[WARNING: The Following Review Contains SPOILERS!]
Sleep No More is the first stand-alone episode of Doctor Who’s 9th Series. It is also one of the most paradoxical episodes in the show’s history. Writer Mark Gatiss tries to do too much with this script and yet does not do enough.
There is no easy way to summarize Sleep No More outside of its meta-textual conceit. What we are presented with is the standard base-under-siege story, as told through found footage. This footage, we are told at the start, was complied by one Professor Rassmusssen.
It is Professor Rassmussen’s laboratory orbiting Neptune in the 38th century that has been attacked by some manner of monster. A military rescue team is dispatched to investigate the sudden loss of contact with the space station. And The Doctor and Clara just happen to walk into the middle of the action at this precise moment.
This is painfully typical for Doctor Who and Mark Gatiss doesn’t put much effort into defining the soldiers who team up with The Doctor and Clara as characters. There’s an earnest young officer, a young hothead, a prankster and a grunt. Professor Rassmussen even tells us not to get too attached to them and notes the stock-character types as he is describing the team at the start of the episode. It is as if Gatiss is telling the audience, “Yes, I know this is cliche, but just stick with me.”
Once past the set-up, the episode begins to shine as Gatiss showcases his gift for coming up with novel ideas. With subplots involving discrimination against genetically-bred soldiers (a.k.a. Grunts), the origins of this episode’s monster-of-the-week and the idea of a machine that allows people to get a month’s worth of sleep in five minutes, one can’t accuse Gatiss of thinking small. Indeed this episode’s greatest flaw is that there are so many novel ideas present, one wishes it had been a two-parter if only so that all of them could be more fully developed.
That being said, the novelty of Doctor Who presented through found footage does help to hook the viewers early on. And Director Justin Molotnikov does a fine job of filming the proceedings. Alas, it’s not enough to overcome the fact that – when you get right down to it – this is just another base-under-siege story that only differs from your average Second Doctor story in that it was filmed with shaky-cams. And it doesn’t help that the monster is one of the goofiest looking in the modern era, being so reminiscent of The Eye Creatures one wonders if it wasn’t a deliberate reference on the part of the costuming team.
What’s amazing is how effective the final product is despite these deficiencies. And the final moments of the episode are truly unsettling, if not honestly horrifying. Yet, to quote The Doctor himself, “It doesn’t make sense! None of this makes any sense!”
In the end, I’m unsure if Sleep No More is a failed experiment or more than the sum of its parts. Or both. Or neither. Perhaps I’ll sleep on it.