I have a feeling “Sleep No More” will be another polarizing episode of Doctor Who. It’s sort of a clever experiment, though I’m not sure it entirely gels, and it’s probably saved by a fairly creepy twist ending.
So what actually happens in “Sleep No More?” I’ve watched it twice, and I’m still not 100 percent sure. I mean, I guess the video we’re watching has been faked or something? But presumably the main details are accurate, or at least the Doctor actually showed up, and something happened. At the end, the villain, Rasmussen, says that he tried to make it an exciting story, and the Doctor keeps mentioning that none of these events makes sense. (Something that doesn’t seem to bother the Doctor in any other Doctor Who stories.)
So basically, in “Sleep No More,” Le Verrier Station is a research station in the 38th century, and the sole surviving human aboard appears to be Gigan Rasmussen, a scientist. He’s developed the Morpheus process, which allows you to climb into a pod and get a whole night’s sleep in five minutes. But the Morpheus process has turned deadly, because all the sand in your eye has come to life and taken human form and is running around killing everybody. With me so far?
The Doctor and Clara arrive at roughly the same time as a group of rescuers from Triton, who include a “Grunt” named 474, who’s been specially grown and has sub-human intelligence. Soon they’re being hunted by the “Sandmen,” the people made of the gunk from the corner of your eye.
Rasmussen, who’s masterminding all these events, tries to heighten the excitement and danger by turning off the gravity shields on the station, sending it plummeting towards Neptune. Later, Rasmussen (who was supposedly dead) pops up and tells the Doctor and friends that there’s a pod containing the original test subject for the Morpheus process, someone who hasn’t slept in five years—and the pod is going to be transported to Triton, where it can infect everybody and anybody with spores, or something. So they have to neutralize the sandmen, and stop the original test subject from reaching Neptune’s moon—except that this is all just a fake plot twist, engineered by Rasmussen. There’s no “original patient” and no spores—it’s just the same thing as before where using the Morpheus pods gives rise to killer sand monsters.
Meanwhile there’s a subplot where one of the rescue party, Chopra, gets over his prejudice towards 474 after 474 saves his life. And there’s an actually quite moving scene where Chopra learns to appreciate the simple bravery of 474—just before 474 dies to help Chopra escape. (Which turns out to be in vain anyway.)
In the end, it turns out that what we’ve watched was a dramatic “found footage’ video that was constructed by Rasmussen to get us to watch the whole thing—because the weird flickering video pattern that pops up every now and then is actually the Morpheus process. And it’ll cause the sand in our eyes to come to life and turn into killer people? Or maybe it’ll turn us into sand people? Really not sure. And then Rasmussen himself melts into a creepy pile of sand goop, because there’s nothing left of Rasmussen, “only us.”
The part I don’t get is, if the Morpheus devices are all over the place already, then hasn’t Rasmussen already won? Anybody who’s used the pods has already been subjected to the same process that he’s trying to get people to subject themselves to by watching this video. Right? And in fact, by engineering this whole dramatic sequence of events, Rasmussen has now ensured that people on Triton are alerted to the danger of the pods and will try and destroy them. I’m not sure what the upside is here.
Anyway, the “found footage” turns out not to be actual found footage—instead, the sand in everyone’s eye is capturing whatever they see. So everybody except the Doctor and Chopra (who refuses to use the pods because he sees them as commercializing sleep) is a living camera. Plus particles of eye-sand are floating around and can capture stuff that’s happening from an omniscient viewpoint, sort of. How exactly the sand particles transmit what they capture back to the station’s computer systems, so it can be edited together into a video that can be shown on the screens, is left unexplained. I guess it’s the internet of eye goop.
So by watching this episode, we’ve been captured by the Morpheus process, and now we’ll end up like Rasmussen? It’s unclear. At one point, he says the sand-people are a new and better life form, and that it’s “only correct” that they supplant us and we bcome their food supply. And at the end, he says that we’ll all be together, but since none of the previous victims in the episode were actually turned into sand people, or replaced by sand duplicates, the mechanism by which “we’ll all be together” is left somewhat opaque.
The trope of “new technology allows people not to sleep but there’s a horrible downside” is a science fiction trope—and usually, the downside is a bit more closely related to the benefits of sleep. Like, either not sleeping causes mental and psychological problems, or else your nightmares manifest in the real world somehow. But the notion of “the goop that collects in your eyes when you sleep takes human form or possibly replaces you, I dunno,” is a new one. (Of course, still leaving open the possibility that there were no Sandmen, and Rasmussen faked them as part of his dramatic video, and the real threat is just that you’ll turn to sand.)
It’s worth noting that “Sleep No More” is pretty stylish and creepy, between the way it uses the “found footage” style, the look of the monsters, and the repetition of that skin-crawling a capella arrangement of “Mr. Sandman.” It all adds up to one of the more effective scares Doctor Who has served up in a while.
“Sleep No More” works okay as another “trapped in an enclosed facility with monsters” story, like “Under the Lake.” But really, the heart of the story seems to be combining the idea of sleep-as-essential with the show’s endless preoccupation with seeing and being seen. Just like with the Weeping Angels, the Vashta Nerada, the Silence and several other baddies of the past several years, these monsters derive a lot of their power from human vision.
In this one, the power of vision comes in two forms: First of all, there’s the thing where the evil sleep monsters can hijack your vision and turn people into cameras. So that all of the people in this story (except for Chopra and the Doctor) are complicit in creating the deadly video that is going to screw up everything at the end. And in another weird, random twist, the Doctor deduces that the eyesnot-monsters are blind.
But then there’s the thing where the real threat is watching the video that we’re all watching, because of that signal that will eyesnotify you. (Somehow “Doctor Who and the Terror of the Eyesnot” does not have the same ring to it.) So this whole episode is actually dangerous to watch, because it will get inside you and change you—joining the video of the Weeping Angel from “Flesh and Stone,” the video in The Ring, and the forbidden movie in Infinite Jest in the ranks of videos that will cause dire consequences to anyone who watches them.
And there’s sort of a larger metaphor here, for the storyteller as villain and the story as sadism. The storyteller chooses to torture his/her characters, while inflicting distress and vicarious misery on the audience. So in a sense, Rasmussen stands in for the writers of every Doctor Who story ever, with their penchant for inflicting horrible fates on people and freaking out the viewers.
The other thematic thing in this episode is this season’s running theme of the Doctor leaving a mess behind. We’ve been reminded a few times that the Doctor’s go-to move is to run away after the immediate danger is resolved, leaving other people to handle the cleanup. And this time, I guess he leaves Le Verrier Station, apparently believing he’s dealt with the problem—even though the Doctor keeps noticing there’s something not quite right about all this. So because of the Doctor’s cavalier attitude, the video remains intact and has now been seen by millions of people (in real life, though we have no way of knowing how many in the show’s universe.)
And finally... Clara. I’m actually quite confused by Clara at this point. She was treated to incredible amounts of character development last year, to the point where this show felt like it was breaking new ground in storytelling. And then when Jenna Coleman decided not to leave in the Christmas special, we were told that there was still an important story to tell about Clara, and that her journey would have been left unfinished if she’d exited in “Last Christmas.”
But this is the latest in a line of episodes where Clara’s felt a bit like a surplus character—she was actually missing for half the Ashildr story, and then replaced with a Zygon for most of “Zygon Invasion/Inversion.” There seemed to be some token attempts, earlier in the season, to build up the notion that Clara was getting too callous. But now I’m wondering why she’s even still here.