Doctor Who blogging: “Sleep No More”


[previous: “The Zygon Inversion”]

warning: spoilers!

Doctor Who does found-footage… and it actually works in a way that most found-footage stories don’t even bother with anymore. It works because there’s a genuine rationale for someone — in this case, Rassmussen — to have assembled “extant” footage into something resembling a story. And that’s even before we learn that he has ulterior motives, and a secondary, hidden rationale for assembling the found footage. This is pretty brilliant. And it plays with our presumptions about genre, both about science fiction and found-footage: it’s because we’re so used to the idea of SF soldiers wearing helmet cams that we don’t need to be told that the soldiers are wearing helmet cams. Which, of course, they aren’t. The “twist” reveal that there are no helmet cams works only because we automatically presumed that they were.

Clever of writer Mark Gatiss to work in so many kinds of misdirection here. I did notice right away when we started getting Clara’s POV, which obviously could not have been possible if everything we’re seeing is supposedly only from the perspective of the soldiers and the station cams (which we also presumed, and which also turns out to be a wrong presumption). Eventually it becomes so obvious — we also start getting Rassmussen’s POV, and he’s not wearing a helmet that could have a cam either — that we’re clearly meant to be suspicious. Even so, I was inventing possible explanations that got nowhere near what was really going on: perhaps someone was actually asleep in a Morpheus pod and dreaming, or something along those lines? Of course, this would have been so much like other stories we’ve seen this season — like the other James Cameron-esque story, “Last Christmas” — but more samey-samey wouldn’t have been surprising. I’m glad that turned out not to be the case.

Still: the monsters were a bit rubbish. “Sleep dust” devouring humans? Something about concentrating a full night’s sleep into a few minutes makes the monsters inside us — whatever they are — manifest and try to kill us? Maybe if the idea were developed a bit more (instead of feeling like the Vashta Nerada warmed over) it could have worked. I’d have loved some exploration of the ramifications of humans abandoning sleep, which would be huge even absent any resulting monsters. Particularly if, as this episode hints at, not all people are taking advantage of the technology. (For a provocative look at such a scenario, see Nancy Kress’s brilliant novels about the Sleepless, starting with Beggars in Spain.)

I did really like this episode for its stylistic adventurousness, though. I like how Gatiss directly confronts the idea that stuff that doesn’t make sense sometimes gets thrown into Doctor Who simply as a calculated measure to keep the viewer in suspense. And I really love how the Doctor is himself flummoxed by the events he is caught up in. He knows something is wrong but never quite catches on to what it is, and he doesn’t actually fix everything in the end. He escapes, but he doesn’t win. Maybe, perhaps, we can presume that at some point, he does make everything right, just as he assures Clara that of course he’ll be able to stop the Mopheus process from doing her any longterm damage. But maybe not.


Random thoughts on “Sleep No More”:

• No opening titles! Just this:


And I didn’t even notice the D O C T O R W H O picked out among the text the first time I watched.

• The secret of the Doctor’s psychic paper is out across the 38th-century Sol System. Everyone can see that the paper is blank but that the person looking at it believes s/he is seeing something:


• “You don’t get to name things. I’m the Doctor, I do the naming… It’s like the Silurians all over again.” Good point about the misnamed Silurians, but just when I thought the Doctor had put aside his uncalled-for nastiness, it rears up again. Why can’t Clara name things? It’s not even like this one — the Sandmen — was a stretch.

• Hooray for another episode with a nicely diverse cast: white men are a distinct minority here. And the cast is really diverse: Bethany Black, who plays Grunt, is transgender.


• “Looks like a Japanese restaurant,” Clara says to the Doctor, and then gasps in delight. “Have you brought me to space restaurant?”


Why have all the amazing and delicious possibilities of foodie science fiction been ignored by this show? Let’s go to a space restaurant!

[next: “Face the Raven”]

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Mon, Nov 16, 2015 2:24am

Didn’t much care for this but felt that the really interesting stuff thrown up in the story would have made a better episode. I’d have loved to have seen how Gatiss envisaged a Japanese- Indian culture; what was the significance of the religious reference in the troopers’ greetings; what impact does lack of physical rest have on a society; how are grunts made. Instead they were all sizzle on what was to me a fairly tepid and tasteless offering.

Good to see something out of the ordinary on the show and Gatiss has a way with witty banter and does love his formica toned nostalgia. Overall, not one for me but seems to be raising a lot of discussion at least in what I have found to be a very lacklustre series to date.

Mon, Nov 16, 2015 9:16am

I’m not convinced by the diegetic reason for the video – if the devices are everywhere already, why does Rasmussen need people to watch the video? In fact, isn’t it self-defeating in that now the audience knows there’s a problem?

