I’ve watched Mark Gatiss’s latest effort, Sleep No More, three times, and have had more time than usual (due to preoccupation with exams) to think about it and mull over my impressions. I think that’s for the better in this case, because my impressions of the episode now have shifted quite considerably since my first viewing. If I’d reviewed this episode on the day of broadcast, this review would probably have read quite differently. While I won’t presume to tell others to watch it again and reconsider their opinions, I think this is definitely one that needs to be watched at least twice to be properly appreciated. Needless to say, this has also been one of the most divisive episodes of Doctor Who I’ve seen—the most divisive, at least, since Kill the Moon, and even that one received a broadly positive reception. This one has divided opinion more violently than almost any I’ve seen.
Divided opinion is to be expected from a script as experimental as this. Whenever the show, Doctor Who seemingly more than any other, does something differently and left-of-field, there are inevitably going to be fans who love it and fans who hate it. It’s not just the found footage style that’s different about this episode, although, to say something about that, I found it effective. For the most part, I didn’t notice the difference from a regular episode, but, at its best, it allowed for the amplification of the intrigue and atmosphere and thrill of the episode. It provided for some wonderful moments, including the numerous moments Peter Capaldi spoke directly to the camera.
But it’s also the way the story, and its overarching conceit, played out that’s bound to frustrate some. If you’re like me, you probably came out of the episode upon first viewing more than a bit confused about what had just happened and feeling rather unsatisfied. After two subsequent viewings, I’ve managed to wrap my head around the slightly convoluted conceit the script was weaving—that all the events of the episode were orchestrated by the dust to tell a story to keep the viewers hooked, to infect them with the Morpheus signal—and I appreciate the “action” of the episode a lot more with that in mind. Although the episode plays out like a stock-standard base-under-siege with some gimmicky camerawork, it’s really quite a concept-heavy piece. Again, I think you need to watch it a few times to fully appreciate that. Its narrative appeal is primarily on the meta level, and if that isn’t to your taste, then this episode is probably not going to work for you, especially if, like me upon my first viewing, you found the action a bit boring and the plot overly complex.
That said, there’s a lot that could’ve been improved upon. The Sandmen, notwithstanding their intriguing concept, in practice were fairly unoriginal creations. They were snarling, groping monster-men practically indistinguishable from the zombies in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. In the Sandmen there’s a reticence on Gatiss’s part to take the brilliant ideas he’s put into this script as far as they could have been taken. Why not show a person’s transformation into a Sandman? (Deep-Ando’s death was a perfect opportunity) Why not illustrate exactly how these creatures are sentient sleep dust, rather than just showing them stomping around like generic zombies and having the Doctor tell us “they’re sleep dust”. Moreover, the other problem I had with this episode is that, even given that the action was all engineered to tell a riveting story, there wasn’t enough plot to tease out to fill the whole 45 minutes. We watch the Doctor, Clara and the crew getting into scrapes and near-misses for most of the episode—yes, it was all manufactured by the dust, but after a while it all became a bit tedious. The first plot development of any significance came 30 minutes in, when the Doctor realised the dust had been recording them. By then you’d be forgiven if you’d lost interest.
But yet… I rather enjoyed it. I enjoyed it more upon each subsequent viewing, perhaps because, wrapping my head around the confusing plot points and meta-narrative, I was in a better position to appreciate the script for the clever and engaging piece of writing it was. I was in a better position to appreciate that this wasn’t just a typical monster runaround with a clever twist tacked on at the end, but that Mark Gatiss really has, for all its faults, crafted an exquisite script. And, I mean, it wasn’t that boring. Perhaps I overstated my impatience with the episode above—I was certainly unsatisfied the first time round, but, like I said, it improved for me once I grasped what the point of it all was. Contrary to others’ impressions, I found the characters all fairly well-written, especially the unsettling Rassmussen, and I loved the amusing Chopra-474 double-act. And I have no hesitation in affirming that I’d watch this episode again just for that ending. I think the last minute of the episode is the one thing everyone agrees was superb. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by suggesting it was one of the creepiest, freakiest, most chilling moments in a Doctor Who episode ever. I’m sure if I were 10 years old, I’d have been petrified about going to bed after watching that. It just reeked of Mark Gatiss’s dark, morbid sense of humour. I love that.
Is it Mark Gatiss’s best script yet? Although that isn’t really saying much, I’d be tempted to say “yes” if it weren’t for the exceptional Robot of Sherwood in Series 8. Even if we accept, though, that Sleep No More is the weakest episode of Series 9 so far (it’s vying for that honour with Before the Flood and The Woman Who Lived, to my mind), that is undoubtedly to the credit of Series 9, because this is by no means a bad script, and I have no hesitation in saying that every series since 2005 has had episodes much weaker than this, even the stellar Series 4 and 5 had Partners in Crime and Victory of the Daleks, respectively. And, I mean, there’s a tendency to overstate the poorness of the quality of Doctor Who scripts. The average quality of Doctor Who compared to most everything else on television is emphatically higher, and even Doctor Who’s weakest scripts generally make for good television. Because we devotees of this wonderful show are used to an unusually high standard of writing and storytelling in our show, this episode might not necessarily have made for great Doctor Who, but it certainly made for stunningly good television. Admit it, you’d much rather be watching this than anything else that was on at the time.
Quote of the week:
“No, you don’t get to name things. I’m the Doctor. I do the naming.”