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Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Doctor Who 9-09: Sleep No More

Episode:822|Serial:259|Writer:Mark Gatiss|Air Date:14-Nov-2015

This week on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm going through the first genuinely stand-alone episode in Doctor Who series 9: Sleep No More.

This one was written by Mark Gatiss, whose stories tend to gather around the lower half of episode rankings, but the sites I checked couldn't even decide if The Unquiet Dead is one of his worst or his absolute best so what do they know? Personally I can't say where I'd rank that as I haven't seen the episode, but I liked Robot of Sherwood and Cold War well enough to be hopeful for this one.

Another fact about this episode is that it was put together by a director and it stars actors, but they're trying to downplay that due to it's 'found footage' horror gimmick. The first rule of found footage is to avoid starting your video with a list of the people playing the roles as it kind of gives away that it's fictional, so this is the only episode in 52 years of Doctor Who to skip the opening titles and jump right into the story! Probably. I haven't personally checked all 822 preceding episodes.

The second rule of found footage is that shaky-cam makes for crappy screencaps, so I'll apologise for that now.

My writing will contain SPOILERS for the entire episode and maybe earlier ones too, but I'll give away nothing of what is to come after it.

The footage of absolutely real events that actually occurred on the Le Verrier Space Station starts with an introduction by this guy, Gagan Rassmussen, who kind of resembles 21st century actor Reece Shearsmith. Third rule of found footage: cast people that the audience won't immediately recognise.

He begins by warning the audience to not watch the rest of his message, because you can never unsee it. It's probably not a good sign when the narrator is pleading with you to turn the episode off.

For some reason Rassmussen then decides to skip narrating the events that caused the disaster on LeVerrier station and jumps ahead to the part where a military squad was sent to rescue him. He jumps ahead to their whining to be more precise, as Chopra's sick of their 'Grunt' staring at him and Deep-Ando's sick of Chopra complaining.

While this is going on, Rassmussen uses his editing program to isolate each of the four soldiers in turn to introduce them and show a bit of info. Fourth rule of found footage: don't do this! Not unless you want the viewer to be distracted wondering where the 'survival rating' came from. Was it calculated by the computer? Did it come from their files? Did Rassmussen just take a guess?

The scene continues with Chopra whining some more (this time about the sleeping pod tech they use) Commander Nagata calling everyone 'pet', and their Grunt basically just standing there and staring at them the whole time.

Then there's a cool shot looking out of the window at Le Varrier station orbiting a planet. It'd be nice if Rassmussen could get around to giving us a shot of the ship they're in at well. Oh right, he can't show an external shot of the ship arriving at the station because there's no camera out there filming it! Duh.

Rassmussen explains that all the footage comes from their individual viewpoints or the station itself, so I have to wait for one of them to look at something interesting before I get to see it too.

One thing I get to see a lot of is these bursts of future computer glitchiness. Rassmussen took the time to continually switch viewpoints and put in those character sheets but he didn't bother to trim these out.
"If you're going to watch then pay close attention, your lives may depend on it."
Uh, make up your mind Rassmussen, either it's bad to watch the video or it's good to watch the video.

I might as well be watching Aliens at this point, as the squad creeps through the dimly lit hallways, looking for any survivors (with Chopra whining about the Grunt again). But there's no one else alive in here... except for a couple of people chatting further down the corridor.

Hey it's the main characters!

The Doctor and Clara have figured out that they're on a space station orbiting Neptune but they haven't quite worked out why it's deserted yet. Clara thinks that this might be a Japanese space restaurant which gets the Doctor on a rant about how people don't actually put the word 'space' in front of things. Would've been more convincing if they weren't on a space station. He calls her a pedant for bringing up 'spacesuit' as well.

The soldiers want to know who these weird strangers arguing about space restaurants are, so we get a first person look at the psychic paper as the Doctor flashes his ID! It's entirely blank on camera though, so now everyone who sees Rassmussen's video will know the Doctor's trick.

They claim to be engineering stress assessors, or at least that's what Nagata read off the Doctor's paper. She wants to know why they're here, he wants to know why she's here, and we eventually learn that 24 hours ago the station went dark and they've come to find out why.

The Doctor licks a finger and figures out that they must be on an Indo-Japanese space station in the 38th century. Apparently a Great Catastrophe eventually brings India and Japan together, physically, which explains their names and outfits. So now Clara's got that to look forward to.

They also discover that the place is really dusty, so apparently the cleaners were amongst the first to go.

The Grunt starts talking about 'eyes in sky' watching them, which winds up Chopra even more. He's sick of her poor communication skills and gets even more annoyed when she touches his face, causing him to push her away.

This turns out to be a BAD MOVE. Though Chopra escapes without injury and Grunt's very sorry about it.

