Hello! Today I’m reviewing episode nine, “Sleep No More,” with my friend Charley Robson @ Charley R’s Leaning Tower of Plot! Gah, I meant to catch up on these reviews over Thanksgiving break, and that didn’t really happen… oh, well.
P.S. You can find previous collaborative reviews of Doctor Who‘s ninth series here.
Charley is a 20-year-old student, blogger, author, and supposedly responsible functioning adult. When not reading, procrastinating on reading, or reading something more interesting instead, she is usually found under the desk, cuddling her stuffed dragon Llewellyn, muttering something about plot holes, character inconsistencies, and uneccessary love triangles. Her favourite Doctor is indeterminate, but her favourite companion is always Donna Noble. She blogs at Charley R’s Leaning Tower of Plot.
Warning: Spoilers ahead, sweetie!
Charley: I’d like to make note of the framing of this episode, especially? Like, when it first got started, I wanted to throw myself out of the window. THE CLICHE. THE CLICHEEEEEE. OH MY GOD IT WAS SO CLICHE.
Charley: You know, the pack of stock characters going in to deserted space station to follow up on unknown disaster, blah blah. Oh my stars, I was furious. BUT! The plot twists throughout the episode were nothing short of awesome. I did a complete 180 on this episode about midway through. It wasn’t the sharpest thing – I saw the Morpheus / Sandman thing coming a mile away, but that might just be me – but the twist with the scientist and the final scene where he was talking at the camera gave me chills. There was some wonderful atmosphere.
Charley: Initially, I was really, really annoyed with this episode. I’ve seen this setup too often in video games and movies, I think, and I’ve basically come to equate it with laziness. Combined with how gut-bustingly cliche the entire setup was, I really wasn’t impressed. I liked the notion of a backward-looking episode, but didn’t think this was going to work out.
Charley: However! The way the episode eventually explained the “found footage” aesthetic, and the scientist’s clips, even the really annoying white-noise shot changes – which I hated within seconds for the aforementioned laziness reasons as well as for the irritating noise – was absolutely incredible. Really, really good writing there. Some of the best plot twists I’ve seen on TV, let alone on Doctor Who, for quite a while.
Engie: I knew a little bit about this episode before seeing it – I’d read about how it was going to be told through found footage, at least – but I’ll admit that even before seeing it I was a bit hesitant. This is a very experimental method of storytelling and it had the potential to go soooooo wrong and not be creepy at all. It had the potential to be a total mess, but it wasn’t, and I was super impressed.
Charley: Likewise! I think it was the writing that really saved it. Massive kudos to Mark Gatiss – he must have known exactly what he was doing when he wrote this episode, because the pacing of the story and plot twists are so tight. Everything is timed just about right to get you used to a status quo, and then suddenly link back to something that was on the verge of slipping your mind and make you go “Oooooh!”
Engie: You mention Mark Gatiss – I was also impressed by this episode because I… haven’t liked ANY of Gatiss’ previous stories? On both Doctor Who and Sherlock. I think he’s overrated. So I didn’t have high expectations, but this is definitely one of my favorite episodes this series, and one of the creepiest we’ve had in a while…
Engie: I did think it was clever that at the end, we were told that WE were spreading Morpheus. I saw that coming from a mile away, but I still loved it.
Engie: Also – and this is something I’ll talk about more in my reviews of the finale, and may even end up writing an entirely separate post about it – the writers of series nine definitely made some interesting storytelling decisions! “Sleep No More” was the only standalone episode of this series… what did you think of that?
Charley: I, personally, love how tight and self-contained this episode was, though some aspects of the semi-open ending were a bit abrupt. But that final villain reveal was chilling.
Engie: Same here! I’ve gotten quite used to waiting impatiently for the next episode and being super curious about the cliffhanger, and then the following episode finally resolves it… but this story was all contained in one episode. I don’t know, I just think some of the choices made when planning out the plot of this series are very interesting.
