Mark Gatiss returns as a Doctor Who script writer once more this year with the ninth episode of the series – Sleep No More. The episode starts Gatiss’ colleague on The League of Gentlemen, Reece Shearsmith in a story that promises to be far darker and scarier than last year’s Robot of Sherwood. Read on for my thoughts on this episode.
This terrifying story is assembled from footage discovered in the wreckage of Le Verrier Space Station.
Note: The preview of this episode that I saw contained at least one scene that was marked as a Work In Progress.
I’ve had a mixed relationship with Mark Gatiss’ writing for Doctor Who over the year. While I absolutely loved Cold War and The Crimson Horror and appreciated Robot of Sherwood as the romp that it was meant to be, stories such as The Unquiet Dead, The Idiot’s Lantern and Night Terrors left me a bit cold. It’s this latter that particularly concerned me as Sleep No More seems to be aimed as the creepy, scary episode of the series.
Gatiss’ story has promise. It’s set on an excellently realised set representing an Indo-Chinese Space station in orbit of Uranus. The station is – naturally, this being Doctor Who after all – the home of a scientific experiment that goes awry. Or Time travelling heroes arrive to find a rescue mission underway.
The conceit of the story is that humanity (certainly on Triton colony) have been using a sleep pod to reduce their need for such wasteful time in their day. It turns out that the technology involved – or perhaps the limiting of sleep itself (and a specific component of it) – is pretty darned bad for you. Enter the monsters. The Sandmen.
As with the sets, the Sandmen themselves look great. Shambling hulks of something nasty from the corners of the eye. It’s just a shame that this story uses something that is completely scientifically ludicrous as its jumping on point. Doctor Who is science fantasy, but in order to suspend disbelief there should be an element of “well that could happen. Maybe,” around the pseudo-science banded about. In this instance, the foundation of the story’s threat is so flawed that I couldn’t take any of the episode seriously. One “take the ordinary and make it extra-ordinary” too far.
I think I would also have been happier if there had been some resolution to the story. As it stands, the plot simply progresses up to a point and then … ends. Even an earlier concern about Clara’s fate is ignored by the conclusion of the episode. There’s a suitably creepy coda but given the fact that the events take place so far away in both space and time, there is little impact. Having said that, I’m not a child who could very easily be thrown into a weird “to sleep or not to sleep” quandary as a result of this episode. Which I guess is a success.
Perhaps also, the story could have been lifted by some good performances but unfortunately none of the characters had anybody or soul to them. Even the Doctor and Clara seemed to be somewhat half-heartedly trudging through the corridors. There is a moment when a one-sided friendship suddenly came good that should have tugged at the heart strings but flat performances (admittedly this came from the character of one of those involved rather than the actor) and a lack of actual development of the pair left this a rather bland scene. Shearsmith plays the professor with a mix of high-emotion “Get me out of here!” and bland indifference. There seems to be little consistency in his character. While the ploy makes this inconsistency make some sense, there is no connection or revulsion to enable the viewer to care about the man.
The direction by Justin Molotnikov is rather excellent and the episode does succeed (for the most part) in seeming like a “found footage” episode. I say for the most part because I did have to keep reminding myself that the story was pieced together “in universe.” Unfortunately, the reason for the footage existing is undermined by some dialogue that is necessary for the viewer to understand. Combined with some shots that simply don’t look like they have been recorded by “on-site” cameras (camera angles too low or illogical placement of cameras) it’s difficult to keep that in mind. The moodiness and attempted tension do shine through the story as a beacon of something better being hidden away, however.
A great choice of location and an excellent concept are unfortunately ruined by a ludicrous origin for the threat and some mediocre (at best) performances. The very idea of the sandmen took me out of the story and removed any tension from the proceedings. At least for this reviewer. Since this is an edited “found footage” episode, perhaps some of this should be forgiven but I’m finding it difficult. As to the plot’s resolution? I’m with the Doctor on this one: “It doesn’t make sense! None of this makes any sense.”
Rating: 2 /5