Doctor Who Season 9 Episode 9
“Sleep No More”
Doctor Who does found footage as the Doctor and Clara find themselves on a dark, desolate space station with a missing crew and a mysterious menace stalking them.
It took a while but Doctor Who finally gives audiences a found footage episode long after the bandwagon has left and the style is far less common. As such it feels a little more striking and unique since there aren’t too many films coming out that use this method of filming.
Found footage is used cleverly by making it part of the story and poking fun at the contrivances of people filming things that they shouldn’t be. In the beginning it looks as if it might be a combination of the station security cameras and the helmet cams of the soldiers but as the episode progresses it is revealed that they are being observed by particles of dust both in the air and in the eyes of the people.
The menace of this episode is sleep itself or, more accurately, the lack of it. There is a system called “Morpheus” that allows people to get all the sleep they need for a month by spending five minutes in a machine and using the extra time to be more productive. The adage of “time is money” is brought in which feels a bit obvious but other than that the idea is a solid one. As you might expect it turns out that there are very serious consequences to not sleeping every night.
Lots of issues are raised throughout the episode from the symbolism to the death of a day and the birth of another to toying with nature by playing with forces that aren’t understood. It’s also a very relatable message as life in the western world involves people working longer hours and sleeping less so it has the potential to capture the minds of the viewers who will all be wondering what they might be able to achieve if they only needed to sleep for five minutes in a month. I for one would get rid of my need to sleep if I could but that’s because I run this site and hold down a day job so not needing to sleep would give me so much more time to get things done. Of course that’s not possible but it’s a nice thought.
The only other example of a cautionary tale against removing the need to sleep I can think of is the episode of Angel named “Life of the Party” though Supernatural toyed with the idea by pointing out that Sam doesn’t sleep when he is without his soul. I’m surprised it isn’t something that is explored more in science fiction or fantasy as it is something that we all do so the removal of it is automatically unnatural.
It turns out that the gunk we all rub out of our eyes when we wake up is something that can evolve into a life form if not properly dealt with. That’s about the only explanation we get of how the Sandmen came to be but it’s good enough for the needs of the episode. They aren’t the most effective enemies but their brutish nature is a fair symbol of the consequences of playing with the natural order of things.
The found footage becomes part of the story through this gunk that we all discard every morning. Everyone that uses the Morpheus system becomes the eyes for the audience for the episode. We never see the perspective of characters that don’t use it and Clara’s point of view only comes into play once she finds herself in one of the pods.
It does answer the question of where the footage is coming from and why the perspectives constantly change but beyond being a different filming technique there’s nothing about it that feels necessary. Some attempt is made to make the whole thing unsettling by giving a shaky perspective on the dark corridors and claustrophobic atmosphere but “Under the Lake” proved that horror can be achieved using more traditional means. I think that the same could have been accomplished by using a more traditional filming technique. Cutting to the perspective of an outside observer stalking them could have been an effective mystery built up if it had been used sparingly rather than throughout the episode.
The technique creates another problem in that I felt detached from the events. I felt like an observer looking on at what was going on rather than being part of the story. This made it difficult to be invested in what was going on and the characters were far less dynamic than they have been in other episodes this season.
Peter Capaldi gives another great performance but we are only really seeing the Doctor at work without getting any real insight into his thinking. The story observes him but doesn’t explore him which makes the whole thing seem very throwaway.
The same applies to Clara who acts knowledgeable when asking questions and acts very Doctor like when she talks. She even gets shot down by the Doctor when he stops her from being the one to name things when that’s something he likes to do. The dialogue is fine and Jenna Coleman’s performance is great but as with the Doctor there is no real insight or development of Clara.
In the right circumstances an outside perspective on Clara and the Doctor could be an interesting idea to explore. I’m thinking along the lines of the excellent Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Lower Decks” or the Doctor Who episodes “Love and Monsters” and “Blink” for examples of episodes that don’t directly focus on these characters with emphasis on how others see them. The problem with this one is that they aren’t seen from the perspective of anything that forms an opinion so just seem like something that is distanced observing people doing what they normally do. The outsider perspective made it very difficult for me to become invested in what was going on as well which is a major failing of the episode.
Another issue the episode had was the pacing. Since every other episode this season has been part of a two part story I assumed that this one would be the same. It certainly built itself this way with a resolution that feels far too quick and underdone. I’m not sure I could have tolerated another found footage episode but I think the storytelling should have been much tighter to make this an effective standalone story. The ending does suggest that it’s not over but the events of this episode are resolved with a view to move onto something else next week so it doesn’t really work as a contained story.
A very uneven story that introduces some really good ideas but fails to capitalise on them in any meaningful way.
Doctor Who is a little late to the party on the found footage style but since the novelty has worn off elsewhere it does feel a little more unique than it would otherwise. It is cleverly used as part of the story with the changing perspectives representing the effects of the threat on the people involved.
The biggest problem with it is that the audience feels like an outside observer to the situation since the perspective isn’t really attached to anything that makes any conclusions. As a result the characters feel a lot thinner than they would otherwise. The found footage format is also used to emphasis the dark corridors and claustrophobic location but “Under the Lake” showed that this can still be achieved through traditional means.
The idea of removing the need for sleep is a good one as everyone sleeps and many of us wish we could have more time in the day to do other things so removing that limitation has probably crossed most of our minds at one point or another. It’s a relatable issue that taps into ideas involving playing with the natural order of things.
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman both give great performances as their characters but the outsider perspective limits the insight into their characters that we would otherwise get. This purely observational take on the storytelling makes it difficult to be invested in what is going on.
The episode is very oddly paced as the set-up suggests that it is another two part story when it is the only standalone story so far this season. It wraps itself up very abruptly so the storytelling should have been much tighter to make it effective on its own. The ending does suggest that it isn’t over but the show is moving onto something else next week so this doesn’t quite work on its own.