‘Doctor Who’ Season 9 Episode 9 review: ‘Sleep No More’

‘You must not watch this.’

Which, depending on how you feel about ‘Sleep No More’, will either be a warning you’re glad you ignored, or one you wish you’d heeded.

Who can say? That’s the thing about Doctor Who: every fan rightly loves it, but every fan loves it for different reasons.

Maybe you want to be scared. Maybe you like smart sci-fi with an intergalactic sweep, or a daft historical romp. Maybe you like something that challenges your preconceptions, or provides you with the nostalgic comfort of running down corridors. Maybe you want all that.

And across a whole season Doctor Who will give you all these things. But breaking it down episode by episode, it can’t be all things to all people.

The show’s too ambitious, too imaginative, too fidgety. That’s part of the reason it’s become what Moffat describes as ‘the ultimate predator’ – week on week, season on season, it adapts, it tinkers, it experiments. And that’s good, you gotta keep moving, as the Time Lord once said. You can’t fault a 52 year old show for trying something new.

Doctor Who Sleep No More Chopra (NEET MOHAN)

Not that ‘found footage horror’ is really new, but if anyone should get away with it in the context of this show, it’s Mark Gatiss. The man bleeds horror. He’s written it (Crooked House), adapted it (M.R James’ The Tractate Middoth) and made several excellent BBC Four documentaries on the subject.

Last time he did a horror story for Who it was Season 7’s wonderfully camp Hammer pastiche ‘The Crimson Horror’.

‘Sleep No More’ is something you’ll love or…very much not love. Depending on your POV, it’s either Who at its most stylistic, bold, and experimental, or a dull and overstretched story that lacks any real scares or drama, loses credibility the further it stretches the tension, and feels as hamstrung by its filming technique as it is propelled by it. There are arguments for both.

Until the final moments it’s an unremarkable story. A team of redshirt soldiers (the survival ratings for each soldier is a cheeky touch) board the Le Verrier station in orbit around Neptune on a rescue mission, only to bump into The Doctor and Clara, and then Gagan Rassmussen (Reece Shearsmith, completing the League of Gentlemen trifecta on Who).

Doctor Who Sleep No More Rassmussen (REECE SHEARSMITH)

Rassmussen is a part that’s obviously tailor-written for Shearsmith and he plays it with a vague quivering insanity, as if he’s half in Who, half in Inside No.9.

From then on it hits all the familiar beats; corridors, emergency lighting, some bland sand monsters stomping around, people being picked off one by one. Nothing new there. It’s merely the way it’s presented that’s novel for the show. And it goes all in on the found footage atmosphere, even ditching the titles for a quick glitch.

Director Justin Molotnikov’s direction is solid; the first person perspective feels natural, unfussy. It certainly works in introducing us to the characters, and initially it feels as enveloping as it is foreboding. But the longer it continues the more the dread melts away and the boredom sets in.

Perhaps because we’re watching it from too many viewpoints, the scares never feel anchored.

Doctor Who Sleep No More

‘Sleep No More’ lives or dies on its final twist. A fourth-wall breaking trick, a trap; a transmission to spread the Morpheus virus and turn the gunk in your eye into a Sandman (…really?).

Gatiss has created a story about creating a story, and it’s only at the very end you realise you’re a part of it. Very clever, admirably meta. But if you’ve found the previous 42 minutes tedious is it rewarding enough to make up for it?

As Rassmussen makes his admission it feels like Gatiss, and indeed every Doctor Who writer ever, is speaking through him: ‘I hope you’ve enjoyed the show, I did try to make it exciting. All those scary bits, all those death-defying scrapes, and a proper climax for the really big one at the end. Compulsive viewing.’

Doctor Who Sleep No More Peter Capaldi Twelfth

It’s up to you whether you think he’s succeeded. I’m not convinced. ‘Sleep No More’ is neither exciting, nor scary. It doesn’t help that the final ten minutes are rushed and confused rather than the climax they’re meant to be. It’s a triumph of style over substance.

