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Doctor Who: The Gallifrey Times Team Reviews Sleep No More

Saturday night saw Series 9 branch out into experimental territory with the show’s first ever found-footage episode, which packed in elements like monsters made from sleep dust, copious use of ‘Mr Sandman’ and an ending that has, erm… sparked discussion. What did our team make of this controversial episode? Read on to find out!

Ben (Assistant Editor)

I really do not know what to make of Sleep No More. A weird mix of traditional ‘base under siege’ Doctor Who and something completely new, it has, unsurprisingly, divided fans and it’s not hard to see why. The found footage idea was a risky choice, but in the context of the episode, I think it worked well and brought something new to the show. I wouldn’t like to see it in more episodes, but it did make it feel like one of those unseen adventures that we’re always hearing about that someone happened to have captured on film. There were several things that niggled me: 474, who, for me, was terribly underdeveloped and the worst character since the Tivolians; the glitch effects, which never seem to look realistic in film or TV; Nagata’s overuse of the word Pet; and of course the confusing ending, where the Doctor just abandons the plot altogether. However, on the flip side, there was Reece Shearsmith’s excellent performance as Rasmussen, the wonderfully realised Sandmen and of course Capaldi and Coleman’s continuously brilliant performances. I even quite liked the use of The Chordette’s Mr.Sandman as a joke in the episode. Overall, I’m quite undecided on how I feel about this episode, I think I may need to sleep on it. 6/10

Landon (News)

While the idea of Sleep No More is great, the delivery of the episode is sadly extremely lacking. It seemed to have cluttered way too much of ideas and story into one episode, resulting in little enjoyment. This story definitely deserves a second part, as the ending leaves us with many questions and confusion. It did at least have some positives, however, like the intriguing use of “found footage” and first person through the characters’ eyes. The visual effects in the episode were also well done, despite the show’s known low budget. Perhaps the worst for me was the idea of the villainous beings. I just was not able to grasp the concept of “sleep dust monsters”. Perhaps if Gatiss were able to come up with a better villain there would have been more interest and enjoyment for me. Overall, an okay episode. While it’s definitely not as low as season 2’s Love and Monsters, it definitely was very flawed and is the worst of this season thus far. 5/10

Patrick (News)

Mark Gatiss to me is a conundrum; he is undoubtedly a very fine actor, as is testament in Sherlock with his slimy, manipulative turn as Mycroft. Yet, when it comes to writing stories, particularly in Doctor Who, missteps always seem to arise. This is no more apparent when you observe the Smith era and Gatiss’s contribution. You have The Crimson Horror, Cold War, Night Terrors and Victory of the Daleks, all solid episodes but certainly lacking in tact when you view the series around them. Yes, many people will enjoy these stories, and I find myself partial to Night Terrors and Cold War in particular, but never has Gatiss been able to match the strength of his first work on Doctor Who way back in 2005 and 2006 with The Unquiet Dead and The Idiot’s Lantern, not perfect episodes by any means but profoundly his best writing on the show to date. It upsets me then that with Sleep No More, Gatiss stumbles yet again to tell an effective story; truth be told, there may be no worse episode on his resume than Sleep No More. The concept of this week’s episode is unfortunately the only shining light amongst a mishandled mess.

An episode told entirely via found footage has never been attempted in the show’s history, so mark experimentation as a strength of Sleep No More. Director Justin Molotnikov wields the form well, jumping between viewpoints to give us multiple different observations of the mise en scene. There was a particular charm in seeing characters move in the scene outside of the typical framing we are all accustomed to, having Peter Capaldi glare at us down the camera with those magnificent, piercing eyes. Based on the format alone, Sleep No More stands out, but the uniqueness very quickly unravels to reveal a plot paper thin outside of the format. The story is told in media res by Reece Shearsmith as Rassmussen, the lead scientist on the Le Verrier Space Station which recently went quiet. The backwards, found nature of the plot does a good job of presenting a story that is lost; we do not go on the journey with The Doctor and Clara, rather we must observe an event that has already happened, a sinister thought when you contemplate the present and the current state of the characters. That dread follows the progression of the plot throughout Sleep No More, generating a dark, mysterious atmosphere that matches the creepy halls of the station. Unfortunately, this sinister cocoon is ruptured by a monster that can only be described as baffling.

Perhaps Gatiss had a really bad sleep one night and penned this script in frustration, but whatever the reasoning, the episode’s main theme of sleep loses impact when the sleep dust monsters are introduced. Whilst somewhat threatening in visage, it is very hard to take a villain seriously when the crux of their creation is that gunk we get in our eyes when waking up. This is no Moffat inspired monster, one that takes everyday simplicity and morphs it into something we should all fear. Dust is probably a step too far down the simplicity rabbit hole. Credit to Shearsmith for his portrayal of Rassmussen, the true villain of the story, who wonderfully utilises his experience in the dark comedy group The League of Gentlemen to portray him with a sickly innocence. Gatiss manages to maintain this innocence through to the end, yet it is in the climax that Sleep No More ultimately falls apart with the worst and least satisfying end to an episode I have ever seen in Doctor Who. It is perfectly clear a second part was required here, as such without it, all semblance of impact is lost in the rush. Who knows when we will see this story continue, even with the admittedly strong supporting cast, but I fear the damage is already done. Sleep No More is an unnecessary blight on a very strong series, with a unique concept that should have set a new benchmark for creativity and experimentation in the show. With this loosest of endings however, it will likely be remembered as the hallmark of poor execution. 7/10

