complemented the threat of the episode effortlessly. Conversely, “Sleep No More” lacks the depth of Gatiss’ previous work in the respect that its environment fails to inform any aspect of its storytelling. Despite being offered such a premise of the 38th Century, where the cultural merger of two of the most prosperous nations of modern times has lead to the creation of an entire new culture; the concept is left to amount to nothing but dust in the wind. Similarly, while never producing anything instantly iconic, Gatiss’ monsters have always been creations that one can count on for original, solid concepts. While the Sandmen serve to maintain the suspense and threat of the episode and are responsible for some truly horrific scenes, their construction and role in the narrative seems a little uninspired – with their potential to impress with their nature being reduced to a wordy, theoretical explanation that lacks the intensity and merit of a dramatic revelation.
The “found footage” format of the episode is a move justified both by its narrative purpose and the impressive final outcome. Director Justin Molotnikov really needs to be commended on the polished and professional episode, meeting the challenges of such a demanding brief with ease and producing a real creative victory. Of course in embracing such a restricting and chaotic format, understandably different sacrifices need to be made. Most notably these include the establishing of secondary characters, with more focus being directed to the action of the plot rather than the fleshing out of guest personalities. This leaves a line-up that suffers greatly from generic characterisation which hinders the audience from having any real investments in their fate, however given that the episode was merely footage stitched together by Rassmussen that isn’t necessarily a criticism of the episode, more an acceptance. Nagata is the only individual of the rescue crew that I would say is both portrayed and written strongly, holding a more substantial role than any of her colleagues.
As much as I’ve criticised the episode today, it must be recognised that it does find various areas to hold its own as a solid contribution to the series line-up. Firstly the atmosphere the episode establishes is properly daunting, achieving a tone of dread and malicious intent in a way that other episodes have only been able to attempt. The mystery and unpredictability of the plot also leaves it rife with risk. In terms of the more substantial personalities of the episode, while there’s no spectacular exploration of the Doctor and Clara’s relationship there remains plenty of opportunities to showcase such a rewarding dynamic. Reece Shearsmith’s portrayal of Rassmussen is simply impeccable, rising to the challenge of a role that evolves significantly throughout the episode and achieving the variety of his character effortlessly. The final twist is no doubt the most rewarding and shocking revelation of the episode, and while it may not be strong enough to totally make up for the flaws of episode that exist prior to the final 15 minutes, it definitely impressed with the level of creativity and sheer cleverness. Finally the episode is decorated with some stunning pieces of dialogue, featuring a balance of wit and horror that Gatiss is known for.
As someone who thought Gatiss’ previous contribution, “Robot of Sherwood“, was an episode that narratively and structurally lacked substance, there was always a thematic commentary on the value of impossible heroes and legends to appreciate. To its credit, “Sleep No More” does begin to touch on a strong message that condemns the emphasis we put on work, humanity’s competitive nature, prioritising commercial success over our health and our fatal ambition to always be to be bigger and better than our competitors. Revolutionising the workforce so we can push ourselves to the edges of extinction is a morbid future that I hope never actually comes to pass, however to an extent our own society’s obsession with work is already leading us down a similar route. The Sandmen have the ability to be symbolic of the ‘creatures of habit’ we become when we’re sleep deprived and exist almost as a cautionary tale to not devalue the little luxury of rest we have. In this aspect the only real injustice is this moral isn’t emphasised or explored more significantly as the plot progresses.
An overwhelming feeling that I was unable to shake after numerous viewings of the episode was that it seemed more like the first half of a story, or even a pre-title sequence forced to fit a 45-minute time-slot. In being one of only two single part episode of Series 9, it really required more of a confidence in being a self-contained plot. Ironically however, maybe one of the episode strengths is the potential its conclusion involuntarily creates. Very rarely does an episode end with the Doctor robbed of closure and the villains seemingly victorious. The mystery of what this victory could mean for anyone who finds the film easily sets up for the chance of a sequel. However until such an episode is released one can’t really attribute “Sleep No More” for its success. Perhaps, if the entirety of the episode was condensed to run simultaneously with Rassmussen’s footage having been discovered and watched by a new character that eventually finds themselves affected by the electronic imprint of the film and overcome by the Sandmen, I would have been in a better position to praise the episode narratively as well as professionally.
Does the story meet the incredibly high standard set by the previous eight, near flawless contributions to the series so far? Unfortunately not. However it still offers enough in entertainment value, if not through it’s narrative, to leave one content and even somewhat appreciative of the ambition the episode embodies. Sometimes risks don’t completely pay off, and “Sleep No More” Definitely stands true to this point – but it doesn’t fail in as much of a detrimental fashion to tarnish either the quality of the series nor my own confident belief in Gatiss’ ability as a writer. It remains to be said: if this ‘average adventure’ is the lowest point of an otherwise excellent series, then we truly have been blessed with a remarkably strong position heading into a dramatic and promising final stretch.