Sleep No More

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The Doctor and Clara join a rescue mission to the Le Verrier space station orbiting Neptune in the thirty-eighth century. All the crew missing except for Professor Rassmussen.

It’s great that Doctor Who can experiment with story-telling techniques in a way that not all shows attempt. Here the show dips its toe in the ‘found footage’ genre. Previously we’ve had 42, a story told in real time back in series three, and there is reportedly an episode that only stars Peter Capaldi in a couple of weeks. The actual nature of how the footage is captured is hinted at when we realise that Clara’s point of view is being included, one of a few mysteries that keep the viewer guessing.

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As one might expect from a Mark Gatiss script, there are a few references to the show’s past. In this case, there are a couple of hooks to set the long-term fans’ minds working, while working as witty dialogue between the two leads for casual viewers. The Doctor tells Clara that people in the future don’t put the word ‘space’ in front of stuff. This sets the fan part of your brain whirring away. The episode itself reminds us of Robert Holmes’ second Doctor tale The Space Pirates, but the work of Terry Nation is replete with space plague, the Space Security Service and a Thal qualified in space medicine. More recently the Eleventh Doctor spoke of visiting Space Florida.

Later, the Doctor explains that he names things when Clara coins the term Sandmen: “It’s like the Silurians all over again” (named by Dr. Quinn in Doctor Who and the Silurians). Again this sets the portion of the brain set aside for Doctor Who thinking about precedents. Usually the Doctor names gadgets, or individuals like Handles, Rusty or Zygella; the only race I can recall the Doctor naming is The Boneless in Flatline. It’s more often people around him: the Ice Warriors were named by Victoria in The Ice Warriors, and the Sea Devils by the chap who survived their attack on his oil rig. Oddly, both races subsequently adopted these names as their own.

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This story kept reminding me of Red Dwarf. Something about the set-design, lighting, use of POV (we’d sometimes get Kryten’s recordings in the BBC2 sitcom); then the monsters being super-mutated eye discharge confirmed this Red Dwarf vibe (the character of Cat is evolved from domestic moggies and there’s an episode that gives us a curry monster).

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The Curry Monster from D.N.A.

 The Sandmen were the element of this story that I didn’t really get my head around on the first viewing. Unusually for a twenty-first century story there’s less exposition, in favour of some old school running along corridors from monsters. I applaud story-telling that makes the viewer piece things together, and there are parts here probably open to interpretation. As I understand it, the process of condensing sleep into a short space of time means that’s your eye gunk becomes super-intelligent dust that can float around collecting data and  coalesce into different forms. The blind, blobby monsters that stalk the characters with a classic Doctor Who monster zombie-walk are a purely functional creation to make a viral video. The dust can also replicate humans, as in the case of Professor Rassmussen. I guess this isn’t played on too much in order to avoid similarities with the Zygons from the previous story.

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Once again the importance of story-telling to the current version of Doctor Who is at the forefront, and the use of perception as a weapon (like era-favourites such as the Weeping Angels and the Silence). The Sandmen’s plan is actually not too dissimilar to that of the Fisher King in Under the Lake/Before the Flood, using what we see to alter people and use them for nefarious ends.

Mark Gatiss is threatening a sequel to Sleep No More, which looks on Twitter to have been an even more divisive episode than most. The idea certainly has legs, as the threat is so adaptive and nebulous it could feature in a very different story.

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Order Doctor Who series 9, part 1 on DVD:

Doctor Who – Series 9 Part 1 [DVD] [2015]

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