(Yes, so I cheated a bit with the title this week. Look, those things are hard, alright?) Ever since I heard about this week’s episode of Doctor Who, I’ve been quietly pumped about it. Starring Reece Shearsmith (always in my heart for the screamingly funny and occasionally powerfully disturbing League of Gentlemen) and written by Mark Gatiss (writer of a bunch of DW episodes, the most recent being Robot of Sherwood which I will defend unto the grave, and also, you know, Mark Gatiss), the episode came with a found-footage horror twist and a big fat Macbeth reference in the title, Sleep No More (I don’t think it’s ever come up before, but I consider Macbeth pretty much the greatest thing ever written and have the scene from which this episode’s title is taken pinned up in my kitchen) looked like it was going to be, at the very least, a memorable episode.
I’m just the sort of dick who’d throw all that at you just to say that I thought Sleep No More was a load of pish, but I actually loved it to pieces. Following a crew on an abandoned spaceship, the Doctor and Clara soon turn up and figure out that the reason for the spaceship’s deserted status is the mysterious Morpheus pods that are gaining popularity across the universe, inventions that streamline the sleep process into five minutes. Sounds awesome! Until they realize that the pods hyper-sleep settings have created sentient monsters out of sleep dust-pretty much what happens to me when I don’t get enough shut-eye.
Which is, yes, a hilariously silly idea, but one that’s played straight to great effect. This morning, when I was planning this review and thinking about what I was going to talk about and what I would have to leave out, it was nearly impossible because so much of this episode’s strength lay in the little details- the fact that a drunken ship’s crew had reprogrammed a door for a joke, forcing a doomed soldier to sing a silly tune into it to make it open, the jolly, old-school and utterly sinister announcement lady who introduced the Morpheus pod to us, the bickering over whether or not the creation of a dumb grunt soldier was ethical or not. Gatiss has always been good at little additions that make the universe his stories are set in feel like a real place with real connections to wider world, and that really helped fill in a convincing backdrop for this episodes scares.
And boy howdy, I’m not kidding about those scares. I try to measure Doctor Who’s scariness off how long it would have kept me awake when I was ten, and I don’t think I’d have slept for a month after this outing (also known as the Empty Child effect). I don’t know how well this episode would have worked without the found footage conceit, but that’s irrelevant because it was. It subscribed gleefully to all the genre tropes it could get it’s sandy little hands on, from the dramatic cutaways to the wobbly cameras obscuring the approaching villains, and the ending revealing a secret hidden in the choppy footage. As a horror fan till the end of my days, I liked this, and I liked it a lot, even if I can understand other viewers seeing it as a gimmick or a grasping flail for originality, as it totally was.
The episode squeezed in a few good jump-scares, as well as some legitimately gruesome effects that made me cringe a little bit even now. I said in the Under the Lake review that what made the monsters so frightening was their corporeal-ness, the fact that they didn’t just finish you with a zap of death or blast from their whisk or whatever. And the same went for this episode. The creatures were present and very, very real, and served as an actual threat to our leading cast- munching them up whole, smashing their way through doors, and generally being a lot more threatening than the usual Who villain. Speaking of villains, Reece Shearmsith deserves a nod for his role as Rassmussen, the man behind the Morpheus pods and instigator of a plan so fiendishly evil it’ll tie you to the railroad tracks while twirling it’s moustache before you’ve had a chance to say “Wait, weren’t you in League of Gentlemen?”.
I think what I liked most about Sleep No More (aside from trying to figure out the connections to Macbeth beyond the title and the line quoted in the middle of the episode- maybe the theme of ambition? Or looking like the innocent flower but being the serpent under it? Ooh, I’m going to have fun with this one for weeks, I can tell) was the fact that it was driven by story, first and foremost.
Think about it: this season we’ve had the Magician’s Apprentice two-parter, which was really a bunch of loosely connected character vignettes (for the Doctor, for Davros, for Missy), Under the Lake and Before the Flood, which were focused on exploring the fiendish time-bending the Doctor can get up to, the Girl who Died which, well, introduced us to Ashildr (who’s back next week) and a whole new low for the series, and then the Zygon two-parter which apparently revolved around that speech which I am now convinced lasted at least seven hours. Sleep No More- with no back end to tie it all together- had forty-five minutes to tell a tight, smart, scary story, and it succeeded. It was driven by plot first and foremost, and it’s breakneck pace-occasionally a little too breakneck, to the detriment of the tertiary characters-didn’t let up for a moment of navel-gazing or laboured character points. And for that, I give Sleep No More a firm pass, and strongly recommend it if you’ve been drifting away from this season a little bit.
But what’s this I hear about the Cybermen next week? I’ll have you yet, Moffat.