Doctor Who – Sleep No More (S9E9)

Continuing on from the interesting / intriguing / excellent but dumb Zygon episodes (Zygon Invasion falls into the dumb camp and Inversion into the excellent one with one of the best monologues from a Doctor in a long time) we come to another one that’s just a bit weird really.   “Sleep No More” is not really part of the arc of the season, is it? And it’s only half a story, with Mark Gatiss talking about doing the second half of this odd tale in Series 10.

Now while I commented previously on the less than excellent costumes of the Zygons – we’ve seen them before and didn’t like them then either so no real change – the monsters this week are even worse in all reality.  They look somewhat cartoony and ridiculous and while they are obviously able to kill they are not really threatening (in appearance at least).   Gatiss’ work tends to divide fans, with “Victory of the Daleks”, “Night Terrors” and “The Idiot’s Lantern” being particularly disliked by many, while I personally really liked “Cold War” and “The Crimson Horror” and found “Robots of Sherwood” to be somewhat slight. Like his writing or not, no one can really accuse Gatiss of not being imaginative! 🙂

Sleep No More opened with found footage of hard-bitten space marines trading tough guy banter. They were en route to the Indo-Japanese Le Verrier space station ,with which all contact had been lost. In other words, the viewer was sitting through a valentine to the first 60 minutes of Cameron’s 1986 entry in the Aliens franchise. You half-expected someone to ask: “is this going to be a stand up fight, sir, or another bug hunt?” Derivative yes – but also satisfying. Humanity once again manages to make a mess of things.  Yeah, leave it to capitalists and scientists to get together for the oh-so-brilliant idea of cramming people’s need for eight hours of sleep into a mere five minutes, leaving us able to work non-stop for almost an entire day.  I’m sure that in the real world there are people actually attempting to find a way to do just this, all in the name of greater profits.  This might be the only thing I truly liked about the episode, the idea that in order to maximize efficiency, and to make people more like machines, it’s our need to rest that gets removed. People already work through meals (I do it all the time), but it’s hard to work while you’re asleep (though some people are good at it). Of course, since this is Doctor Who, things inevitably go pear-shaped.  The Doctor falls into his standard role of calling out humanity on its arrogance and short-sightedness.  Due to the format of this episode Peter Capaldi only has a couple of short monologues regarding the foolishness of the Morpheus program.  Nevertheless, in these few brief moments he invests them with both a genuine sense of outrage at humanity’s audacity and a philosophical contemplation of the value of sleep.

‘Congratulations, professor. You’ve revolutionised the labour market, you’ve conquered nature. You’ve also created an abomination’

Here’s where things got complicated. And slightly ridiculous. A new generation of Morpheus devices had spawned a race of shambling mound-men, constructed from the accumulated dust and grit that gathers in our eyes as we doze (who said supper-time science fiction had to be plausible?). But when they lumbered finally into view the beasties were revealed to be in fact made from random gobs of papier-mâché and the semi-decomposed contents of a recycling bin.  If the story had become “we’re taking away sleep so the monsters are our subconscious dream states becoming sentient” or “nobody sleeps so the nightmares come to life” or “if nobody sleeps, the sandman gets angry” or anything like that, I’d have bought it. But, no. Instead, it’s people’s eye-crusties coagulating and becoming ambulatory. EYE BOOGER MONSTERS. Not only does this not make sense, this is the dumbest version of the story possible. EYE. BOOGER. MONSTERS. I don’t think I’ll ever wrap my head around why that was considered a good idea. Oh, they’re blind? Is that it? They’re blind? Is it because they’re made of disgusting mucous? Oh, sure, I get it. Apparently they hear just fine, though.

And then things get even more confusing. The end of the episode comes, and I’m very unsure what Reese Shearsmith’s plan was supposed to be, and then the Doctor says he’s confused and that it doesn’t make sense. So I’m like “Wait, so if the Doctor’s confused also, then how am I supposed to react?” Well, we go back to Reese talking to the camera and find out that he made up (I guess?) the story to keep us watching—and put in the monsters and people to make it exciting. But really he just wanted people to watch the signal because that’s what the Morpheus really is—it’s a signal that infects our minds through the clearly after-effected static. Soo…then what is this episode?

The ninth episode of the current season needed Capaldi at full capacity, as it veered from the survival horror genre (ask anyone who’s stayed up all night playing Silent Hill on Playstation) to a snappy buddy movie, with The Doctor and assistant Clara (Jenna Coleman) trading wry banter. Sleep No More was by no means a classic – but as a stand-alone 45 minutes of escapism it went down easily. But if there’s a problem with Sleep No More it’s that the scale of the concept can’t help but be undermined by necessities of its execution. Having Reece Shearsmith’s Professor Rassmussan hold your hand all the way through it with his commentary takes away something of the nervy uncertainty that made found footage staples such as The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield such classics. Unfortunately, it’s significantly out of sync with the rest of the season so far, so it feels jarring to have both an unusual format as well as a story that doesn’t have the intense character dynamics of the previous eight episodes. If there is any real complaint I could have with this season of great Capaldi and Coleman moments, and fantastic turns from Michelle Gomez as Missy and Julian Bleach, is that plot has taken a definite backseat to everything else, although I’m not complaining all that much.   It feels like what it seems to really be: a two-part episode without a second part. If we get the second part next series, and it’s not a “Kill the Moon” level of bad episode, that may give me a greater appreciation for this one. We’ll see.

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