TV Review: Doctor Who Series 9 Episode 9 “Sleep No More” (UK, 2015)

I think I’ve missed something this entire season; when everyone praised “The Witch’s Familiar” as being one of the best episodes in Doctor Who history, I gave it one star. This week, fans are amassed with disappointment after “Sleep No More” – it seems that I’m the only person in all of time space who loved the hell out of this episode.

The episode was bravely shot totally in found footage style. Though this made some scenes hard to see, I found that this only added to the horror of the episode. Sometimes, there aren’t HD cameras about when aliens attack. Sometimes, The Doctor has no idea what’s going on, just like us. The found footage style encapsulated the true horror that comes with an alien attack, making me confused, bewildered, and legitimately scared. It’s also really amazing to see Peter Capaldi talk directly to us as we experience what Clara sees – we gain a real insight into how The Doctor deals with issues, with the assistance of another flawless episode of acting.

The found footage style does something more than just enhancing horror though – it’s a pivotal technique in the configuration of the narrative. The Doctor gradually realises that they are all being filmed, even though that shouldn’t be possible – Clara doesn’t have a camera on her head. Of course in the first standalone episode of the season we’re left with one of the biggest cliffhangers. The events that were depicted in “Sleep No More” are revealed to be staged by Rassmussen to tell a compelling story that would transmit an electronic signal to those watching, effectively leading to the creation of the Sandmen monsters.

This reveal is done in one of the best sequences that I’ve seen in Doctor Who for a very long while; Rassmussen begins to tell us his plan, creepily staring us straight in the eyes. As he reveals that the entire episode was staged, he begins to rub his eyes, to which sand falls out of it. His voice changing and the camera shaking, Rassmussen reveals himself to be a Sandman in front of our very eyes. Leaving the episode quite ambiguously, we’re unsure of whether his plan succeeded and a whole bunch of people are about to be turned into Sandmen (including Clara), or whether the entire sequence is a figment of our imaginations – a dream.

I’m usually not one for stories that aren’t explained, but this ambiguity works surprisingly well for a number of reasons. It enhances the horror element of the story, placing the audience in a position where we too have succumbed to Rassmussen’s plan. Usually the villains would explain every consequence of their actions, James Bond style. But as the audience is subject to Rassmussen’s plan, we are not afforded this knowledge as we are the victims. For once, I hope that we aren’t treated to a resolution for this story (to avoid the shamozzle that is River Song).

“Sleep No More” was a brave mode of storytelling that produced some of the best horror in Who history. Despite it’s ambiguous nature and the fact that sometimes you had no idea what was going on, it really placed you in an active role as a viewer, transcending what it means to be a spectator. If I were you, I’d be extra cautious each morning as you rub the sleep away from your eye.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)