Stunned silence as the final scene blinks to black should not be a surprise. Nods to Shakespeare and Charles Dickens are not enough to save “Sleep No More” from its obscurity when even the Doctor says “None of this makes sense.”
If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all, right? If I followed that adage, the rest of this review would be mostly white space. We were warned up front in the opening frames. “You must not watch this,” Rassmussen told us. Yet we did. And he’s right, we can never unsee it. Mark Gatiss‘ “Sleep No More” disappoints in a way that we have not yet been disappointed during Series 9. His last Who offering as writer was “Robot of Sherwood,” which was also not a favorite of this writer, though far more palatable than “Sleep No More.”
“Sleep No More” is another base under siege story, which we saw earlier this year in the two-parter “Under the Lake/Before the Flood.” From that viewpoint alone, I started off with a ho-hum I just saw this feeling. However, I gave the ep the benefit of the doubt and earnestly searched for the gold or at least a silver lining. The story is set in the 38th century and includes grunts, who are beings grown and cultivated to be of low-intelligence and to respond to physical attack as “soldiers.” There are those who truly liked the episode and did, indeed, find it scary. I tried to give Gatiss credit for the unique aspect of creating a monster from sleep matter that gathers in the eye, but alas, as the episode progressed any attempt waned.
In the Mix
Rassmussen is the inventor of Morpheus. He opens the episode speaking on video about the horrors that have occurred on the ship. Morpheus, in this instance, is a machine that condenses a night’s sleep into short five-minute bursts. The theory is that it will be much easier to burn the candle at both ends if an individual need not waste hours upon hours in shut-eye. (Not to mention that corporations can take further advantage of employee work hours if they require far less sleep.) While needing less sleep may be an interesting idea to flirt with, the Doctor points out that our dance with sleep each night is necessary to sound health. The Doctor and Clara, in the company of a team sent to investigate why the ship went silent and as rescue mission for the crew, find a row of Morpheus pods. Clara dazzles us (yes, you may read that as sarcastic) with her mythological knowledge: “Morpheus? Named after the god of dreams?” This was followed by a self-aggrandizing (meant to be funny) gestural acknowledgement that she was not “just another pretty face.” In sci-fi, I’ll take my Morpheus the “Matrix” way, thank you.
For a nano-second though, how many of us wished that we could crawl into a pod, sleep minutes, and feel as energized as if we had slept 8 hours. In all honestly, there are many days that would come in handy. I would, eventually, miss my nighttime slumber, because most nights crawling into the boat of my bed and sailing into “Morpheus’ arms” is bliss.
Shortening the scene without full overview, they find that one of the pods is occupied by Rassmussen, who appears to be frightened by the monsters on board the ship. He explains his invention at the Doctor’s request, to be lectured by the Doctor, whose chastisement is endorsed by Chopra and Clara. Character development for the rescue team on board is minimal to non-existent in “Sleep No More,” with Chopra being the one individual where we see any type of real development at all. It was the Doctor who discerned that the monsters are comprised of sleep matter and that the more traditional sleep missed, the more monsters created.
Lapsing into Confusion
From here the rest is downhill, fuzzy, and as confusing as the dark, sketchy, low-lit scenes.
There were lots of walks down dark corridors, but these were no more frightening to me than a five-and-dime haunted house, despite the attempt at creating fear through lighting and color. The Doctor also takes note that they are being filmed, but there are no cameras to be seen anywhere. He, therefore, deduces that the Sandmen (sleep monsters) are doing the filmed observation. I’m trying to stretch here, but there was not enough for me to conceive of the way in which they actually do the filming, even as the Doctor says that someone (Rassmussen) is hijacking the Sandmen’s visual receptors. Each person who has been in the Morpheus pod becomes part of the filming process. Clara first uses the term Sandman and is chastised by the Doctor because he “gets to name them.” The interchange felt superfluous and out of place, even if the Doctor decided to keep the name Sandman. I presume this was an attempt at a little Doctor/Clara humor. Since the Sandmen are blind (As stated, their visual receptors were hi-jacked.) those still alive are able to sneak past them for escape by doing so silently, stealthily. The Doctor later uses sound to trick a Sandman by creating a distraction with a music video.
All the while, the loosely sketched characters are chasing through the darkened corridors, Rassmussen is narrating and recording the incidents on board the ship with the idea of broadcasting globally to cause panic and the infection of people’s minds. Eventually we find out that Rassmussen has been the mastermind behind the creation of the Sandmen, the take-over of the ship, the demise of crew and rescue crew, and the filming. Though character after character meets with annihilation, there is little in the way for emotional connection because we simply do not know them well enough to become emotionally invested. Rassmussen is killed by Nagata. We are now down to three characters: the Doctor; Clara; and Nagata, the frightened leader of the original rescue crew. On to Triton (aboard the TARDIS) to destroy all the Morpheus pods is the war call. The Doctor self-destructs the gravitational shields; Neptune’s gravity pulls the Sandmen apart; the Doctor screams “None of this makes sense.”
Well, now that’s a fine and true place to end. None of this makes sense.
But, alas, we are treated (read sarcasm) to a last scene with Rassmussen who is, it appears, a Sandman in disguise. As he begins to disintegrate, he makes a plea for viewers to show the video to their family, to everyone, so that all can be together, dust to dust. I rarely have a gag moment during a film, but that was one. And on the heels of that moment was Rassmussen/Sandman reaching a finger toward the camera, as if toward the audience, toward each viewer: “Excuse me, you’ve got something, there, just in the corner of your eye.” Seriously? Did that scare anyone?
In my opinion the episode does not warrant a more in-depth analysis at this time. However, there were items that I feel did warrant a mention in these end notes.
Given the intended nature of the episode, opening without theme song and ending with an abrupt disconnection and point of light was effective.
The grunts, we were told, are grown (and called by number, not name). The Doctor expands on this, indicating that they are bred in hatcheries and endowed with low intelligence and brute force. Clara responds with “That’s disgusting.” She is right. While we do not yet grow grunts in hatcheries, perhaps we can look at what we do create when we send people off to war, people who are “programmed” to react in violent ways. “Well, that’s how they roll in the 38th century,” says the Doctor. Let’s hope we can change that point in time.
There is a nice nod to Shakespeare‘s “Macbeth:” “To die, to die. Glamis hath murdered sleep, therefore Cawdor shall sleep no more. Macbeth shall sleep no more.” The Doctor goes on to shout out to the ancients, to poets: “Shakespeare. He really knew his stuff. They all did. The ancients. The poets. All those sad songs. All those lullabies.” Poets are masters of observation. They have an ability to reflect life onto life. Today poets are no longer as respected as they were then, but their ability for intuition, for observation, for activism is no less. There was also a nod toward the musical “Oliver!” (based on the novel “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens) when the Doctor quipped “Part of the furniture” following Nagata’s “. . .you’re to consider yourself.” Dickens has been showcased in Who before. In Gatiss’ first story for Who, “The Unquiet Dead,” Charles Dickens is a prominent character.
Early in the episode the Doctor asks Clara to hold his hand. She replies that she’s ok and the Doctor’s response is “I’m not.” Despite the Doctor’s daily brushes with potential destruction, perhaps he has not been completely desensitized to fear.
What’s up with “May the Gods look favorably upon you?” There is no apparent rhyme or reason other than the sleep machine is named after a Greek god.
If you ended up singing “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes the rest of the evening or day following your viewing, I’m sorry; I am so sorry. May you all get your “blessed” sleep and forget.
Every writer is going to win some and lose some. I’m chalking this up to one of the inevitable losses for Gatiss.