Hey, it just occurred to me that the Doctor and Clara didn't get their own info cards when they came on board. I want to know their official survival ratings!

I'm sorry I keep calling her the Grunt by the way, but her real name's 474 and that's just as awkward. She's a cloned soldier, just 5 years old, with limited vocabulary and low intelligence. Clara's very much not impressed with the idea of humans doing this to their own, which means the Doctor's spared from being the judgemental one for once (I wonder if she ever learned that her buddy Strax the Sontaran is clone soldier too). Personally I'm not impressed that they're taking ideas from SeaQuest DSV season 3.

But their conversation's interrupted by a growling sound. The monsters have turned up!

At least I think there's monsters over there, it's hard to tell.

There's a little bit of gunfire, a lot of running, and they get split up, with Deep-Ando going one way and everyone else going in another. Fortunately the room the group picks to hide in has a heavy thing nearby they can block the door with... they just can't get it to move.

A monster manages to slip its hand through the gap, but the Grunt slaps the door shut on it and the arm disintegrates into sand. The monsters get bored after that and leave to go bother Deep-Ando instead.

While the Doctor's trying to examine the mysterious arm sand, Clara discovers some more Morpheus sleeping pods like the one Chopra was complaining about on the rescue ship. Clara proves how smart she is by identifying that Morpheus is the god of dreams, then goes and gets herself stuck inside one of them.

So this is the second story this series where the Doctor and Clara investigate an incident at a high-tech base in the future and discover a sinister sleeping pod. But these particular pods play that 'Mr. Sandman' song when someone's inside, to torment those who are still awake I guess. I'm really not a fan of this tune.

That holographic quartet is very cool though. It's funny how adding a bit of shaky-cam can make a effect like this seem much more real, not that this camera work is all that shaky. I keep forgetting they're doing the found footage thing to be honest, as it doesn't really look much different from any regular episode most of the time.

The sleeping pod soon opens on its own and it turns out that it's done something to Clara! It's made her less sleepy.

She claims the wires were like snakes and dragged her inside, so that explains that. Nothing weird going on here, the pod just thought she looked tired. But this isn't the only pod here, and the other one isn't opening...

Hey it's Rassmussen himself, hiding from the monsters.

With no one else alive on the station to save there's no more reason for them to stick around. But the Doctor wants an explanation about the Morpheus pods first.

So we get to watch a cool 3D projected advert!

Turns out the pods are designed to concentrate all your sleep into one five minute burst, so you can carry on working all night long as well! This is the true horror of the episode: a vision of a future where everyone works the same hours as video game developers.

This gives the Doctor his chance to be judgemental, saying that sleep is awesome and that even he sleeps. Of course he can't prove that he sleeps, but he claims to do it when Clara's not looking.

Speaking of 'looking', the Doctor stares at the camera for a few seconds too long here like he’s noticed something's up.

Rassmussen's very pleased with the Morpheus pods, but then he would be as he invented them. They work by sending a signal that changes the chemistry of the brain, a bit like the dumb stupid ridiculous writing on the shuttle back in Under the Lake, except a lot less dumb.

They all leave the lab in search of Deep-Ando and answers, while the Doctor shares his theory about where the creatures came from.

He believes that Rassmussen's Morpheus technology is creating the monsters. He explains that they're made from accumulated sleep dust, the gunk you wipe away from your eyes in the morning, which has been transformed by the machine into a carnivorous life form that's eaten the space station's crew.

Okay I'm out. Episode time of death: 16m35s.

I'm not going to quit watching, but I've been kicked right out of the story. I'm seeing Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman on a wooden set right now, struggling to keep a straight face through Mark Gatiss' script. It doesn't matter if the explanation turns out to be false in the end, the fact that the Doctor believes it's true is bad enough.

Elsewhere Deep-Ando's being filmed with a 38th century black and white security camera trying to get a door open before the monsters get him, but the lock's not cooperating. The lock (apparently played by GLaDOS from 'Portal') explains that it wants him to sing "the song" first, as the scientists programmed it that way as a joke after their Maha Shivaratri/Oshogasu/Christmas party.

Eventually he figures out that it wants him to sing Mr. Sandman, which he does in the nick of time and escapes through into the next room as the doors seal shut behind him.

It's a dead end, but at least he's still alive, and the view is awesome. It's a beautiful shot... and in full colour too! So if this isn't from a security camera, who's filming it then?

Oh there's a monster behind him, that explains that then. And poor Deep-Ando becomes the first to die. Which is a shame really as he was one of the likeable ones.

