This review contains SPOILERS for Doctor Who series 9, episode 9. Proceed at your own risk, Sweetie.
Earlier this week, I got called out on Twitter for essentially being a Moffat apologist. This person said I rarely take issue with Doctor Who or even say a critical word about it. I could see how this person might have thought so from my reviews of series 9. Through eight episodes, I’ve given good-to-glowing reviews to all of them, last week’s perhaps being the most beaming. In fact, you’d have to go back to “The Caretaker” in series 8 or “Nightmare in Silver” in series 7 to find episodes that I didn’t like. This week’s episode, “Sleep No More,” written by Mark Gatiss — a writer I adore — might be the episode I’ve liked the least in a number of years. So, you win, Twitter person.
Up front, I’d like to say the reason I disliked the episode was not because it was atypical. I love it when this show plays with convention and changes how the sausage is made, so to speak. “Sleep No More” might be the most atypical Doctor Who episode since “Blink,” maybe. Gatiss himself even toyed with the narrative in his series 7 episode “The Crimson Horror,” which was one of my favorite episodes that year. So, the fact that this episode was so different is not why I feel so strongly against it; I hate it because it’s plainly just a stupid episode that tries to be clever.
My heart fell a little bit when I realized this was going to be a found-footage-style, POV-cam episode. I think that convention is hurting movies, no matter how cost effective. At a certain point, “Sleep No More” becomes like the sitcom Peep Show, which is sort of distracting. It did get built into the narrative, which I liked to a degree, but it still felt just like a gimmick for gimmick’s sake and not really all that necessary to the telling of a good Doctor Who episode. Which, let me remind you, this isn’t.
The main problem I had was that the plot and everything about it is desperately trying to impress through weirdness and I felt like I could see straight through it. So, Reece Shearsmith’s character is telling us a story, using people’s Morpheus-generated POV tapes, and he tells us up front not to watch (if only I’d taken that advice). We’re introduced to the rescue team made up of people who would never be on a rescue team, and a Grunt, who is a genetically engineered dim bulb who ends up being the only likable one of the bunch. They’re investigating why this one space station happens to be empty, and the Doctor and Clara show up—we’ve seen this setup before.
They soon discover the horrible truth, that there are grotesque sandmonsters which have engulfed everybody on the ship. We also find out what Morpheus is—a system by which people’s sleep is essentially removed from their brains and they can go on working for a month, day-in, day-out. This might be the only thing I truly liked about the episode, the idea that in order to maximize efficiency, and to make people more like machines, it’s our need to rest that gets removed. People already work through meals (I do it all the time), but it’s hard to work while you’re asleep (though some people are good at it).
And if the story had become “we’re taking away sleep so the monsters are our subconscious dream states becoming sentient” or “nobody sleeps so the nightmares come to life” or “if nobody sleeps, the sandman gets angry” or anything like that, I’d have bought it. But, no. Instead, it’s people’s eye-crusties coagulating and becoming ambulatory. EYE BOOGER MONSTERS. Not only does this not make sense, this is the dumbest version of the story possible. EYE. BOOGER. MONSTERS. I don’t think I’ll ever wrap my head around why that was considered a good idea. Oh, they’re blind? Is that it? They’re blind? Is it because they’re made of disgusting mucous? Oh, sure, I get it. Apparently they hear just fine, though.
And then things get even more confusing. The end of the episode comes, and I’m very unsure what Reese Shearsmith’s plan was supposed to be, and then the Doctor says he’s confused and that it doesn’t make sense. So I’m like “Wait, so if the Doctor’s confused also, then how am I supposed to react?” Well, we go back to Reese talking to the camera and find out that he made up (I guess?) the story to keep us watching—and put in the monsters and people to make it exciting. But really he just wanted people to watch the signal because that’s what the Morpheus really is—it’s a signal that infects our minds through the clearly after-effected static. Soo…then what is this episode?
Are we to assume none of it actually happened? There wasn’t an opening theme tune or anything, or credits, or the time tunnel, and none of it really felt like a Doctor Who episode. So within the story of the story, none of it happened and we just got our brains infiltrated by the whatever-the-hell-they-are? Is this supposed to make this episode okay with everyone? We just spent 44 minutes watching an episode of TV that didn’t really happen and has no impact on anything. Unless next week starts with them going “Boy, that sleep station with eye booger monsters sure was weird, huh?” I’m just going to assume it was all nothing. Look, if I’m wrong about this, please tell me on Twitter, because to me it just felt like the rug-pulliest of rug-pulls.
So, anyway. “Sleep No More.” Hated it. I hate not liking a Doctor Who episode, but it’s not the end of the world. One bad episode does not mean the show is “not for me” anymore, or that it’s gone down the toilet. It happens. I didn’t like it. Did you? Let me know what you thought. Hit me up on Twitter!
Next week, we’ve got Sarah Dollard’s episode, “Fear the Raven,” which will see the return of Rigsy from “Flatline” and, yes you heard the voice right, the return of Maisie Williams! It’ll be a pretty explosive episode, apparently, and has a very Harry Potter vibe from that short teaser. Can’t wait!
Images: BBC America
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor for Nerdist.com. He also adores Doctor Who, despite what he said today. Follow him on Twitter to see what he means.