For the first time this season, we get a true standalone episode of Doctor Who. And it’s a weird one. I had to sit down and write about it before I could decide how I felt. But now my feelings are set in stone so we can talk about “Sleep No More”.
We open with scientist Gagan Rassmussen telling the viewers not to watch. I’ll say this for Mark Gatiss – he knows how to lean in to the haters. He explains that what we’re going to see is taken from footage that he’s assembled to make sense of the events. Found footage episode! The rest of the episode is seemingly shot by helmet cams and security cameras, which is a neat gimmick and it turns out to be important later.
We meet the crew from Triton – Chopra, Commander Nagata, Deep-Ando, and a cloned soldier (“grunt”) designated 474. They’re investigating the sudden loss of communications from the Le Verrier Space Station orbiting Neptune and when they arrive, it appears to be abandoned. Except for the Doctor and Clara, of course. The old psychic paper convinces the crew that they’re “Engineering Stress Assessors”. That’s good enough for Nagata, who fills them in on the plot so far and agrees to let these two accompany them on their rescue mission.
As they investigate, a weird noise kicks up and something starts chasing them. Most of them get behind a door just as a lumpy white monster grabs at them. They slam the door on its arm and the arm turns to dust. At this point, they realize that they lost Deep-Ando somewhere along the line. Cut to poor Ando, trying to find his way back.
Chopra insists that they send 474 after him, because he’s biased against clones and doesn’t care if she dies. In the room are some large pods, which Nagata explains as “Morpheus”. One of the pods opens and pulls Clara in and then four tiny holographic ladies start singing “Mr. Sandman”. Nagata is not at all worried, and the Doctor finally manages to get it open. It’s a sleep pod that’s semi-sentient and it thought Clara seemed tired. One of the other sleep pods is occupied, and they open it to find Rassmussen.
A lady’s holographic head appears to deliver a sales pitch for Morpheus. Essentially, the pods concentrate a whole night of sleep into five minutes so you can keep working for a month. Clara thinks it’s horrible and Chopra agrees. The Doctor argues that sleep is vital and even he needs to sleep. Clara doesn’t believe it and I don’t know if I do either. The crew had similar pods on their own ship, which everybody but Chopra used. At this point, there’s a shot from Clara’s POV and since I’d been assuming helmet cams provided the footage up to this point, this is jarring and I was ready to complain. Just wait!
The Doctor insists they leave the lab to figure out what’s happening and posits that the monsters are made of “sleep dust”. You know, the crust that builds up in your eyes overnight. I call them “eye boogers”, and I really wish Capaldi would have spoken that phrase. And I’ll acknowledge, that sounds like a stretch even for this show, but I think they manage to earn it by the end. Anyway, Rassmussen explains that the monsters got everybody else, but he managed to hide. The Doctor insists that they have to destroy Morpheus and the monsters before they can leave the station.
Deep finally makes his way to a door but the talking door won’t let him in until “he does the song”. The door was reprogrammed after a Christmas party and he has no idea what it’s talking about. The monsters are getting closer, and finally the door cues him up with the opening to “Mister Sandman”. He gets enough of the song out before the monsters catch him, but there’s another monster in the room when he finally gets there. Rassmussen reports that he was the first to die.
The gravity shields fail and the station starts being pulled into Neptune’s orbit. Everybody’s thrown about as the Doctor tries to fix it. It seems that Rassmussen is killed in all the commotion. One of the monsters attacks, but the sudden increase in gravity breaks him apart into dust. Chopra and 474 are separated from the group in all the confusion. The Doctor, Clara, and Nagata end up in a meat locker.
Chopra and 474 decided to head for the ship and will blow the station up if they have to. Back in the freezer, the Doctor hacks the helmet cams with his sonic sunglasses and reviews the footage. Nagata says they don’t have helmet cams, but the Doctor doesn’t notice. He thinks the way the monsters behave is weird. Rassmussen was killed by a direct attack, but dust covers things. They should be enveloping their victims, not hitting them. Clara christens them “Sandmen”, but the Doctor thinks he should do the naming He agrees that “Sandmen” is a pretty good name, though. And then he remembers what Nagata said about the cameras. Sandmen start pounding on the door and the Doctor decides to let them in.
Rassmussen, who’s supposed to be dead, appears on screen to tell us that he’s not dead.
The Doctor and the others hide while the Sandmen stumble around. Chopra and 474 are attacked and their escape route is on fire. 474 knocks Chopra out and carries him through the flames. Back in the meat locker, the Doctor’s plan works. The Sandmen can’t see, so as long as they’re quiet, they can sneak right past. 474 dies attacking the Sandmen to buy Chopra some time to escape.
