In My Dream I Quite Clearly Saw (Sleep No More)

(28 comments)

Jeez man most people just use a sleep blindfold

It’s November 14th, 2015. Adele is at number one with “Hello.” Fleur East, Wstrn, and Justin Bieber also chart, the latter with both “Sorry” and “What Do You Mean.” In news, a series of terrorist attacks take place in Paris including a mass shooting at the Bataclan theatre during an Eagles of Death Metal concert and a series of suicide bombings around the Stade de France during a match between France and Germany. The first storm named by the Met Office, the extratropical cyclone Abigail, hits Scotland, while a series of protests at the University of Missouri lead to the resignation of the president of the system.

On television, meanwhile, a distinctly unusual episode of Doctor Who. Sleep No More is not, by general acclamation, a classic. Even those inclined towards sympathy for Gatiss tend to focus their redemptive efforts elsewhere. And it’s easy enough to see why this might be. It’s a decidedly lumpy story with idiosyncratic pacing that never quite sells its stakes or offers a coherent account of its concept.  Character remains something of an afterthought for Gatiss, which is frustrating for Clara’s last straightforward adventure in a season that broadly underutilized her, and doubly so given that Gatiss has written flat-out great scenes for her in the past. But several of those things are just snooty ways of rephrasing “it was written by Mark Gatiss,” and the rest are products of the fact that it’s doing several other interesting things instead.

So having gently and lovingly placed The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion in the path of an oncoming bus, let’s do that other thing we periodically do and dust off an unpopular story to explain why it’s got more going on than you might think. Because while defending Sleep No More as an overlooked classic in a season with The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, The Girl Who Died, The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion, Face the Raven, Heaven Sent, and Hell Bent is probably a bit of a reach, slamming it as a bust is, or at least should be, just as ridiculous. This is a story that’s long on ambition, achieves no small part of it, and comes off as a lot more in step with its times than it might have appeared in late 2015. 

Let’s start with what this story is doing. Most obviously, it’s a found footage horror story. This is not ambitious in and of itself—it’s just another genre swipe of the sort that Doctor Who can at baseline be expected to do. But what’s interesting is that it’s a genre largely defined by technical concerns as opposed to content-based ones. There are a few constraints on what happens in a found footage horror story; it’s assumed that things will end with some destructive event that leaves the footage as the only remaining record of whatever happened, but past that there aren’t a ton of tropes that define the genre. 

Uncharacteristically, Gatiss takes full advantage of the freedom, crafting something that takes surprising and genuinely savvy advantage of its structural conceit. There are a host of formal details like the lack of shots from Chopra’s perspective and the mid-episode addition of Clara’s perspective that are slyly handled and build to the tidy final reveal of exactly what we’ve been watching. Similarly, the quiet conceit of there not actually being any cameras is a nice (forgive me) sleeper of a visual detail that pays off well. And what all of this exists to support—he idea of an episode that is itself monstrous—is interesting in its engagement with the Moffat era at large. Moffat has long been fascinated with medial monsters, from the Weeping Angels on, but these have generally been, well, Moffaty, with all the baroque and ostentatious cleverness that implies. Gatiss, however, doesn’t generally care about seeming clever (regardless of whether he is), and so strips the idea down into an utterly straightforward version that simply does the thing. We talked last episode about the mounting sense that the Moffat era is coming to a necessary close, and this quietly reinforces it: its best ideas are now well-defined enough that they can be done by Gatiss.

I want to stress, that’s not a swipe against Gatiss. Simple and straightforward presentation is an entirely valid way to do things. But Doctor Who exists on the line between the avant garde and the mainstream, and Gatiss is a reliable bellwether of the mainstream end of that dichotomy. His late style offers a more deft and nuanced presentation of that, but he is still fundamentally a writer who is interested in playing with existing and well-defined toys as opposed to creating bold new ones. 

But this fact is also what is most interesting about Sleep No More. As I mentioned, this is a story that’s aged unexpectedly well in just three years. Much of this is political, which is interesting in that Gatiss has scarcely been what you’d call a reliable ally of the show’s leftist instincts; his politics can fairly be described as “not bad for bi-erasing transphobe who gets very cross if the Victorian soldiers on Mars that he’s writing about are portrayed historically inaccurately by black people.” But Sleep No More’s basic concept of machines to eliminate sleep and boost worker productivity is actually pretty savage, and feels more in keeping with the reactionary hellscape of 2018 than it did in the waning years of Obama-era “liberalism can save us.”

