I wonder if writer Mark Gatiss has a thing about sleep, what with this episode Sleep No More, but also Night Terrors with monsters in the dark and things that haunt us. And also, both have frames. Night Terrors had a cupboard containing the terror inside a flat, while Sleep No More has a story-teller constructing a narrative frame using what we are told is found footage.
Gatiss resorts to very familiar tropes (deserted space base, monster of the week, soldiers there to make up the body count). It even manages a Clara as Doctor joke with her getting to name the monster and The Doctor taking umbrage. I mean this episode couldn’t be more formulaic. At a pinch, the episode could be analogous to Firefly’s Bushwhacked, or the soldiers could be wearing red shirts. In fact, I don’t care so much about a Trek/Doctor Who crossover, because it’d be so predictably pretentious as Vulcan and Time Lord try to outsmart each other and the Starship Captain and Doctor try to out irresponsibly lead people into dangers they don’t understand…
What’d be so much cooler would be a Doctor Who Firefly mashup. Mal and The Doctor going head to head in a clash of egos only to have Zoe recognise the Doctor as a veteran and getting them to bond over their battle experiences. (An alive) Wash finally getting to meet a real alien, River meeting someone who understands her mental anguish, but also her abilities. Clara would flirt and baffle Jayne. Opportunities would be boundless.
Where was I….?
…All this is not the point. Gatiss gives us the comfort of familiar settings and (almost) stock characters, in order to better mess with how the story is presented. He is setting up, much like the narrator Rassmussen, our expectations so as to negate them as events unfold.
This story made a point of at first demonstrating and then explaining the one of the biggest problems with found footage type stories – the unexpected mistaken perspective. It looks like the soldiers have helmets with lights so we assume they are also filming the action they become a part of. Then Clara gains a perspective and we find out the soldiers don’t have cameras. The question is answered, apparently. But the flaws in the logic of the story are exposed with exposition, didactic-ing all over the shop. Writers spend years learning not to do this, but Gatiss just goes right on and gets The Doctor to state outright that none of this makes sense. He then has his narrator die, not once, but (apparently) twice and still crop up. We expect, these days that the dead in the Who Universe are often not dead for long (Rory, Ashildir, Clara, Captain Jack etc). But this was ridiculous, but also clever, because the first death was a feint, and while the second death was real, the video narration keeps his existence current – as it does for anyone ever recorded on film. So he continues a Who trope (back to life) but plays with it. Rassmussen’s survival is thus made all the more menacing than his delivery, and even his melodramatic set up at the start, reveals.
Gatiss maintains the tension, even as the story undermines the trust we have in the narrative, which we are reminded is created by this Rassmussen. But the nature of any Who adventure is that we go with it. We trust it anyway, and suspend our disbelief. This is the idea Gatiss is playing with, while we learn we can’t trust Rassmussen, we still want to follow The Doctor and Clara. We are told we can’t watch by Rassmussen, but we want to and moreover, both Rassmussen and Mr Gatiss wants us to (for different reasons, obviously). We are thus enmeshed in the story and collude in our own demise. How often is a Who story responsible for our deaths? This is the lure of contrariness. The more we are told no, the more we want it. And when we get it, it’s not what we expect.
Then, finally, our writer breaks the last rule and delivers us a dead-end – there is no resolution. Yes, The Doctor destroys the Sandmen, but Clara is not ‘cured.’ We are left to ponder this as we are returned to Rassmussen’s video link. Even though we haven’t got what we wanted (all story strings tied up), Rassmussen has got what he wanted from us. We saw the video, we are infected. And there it ends. Viral video indeed.
Sleep No More breaks the fourth wall, this has happened a bit recently, with The Doctor, especially, talking directly to camera. I think it worked better in this scenario, because there’s a reason for it. We see not as some anonymous viewer, but as Clara, or the soldiers, or through perspectives of these Sandmen, and then we remember it is all the narrator’s doing. The story we see is not necessarily the truth. That’s probably more worrying than the sleep monsters, which are mainly ‘ick,’ although Rassmussen’s final moments were effective.
It was a change since the last story, which was epic enough to feel like an end of season episode. And now we find there will be a sequel to this, so the nightmare continues.