Sleep No More
Review by Paul Bowler
The Doctor and Clara must investigate strange events in the thirty-eighth century in recorded footage is gathered from a rescue mission in space. The footage reveals a disturbing account of inexplicably horrifying events. But there is something evil lurking in this recording, something that is a danger to us all. So, if you value your sanity, the future of your species, your life, and everything that you hold dear, whatever you do, do not watch it…
Sleep No More, the ninth story from Series 9, finds the Doctor and Clara faced with a dark mystery, where the events now unfold in the frightening footage discovered from the deep space rescue mission. This chilling adventure written by Mark Gatiss (The writer of many Doctor Who episodes, including The Unquiet Dead (2005), the Idiot’s Lantern (2006), Victory of the Daleks (2010), as well as two episodes from 2013’s seventh season, Cold War and The Crimson Horror, and Robot of Sherwood (2014) from series eight), brings us a suspenseful found-footage tale, directed by Justin Molotnikov (Da Vinci’s Demons / Atlantis / Merlin).
The recorded events from the Le Verrier Space Station orbiting Neptune holds details of a terrifying story after the data is assembled. But once it has been watched you can never unsee it! Its been about 24 hours since the station went silent, a team from Triton led by Nagata (Elaine Tan) has been sent to investigate, but when the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) also get caught up in events they must work together to figure out what happened to the crew on board the orbiting laboratory. After encountering frightening creatures made of sand they gets separated from Deep-Ando, the Doctor, Clara, and the rest of the team find shelter, where Clara becomes trapped briefly inside one of the Morpheus pods before the Doctor rescues her.
It seems the Morpheus machine invented by Professor Rassumussen (Reece Shearsmith), pod-like devices that concentrate nocturnal experiences to enable humanoids to go a whole month without sleep, has the potential to revolutionise the labour force of humanity – but with dire consequences! The Doctor confronts Rassumussen after he’s found hiding in one of the Morpheus pods, his machine might have conquered nature, but in doing so the Professor has also created nightmarish abominations, the Sandmen, and the creatures seem almost unstoppable!
Mark Gatiss exploit’s the “found footage” horror format to the full in Sleep No More, in an episode boasting shocks and scares around every shadowy corner, a sinister take on the 50’s pop song Mr Sandman, and the hideously misshapen Sandmen monsters, this is undoubtedly one of series nines darkest episodes so far. As well as strong performances from Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coelman, Sleep No More also breaks new ground by not having any conventional title sequence (Although some text and letters do flash across the screen early on that momentarily spell the words Doctor Who) whatsoever – a first for Doctor Who – and director Justin Molotnikov uses spooky camerawork and eerily unsettling sounds to great effect over the course of this fabulously tense, atmospheric, and creepy episode. The way the action in this episode is intercut with Rassumussen’s narration to camera is handled well, there are lots of creepy deaths when the Sandmen attack, the sequence where the gravity shields initially fail is also really exciting, and the scenes where the Doctor, Clara, and Commander Nagata hide in the cold store from the Sandmen are especially nerve wracking – especially when the Doctor realises the Sandmen are blind as he leads the escape from the freezer.
Rassumussen is played by Mark Gatiss’ League of Gentlemen pal, Reece Shearsmith, who is excellent in his role as the ambitiously foolish scientist, and there is far more to Rassmussen’s story than meets the eye… Although this is his first appearance in a Doctor Who episode, Reece Shearsmith did play the role of the 2nd Doctor briefly for the 2013 drama about the programmes origins, An Adventure in Space and Time, which was also written by Mark Gatiss. Sleep No More features a great mix of characters, including Nagata (Elaine Tan), Chopra (Neet Mohan), the clone 477 (Bethany Black), Deep Ando (Paul Courtenary Hyu), the Morpheus Presenter (Zina Badran), and Natasha Patel, Elizabeth Chong, Nikkita Chadha, and Gracie La as the group of hologram singers. Having also played a Zygon in The Zygon Invasion & The Zygon Inversion in Series 9, Tom Wilton returns again, this time making an appearance as one of the Sandmen.
It is a time of great prosperity for the galaxy, the Morpheus machine has made sleep virtually obsolete, thus increasing productivity. Time is money after all! Rassumussen has effectively changed the nature of human existence, but the true cost of his experiments with the latest model of his Morpheus machines on the Le Verrier Space Station are quickly becoming apparent. With the help of the sonic specs the Doctor is eventually able to discern a frightening connection between the sleep dust in the atmosphere and the how the footage is being relayed, it makes what actually happened to the crew of the station seem even more horrible, as those using the Morpheus machines, even for a short time, become infected and consumed from the inside, but the Doctor is confident he can reverse the process in Clara and Nagata once they reach the TARDIS.
The creepy new monsters “The Sandmen” are great hulking creatures, terrifyingly powerful, and they seem virtually unstoppable. Essentially they are life forms created from the sentient acumination of human sleep dust, a side effect of using the Morpheus machines on the station. The Sandmen consumed their human hosts who were using the pods, before hunting down the rest of the crew, and then later the rescue team from Triton. The creatures are immensely strong, but they are also blind, and deactivating the stations gravity shielding can severely affect the cohesion of their bodies. Indeed, with their grotesque form and horrific nature, the Sandmen are a powerful reminder of the sleep that all humans need to save them from the monsters lurking inside.
Mark Gatiss has entwined a number of references from past Doctor Who stories into Sleep No More, Nagata mention of the Space Prates, in a clear not to the 1969 Doctor Who story The Space Pirates, the 12th Doctor also speaks of the great catastrophe which loosely alludes to Frontios (1984), when Clara names the creatures in Sleep No More as Sandmen, which the Doctor initially contests, it alludes to a similar issue where the Doctor didn’t name the Earth-based reptile species in The Silurians (1970), and their name – presumably it was a human that named them as Silurians – turned out to be somewhat misleading and technically inaccurate. There are links to Greek mythology, specifically Morpheus god of dreams, and some key lines of dialogue from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
In a frenetic showdown, the Doctor, Clara, and Nagata discover the Sandmen’s creator, Gagen Rassmussen, is actually assisting them! He intends to escape from the Le Verrier station, together with the Morpheus pod containing Patient Zero – the individual that’s been exposed to the Morpheus process the longest – and return to Triton to spread the spores of dust – thus infecting everyone on Triton and eventually all humanity… Fortunately the Doctor, Clara, and Nagata manage to evade the Sandman from the pod that Rassmussen locked them in with, Nagata shoots Rassmussen, and when the Doctor deactivates the gravity shields again they are finally able to reach the TARDIS and escape. However, it seems the story is not quite over, as the final piece of footage from the station holds a chilling message from Rassmussen that reveals the horrifying truth…
Sleep No More uses all the familiar tropes of the “found footage” genre, Mark Gatiss has crafted a highly disturbing concept for this story, and there are moments that genuinely scary. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are on excellent form, Reece Shearsmith is great as Rassmussen, and the supporting cast – especially Elaine Tan as Nagata, all get a good share of the spooky action. Director Justin Molotnikov builds the brooding menace throughout, and there are plenty of surprises to keep you guessing about what will happen next. While I’m not a big fan of found footage films, I found Sleep No More to be a bold experiment with the format of Doctor Who, and one that actually proved to be a lot more successful than I was expecting it to be.
Here’s a Doctor Who Series 9 Extra where Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat and the cast discuss creepy new monsters, The Sandmen!