Despite his standing as one of the revived series’ most prolific writers, Mark Gatiss is also one of Doctor Who’s most divisive scribes. Last year’s Robot of Sherwood was the epitome of his flaws: a colourful romp that was sorely lacking in both invention and substance. And while his latest effort, Sleep No More, doesn’t quite reach the depths of that nadir – it at least offers a sinister new twist on what happens while we’re all asleep – it’s not far off.
Gatiss’ eighth Who story starts off strong, with a return to the creepiness and claustrophobia of earlier efforts such as The Crimson Horror promising a thrilling adventure, only for all that potential to be thrown away on a lacklustre plot that suffers from a complete absence of depth and consequence.
The premise is certainly intriguing. The Doctor and Clara arrive in the 38th century aboard a laboratory orbiting Neptune where they encounter a ragtag squad of soldiers who have been sent to investigate what happened to the station’s missing crew. Together they uncover a sinister mystery involving a Morpheus machine, a futuristic device that allows the person using it to shrink months of sleep into mere minutes.
But the machine also serves another purpose, providing a vessel for a race of carnivorous sleep dust – dubbed the Sandmen by a bolshie Clara – who use it to infect the human race. With the crusty monsters running amok throughout the base, it’s left to the Doctor and Clara to solve the mystery and get out alive before it’s too late.
Taking its title from Macbeth, this story gives us our second base-under-siege tale of the current series, coming mere weeks after Under the Lake. But while this runs the risk of repeating well-worn tropes, Sleep No More manages to feel like an entirely unique adventure thanks to its rather inventive visual style.
In a big nod to The Blair Witch Project, the entire episode is shot from the point of view of Nagata’s squaddies and the station’s CCTV feed. This found footage approach might take some getting used to, with the low budget aesthetics feeling somewhat at odds with the show’s usual glossy production values, but it also serves to create a palpable sense of paranoia around the action.
New Who director Justin Molotnikov introduces shaky, glitchy camera work and uncomfortably tight angles to add a disconcerting grittiness and claustrophobic intensity to events, a feeling effectively enhanced by the absence of incidental music – except for a haunting use of Mr Sandman, which is repeated so often it will be trapped in your head for hours after.
The Sandmen themselves are a great addition to Doctor Who’s ever-expanding rogues gallery. With a look that closely resembles some kind of crusty zombie and the revelation that they see by imbedding their particles into targets’ eyes, the monsters are an unnerving presence to say the least. It’s just a shame they never really get to pose a significant threat because they’re always kept at arms length from any character of real importance.
And that’s the episode’s problem in a nutshell. While it has its moments of sheer terror, the action all too often falls flat. Part of the issue is that Gatiss’ script is simply too rushed and unconsidered. The story was originally envisioned as another two-parter only for the writer to condense the plot into the series’ first standalone adventure and the process seems to have robbed the narrative of most of its substance.
This is painfully evident in a Sleep No More’s rather forgettable guest cast. Gatiss’ League of Gentlemen collaborator Reece Shearsmith gives a standout turn as Professor Rassmussen, the nervy inventor of the Morpheus machine who has a dark secret, delivering an unsettling monologue during the episode’s key scene, but we never really learn what truly drives his character.
The rest of the cast are a non-descript bunch of soldiers who serve no real purpose other than to act as worthy alien fodder whenever the script is in need of another action sequence to raise the pace.
It’s a similar story for the Doctor and Clara this week as the story rarely challenges Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman with anything more than hiding behind locked doors and delivering reams of exposition as their characters piece together the unfolding mystery. It’s of course perfectly fine to have a bog-standard Doctor-and-companion episode where they’re only chased by monsters, but it requires the rest of the cast to pick up the emotional slack and it’s that element that is sorely missing here.
Yet by far the biggest misstep is the groan-inducing climax. The Sherlock co-creator might think himself very clever for coming up with an admittedly unexpected twist, which reveals, in true The Ring-aping fashion, that the entire episode is a hoax designed to covertly spread the Sandman infection amongst its viewers, but it comes across as a cheap shot.
While Shearsmith’s delivery here is certainly chilling, it does little to mask the sense we’re being cheated. Again, it’s perfectly acceptable to play with the traditional form and structure – in fact, Doctor Who should always be about pushing boundaries – but this twist leaves us feeling like we’ve wasted our time because nothing that has happened proves to be of any importance.
Such a revelation relies on the story being so exhilarating and enjoyable that we don’t care that it’s all been for naught, and where Gatiss gets it wrong is that his story just isn’t thrilling enough to make it worthwhile. With poor characterization, intermittent scares and a plot that lacks a satisfying payoff, the finale only makes us question why we even bothered in the first place.
The best advice is to heed Rassmussen’s warning: watch at your own peril – you really will live to regret it.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: Sleep No More on BBC iPlayer