Even more interesting is the way in which this premise interacts with the monsters. The Sandmen are one of the most aggressively bizarre monsters in the new series, not so much because of their design, which is pedestrian, as for the inspired grossness of them being made primarily of rheum, which the story goes to the nice extra length of reminding viewers is mostly snot. There’s a puerile energy to this that would be far from endearing as a regular feature, but that is admirable in its calm puncturing of the show’s increasingly domesticated tone. 

But the lowbrow nature of the Sandmen is part of a broader lowness in their conceit. There’s a category of monsters that represent junk and waste that has risen up against those who threw it away—one that, as China Miéville has repeatedly demonstrated, is long on political potential because of its inherent inversion of the social order. It represents a particular and effective way of riding the weird/gothic divide, especially with something like the Sandmen, who are in conception firmly weird and yet are also firmly rooted in the rise of the repressed. And these monsters have a particular effectiveness in writing about capitalism because of the precise nature of what’s repressed: the things considered valueless and worthless. 

Adding to all of this is the fact that Gatiss is, to say the least, a bit vague in explaining how the fuck the Sandmen are supposed to work. The idea that repressing sleep eventually results in sleep taking its revenge makes, if not sense, at least the sort of thing Doctor Who routinely makes instead of sense. That this repressed revenge should take the form of homicidal rheum, on the other hand, does not make anything that has ever lived in the same postcode as sense. The closest thing to an explanation is that the Morpheus machines have “evolved” and “hot-housed” rheum into a monstrous form, which apparently happens despite the fact that the Morpheus machine should prevent its buildup given that the eye naturally processes it away by blinking during the day. But this is a nitpick in the face of the far larger issue that there’s no real reason for rheum to be where the repressed revenge of sleep should manifest. The Doctor’s “sleep is blessed” spiel suggests that rheum is the manifestation of “the monsters inside,” but there’s several steps being handwaved here, none of them even remotely obvious. 

I’m not going to deny this is a technical problem. But technical problems can on occasion result in more interesting results than mere competence as a story effectively heals around the break. In this case, absent a coherent or even reconstructable explanation the metaphorical explanation in which sleep takes revenge for being discarded as valueless and re-emerges as radically grotesque otherness. This is, notably, wildly more interesting than any technobabble about rheum had any chance of being. It takes a story that could have had a superficial “evil corporation” gloss of the sort that is so common as to be virtually devoid of substance and makes it so that there is nothing left for the story to be about except for the “sleep rebels against capitalism” angle. Anti-capitalist snot monsters: there is no alternative.

All of this is brought to a weirdly satisfying conclusion in the decision to leave the ending unsettled, with the Doctor failing to figure out Rassmussen’s actual scheme and leaving the station to destroy the Morpheus machines on Neptune while leaving the real danger—the episode itself—free to wreck havoc. This is nominally a defeat, at least in the normal sense of not having humanity killed and/or turned into snot monsters. Indeed, if we understand the rules correctly (and more to the point if “rules” actually exist here) it’s a defeat in the sense of not having Clara eventually turn into a homicidal anti-capitalist snot monster. 

But we also know that the Doctor gets it wrong here. And so it seems fair to ask how wrong. If he misunderstands what Rasmussen and the Sandmen’s plan actually is, could he also be wrong about who the villains are here? This is in some ways strained: it’s not unheard of for monsters to be humanized in Doctor Who, but generally not the silent lumbering murderer sorts. And yet within the metaphoric reading there are, if not straightforwardly utopian opportunities, at least broadly intriguing ones. Rasmussen’s final “then we can all be together, dust to dust” certainly has the ring of utopia, and the structure of the monsters seems like it should allow for this transformation to simply be a state of dreamful sleep that is probably, on the whole, more pleasant than 38th century capitalism.

More likely, however, this is meant to be a defeat, which is still an interesting move in the context of the times. There’s an underlying assumption that we’re fucked to Sleep No More that was all the smart kids of late 2015 were seizing on. The pessimism of suggesting that capitalism’s unforeseen consequences would prove apocalyptic and that knowledge of them was not entirely sufficient to avert them turned out to be very much in keeping with the spirit of the times. Indeed, 2015 was perfect for it. A year later this sort of apocalyptic fatalism would have seemed too deliberate a reaction to current events. In 2015, on the other hand, the cultural rise of this mood was clearly ongoing and there for Doctor Who to tap into, but still enough before its peak to make Doctor Who seem as though it’s leading instead of following. 