It’s also technically not the first time the show has dabbled with recovered footage. The 50th Anniversary minisode ‘The Last Day’ did the POV style and accomplished it, probably because it grounded the action from a single perspective and kept the idea to under 5 minutes.

‘Sleep No More’ is stretched past its limits by a 45 minute run-time, and fractured through too many eyes to feel as nightmarish as it should before so many viewer bedtimes.

But that’s just our opinion. Whatever your point of view, sleep tight.

Aired at 8.15pm on Saturday 14 November 2015 on BBC One.

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What did you think of this week’s episode? Let us know below…

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  • Matthew Hewitt

    I enjoyed this, good solid episode IMO. Didn’t find it boring or rushed at the end at all. It’s meta-fictional element is overstated above (at no point is the reality of the Doctor Who Universe broken) and the ‘sleep dust’, is just dead skin animated by nano technology – certain people will latch onto the ‘fairy-tale’ interpretation regardless, just as they did with Kill the Moon and In the Forrest of the Night.

  • Hedwiga

    I thought this was good. It does suffer from being right after an all time classic of the show and in the middle of what is by some margin the best and most consistently entertaining series of the show since 2005. I wonder if some of the knee jerk negative reaction is simply a function of it not being able to top last week (that would be nigh impossible, although I do have a feeling Steven Moffat is going to prove me wrong with episodes 11 and 12). This one demands multiple rewatching as there are some very clever things happening just slightly out of frame. The ending was brilliant and kudos particularly to Peter who was outstanding again tonight and Reece Shearsmith earns his place in the pantheon on great Who guest appearances. I also like how Clara’s character is evolving this year and you can clearly see she is starting to take too many risks and behaving more and more like she can take charge. (The hand holding comment was particularly telling about how the role of doctor and companion and their mutual emotional interdependence is becoming muddled).
    On balance, this does succeed for me, and I hope others give it another chance by looking at it again more carefully. Think this may end up being the only divisive episode in this superb series but there’s fun in that too. The week after week praise and applause has been becoming a little boring!

  • Nick Weston

    It was well made, but the central monster if the sleep in my eye was a bit too much for my belief to be suspended.

    Capaldi was outstanding of course, as this has been the best series since Tennant and Tate, I’ll let it slide. I’m sure Moffat and Gatis will feel validated by that lol

  • It tried something different so credit where it’s due for that. Reece Shearsmith will likely go down as one of the most memorable guests we’ve had on the show. He was excellent (so were Capaldi and Coleman but that should go without saying).

    That’s it from me on the positives. The whole thing just didn’t click for me in the way it could have done, should have done and – with a different writer – would have done. The Sandmen felt like he’s trying Moffat’s signature “make the mundane scary” but Gatiss is not Moffat, not even close, and the end result was less scary than it was laughable. The found footage idea was wasted with no clear reason why it was done like that other than because they could. File under “Don’t Bother With This One Again”.

    I have loved series nine until now. Last Christmas, The Magician’s Apprentice, The Witch’s Familiar, Under the Lake, Before the Flood, The Girl Who Died, The Woman Who Lived, The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion were all wonderful and very difficult to fault but Sleep No More has broken the spell. Here’s hoping Face the Raven will restore the magic but Doctor Who may lessen its grip on me for the next week until then.

    • MurrayFutterman

      You’ve been (quite rightly) raving about this series on here every week, but suddenly because you don’t like one episode the “spell” is broken and you’re not sure if the “magic” can be “restored”?
      It feels like these days everything is either amazing or worst episode ever to people. Anything in between doesn’t seem to be an option.

      • Just to clarify, what I mean is that the unbroken run of excellent episodes came to an end last night. Sleep No More is certainly on my bottom ten of NewWho and bottom twenty of all time. It just didn’t work for me at all and in such an otherwise particularly excellent season it sticks out like a sore thumb.

        • steprock

          It’s been a great run this season (American here). Last season was almost entirely sub-par in my opinion, but this season has been great up until this mess. While I didn’t care for the long preaching scene at the climactic conclusion of last ep, but even that was well done. This episode…ugh.