Elsewhere the others have their own problems as the station's grav-shields have failed, sending them plummeting towards Neptune! Also a monster's broken in and has eaten Rassmussen, which I almost missed entirely as things have gone full shaky-cam now. He'll be fine, he's the narrator... unless he's not.

Anyway the closer they get towards Neptune the stronger the gravity gets, until it's strong enough to disintegrate the monster back into dust! Now I don't know a great deal about physics, but isn't the gravitational effect from Neptune going to be roughly zero here because the floor beneath them's accelerating towards the planet at the exact same rate they are? They're in freefall, the only gravity they should be perceiving is the station's anti-grav.

Maybe vibration would've made more sense as a weapon against the monsters, considering how much the camera's shaking here. I'm not sure if that makes any more sense scientifically but at least I don't know that it doesn't make sense.

Somehow Chopra and the Grunt manage to get separated, so while The Doctor's quoting Shakespeare and talking more rubbish, these two get stuck between monsters and corridor full of fire.

They could try shooting the sandmen with the guns they keep powering up, but instead the Grunt decides to punch Chopra out and carry him through the flames. Badly burned, she tells him to go on without her while she makes a heroic sacrifice keeping the monsters busy. So Chopra's learned an important lesson about the nobility of Grunts. He totally called the sleeping pod thing though.

The dust monsters are immune to fire? Well that makes about as much sense as anything else in this episode I suppose. So 474 gets to be death #2... or #3 depending on how the Rassmussen situation plays out.

Elsewhere the Doctor, Clara and Nagata get themselves stuck in a cold storage room. But the Doctor figures out that the Sandmen are actually blind and they all sneak out! They're properly called Sandmen now by the way, Clara named them.

The Doctor reviews the footage being broadcast wirelessly from the security cameras and helmet cams by projecting it with his sonic sunglasses, and discovers something a bit weird: there are no security cameras or helmet cams! Shocking twist!

Turns out that the dust has been watching them the whole time, each tiny speck on the station a little camera. 'Eyes in sky' like the Grunt said. And some of the footage is in black and white because... post-processing? But if all the dust can see, why are the Sandmen blind? Because their visual receptors are being hijacked to record an episode of Doctor Who is pretty much the answer.

Clara and Nagata are broadcasting too because they've been in a Morpheus pod and have ended up with sleep in their eye! So... just wipe it away, problem solved. Hang on, when did Nagata get her helmet back? Last I saw it was on the table by the door in the cold room and I don't remember them bringing it out with them. It's ruining my suspension of disbelief!

The Doctor and the others race back to the rescue ship just a little bit too late to save Chopra from a pointless death, but they have figured out that Rassmussen is both alive and the villain! And door lock GLaDOS had nothing to do with any of his schemes! She was merely a red herring... or an excuse to include that bloody Mr. Sandman song again.

Rassmussen has already recorded his narration at this point in the story, but he explains to them in person that he considers the Sandmen to be a better life form and plans to use the rescue ship to smuggle patient zero in a sleep pod to the colony on Triton.

He opens the pod to reveal a Sandman inside... which the Doctor distracts with the holographic Morpheus jingle he pocketed from a pod earlier, then locks away.

Nagata did give shooting the creature a go first, but it turns out that they're bulletproof! Not a huge shock, but it's nice to finally know for sure considering how reluctant they soldiers have been to even try fighting back. We did hear a bit of frenzied gunfire way back during their first encounter in the corridor, but we didn't get to see if it killed any of them.

Bullets work great on Rassmussen though. Now he's properly dead!

Clara is mortified, asking her "Is that your answer for everything?!" Uh, no? Nagata's only fired her weapon three times this entire episode. There was a 31 minute span with absolutely nothing answered by gunfire, and seeing as they spent that time faced with the question 'what can possibly stop this carnivorous pile of mucus from killing us?' that seems downright weird.

But then the Doctor actually hangs a lantern on the story problems by pointing out that a lot of what they've been through doesn't make sense. Like the Sandmen in the cold storage room being blind and the grav-shields failing for no reason. It's like it's all been manufactured for effect. But they don't have time to stop and think about it now, as they need to run for the TARDIS before they get dead.

The TARDIS is surrounded by Sandmen, but that's an easy problem to fix. The Doctor just blows up the grav-shields, sending the station into freefall and giving them a chance to jump inside and dematerialise at the last moment.

But whoops, it turns out that everything has gone according to Rassmussen's plan, as he's been one of the Sandmen all along. This is a great effect by the way as he dissolves into dust.

Sandman-Rassmussen's true scheme was far more devious than he let on, as he's planted the Morpheus signal all through this recording as that really obvious fake-looking static that viewers soon dismiss and ignore. He's going to transmit the footage to the whole Solar System and because he's engineered it to be such compulsive and exciting viewing, people will want to share it with all their friends and family! Even though he's including this bit at the end where he straight up reveals his evil plan.