Charley: The monsters looked kind of rubbish. Like giant earwax monsters. They made really haunting scary noises, though. I liked those.
Engie: Yeahhhhh, the monsters weren’t that great. Oh, well. They looked like they were made out of Play-Dough. Really old, really disgusting Play-Dough.
Charley: The thought behind them was good. They were just kind of boring in terms of design. Nothing special.
Charley: The atmosphere in this episode was excellent. Partly, I think we can credit that to the “found footage” style. The removal of the opening credits and things made it all that little bit more immediate and “real” and therefore much scarier when it pulled the final plot twist at the end.
Charley: And, while the monsters were rather lame in terms of their design, behaviour and kind of blank “eat humans, invade planet, profit” ambition, the noises they made and the way the characters reacted to them really upped the fear factor in a lot of ways. I was certainly getting nervous – particularly in that scene in the freezer. Ohhh, the old “a monster is roaming around and I have to sneak past it” moment always gets me!
Engie: I’m glad I’m not a kid anymore because this would’ve given me nightmares at that age. Actually, I suppose I would’ve irritated my parents because I would have refused to go to bed after watching that episode.
Charley: Can’t imagine why…
Engie: THAT ENDING, THOUGH. JESUS CHRIST, GATISS.
Charley: Brilliant as the atmosphere and pacing is – and Capaldi’s quotes about sleep, taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, among other places – some of the writing is really, really clunky. Particularly for the support characters. The narrator / scientist doesn’t have to tell you not to get attached, they’re a bunch of walking stock characters about as engaging as wooden spoons with smiley faces drawn on them.
Engie: Yeah, that part – the telling us not to get attached part – felt like, I don’t know, really really crappy fanfiction. Or something.
Charley: I agree. Which is a pity, as there was a lot of promise with those characters. There were some really interesting bits of worldbuilding being done there, explaining things like work ethic and the morality of the human / non-human divide with the grunt, 474 – who was the only one outside Clara and the Doctor I remotely got attached to, and was tragically underutilised. Not to mention they had some really good casting diversity going on!
Engie: OH MY GOD SO MUCH TO TALK ABOUT THERE WHERE DO I EVEN START.
Engie: I loved 474 too, and… well, at the beginning of this series I read about how Doctor Who‘s first transgender actress would be in episode nine, but somehow I forgot all about that until I started seeing some articles about her! SHE WAS 474 YAY.
Charley: Oh my stars, I had no idea about that! That’s kind of even more awesome? Because the rescue crew is pretty diverse – we have Indo-Japanese names and culture implied here and there, a female commander, and now a trans actress as one of the cast! Admittedly the gender of 474 isn’t really considered much, though female pronouns are used to refer to her on a couple of occasions. The diversity there is really heartening. Such a pity the characters themselves aren’t as interesting to match.
Engie: I’m so happy with the diversity in this episode. When the Doctor made that comment about Indo-Japanese culture in the 38th century, I squeed. This is the kind of thing I talk about on my blog all the time! I want more diverse sci fi… it’s really boring when a group of scientists or explorers or astronauts or whatever are all straight white guys. Like, why? WHY?
Charley: Exactly… which comes back to a point I made earlier: I wish we had had more worldbuilding in this episode. The world around this station sounds fascinating, and I would totally be up for an episode revisiting it in some way, shape or form. Given how open – incomplete? I’m still not sure how I feel about the abrupt ending – the conclusion of the episode is, I feel like Gatiss might be leaving the door open for us to see these enemies (and hopefully maybe this world) again too.
Engie: I wouldn’t mind if we never saw these particular enemies again, because I think open-ended conclusions make things scarier/more haunting. But I definitely want to see more of the world these people were from!
Charley: I could certainly get behind that. After all, the culture there is clearly hell bent on innovation with relatively little regard for the ethics of it. Who knows what else might go wrong with their science, and produce horrible monsters that require intervention from our favourite
grumpy space dad Time Lord?