    • Kurios

      Totally right, but then again, I hate Gatiss, so I didn’t expect a good episode this time. So fat though, every episode was perfect (until Gatiss came around of course)

  • Helles

    Capaldi continues to amaze in this role, RC was reliably great and thought the concept was excellent but not sure it really worked. Wonder if better seen on the big screen? Other half loved it though. Looks to be this year’s Love and Monsters – some love it, some hate it. Oh well, one less than stellar episode in this brilliant series is still pretty good and more than any other series of Who since it came back has managed.

  • Dan Short

    Did no-one else think it was just far too much of a similar ep to Under the Lake/Before the Flood? It was practically the same, trapped on a base with monsters chasing them around, turns out all the creator of the monsters wanted was to get the signal they produce off the base and into main society. Oh and it ends in a pretty unsatisfactory not at all wrapped up way! This series has had some great moments, but I don’t think these two episodes should be within 2 series of each other let alone 5 episodes!

    • Matthew Hewitt

      It never did the Troughton era any harm. From The Tenth Planet onward, base under siege stories were a constant fixture of sixties Who, even back-to-back serials. At the end of the day there are only a limited number of feasible story formats on television, I personally found the two Ashildr episodes being shown together a greater contrivance.

      • Dan Short

        Probably one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of the Troughton era then ^^ I agree those probably would have been better with a gap in the middle, they still easily fitted into a single series though. This is just ridiculous, i don’t mind base under siege stories, usually you do get one every series or 2, but having these two being SO similar SO close together, it just felt so stupid to me and meant I didn’t really enjoy this episode because I was just thinking how it was all the same as the other story!

    • CT14

      That and “Last Christmas” where it’s all dreams, and even when they think they’ve solved a problem, it turns out still to be a dream.

      Not believing that what we’re seeing is reality makes it much less scary.

  • Chris Hine

    One of the main things I enjoyed about this one, was the way it gave plenty of room for interpretation, more so than any other story in recent times that I can remember in fact. And because of this, a lot of the things people have disliked about the episode, I have been able to disregard, simply because I disagreed with their reading of it – I actually feel that the whole crew, the Doctor, Clara AND us (the viewers) were wrong-footed all the way through the story, and it will only be on second viewing that we actually “get” it all. Of course that’s just my opinion, but it’s also the reason I enjoyed it so much (whereas a lot of people apparently didn’t) 🙂

    • Hannaha

      Agree. Listen is my favourite all time Doctor Who episode and unlike a lot of others I enjoyed Love and Monsters and Midnight. I like it when the show leaves a mystery and you can make up your own mind about things. It started up lots of discussion in our household and we all had different views about the story but all liked it anyway. Loving that thiis series is so willing to take such big risks (probably because Capaldi is so commanding an actor the writers know they can throw anything at him). This paid off for me and one of my favourites this year with Woman Who Lived but appreciate others prefer more conventional story telling.

  • John

    I enjoyed it. Though given whats been such a great series, it was the low point. I look forward to Mark Gatiss’ sequel of it.

  • John McJohnson

    Gut reaction: What the hell was that??? Utter garbage! And this season has just delivered an all time classic too. Hated that so much.

  • Uncle Vern

    Worst Doctor Who episode ever! I immediately re-watched the episode because often find I have missed things that improve the story for me. Nada this time!

  • fliflou

    Well, I just want to say that I was surprised to find out that in
    English, it’s called ‘sleep dust’… cause in French, we call it simply
    (and aptly) ‘eye poop’. So kinda made the episode funny to me.

  • bar

    Having slept on it (!) I’m not rushing to rewatch.
    So, I get the Carnival of Monsters nod – instead of nice Vorg and Shirma trapping monsters in a box in order to make a story to keep the crowd watching, we get monsters trapping people in a space station to make a story that keeps the crowd watching.
    But I wasn’t hooked – the horror tropes may be Gatiss’ thing, but felt like they never really got a grip. The freezer with what should have been spookier body bags – kept half-alive for the monsters to feed on? – would have been great. Or maybe I’m just sick and twisted.
    Given the digiviral film was made from the monsters’ point of view, they should have called it Rheum with a View. But in my headcanon it’s S9’s Elephant in the Rheum.

