Doctor Who: Sleep No More

Doctor Who: Sleep No More November 14, 2015

This episode (spoilers ahead) does one of the things that Doctor Who has done quite often in the past, but not recently in any instance I can think of, namely poking fun at particular genres. Doctor Who is science fiction, comedy, horror, drama, and children’s show, all rolled into one. At times it has deliberately engaged in metalevel reflection on those genres.

In this episode, however, Doctor Who entered a new genre, only to poke fun at it.

Doctor_Who_Sleep_No_More_review__Mark_Gatiss_keeps_us_wide_awake_in_his_spookiest_episode_yetThis is the only completely “found footage” style episodes of Doctor Who, and appropriately it does not even include the opening credits sequence. Throughout, we have a narrator who talks about what has been happening, and also see the Doctor, Clara, and a rescue team as they explore a station in orbit around Neptune, which suddenly went silent not long before. This takes place in the 38th century, when the dominant force in the Solar System after the “Great Catastrophe” is a Japanese-Indian alliance.

In that time, a sleep pod called Morpheus has been created, which allows people to get their full dose of sleep in five minutes, allowing for greater productivity. The Doctor is not the only one who is critical of the whole concept, but he is the most critical of what it says about human beings that we would seek to minimize sleep in the interest of profit, among other things. The Doctor says, “Sleep isn’t just a function. It’s blessed,” and goes on to suggest that diving into sleep keeps us safe from the monsters inside. Rest, in other words, is crucial to our well-being, and insufficient sleep, as we all know, leads us to manifest short-temperedness, anger, frustration, and many other things that we would keep inside, or simply not feel, if we had enough sleep.

This is symbolized in the episode by the sandmen, which the Doctor suggests are the sleep dust in human eyes, transformed into carnivorous monsters by the Morpheus process.

The episode works better as symbolism than if taken literally. Horror scenarios often do. But in this instance, the Doctor explicitly says as much, commenting that things make no sense, that it is as though it is all orchestrated for effect, to make a thrilling show.

Doctor Who Sleep No MoreIn the conclusion, we are told that that was precisely right. The professor who invented the Morpheus pods had become a sandman himself, and far from the sandmen spreading like spores, in fact they were created by the Morpheus device, through electronic code which has now been embedded within the video he made and which, despite a warning not to watch it at the beginning, you just couldn’t resist watching. In this way, the episode pokes fun at the “found footage” genre, which never looks like someone filming real-life events that turn scary, but always seems more like orchestrated terror simply filmed on a lower-budget recording device. It does that to get you to watch, even when (as often in the case of horror) you aren’t sure exactly why you are watching.

There are a few echoes of earlier episodes from classic Doctor Who in the process. One is when the Doctor says that he gets to give names to creatures they encounter, and refers to it being the Silurians all over again. The Silurians are famous for being misnamed, as they come from the Eocene era. The other is the Doctor’s use of the phrase made famous by the Second Doctor: “When I say run, run.”

Interesting religious elements appear throughout the episode. The name Morpheus may hint at the dream-like aspect of life in the Matrix in that other franchise, but first and foremost refers to the god of dreams. The humans of that era regularly refer to gods, using phrases such as “For the gods,” “Dear gods,” and “May the gods look favorably upon you.” There is also a religious element in the Doctor’s reference to sleep as blessed.

Did you get that the episode is not attempting genuinely to be a found footage horror episode, but to poke fun at the genre? What did you make of the episode?

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  • Josh Man

    First truly terrible episode of the Capaldi era. Wow, that was bad. I get what they were trying to do, but they failed miserably. First of all, choosing the sleep from our eyes to make up the monster was just stupid; second, they can’t see, but they record everything? How does that work? And finally, there was no ending. The Doctor didn’t stop it, the bad guy won, and unless they over exaggerated this threat, the human race ends in the 38th century due to eye boogers. Normally, Gattis is much better than this. I’m embarrassed for him.

    I did, however, enjoy the reference to The Space Pirates and was suprised you didn’t mention that 2nd Doctor connection!