Engie: One thing I ADORED about this episode was all the allusions to other stories. Sandman, Morpheus, the Doctor quoting Shakespeare, et cetera… I’m still mad at myself for not noticing that the title was from Macbeth!
Charley: Like I said, I enjoyed the Doctor’s callbacks to Shakespeare, but aside from the name connection to Morpheus (incidentally a Greek/Roman deity, with no relevance to the Indo-Japanese kind of vibe we were getting otherwise) and the obvious “Sandman” link through the monsters’ names, there wasn’t really much to discuss there.
Engie: I don’t know, I guess I just really really love stories that draw on other stories. (Or that are about stories!) I don’t know. I liked it. That was probably my favorite part of the episode, how all those quotes and names and references came together. Also, the “gods be with you” line was repeated frequently and I… liked it, but it also made me laugh because, as you said, Morpheus isn’t related to Indo-Japan at all. Maybe it’s just me, but I loved the story/mythology aspect of “Sleep No More.”
Charley: Well, there might be a connection to be made with the trade in opiates through the Silk Road… but overall, yes, there was very little connectivity there. I guess I’m not as keen on those links because I saw the Morpheus / Sandman / sleep monsters connection coming a mile away. (Because I’m a giant nerd who knows her mythology.)
Engie: I mean, same. I guess I’m a giant nerd who was just happy to see those references anyway?
Charley: Fair enough to you! I think I may just be rather jaded, on this and many other fronts this episode brought up.
Charley: The “gods be with you” felt fairly throwaway to me, as well. As if it had been put there to imply a depth to a culture that we didn’t see enough of for it to be effective.
Engie: We definitely need another episode set in that culture!
Charley: There were a couple of plot threads in the episode that weren’t really tied up, but one or two that really bother me are the “sandman song” AI – which I genuinely expected to be part of the “thing that is being kept here” in the climax – and Clara’s experience with Morpheus.
Charley: We don’t really get any idea about how this will affect her (or the commander, for that matter) in the future, or even if it will once the station has been safely blown to smithereens. Perhaps they were subplots that had to be cut because this is only a single episode and time constraints happen, but I was rather disappointed as both were intriguing little nuggets.
Engie: Yeah… now I’m trying to remember how the Sandmen worked, because Rassmussen said Morpheus WAS spread through a signal after all, but that would still affect Clara because she slept in the thingy.
Charley: As she won’t sleep in the Morpheus rig again, though, I don’t think the buildup / eventual takeover will be able to take place? But that’s pure supposition.
Engie: Yeah, that might work.
Engie: What was your overall opinion of this episode?
Charley: I started out with no knowledge of what I was going into, and despite first impressions so dire they debated bringing a jackhammer to the bottom of the Marianas Trench to provide the necessary depth to illustrate my displeasure, I was proven very wrong – and I have a lot of respect for this episode.
Charley: The writing was excellent, the atmosphere was powerful and effective, and while I feel there was a shortage of development in the support characters and setting overall, I definitely think this is one of Capaldi’s best episodes so far – let alone this season. The way the story broke from convention, visually and narratively, really made the whole thing for me, and I would thoroughly recommend it – especially to people beginning to lose their faith in “New Who.”
Engie: This episode was not without faults, but overall I really enjoyed it! At first I wasn’t sure I’d like it, because I’m not a fan of Mark Gatiss’ writing… and I thought the highly experimental method of storytelling would be easy to screw up. But I ended up having so much to like about “Sleep No More” – the storytelling, the creepiness, the diversity, the constant allusions to stories. Definitely one of my favorites from series nine so far! I’m hesitant to call it my FAVORITE, but it was pretty amazing.
Engie: Thank you so much for reviewing with me!
Charley: No worries! Thanks for inviting me to do a review! I had a great time!
What is YOUR opinion on “Sleep No More”? I’d love to know!