In the Steven Moffat era, there’s a story to be told about the dangers inherent in artificially limiting sleep – but it’s not this story. There’s the kernel of a really interesting dichotomy between the physical and philosophical ramifications – but neither are explored here. It’s a story that Frank Cottrell Boyce would have been much better placed to tell, maybe.
The concept of a Doctor Who adventure taking place entirely within the confines of an assemblage of found footage is also an intriguing one, but while the setting – the space station – was perfect, any sense of purpose was circumnavigated by the lumbering mechanics of the plot. Everything that was good about Sleep No More – and there was plenty that was good – seemed to have been connected at odd angles and left a lingering sense of frustration at squandered possibilities. However, given the two-part nature of Series 9, it’s entirely feasible that Face the Raven, with its apparent story about someone marked for death, might make more sense of an episode that was in the end about marking people for death.
Did the found footage aspect work, then? Pretty much. The metaphysical twist as first the viewer, and then the Doctor-as-viewer, becomes aware that they’re seeing images from places where cameras couldn’t be was a nice touch that almost justified the episode’s conceit by itself; on the other hand, the revelation that what we’re seeing is what the dust sees was as barmy as the notion that this week’s monsters were sleep stuff made in the shape of man – in another episode this might have made for a wonderful revelation; here against the backdrop of a tech thriller, it was another in a line of could-have-beens that piqued the interest only to befuddle it. It might be seven years and two Doctors since Forest of the Dead, but the idea of sentient, tech-accessing dust was just too specific not to draw an unfavourable comparison – especially as the script made an uncomfortable leap in connecting sleep mucus with regular dust (one that even the Doctor seemed to draw attention to) that wasn’t necessarily there to be made.
Maybe that was Sleep No More’s problem in a nutshell, it was making leaps of faith left right and centre, expecting the viewer to take a lot on trust without really developing its ideas sufficiently that those concepts were refined enough to convince. Having devised a situation in which it’s the lack of sleep itself that’s creating the predicament, we were never really shown any supporting evidence that a state of permanent wakefulness was dangerous, simply told about it. Another story might have made more of the psychological implications, rather than dwelling on the relatively arbitrary monsters.
There were other areas in which Sleep No More failed to convince, such as the character of 474, the ‘Grunt’ played by transgender actor Bethany Black. On the one hand, the writing seemed to be telling us that 474 was the ultimate soldier, grown in order to fight in much the same way as the Sontarans were. What we were presented with on screen was another matter entirely, a rather specious representation that left Black’s performance floundering in a void of defined direction. The notion of androgynous soldiers in a 38th century future makes enough sense that it ought to have been characterised with sufficient clarity that the decision could be applauded, rather than being just another baffling element in an already confusing production.
Having said all that, there were enough interesting ideas present that Sleep No More sauntered by in an inoffensive enough 45 minutes; it was, in spite of a rather ungainly introductory sequence, never dull enough to induce the desire to slumber, and there were enough plot turns and moments of peril to keep the less attentive viewer engaged. The ultimate twist, as Rassmussen (a better than expected Reece Shearsmith) reveals to the audience what his plan really was all along, was sufficiently audacious – albeit stolen wholesale from Ringu, aka The Ring – to be a pleasantly spooky surprise, and there were enough viewer-POV exploratory sequences to satisfy the video games-playing crowd. The final shot of Rassmussen dissolving was gloriously grim, and children of all ages will have enjoyed the last two or three minutes immensely.
The Doctor and Clara were having a ball this week too – at last – the two actors giving heightened enough performances that suggested their characters knew they had landed in the middle of someone else’s story, or that we were seeing them from someone else’s point of view, hence the artful perspective in their characterisation. Elaine Tan was also excellent as the Geordie Indo-Japanese Nagata, in charge of the ostensible rescue mission, quite an accomplished ask before she’d even spoken a line. And while scenes such as the gravity shields failing (a necessary foreshadowing of the resolution) or the siege in the freezer room might have been little more than the kind of clichés you would expect in stories like this, they were at least carried off with enough conviction so as not to draw attention to themselves.
On balance, Sleep No More was a fairly brisk and no doubt quite terrifying episode, the insubstantialities of which will no doubt be ameliorated for most people who will remember it as The One With the Found Footage – and thus it can be measured a success in that it was never in any way offensive while managing to entertain sufficiently that its deficiencies could easily be glossed over. But like a puzzle that has no solution, for all the surface business there is at its heart an insubstantiality, an inability to reward proper engagement that leaves it as the least satisfying episode of a ninth series that has embraced experimentation, but often at the cost of truly fulfilling storytelling. You just can’t help but feel that Mark Gatiss was having too much fun playing with his concepts to take the time to explore them properly.