Aired 14 November 2015
Following the superb Zygon two-parter before it, ‘Sleep No More’ was always going to be in a tenuous position in terms of reception simply due to its placement. In a series that, as a whole, has been exceedingly good and definitely benefited from the expanded time for storytelling, ‘Sleep No More’ comes as something of an oddity since it is the first standalone story of this run as well. What follows is one of the boldest episodes of Doctor Who yet, though the end result is certainly far from perfect.
It’s immediately clear that this episode is going to be something unique as guest star Reece Shearsmith addresses the camera directly and the usual theme song is replaced simply by computer text. Writer Mark Gatiss then spins what can be classified as a found-footage episode, events shown only through living characters’ experiences or through Shearsmith’s video diary recordings. And so the Doctor and Clara arrive on the thirty-eighth century space station Le Verrier, meeting up with a rescue mission trying to figure out why the station went silent twenty-four hours previously.
What ‘Sleep No More’ does well, though, as any science fiction programme does, is offer a fresh look at events that directly relate to the real world. The Morpheus technology at the core of the episode, a machine that lets humans trade in sleep for better efficiency, is the best example of this, and unequivocally speaks to the modern trend in work environments. Likewise, the cloned ‘grunt’ that is genetically engineered for warfare is a logical extension of the drones being used across the globe today.
What lets the episode down is its monster. In concept, the Morpheus technology turning the sleep from the corner of the eye into a villainous presence in quite disturbing, but its execution never quite lives up to its potential. It can take the form of a humanoid and proves to be the point-of-view for much of the proceedings, but it just feels like there is a missed opportunity for more explanation and more of a sinister threat there.
Likewise, as strong as director Justin Molotnikov’s use of dimly lit corridors and a shaky camera is, it can sometimes be difficult to see exactly what is happening to the crew. This isn’t necessarily the worst situation since it definitely increases the tension, but the episode doesn’t do enough to distinguish the supporting cast enough to warrant trying to figure out what is happening to which character. This is perhaps the greatest flaw of the found-footage genre is that it is so dependant on angles and environments that it can be difficult to keep track of the action. That’s not a knock on ‘Sleep No More’ since it fully committed to its experimental storytelling nature, but it’s a known risk when using this format.
Even if the story never reaches its full potential, one must commend Doctor Who for continually trying to push the boundaries and never resting on its laurels and relishing in past successes. There are still plenty of genuinely riveting moments, including the Doctor’s speeches directly into the camera and Reece Shearsmith’s haunting ending monologue, but the episode as a whole fails to live up to the superb calibre of other recent outings.