So everyone who watches this video will be able to go without sleep for ages, then [something to do with sleep in their eyes], then there'll be nothing left of them but intelligent belligerent carnivorous dust! It's like the opposite of the Doctor's Moon landing footage trick in Day of the Moon: a video with subliminal content designed to destroy humanity rather than free it.

Fortunately the human race is safe, as the villain's plan relies on this being a thrilling unmissable story that you can't tear your eyes from and want to share with your friends afterwards, and I wouldn't want to inflict this on anyone. Apocalypse averted.


Man I'm tired now.

Okay, so our heroes stumble across a company-owned base being assaulted by creatures. They find a clue by looking through someone else's eyes and discover that the villain has exposed them (and the audience) to a coded message that rewrites their synapses to eventually turn them into a monster. Some stuff happens with sleeping pods, likeable people die, and Doctor blows up a barrier causing the villain to meet their end due to something very big and extremely lethal coming at them incredibly fast. This is basically Under the Lake again! Except really really bad.

There's two kinds of people watching Doctor Who these days: there's the kind that can get behind the idea of giant carnivorous intelligent shape-shifting sand monsters forming from the gunk in your eye when you cut yourself off from sleep for too long, and then there's the kind who's wondering what the fuck they just watched. I can suspend my disbelief up to a point, I was even able to meet Under the Lake half-way, but this is way past my limit. It shattered the illusion and once I wasn't on the episode's side any more all the little flaws and annoyances I can usually overlook started adding up and it became very easy to ignore the good parts. It had no chance after that, it was a broken episode. Plus having characters actually point out that the story doesn't make sense never helps!

I started to feel after watching this that maybe I'm judging Doctor Who by what I want it to be, not what it is. I'm trying to force it into a box when its main strength is its massive scope and potential to do anything! But then I checked the rankings and saw Sleep No More right down at rock bottom next to its buddies Fear Her, Love & Monsters and Forest of the Night, so maybe it's okay if I keep on being critical during the times when the series drops sense and logic to go skipping off into the magic forest to play with the fairies for a while.

There are good moments in this mind you, and concepts with potential that could've been expanded on, like the idea of companies developing sleep chambers to make their employees work 8 hours longer a day, or the GLaDOS door locks, or the eye hacking twist even! But nothing really comes of them. The Doctor gets access to what everyone can see and this isn't used to solve a problem. He'd rather use that bloody Mr. Sandman song.

On the plus side I loved the visual effects, all the shots of Neptune and the holograms, especially when they were composited into moving shots. Plus Rassmussen collapsing into dust at the end looked amazing for TV (and made me miss Buffy the Vampire Slayer). It was a bit weird when the Doctor interacted with a projected computer screen and ended up with the buttons he was pressing projected onto his fingers, but that's an in-universe flaw of the technology, nothing the production team did wrong.

Pretty visuals can't save this from being my absolute least favourite episode this series though, and I agree with the message at the start. Don't watch this, you can't unwatch it.

Doctor Who will return with Face the Raven. But next up on Sci-Fi Adventures, it's divisive Babylon 5 episode Believers.

Comments are cool, you should totally write one.


  1. I feel like this could have been a great episode, that there's potential in there somewhere, but that it took a hard turn and ended up far from good. You could do something interesting with lack of sleep doing something weird to people, but monsters made of eye gunk is not it. You could do something interesting with the information virus idea, but this is not it. A villain who outsmarts the Doctor is an interesting idea, but this isn't a good implementation of it,

    It's a bad episode, but it didn't need to be. I believe there are plans for a sequel next series. I'm not looking forward to it.

    1. I would've thought the reception to this episode would've put the brakes on any sequel plans, but these days who even knows. If Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss liked how it turned out then they may well carry on regardless.

      It's rare that I skip a new episode of a series I like because of what it's about, but if these monsters come back then no amount of morbid curiosity's getting me to watch it.

  2. This is all so stupid that it has to be intentional spoof. The line between merely bad and so bad that it's kind of funny -is an ellusive one.

    But then again what do I know, the only Doctor Who -episode I have actually watched from begining to the end was that one set in the bombed London with a zombie virus from a spaceship that caused people to grow WWII gasmasks out of their faces and enabled the patient zero child to use telepathy to make scary phone calls and... operate mechanical typewriters somehow?

    So I can't really tell for sure what is normal stupid for the series and what is too stupid.

    1. "I can't really tell for sure what is normal stupid for the series and what is too stupid." This is exactly the problem I have.

      Though I didn't mind the gas mask faces episode as it was all due to nanomachines, and the Metal Gear Solid games have taught me that nanomachines are basically magic.