This mostly struck me as yet another riff on seeing and being seen – the Weeping Angels, the Vashta Nerada, the Silence, ho hum. Yes, it’s very pretty (props to the director Justin Molotnikov, who hasn’t worked on the show before but also made next week’s episode) but I found the actual plotting less than convincing. Compare the Zygon double header, which was a clangingly obvious fable for our times, but still managed to convince.

reply to  RogerBW
Mon, Nov 16, 2015 10:12am

The fiction is that he wants to convert the entire human race, and right now there are still a small number of “unbelievers.” He doesn’t just want most people to go to Starbucks; he wants everyone to go to Starbucks. The embedded signal is apparently strong enough to overcome any resistance the viewers might have to the content of the video.

You can buy the logic or not. Personally, I gave up on the episode when I found out the monsters were made of eye gunk.

reply to  Danielm80
Tue, Nov 17, 2015 12:33pm

I must confess that at 3am on Sunday morning I half-woke, wiped gunk out of my eye and had a moment’s panic before falling back to sleep again.

reply to  lescarr
Tue, Nov 17, 2015 1:16pm

Fair enough. But I didn’t find the Sandmen all that scary or compelling. They just looked like second-rate versions of Clayface from the Batman comics.

It seems to me that they could have come up with much more frightening visuals. They could have said something like this: People use dreams to work through their darkest thoughts and impulses. When their sleep cycle is concentrated into a brief period, their nightmares become much darker and much more intense. And because the Morpheus pods incorporate holographic technology, the computers are able to create sentient, hard light versions of the scariest creatures from people’s nightmares. But hard light is unstable, and the monsters are looking for more solid, permanent bodies. They want to take over our bodies, and they can do it just by sending out an electronic signal.

I will admit, though, that the final image of the episode was genuinely frightening.

MaryAnn Johanson
MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Mon, Nov 16, 2015 10:25pm

if the devices are everywhere already, why does Rasmussen need people to watch the video?

I thought it was pretty clear that it was only the newer version of the sleep pod — which was only on the station — that was having this affect.

isn’t it self-defeating in that now the audience knows there’s a problem?

Except how do they fix it? Their brains have already been altered.

At least, it seems clear that that is Rasmussen’s plan. The arrival of the Doctor may have ruined that, if he can come up with a way to reverse the problem (which he’ll have to in order to fix Clara). Of course, the Doctor needs to realize what Rasmussen did in order to fix it…

Mon, Nov 16, 2015 4:06pm

I thought it was pretty good. Sure, the Sandmen were a boring enemy, but the concept is pretty clever. Gross, but clever.
It almost seemed like it was going to be another two-parter, until everything was wrapped up quickly in the end. There’s definitely potential for a sequel/continuation of this story.
I just assumed Grunt was a guy. Cool.

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Wed, Nov 18, 2015 2:22am

For a provocative look at such a scenario, see Nancy Kress’s brilliant novels about the Sleepless, starting with Beggars in Spain.)

For that matter, The X-Files had an interesting episode in its second season — the one that introduced Alex “Ratboy” Krycek — that dealt with the darker possibilities of sleep deprivation. But I suspect most SF fans here already know about that story.

Fri, Nov 20, 2015 4:02pm

“Let’s go to a space restaurant!” What, like, Milliways? The Doctor having a meal in Milliways? … … … WHY hasn’t this been done, I ask?

Radek Piskorski
Radek Piskorski
Wed, Nov 25, 2015 5:58am

I loved this episode!

Sun, Nov 29, 2015 7:35pm

Wow, I’ve just started reading your postings, but I’m actually shocked by how little you criticized this episode. It was rather horrid, and fits more with your ideas of throwing random ‘cool things’ together than in being an actual story.

First, the sleep sand becoming monsters. How did this happen? Did people get out of the chamber with inches of sand at the bottom? Did they walk around with it streaming out? We were told that the people were consumed by the sand, not that they turned into it, so it likely didn’t form inside of them.

If every particle was a camera, how were the monsters blind? Every particle could ‘see’. Sure ‘the signals were hijacked’ sounds good, but what does that mean?

If they are made up of this dust that appears to be sentient and pulled itself together into a humanoid, why did cutting off the things arm by slamming the door into it cause it to turn into dust? Is there really a super-special piece of dust in the creatures’ torsos?

At the end, the monsters were still alive and the plan was working. So, what happened?

If this was all made up so that Rasmussen’s signal could affect anyone, then why was The Doctor incorporated? Did this actually have anything to do with Doctor Who at all? How was it advantageous for The Doctor to end exclaiming that nothing made any sense?

Personally, I left the end of this episode feeling like I didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on.