Doctor Who: 909 “Sleep No More” Review
Reviewed by John Hussey.
Mark Gatiss is one of my favourite writers for Doctor Who, and for good reason. He has certainly contributed a lot to the show since its return back in 2005. This year he has gone ahead and added something completely different, something never before seen on the show; a found-footage narrative.
I will admit I am not the biggest fan of found-footage narratives. Cloverfield, to me, was a pile of old rubbish. The Paranormal Activity series is quite bland, and not scary. Most I’ve seen have been disappointing, resulting in me refusing to watch most of them out there due to how bad I feel about them. They detract from the narrative I feel because we are restricted in what we can see. That and the narratives are nearly always the same and there to try and force jump scares upon us.
However, Gatiss has gone about to create a unique story using the found-footage formula, even going as far as giving the filming technique a purpose within his narrative. In many ways the found-footage style didn’t make this episode any different than any other narrative, in terms of structure. We still had the Doctor leading the story and trying to save the day, with Clara by his side helping out. But we still only got to see this journey from the eyes of different characters or from brief third perspectives. It did make this narrative unique in how it looked and felt.
The narrative itself was ingenious, with Gatiss taking tips from Steven Moffat in transforming a mundane, everyday thing into something terrifying. In this case “sleep”. We all sleep. That is a fundamental fact and Gatiss turned this universal element against us. This came about with the Morpheus machine. This machine practically eliminated sleep from everyday life by condensing the amount of time people sleep to a mere five minutes.
This idea developed many interesting insights into the world Gatiss created. Humanity are now basically drones. Sleep has been removed in order to condense wasted time and to allow for more efficient workers. Humanity can then have more and more time to work and work, therefore creating increased profit for greedy corporations. The troubling thought was that humanity didn’t seem to mind this, with character Nagata praising the machine and what it does.
Looking into the matter further makes you wonder if humanity even has any freedom left. One of the most fundamental elements has been removed from life. Dream theorists believe that dreams and nightmares can help to develop a person, allowing them to prepare for day-to-day activities. Also dreams serve to be a form of imagination. More so for lucid dreamers. Without this element it would surely mean humanity would lose its individuality. Humanity would surely become more like machines than a living organism. It would seem that money is far more important than safety and wellbeing.
Another grim factor that came out of this episode was the idea of cloning “drones”. This very idea is basically the same as the Sontarans. An army created for the sole purpose of fighting, lacking any understanding of emotion and humanity. 474s character was certainly one of the best developed character of this narrative, showcasing how backwards the 38th Century was. 474 was simply there for a purpose through design which was referenced throughout to remind the viewer that this character wasn’t like the rest. They were a tool and nothing more.
Though it was nice to see, despite 474 being a grunt, they still had a sense of humanity which slowly came through. This was caused through their affection towards character Chopra, even going as far as sacrificing themselves to see him. You could go as far as to say that 474 was the most human character within this week’s episode which is funny considering they were a manufactured product. That says a lot about the humanity demonstrated within ‘Sleep No More’.
Of course, like all mad science-fiction experiments that try to tamper with nature, they end up going horribly wrong. The Morpheus machine started to create the Sandmen. These creatures started to evolve and adapt, going as far as turning humanity into their food source. I liked that this made the episode fairly straightforward. We need that from time to time. A good old fashioned “run down corridors from monsters” scenario and Gatiss did this extremely well, whilst adding his usual macabre.
Going back to the found-footage format, another great addition was the pre-recorded narration throughout by Gagan Rassmussen. These little scenes gave you an insight into the narrative unfolding and what may or may not happen. It made the experience all the more tense and surprising. When Rassmussen is thought to be killed mid-way through the narrative it makes you wonder how there is a recorded message by him detailing the events. His recordings added a lot of mystery and eventually added in the biggest twist of the episode.
I congratulate Reece Shearsmith on his terrific performance. He delivered a character that was certainly crafty and simply unhinged towards the end. He added so much to the narrative and played off well against Peter Capaldi. It was interesting to see how the Sandmen drove him to insanity, resulting in him trying to hand humanity over to this terrifying threat. Shearsmith really did deliver this feeling of true dread and a complete loss in hope and faith. He was no longer a scientist but a man warped by fear. I thought it was terrific seeing Shearsmith starring in a Gatiss episode, making him feel right at home. At last all of The League of Gentlemen stars have had an onscreen role within Doctor Who.
One of the most interesting twists was the reasoning behind the found- footage format. This was due to us seeing the narrative through the eyes of the Sandmen. The Sandmen had literally spread through the ship as spores in the air and even infiltrated everyone that had entered the Morpheus machine. It’s certainly a sinister and disturbing notion. The revelation of this was executed perfectly through the Doctor revealing there are no cameras aboard the station, as well as Nagata announcing prior that they don’t have headcams. It made the found-footage format make more sense, especially in explaining why we could see through some characters eyes and not others.
I thought Gatiss really excelled himself this year. ‘Sleep No More’ proved that he could move out of his comfort zone and still create something unique and engaging. Added with the experimental found-footage format, it’s fair to say that Gatiss has what it takes to become show-runner. My biggest worry before was his lack of diversity, especially in terms of time setting, but since the Capaldi era he has gone about to change all that and move to further horizons like with his comical approach in last year’s ‘Robot of Sherwood’ which I thoroughly enjoyed. He’s a writer that keeps getting better and better and proves ever more that he is a fan of the show and will keep contributing.
‘Sleep No More’ was a fascinating experience, levelled by its intellectual writing and imagination. I felt the found-footage experimentation paid off and delivered an episode unlike any other. The simplistic storytelling was much appreciated as I felt it created a very core Doctor Who episode, filled with scares, thrills and straightforward adventure. Also the mystery surrounding the narrative unravelled into one of the most disturbing conclusions. Also it was unexpected; completely surprising, leaving us with a four-wall breaking experience that would make us question everything we just watched.Looking back at the episode you can clearly see why Gatiss chose the title ‘Sleep No More’. It means what it says. The episode cleverly left you with chills and made you wonder if you really wanted to go back to sleep. That, and it made you really wonder whether there was something in the corner of your eyes.