Doctor Who – Sleep No More

SO WE ALL KNOW that spoilers are going to follow. Can we just accept it and move on? Good? OK.

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For the first time since its debut in 1963, Doctor Who has dropped its opening title sequence, instead replacing it with a temporary code-like graphic showing the names of the characters but highlighting the letters ‘DOCTOR WHO’. It’s clear that this isn’t going to be your standard episode. The change came from the fact that it was filmed in a Found-Footage style, using footage recorded fro  characters points-of-view and CCTV. Understandably though, losing the traditional title sequence for this episode is a clever idea as watching the terrified crew search a haunted space station and then see a fully rendered CGI graphic would be out of place. Additionally, it is not like we haven’t seen the opening sequence adapted in the past for Doctor Who. As the finale for Series Eight, “Death in Heaven” saw Clara take the Doctor’s place in the sequence, and earlier in this current series “Before The Flood” had Peter Capaldi play a rock version of the theme on the guitar.

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This week’s episode titled “Sleep No More” saw the return of frequent Doctor Who writer and Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss. The title itself, as the Doctor quotes, is taken from a line in Macbeth “Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep” We watched as The Doctor and Clara travel to the space station Le Verrier, in the 38th century in orbit above Neptune. As they walk through the currently uninhabited station, they meet a four person rescue team, who had arrived at the station to investigate why communications fell silent 24 hours ago. Eventually they meet Dr. Gagan Rassmussen, as played by Reece Shearsmith (when combined with Gatiss and Pemberton’s role in Silence in the Library, the full League of Gentlemen triple) who was the last survivor of a mysterious disaster and creator of a machine called the Morpheus pod. The Morpheus pod had the ability to reduce a complete night’s sleep down to five minutes and with the recipient feeling refreshed, and allowing them to work more.

In the end, these pods were revealed to also mutate the sleep dust into a life form called the Sandmen who were the apparent cause for the deaths of the crew upon the Le Verrier. Rassmussen, claimed to be working with the Sandmen, and had planned to send the longest mutated Sandman back home to multiply. The Doctor and Clara had other ideas of their own and foiled his plan leaving the station as it crashes into Neptune. We return to the running theme of Rassmussen’s found footage system which revealed, Rassmussen to be a Sandman himself, and had actually orchestrated the events to use assembled footage recorded from the Morpheus victims’ vision to create an exciting video to transmit the Morpheus signal to unwary viewers and spread the virus.

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As per usual though Mark Gatiss has done his research for his script. Morpheus being the god of dreams as pointed out by Clara (it’s nice that the assistant is allowed to be the knowledgeable one for once) and The Morpheus hologram using the term ‘in the arms of Morpheus’, a phrase meaning to be in a deep sleep. Along with the title from the episode as mentioned earlier and the calmingly eerie tones of the Chordettes singing “Mr. Sandman” as the theme for the Morpheus machines, it seems a well-considered episode and the breadth of reference adds atmosphere and makes the world feel lived in. What works very well is a second act revelation that acts as commentary on the found-footage style as the Doctor begins to question who is recording all the footage as some of it would have been frankly impossible to be filmed by ‘helmet cameras’. It’s nice that the show doesn’t just use the filming style as a novelty gimmick but uses it to service the plot.

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Taking a risk for a production is always the better route to take over the safe simple one, but when using the basis of ‘Found Footage’ it can either be successful or a failure. This episode however, failed to utilise itself to its full capacity showing the audience the creator of the footage in Reece Shearsmith’s character as he narrates the story for the audience as a guide showing you where to go.  Obviously the Doctor and Clara are meant to be the focus of the show, but it continues to fall into the trap of having a lot of disposable characterless grunt-types. For a BBC prime time family orientated television programme it makes sense that they lead you on the adventure as you go with them only for the twist at the end to show that the Sandmen wanted you to watch because by coding a message into the video, the meta-narrative suggests that by watching they are in your brain. On top of that there is an underlying premise to this episode of a strong corporate drive for people to work more throughout the day eliminating sleep, derived from a mad scientist who is technically sound creating the machine for just that purpose.

I’m glad that still this far into the lengthy history of Who, that they’re still able to find new stories to tell. It has numerous flaws and plotholes but it also has some elegantly staged-scares, some decent monster designs and a fantastic final image as it doesn’t have a properly happy or sad ending, it just ends (even if they cut too quickly to the ‘Next Time On…’ teaser, blunting its impact). It’s an enjoyable but not particularly memorable episode of the show which is disappointing considering it had all the elements in place of something a lot better. Even if this isn’t the most successful episode of the show, at least it tried enough new things to justify its existence. Now if I could only get that bloody ‘Mr. Sandman’ out of my head…

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