“Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep.”
The above quote is, of course, from the “Scottish Play.”
Not that I am superstitious, but by invoking a quote from the… well, you-know-what play… for his eighth Doctor Who episode, writer Mark Gatiss may have been asking for trouble. But then he goes one better and confounds audience expectation with no title sequence, no music, and documentary style narrative shot mainly with a hand held camera.
If all that was not enough, it pays off with the Doctor losing and running away. That is an awful lot of viewer comfort zones eschewed.
Having de-familiarised the standard series narrative, Gatiss anchors it in the most proverbial of Doctor Who premise: the deserted installation where something awful has happened, and still creeps. Given his track record in horror, it is not surprising mark Gatiss would eventually get around to ‘The Ark in Space’ spliced with Aliens. And into this mix, a good measure of Hoffman, Solaris and a denouement inspired by Hideo Nakata’s Ringu.
“You must not watch this. I’m warning you. You can never unsee it,” warns Professor Gagan Rassmussen, with Reece Shearsmith delivering a warning that turns out more like Brer Rabbit’s “Don’t throw me into the bramble bush!” Still, it all becomes clear in the end. Clear as dust, in fact.
This Blair Witch-style video purports to recall events on Le Verrier, an Indo-Japanese laboratory in orbit above Neptune. Yes, a base with a French name launched by two nations who, apparently, have become morphed.
The hybrid theme sub texts the story as a whole, the menacing Sandmen being a miscegenation of mucus/eye dust cells genetically aggravated by the Morpheus machine, and the human hosts that the growing mutation absorbs. Unlike the Sandman of myth, who chucks dust in the eyes, somebody has taken theirs and using them to record the events for an entrapment video. A neat twist on the Hoffman tale, but physically plausible?
The soldier character of Grunt – splendidly played by Bethany Black (Banana) – was actually more interesting given she is basically a drone evolved from muscle tissue. Unfortunately, Gatiss did not get to explore her much, presumably due to time restraints. In some ways, she doubles for the Sandmen by the nature of her existence, but displays more in the way of limited humanity, reminiscent of Boris Karloff’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster. Her act of self-sacrifice is all the more moving for that.
Being an experimental tale, does ‘Sleep No More’ ultimately deliver?
When a chapter deviates from the normal narrative path, the question of whether that works is inevitably a subjective one. And looking at the reactions that followed on social media, this episode has proved particularly divisive. Especially if you prefer science fantasy to be more the former than latter.
It is effectively creepy, though not as scary as promised. The narrative is jagged in places, but that is the point of its whole set up. Where it really scores is the dream like texture that Gattis and director Justin Molotnikov achieve in externalising the sleep manipulation premise.
The penultimate scene, where the Doctor, Clara and Nagata vanish in the TARDIS as the station plummets into Neptune, has the raison d’être of a climaxing nightmare that lingers after the closing titles have rolled.
It would be fair to say that ‘Sleep No More’ is a story that, like the Alien films, succeeds on one level but not quite on the other. As a science fiction piece, the nature of the Sandmen certainly requires a pinch of suspended disbelief in their initial conception, though the parasitical integration with the DNA and proteins of their human hosts is plausible. As a horror film cum folk tale parody, it works fine.
There are genuinely bad moments in Doctor Who’s history; some still unforgivable. However, I suspect negativity to this particular episode lies more in its cultural dissonance from the familiar and undermining of the assured viewing experience – pretty much the initial response that met Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, a series that took audiences a good ten years to catch up with. So maybe this Gatiss tale will reap the benefit of re-evaluation over time.
Whether loved or loathed, ‘Sleep No More’ is one of those episodes that challenges to be watched again. And that is no bad thing.
What do you think of ‘Sleep No More’? Let us know below…