NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of Doctor Who are present in this review
Doctor Who got highly experimental with “Sleep No More” this week, which is New Who’s latest dabble in a sort of, “Witness” style of storytelling. The show has experimented with the idea of shifting the perspective to a bystander before, with episodes such as “Love & Monsters” from Series Two, but fortunately, “Sleep No More” is a lot better than “Love & Monsters.” This episode is also a solid rebound after the rather weak Zygon two-parter event that preceded it over the past two weeks, even if it’s very different from the usual style of the show.
This is because “Sleep No More” is a found footage-style episode, which has everything playing out from documented footage of an alien attack that The Doctor and Clara happen to wander into. You may roll your eyes at this idea, given how much the found footage style has been abused lately in the movie space especially, but don’t be so quick to judge. The episode actually utilizes the medium well, and knows how to have fun with it, giving you an episode that often plays with your expectations effectively, even if its threat is also pretty silly, even for Doctor Who standards.
The episode begins with a rescue team from the Neptunian moon, Triton entering a space station orbiting Neptune, during the 38th Century. Apparently, the station has gone dark, and the crew is entirely missing. The rescue team consists of Chopra, a young, conservative soldier, Deep-Ando, a laid-back conscript, 474, a genetically-engineered brute, and Nagata, the team’s commander. Early on, the four come into contact with The Doctor and Clara, who wander into the station, after the TARDIS takes them there.
The initial mystery is set up well, especially as events are narrated by a mysterious individual named Gagan Rassmussen, who isn’t seen at first. It’s very easy for the viewer to get the idea that something isn’t quite right, but the episode’s strong storytelling will keep most viewers from sniffing it out. The episode drip-feeds valuable information to the audience in a strong use of the found footage style, thanks to a mystery that comes together well, and is enjoyable to unravel piece by piece in the lead-up to the answers.
Things properly kick off when The Doctor and Clara are introduced to a revolutionary new machine called Morpheus, which allows people to condense the entire chemical benefit of going to sleep into just five minutes, allowing them to work, without losing a third of their lives to sleep. Morpheus is universally utilized on Triton, though Chopra is an objector that refuses to make use of it. It then comes out soon after that Rassmussen is the inventor of Morpheus, after he’s fished out of one of the Morpheus pods as a lone survivor, with the technology happening to be semi-sentient, as is revealed when one of the Morpheus pods snatches up Clara, and briefly sends her to dream land.
Obviously though, if it sounds too good to be true on Doctor Who, it always is. Turns out that Morpheus has a horrible, unprecedented side effect; It builds up internal sleep dust into people, which eventually overtakes them from the inside out, and becomes a sentient predator, which Clara dubs, “The Sandmen.” Yes, seriously. I won’t lie, the concept behind the Sandmen is a bit ludicrous, and even for Doctor Who standards, these latest creatures are particularly far-fetched. They’re at least decent special effects that look at least semi-horrifying though, so it’s pretty easy to forgive the fact that these sleep dust monsters really don’t make any sense.
In the ensuing chaos, the Sandmen manage to separate Deep-Ando from the rest of the group, who is killed when a snarky door won’t let him in without singing enough of the Morpheus song (yes, seriously). The station’s gravity engines also fail, forcing The Doctor to implement a hasty fix, which leads to Rassmussen getting devoured by a Sandman in the process. Obviously though, something’s not adding up, since Rassmussen is clearly alive and well as he narrates the found footage. He even directly states that he’s not dead, as if it’s no big deal. Much like The Doctor, audiences will continue to sense that nothing is as it seems.
After The Doctor, Clara and Nagata are cornered in a cold storage room, which they have to leave before developing hypothermia, Chopra and 474 are separated, and, despite a valiant effort to survive, both of them are ultimately killed, even as Chopra tries to return to the rescue team’s ship, and self-destruct the station. Fortunately, The Doctor manages to deduce that the Sandmen are blind, which allows the three to sneak out of the cold storage area, and reach another room, where they’re temporarily safe.
At this point, key bits of the mystery are put together. The Doctor finally addresses a problem that audiences no doubt sub-consciously noticed, and that’s that the rescue team don’t have helmet cams, and there are no cameras anywhere on the station. How is the footage being captured then? The Doctor theorizes that the dust that forms the Sandmen has actually been spying on them all along, and is responsible for the footage. The reason why Chopra’s view was never shown, is because Chopra refused to use Morpheus. It raises some questions, but it’s acceptable decisive evidence that, clearly, there’s a rat in the group’s midst, since the found footage seems all too deliberate.
Sure enough, Rassmussen is bad, and is not actually dead. Granted, this, along with some other small details, is something that the episode tips its hand toward in advance, so many viewers can probably see this twist coming. Nonetheless, Rassmussen invented Morpheus to build an army of Sandmen, in order to overtake humanity. Apparently, Rassmussen has also been keeping a close eye on Patient Zero, the first Morpheus user, and a man who hasn’t slept in five years. Naturally, Patient Zero has become a massive Sandman, and with Nagata learning that Chopra and 474 are dead, she shoots Rassmussen dead as well, when he refuses to stop his plan, and flees with The Doctor and Clara. Even as the three reach the TARDIS, and just barely escape the giant Sandman however, The Doctor continues to point out that something doesn’t add up about the Sandmen.
In the final minutes of the episode, Rassmussen, once again alive, then explains that the Sandmen are not an infection that can be contained on the station. Instead, they’re actually stimulated by an electrical signal, which is being transmitted by the found footage that the viewers are watching! Rassmussen intentionally put together the footage for effect, to keep people watching, so that the electrical signal in their brain would manifest in a certain way, and have the Sandmen overtake those watching, thus signaling the fall of humanity, and the rise of the Sandmen.
This was actually a very clever way to play with the found footage mechanic, and really bring viewers into the atmosphere of the show, which is what a great found footage story can do better than most screen stories. Rassmussen even explains that the periodic flickers and glitches were the result of the Sandmen signal entering viewers’ heads. The final seconds of Rassmussen wiping his eye, and gradually breaking down into a decaying Sandman was also excellently creepy, and seems to nicely foreshadow the events of next week, even if, like the two-part Ashildr plot from October, the second half of this story seems to be largely disconnected from the scenario of this week, beyond the one central plot thread connecting the stories.
Ultimately, the idea of unstoppable monsters stalking the leads in a claustrophobic deathtrap was done a bit better in the two-part ghost storyline from earlier this season, and the Sandmen sometimes felt a little excessively ridiculous in terms of how they’re created and how they flourish, but “Sleep No More” was still an ambitious, creative and memorable off-brand offering for Doctor Who this season. The use of found footage worked very well for this story, and the ludicrous foundation of the Sandmen is at least offset by how effectively creepy they look. The way that the episode ends doesn’t seem to offer a lot of hints for next week’s episode, but even with the far-fetched elements, this story looks to nicely lead into a strong second half, one that can hopefully take the Sandmen to an even more interesting destination.
- Creative and successful use of found footage style
- Sandmen are effectively scary
- Doesn't suffer from The Doctor not being the lead
- The Sandmen idea is pretty ludicrous, even for Doctor Who
- Easy to see some plot twists coming