Bedwyr (News)

This week Doctor Who ventured into the ‘found footage’ genre popularised by movies such as The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield, the latter being one of my all time favourite films. The episode titled Sleep No More is a definite departure from the norm, there’s no title sequence or theme tune for a start, and should rightly be praised for doing something different with the Doctor Who format. With an intriguing plot centred around sleep deprivation technology, an eery atmosphere and a frightening monster it has all the ingredients to deliver an instant classic. However, the result falls flat and leaves the viewer scratching their head with no resolution to the peril whatsoever.
Firstly, a programme which begins with someone telling the audience not to watch is immediately asking for trouble and ridicule, even if it is later explained in the dramatic but far from satisfying conclusion. Similarly, despite an attempt to deliver a ‘found footage’ episode it stops short of embracing the genre. It is less ‘found footage’ and more of a holiday video edited together with a tedious commentary which slows the action. If done properly the story would begin with a UNIT (or other military) date stamp or record entry and present footage taken from security camera recordings. Like a black box recorder on a plane, there is no editing just the presentation of evidence. Instead we get ‘found footage lite’ with POV shots akin to Channel 4’s Peep Show, merged together with CCTV material. Ultimately this is explained away at the end and is probably an attempt not to alienate the regular audience. 
A lot of debate will now centre on the conclusion with it probably being very decisive. In my mind it seemed muddled, left open for a second part or sequel which doesn’t appear to be forthcoming from the Next Time trailer. I like that occasionally the Doctor might not win, using the TARDIS to escape a situation he cannot change, it adds unpredictability. But this didn’t feel like that, the Doctor and Clara were off to Neptune and the sandmen were coming so why won’t we see what happens next?
Other irritants included Elaine Tan’s overuse of the word ‘pet’, the repeated feel of the Cold Blood (2012) homage to Alien and the way Bethany Black was utilised. After the positive use of deaf actress Sophie Stone in Under the Lake where she was the commanding officer, Black as the first transgender person to appear in the show is sadly reduced to a drone of low intelligence.

The sandmen themselves were classic Doctor Who monsters but don’t be mistaken this is not a complement. They are humanoid creatures, easier to realise in production but are strikingly similar to other efforts such as Ballal the Exxilon (Death to the Daleks, 1974) in the classic series and the zombie creatures from Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (2013) in the modern era. Their creation is simple to comprehend and interesting to consider. However, things get very sketchy when the dust in your eye has the ability to observe through a hosts eye, an attempt to explain away the POV camerawork.
In conclusion, Sleep No More provides engaging viewing with scares and atmosphere aplenty. It does however fail to fully embrace the genre it is attempting to replicate, with a baffling finale that left this viewer rueing a missed opportunity. 5/10

Andrew (News)

Although I was initially confused as to whether Sleep No More was stand alone or like previous episodes would have a concluding part two, overall I have to say I really enjoyed what I saw. I felt there were plenty of positives going on. Visually I thought the episode was extremely impressive. The obvious darkness to it all was made very atmospheric with some really clever lighting – there were tons of cool artistic flash moments punctuating throughout. Right from the beginning I got a nice sense of horror in terms of mood, and the mostly absent soundtrack gave things a less is more quality. I liked each character’s simple development contrasting with the strangeness of the Doctor’s wandering thoughts alluding to the values of sleep as seen through the ages (including a nice reference to Shakespeare). I can see why some might think the episode was slow moving or even directionless, but I loved the steady tension I felt and the overall creepiness, even if the intensity seemed often not to reach definite climax. For me the monsters we saw were almost irrelevant, we became aware that the threat actually lay in conscious dust in the atmosphere, so was actually far more prevalent throughout than one or two noisy humanoid manifestations.
Reflecting on the episode I think the deliberate attempt to directly address the viewer really worked. The concept of carrying and spreading a hostile alien threat through something so simple as ‘sleep dust’ I feel is pleasantly disturbing, in some ways equally as evocative as the ‘don’t cremate me’ chant of Series 8’s Dark Water. I liked how we were signed off with the reminder that we were warned not to watch at the start, the fairly gruesome ‘eyeball’ scene did send a slight shiver through me as we were left with the implication that an insane scientist had got one over us all in a classic hoodwink. This is total speculation but I’m enjoying exploring the chilling idea that maybe the Doctor never even existed in this episode, what we saw was a disturbed plot which takes advantage of our susceptibilities where the characters of the Doctor and Clara are just a vivid part of the deception/hallucination. Perhaps I’m partly making up for my foul mood of last week, but all in all I’m happy to rate this episode pretty highly. 8.5/10

And the average totals out at 6.3/10, a sign of our team’s slightly lukewarm reaction to this episode. Unsurprisingly, then, Sleep No More slots in at the bottom spot of the season on our team’s leaderboard:
  1. The Magician’s Apprentice9.25/10
  2. The Girl Who Died9/10
  3. The Witch’s Familiar8.92/10
  4. The Zygon Invasion8.7/10
  5. The Zygon Inversion8.21/10
  6. Under the Lake8.2/10
  7. Before the Flood8/10
  8. The Woman Who Lived7.5/10
  9. Sleep No More – 6.3/10
Our spoiler-filled team review of Face the Raven will be up next Tuesday.