    But I do still care that PC and JC sold the ‘we don’t really believe we can cure this’ scene.

  • Tom S

    The Doctor was massively confused by the whole situation at the end. I want to know when we’ll get the payoff on THAT. It’s not over but there’s no second half of a two-parter here.

    • Gatiss has apparently got a sequel in the works. Hopefully it will be better than this one was or else it’ll be a complete waste of an episode given the near-universal negative reaction this one’s had.

      • Edward Delingford

        If and that’s a very big if, they have a sequel, let’s see how Morpheus affects the people who have used it – what does their world look like – how does that affect their society. There are lots of interesting things to be explored but Gatiss just chose to go for the most obvious and bloody boring aspects.

  • CT14

    It felt too much like the “Last Christmas” redux where we discover it’s all a dream. The “plot holes” all indicated that it wasn’t ‘real’ and the fact that no one had video cameras also took me back to the “it’s all a dream” theme of “Last Christmas”.

    It wasn’t really a novel Who ideal.

    The Sandmen did freak out my 11 year old, though.

  • Renee Plunket

    All of you know this is just a tv show right. It is meant to entertain. The show accomplishes that quite well. I don’t understand the need to pick it apart, rate it, and make it like its life or death. Chill out and enjoy it.

  • James

    I get what it was trying to do, but honestly, I can’t recall watching a worse episode of Doctor Who. At least ‘Love and Monsters’ was funny.

    • Edward Delingford

      True. The whole paving slab sex joke was misplaced (RTD has a very crude and puerile sense of humour at times) but otherwise it was entertaining and had the good fortune to have minimal amounts of Ten and Wose. I don’t see it as the nadir in new Who (that would be End of Time). Sleep No More was just dull and confused and while Peter was a delight as ever, even he wasn’t featured enough to give this any rewatch value.

      I do understand a lot of people seem to love love this episode and it has got excellent reviews in the press from Radio Times, Telegraph and Guardian but it’s a head scratcher for me. I guess it must be like when people think Tennant is a good Doctor – I can see people have that opinion but I just can’t fathom how they can come to it based on the evidence available!

      • James

        I loved Tennant (Rose, not so much).

  • Edward Delingford

    I’ve given it the benefit of the doubt, slept on it and rewatched but just NO. I don’t mind Gatiss generally and think Crimson Horror was one of the best episodes in series 7 but that really was pretentious piffle. At least Peter Capaldi was reliably glorious but I am unexpectedly finding Clara a bit more of a chore in recent weeks. She seems unfazed by what was going on most of the time – Jenna is a terrific actress, so the direction is clearly meant to imply *something* but what?

    Back to the real world and looking forward to how the series ties up. I am desperate to see episode 11 (the Peter solo effort). Radio Times reviewer thinks it extraordinary!

    I think I’ll just view Saturday night as one very minor blip in an otherwise flawlessly great series of television.

  • Edward Delingford

    BTW, if you didn’t like Sleep No More and want a chuckle, check out Brian of Morbius’ blog. He is always perceptive, usually wickedly funny and even if I don’t agree with him views on Who, he makes his case well and in wonderful prose. Just google Brian of Morbius (don’t let it default to Brain of Morbius) and take it from there. Worth a read!

    • bar

      BRILLIANT! Thanks so much Edward – Brian of Morbius redeemed SNM completely, and has Peter C’s ‘voice’ down to a T.
      The bit about Caroline John and the Doctor in heels…! :DDD

  • Countess Spider

    My gut reaction was: Good God! That was brilliant. Tense, twisting, creepy with very dream like quality and nightmarish raison d’etre. Gatiss works best with horror and this works well if you keep up with it. suspect its daring to be different eschewed too any comfort zones for some. It was never going to be an immediate crowd pleaser among fandom, but then neither was The Deadly Assassin was that was first shown.

  • steprock

    The entire family was bored and confused by this one. The plot wandered around then ended with a meta gimmick that didn’t pay off.