When a show has been running for over 52 years, it’s not necessarily a bad idea to make an episode that shakes up the format once in a while. Breaking with the traditional format prevents a series from becoming stale. That’s what writer Mark Gatiss tries to do with “Sleep No More,”an episode that takes the form of found footage put together by Gagan Rasmussen (Reece Shearsmith), inventor of Morpheus and sole surviving crewmember on the Le Verrier lab in orbit around Neptune. Morpheus is a device that replaces a month’s worth of sleep with just five minutes spent inside the Morpheus machine, invented primarily to allow laborers to work longer shifts. The Doctor’s response to Rasmussen’s Morpheus machine is characteristically flamboyant: “Congratulations, Professor! You’ve revolutionized the labor market! You’ve conquered nature! You’ve also created an abomination.” Our response to “Sleep No More” parallels the Doctor’s response to Morpheus. Congratulations, Gatiss! You’ve revolutionized the episode format! You’ve conquered repetition! You’ve also created an abomination.
As inventive as the new format is, the plot it frames is ludicrous. The Morpheus machine is a great idea, and the commercial for it is delightfully satirical. We ourselves wish we didn’t have to spend a third of our time in the land of Nod, so it’s very plausible that such a technology would exist in the 38th century. And what better name for it than the Greek god of dreams? But it is the creatures created by this technology that make this episode feel about as plausible as Donald Trump winning the presidency. Because Morpheus concentrates sleeping time, it allows sleep dust, that crust of dead cells that builds up in the corner of your eye at night, to accumulate and somehow become a conscious life form that digests the rest of the body. Even more absurd is that the creatures themselves are blind, but the dust in the eyes of the crew is actually recording what they see.
We know Doctor Who has had some unusual villains before, like a mummy that can only be seen by its imminent victim, but such villains only feel plausible when they are adequately explained. The idea that sleep dust might accumulate if sleep were concentrated into a short amount of time does make sense, but we have trouble suspending our disbelief in its sentience. It seems instead that the explanation was conjured up in order to allow Clara (Jenna Coleman) and the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) to be chased around by some man-eating monsters for our mindless enjoyment.
Even the found footage format has it downsides. Rather than just presenting the footage, it is accompanied by voiceover from Rasmussen, which at times is used in lieu of actual character development. For instance, the rescue crew that comes to investigate why the Le Verrier lab space station has gone silent is introduced with lines like “Deep-Ando. Conscript. Likes to think of himself as the joker of this little group.” Pay close attention to these brief summations of the crew members, since that’s about all the development they’re going to get. Actually, don’t bother paying attention, because the descriptions aren’t actually supported by the characters’ actions. Deep-Ando doesn’t make a single joke. Thanks to his lack of character development, the audience doesn’t give a sonic when members of the crew are gobbled up by the carnivorous dust and mucus.
Capaldi still gives a good performance, but even he can’t convincingly deliver daft, banal lines like, “Well, now we know the truth. Sleep isn’t just a function. It’s blessed. Every night we dive deep into that inky pool. Deep into the arms of Morpheus. Every morning, we wake up and wipe the sleep from our eyes. And that keeps us safe. Safe from the monsters inside.”
The episode ends with a surprising twist, but since the storyline is left unresolved we’re guessing there will be a sequel sometime in Season 10. If there is, and it’s good, then go back and watch this episode; otherwise, you should probably avoid it. Aside from “Sleep No More,” Season 9 has been outstanding. Maybe every season of Doctor Who has to have one bad episode. We just hope this is the only one.
As Jim Butcher said, “There’s a fine line between audacity and idiocy.” Unfortunately, this episode is on the wrong side of that line.