Doctor Who Sleep No More review: Mark Gatiss keeps us wide awake in his spookiest episode yet

Reece Shearsmith is a master at playing sweet-faced fellows who mask a disturbing secret

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★★★★★  Dare you sleep now? I relish a Doctor Who that wrong-foots the viewer, one that can break a square-inch of new ground. Hard to do after 52 years. For starters, Sleep No More has no title sequence. That’s a first. It is told as “found footage” – hardly original, but another first for Who and, besides, it cleverly manipulates that format. The story gives few easy answers. You have to stay alert. I watched Sleep No More twice through because some points perplexed me. 

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I’ve actually been curious about this episode since… well, since by chance I set foot on Le Verrier space station in August. It wasn’t the 38th century but it was – as the Doctor detects by licking a finger – a Tuesday. I walked though those snaking corridors with my chum Waris Hussein, the original Doctor Who director from 1963. We’d been invited to Cardiff to see episode 12 being filmed, but in the adjoining studio, alongside the Tardis set, they were also shooting Sleep No More. On our way to the café, we passed a Sandman in broad daylight being guided along by two human helpers. Let’s just say the rubbery, orange Sandmen look far more menacing on screen. 

I’ve also been keenly anticipating Sleep No More since I heard Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith were attached to the project. Aah, The League of Gentlemen… I used to love that show when it was running on BBC2 (1999–2002). The live version at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 2001 was one of the funniest and spookiest nights ever in the theatre. I would never have imagined then that two of their number would get together, more than a decade later, to work on one of the most freakily enjoyable episodes of Doctor Who.

In 2008, the League’s brilliant Steve Pemberton was a little wasted as a forgettable character in The Silence in the Library (and should be brought back, maybe heavily disguised), but regular Who contributor Mark Gatiss has at last found a role worthy of his old League mate Reece Shearsmith. And whether by chance or design, the writer/star of Inside No 9 turns up in episode nine of series nine of Doctor Who.

Shearsmith is perfect casting for Professor Gagan Rassmussen. As in The League, Psychoville and Inside No 9, he’s a master at playing faux naives, sweet-faced fellows who are masking something disturbing underneath. “You must not watch this. I’m warning you. You can never unsee it,” he admonishes us at the very start. That only makes us more determined to watch.

Rassmussen has invented the Morpheus machines. Through them, he’s become the controller of humanity’s dreams and woven a nightmare vision of the future. His is the first and last face we see in Sleep No More, and he’s edited this story together. He’s the ultimate unreliable narrator. And in the final, glorious, dissolving special effect, he is Mr Sandman. 

Mark Gatiss comes in for some stick in certain fan quarters. I’ve enjoyed most of his Doctor Who episodes since 2005, especially The Unquiet Dead, Cold War, The Crimson Horror and Robot of Sherwood. All vastly different in tone and intent. Sleep No More is the closest he’s come to hardcore sci-fi – and it’s rather wonderful. With a few broad strokes and small touches, he’s created an Indo-Japanese space programme; a space-station laboratory in orbit above Neptune, which looks beautiful glimpsed through the lab’s portals; a rescue team from the moon Triton… 

The small guest cast come over strongly, from the commander Nagata, who looks Japanese but sounds like she’s from Tyneside (“Calm down, pet”), to the impetuous Chopra (Neet Mohan, who was in No Offence on Channel 4 this summer). Perhaps most affecting is 474, the cloned Grunt, who has the hots for Chopra and sacrifices herself. (Bethany Black was the lead earlier this year in a Russell T Davies Banana episode about a trans woman.)

Gatiss presents a mildly dystopian future, the 38th century, where human greed and competitiveness have seized upon the invention of Morpheus machines. The Doctor calls them “sleep deprivation pods”. A looming female face says the process “concentrates the whole nocturnal experience into one five-minute burst. Now you can go a whole month without sleep. Leave the Rip Van Winkles behind to become a new generation of wide-awakes.”

It sounds dreadful – and of course has disastrous consequences. Rassmussen’s meddling has led to the mucus crust of blood cells and skin cells in our eyes being hot-housed and evolving. This is where my red ABSURD button begins flashing. “What used to be sleep in your eye has turned into a carnivorous life-form,” explains the Time Lord. Do what?! Peter Capaldi delivers this information with such conviction, I almost buy it… Subsequently, the “eyes in the sky” that 474 has mentioned are expanded upon by the Doctor thus: “The dust has been watching us. Each little organic speck, a tiny spy.” Another ABSURD flash!

Despite this madness, the “found footage” format works extremely well and, I promise you, the more often you watch this episode (should you choose to watch it again), the more impressive it becomes. For a long time, it closely follows the conceit that the footage is from the rescue team’s helmet cams – until the moment when the Doctor begins to doubt it, the instant when a scene is being shown from Clara’s viewpoint.

I imagine this was incredibly time-consuming to plan, shoot and edit, so full marks to director Justin Molotnikov, making his Doctor Who debut (he’s previously worked on Merlin and Atlantis). His roving cameras place us in the thick of the action, spied through murky lighting, iffy grading and juddering motion. The soundscape of Sleep No More is also superbly moody – throbbing, chilling sound effects merging seamlessly with tonal music. Please, let’s have this treatment more often. Give the orchestra another week off. 

Mark Gatiss sources his episode title from Macbeth and puts a few lines of that play into the Doctor’s mouth. But now I’ll quote Mark, or rather the Doctor, because I love this dialogue: “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 wipe the sleep from our eyes and that keeps us safe. Safe from the monsters inside.” Gatiss makes us value and fear sleep. 

Sleep No More? Well, you certainly have to stay wide awake and alert to follow what is happening. At times it seems deliberately perplexing. I picture many people tuning in at home, especially my parents and friends, saying, “What the hell was all that about?” Yet I love this episode for its apparent complexity and despite its few absurdities. 

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By the end, even the Doctor is bewildered. “This doesn’t make any sense,” he howls, pointedly, on his way to the Tardis. “It’s like this is all for effect… like a story.” Professor Rassmussen, as he dissolves, is reaching out to infect our sleep and our minds. As the lyrics of the song would have it: “Mr Sandman, bring me a dream.” Maybe this is all a bad dream. If so, whose? The Doctor’s? Clever old Mark Gatiss’s? Mine and yours…? Sleep tight now.