I usually avoid social media on Saturdays even though most Doctor Who fans over in Britain are very considerate about not spoiling the episode for the Americans who get it hours later. Still, I kept seeing the same message all over Facebook and Twitter from across the pond: “Sleep No More” is terrible. “Sleep No More” is crap. “Sleep No More” is the worst episode of the season. “Sleep No More” is the worst episode ever.
There is some pretty legitimate criticism against it. The new villains, the Sandmen, are yet another entry in an increasingly sterile bin of monsters. They’re mindless, slow and unoriginal. For all intents and purposes, they’re just another horde and not a particularly scary one. Grown from the sleep sand that accumulates in the corner of the human eye, they do have a certain body horror uneasiness, but there’s no edge to them. As far as I’m concerned, monster-making has been in the Tardis’s toilet since The Silence. What I wouldn’t give to see an enemy like Nobody No-One on screen. Anything original.
That aside, I imagine that the format of the episode also threw people off. Series 9 has been remarkably consistent in quality and seems to have hit on a solid mix of classic series nostalgia, revived series pacing, serialization, good scripts and room for Peter Capaldi to chew scenery. “Sleep No More” is shot entirely in found footage segments and didn’t even have a title screen. After the previous Zygon adventures where both Capaldi and Jenna Coleman shined in brilliant scenes, the cramped, narrow shots feel constricting and claustrophobic. Aside from a cute scene full of banter between The Doctor and Clara in the very beginning, the two get remarkably little space in the adventure, though I thought Clara getting sucked into the sleep pod accidentally was a nice nod to Victoria Waterfield having the same thing happen to her in “Tomb of the Cybermen.” The whole thing was highly experimental for Doctor Who – though calling found-footage anything experimental in 2015 is being generous – and a lot of Whovians ironically resist change.
It was also another Event Horizon-style adventure, and those tend to be very divisive. I personally love them, and count “42” and “The Impossible Planet” among my favorite episodes. What I’m trying to say is that no matter how good “Sleep No More” actually is or isn’t, it was going to annoy some people.
One thing that I thought was amazing about the episode was the world-building that went into it. The story takes place in the 38th century, and on Earth a tectonic event has merged India and Japan. The interactions between the rescue crew on this abandoned satellite very much reflect a possible future merging of cultures we may not understand from our 21st-century viewpoint (Except they’re all still British because, you know, it’s Doctor Who). I like how calling for lost members of the party automatically requires a strange supplication to an unknown set of gods. I like how the leader, Nagata, calls everyone “pet” and there’s no explanation. I like how a Chordettes tune has survived 1,800 years into the future. It’s these little touches that make alien and futuristic places seem more realistic. It gives them depth.
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I especially liked 474 played by Bethany Black. She’s a grunt, a low-intelligence soldier bred for combat that has been assigned to the mission who speaks in child-like phrases. She’s also a brilliant character. Despite being created to be both simple and violent, 474 is easily the most sensitive and emotionally accessible person on board. She clearly and openly loves one of her teammates, to his chagrin, and when he slaps her hand away from his face and sends her into an automatic fight program, she is visibly distraught and upset that she hurt him once it subsides.
In fact, 474 and the central theme around the Morpheus machine create a really interesting look at the future of humanity similar to how Satellite Five did in the first season. The Morpheus machine condenses sleep into five minutes and does so specifically so that workers can work longer hours. The corporate nature of this is made very explicit, and when you combine it with the fact that it is apparently now legal to create living weapons that nonetheless still feel love and pain, it’s more terrifying than the actual monsters. “Sleep No More” is a story about what happens when we start to remove all consideration for humanity away from our endeavors. If you think about it, Morpheus and 474 are the alpha build of what turns a race into Cybermen, and that’s a very interesting thing to be.
There’s also the fact that it ends on a down note. The Doctor doesn’t win, and that hasn’t happened in any form since “Victory of the Daleks” (another Mark Gatiss script) and hasn’t really, properly happened on television since “Earthshock.” These are daring choices that “Sleep No More” makes, and while the execution is, yes, less than stellar, I would rather see something daring that challenges both the show and the audience than continue down safe paths to stagnation.
I don’t think “Sleep No More” is ever going to be anyone’s favorite. It lacks the storytelling ability that other experimental episodes like “Blink” and “Midnight” had, and the Sandmen just didn’t have the goods to get the heart pounding. It’s got a unique style, though, and it went where the show had never gone before while at the same time making notes on the human condition. That counts for a lot.