The Doctor shows Nagata a bunch of footage from the episode and asks her what’s wrong with it. She can’t identify it, so he spells it out. There are no cameras on the ship, no helmet cams. The dust has been watching them. Morpheus has turned particle of dust into tiny spies. And anyone who uses a Morpheus pod is a transmitter. That’s why we saw footage from Clara and Rassmussen’s POV, but none from Chopra’s (since he refuses to use the pods). He’s pretty sure he can fix everybody once they get back to the TARDIS.
They talk it out and realize that the grav shields didn’t fail – somebody deliberately powered them down and that something’s being stored near the engines. It’s the thing that’s putting together this footage. Chopra, still alone, heads off to destroy the station but the Sandmen get him.
They get to the engines, and there’s a sleep pod. The Doctor seems to be arguing with a far-off voice until they find Rassmussen hiding behind a wall. He’s decided that Sandmen are better than people and it’s only right that Earth is their food. They’re a little surprised that he’s not dead, but it’s a bigger deal that he’s trying to kill everybody. Inside the last pod is Morpheus’ first client, a man who hasn’t slept in five years. He’s the Patient Zero who can infect everybody. Rassmussen unleashes the Sandman from the pod. The Doctor distracts it, and Nagata guns down Rassmussen and the Doctor realizes that the plot doesn’t make sense. Well, somebody had to say it.
The Doctor programs the shields to self-destruct so Neptune’s gravity will destroy the station. They get to the TARDIS through a gauntlet of sandmen. And then Rassmussen addresses the camera to explain that there are no spores – only an electronic signal that affects the sleep center of the brain. And that signal is buried in his transmission Everything he did was to make the broadcast more compelling to ensure it would be watched. By watching it, you’ve received the signal. Rassmussen turns to dust as the station implodes as he taunts us for falling victim to his plan.
–Hey, no opening theme this time. That was really weird, and I like the payoff. We didn’t actually see an episode of Doctor Who. We watched a viral transmission put together by Rassmussen.
Mark Gatiss gets a bad rap – he’s written some below-average episodes, true. (Though his Sherlock work is great.) But as a long-time staffer, I think he’s the guy who gets called in to write episodes quickly and under budget when they’re in a pinch. Many of his episodes are set inside a house, for example. He’s done some episodes I really like (I dug last season’s “Robot of Sherwood” for example.), and I don’t think he deserves his reputation. And some of his episodes work much better on later viewings. They’re just usually surrounded by big important episodes on either side. “The Idiot’s Lantern”, for example? Just saw it again recently and it’s actually pretty good.
That said, I think this might be the weakest episode of the season. Of course, it’s the first real standalone all year. And I don’t especially like found footage stuff in general, so that’s a strike against it. But I liked it a lot better on the second viewing, and I think it’ll probably work better as a repeat where it can be viewed on its own, as opposed to being the home stretch of the season when we’re all very worried about what’s going to happen to Clara.
The fact is, the episode doesn’t make much sense. Enough that it’s actually jarring. Like how only that one door required singing to open; the spontaneous shield failure; the way the Doctor even had access to the footage when he didn’t know what was recording it; even the found footage cheats from Clara and Rassmussen’s POV. Midway through the episode, this piled up enough to take me out of it. And there’s an explanation at the end that I think is really clever, but by that point I had already asked “What am I even watching here?” Even the idea of monsters made of eye boogers is a little too silly at first, thought I think it ends up working.
Watching for the second time to write a recap and knowing the ending made it a lot more enjoyable. It’s actually really clever. And in retrospect, there are a couple of times during the episode when the characters note that things don’t make sense, so the setup is actually there. I watch shows that I recap a little bit differently, because I’m thinking about what to say the whole time and I think that had me focusing on the plotholes more than on the characters pointing out the plotholes. That was on me.
It’s interesting, because I think the punchline of the episode is great, but watching without knowing that’s coming up is kind of an unsatisfying experience. It seems to be a weakness that you have to watch it twice to enjoy it, but it’s also kind of a bold move. And maybe people who like the found footage style more than I do would have rolled with it better. I don’t know. But I didn’t like it until the end and then I liked it a lot on the rewatch.
Since it’s such a standalone, there really aren’t any continuity notes. Honestly, I think this could have aired at any point in the last two seasons because it really isn’t tied to anything. Heck, the sonic sunglasses are the only thing that connect it to this season. And that means I don’t have much to say.
Basically, give it a second watch if you didn’t like it. It’s a crazy idea to end with the villain explaining that the plotholes were his plan, but I kind of love the chutzpah. It’s not the highpoint of the season by any means, but a second watch improved it immensely.
Another standalone next week, and that certainly sounds like the voice of a certain Woman Who Lived in the trailer…