Some Nightmares Fail: Doctor Who’s Sleep No More
Doctor Who‘s “Sleep No More” had a brilliant start. First, there was the eerie fact that the episode lacked the usual thematic introduction that we’re so used to. The subdued, eerie atmosphere simply begins with the introduction to a man named Professor Rassmussen. He gives us, the audience, his account of what happened on the Le Verrier space station: where a rescue team was sent to find out what happened to them … and failed.
It’s definitely not the last time we will see Professor Rassmussen. The episode itself, written by Mark Gatiss, is patterned after a found-footage film, or even a piece of epistolary fiction: a story told from a first hand account. No matter which way you look at it though, from the very beginning where the Professor warns us not to watch his recordings, Gatiss attempts to tell a horror story through the tropes of Doctor Who. This is not the first time. Doctor Who has often verged on the horror genre with its vast selection of monsters.
Unfortunately, it’s not only the rescue team that fails in this episode.
It turns out that the good Professor had created machines called Morpheus pods: things that allow humans to have a good night’s sleep in just five minutes to increase productivity. It is such a banal reason to unleash such horror because, wouldn’t you know it, you know those grains you get in the corners of your eyes? That sleep dust? After you sleep? Well, it is actually the growth of a mucus lifeform that usually gets killed off by semi-regular human sleep but because of the Morpheus pods and their electric signals, these lifeforms aren’t stopped by the human immune system in slumber and consume their hosts … and everyone around them.
These Sandmen, Dustmen, or Sleepmen can’t even see: they need the eyes of those who have apparently used the pods to find their prey. Also, interfering with the electric impulse that keep together disintegrate their bodies into dry grains of sand.
To be honest, they are … kind of underwhelming: more of a parasite that grows from these electro-magnetic impulses more than anything. The team, with the exception of the Grunt — a human cloned specifically and only for combat — are pretty unmemorable and they die with very little fanfare. Even with the interesting twist of The Doctor and Clara actually meeting and getting involved with the rescue team — instead of arriving after they are gone — doesn’t offset this. Mind you, there are some good character moments from The Doctor and Clara if you can believe it: The Doctor referring to the Professor’s pods as an abomination, and Clara calling the creation of human life made and bred to fight and die in wars morally disgusting.
In the end, The Doctor and the others destroy the station and the Sandmen within it: after one of the soldiers on the the rescue team kills the good Professor for actually trying to help his inadvertent creations take over the universe. Because, you know, we totally didn’t see Rassmussen being evil and behind everything totally coming a mile away.
But then we realize the truth. You know how Rassmussen recorded his last living moments on the ship? Well, he did it after he was supposedly killed. It turns out Rassmussen was captured and at least partially converted — or replaced — by the Sandmen at some point in the episode and by virtue of leaving his found-footage and sending it across the Sol System, he will spread Sandmen through all life everywhere: including through us the viewers. In the immortal tradition of M. Night Shyamalan, ‘What a twist!”
So as Rassmussen, or whatever he has become, crumbles into dust — the happiest dying villain ever having apparently one-upped The Doctor — you begin to see what is wrong with this episode. It can summed up by having a fascinating premise that could have made it on the level of “Listen,” with a cautionary tale introduction, interesting found-footage segments, followed by disappointing monsters, confusing information about what they are and how they get destroyed, lackluster secondary characters, and the particularly disappointing reveal of Patient Zero whom — if you are really following the plot at this point somehow — should have totally been the good Professor himself. I mean, he is already insane and driven so why wouldn’t he have tested his Morpheus pod on himself first and perhaps the Sandman that came from his eyes had been manipulating them the whole time?
Whereas “Listen” was all about psychological terror and playing with perceptions, at best “Sleep No More” at best an attempt at a NoSleep meme using Doctor Who as a medium. And it was just as bad as a rushed and amateurish creepypasta failed to go viral. In fact, it’s almost like a choppy superficial parallel of what happens in The Russian Sleep Experiment creepypasta. It’s a shame because with more time and effort, this could have been a classic creepy Doctor Who episode. Still, it is a fascinating failure when you look at what the episode tried to be. And who knows? Perhaps the experiment isn’t yet because, after all, there are some nightmares need more than just five minutes of sleep to come into full fruition.