The result of all of this is not quite a classic, it’s true. The tragedy of late Gatiss is that he remains who he is; a writer who will never pen the best episode of a season, who will always be the lesser visionary held in Moffat’s orbit. But his late career, at least, consists of interesting and worthwhile experiments that no one but him would ever have done. Sleep No More is at once the least successful and most valuable of these. With Under the Lake/Before the Flood we suggested that it took a writer of Toby Whithouse’s inadequacy to write a story that accidentally says as much as that. Here, however, we have something else: a writer whose peculiar balance of flaws and virtues leads him to try unusual things and then fail in unusual ways. Sure, Sleep No More is pretty clearly the second-weakest story of its season. But the season and Doctor Who would be poorer for its absence. 

Comments

Comment deleted 3 weeks, 1 day ago

Przemek 3 weeks, 1 day ago

I was waiting for this essay. A very interesting read. "Failing in unusual ways" seems to me like a perfect description of "Sleep No More". Your analysis of the underlying anti-capitalistic message almost makes this episode seem like an antecedent to "Oxygen".

I don't think I'll ever rewatch this one (which is why I personally call it "Watch No More"). The pacing, the lack of sense and the wasted ideas like the drones just makes it not a very interesting episode. I wish we got to see more of this reality created by the elimination of sleep for profit - there's a lot of potential for a scathing social commentary here. But perhaps it's unfair to expect that of Gatiss. It's just not his style.

I keep wondering what about the found footage genre made it capable of defeating the Doctor. DW logic usually trumps the logic of the genre DW invades... but not here. The best answer I've come up with is that found footage, as you say, implies that something bad has already happened and therefore cannot be prevented. Which in a way makes "The Angels Take Manhattan" a found footage story: the Doctor reads about a past tragedy in a book and is therefore unable to prevent it. But that story itself is a bit of a rule-bender when it comes to rewriting history in DW (knowledge of future events usually doesn't stop the Doctor from defeating the villains) so who knows how it's supposed to works.

One other answer I've considered is that found footage often (as seen here) relies on presenting the events from multiple perspectives. This decentralizes the Doctor and makes it harder for him to put himself at the center of the narrative. Especially, as it turns out, when the story was being told by the villain, thus stripping the Doctor of his narrative powers (but why was the villain narratively stronger than him?). But I'm sure there are better explanations.

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mx_mond 3 weeks, 1 day ago

“but why was the villain narratively stronger than him?”

Because while the Doctor controls the narrative and he’s usually very good at it, here the villain controls the medium – he’s on a level higher than the Doctor (thanks to found footage making it so that the medium through which the story is carried is embedded within the story itself).

If there was to be a sequel, I could see it as a struggle between the Doctor and the villain for control over the medium.

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Aylwin 3 weeks, 1 day ago

Indeed. Though I think the found footage genre as such does not necessarily lead to this, since, like other "documentary" forms like the epistolary novel, its existence implies the presence of a fictional framing narrative, whether or not one is explicitly presented, and such narratives can be nested, with a theoretically unlimited number of "editors" adding a coda to recontextualise the framing presented by the previous one.

And of course this story itself contains something resembling such a nesting, when the creation of Rasmussen's edited and intermittently narrated version of events is interrupted by the Doctor and the others, ostensibly bringing us back up to the "base reality" of a Doctor Who episode - only that then turns out to be just part of Rasmussen's ongoing edit. In theory, there is no reason why that revelation could not itself have been superseded by a further coda in which the Doctor, having figured out what is happening, has taken steps to undo the Morpheus effect.

I think the prosaic reason for why that doesn't happen is less to do with found footage horror in itself than with the episode being in the "Monster at the End of this Book" sub-set of that genre (and its literary analogues, and variations such the "live TV" conceit of Ghostwatch) which breaks the fourth wall to encompass the audience, claiming that by watching/reading/listening to the work they have unleashed its terrible contents upon themselves. That's a device that can only work at the highest level of nesting, so Gatiss could not use it and show the Doctor as winning at the end. It seems to be a case of Gatiss the horror nerd getting the better of Gatiss the Doctor Who nerd.

A more symbolic explanation would be that this is a story in which the medium is the monster and is an outgrowth of rampant capitalism - and, as Jack would tell you, Doctor Who can never truly escape its material nature as the product of a capitalist culture industry, placing control of the medium beyond the reach of the Doctor's capabilities.

In any event, it's remarkable that the most inveterately trad of the major new series writers produced what amounts to its most rad story in formal terms.

Mind you, though, I'm not so sure the Doctor does lose at all.

For one thing, the last thing he says while escaping is "It doesn't make sense! None of this makes any sense!". Evidently he is not satisfied with the ostensible course of events and is still gnawing away at it in his mind, giving us every reason to suppose that he will figure out what is really going on and will then intervene to fix it, perhaps by sending out a signal overlaying and neutralising the effect of the Morpheus signal.

For another, what about the letters and numbers that fill the screen after Rasmussen's opening narration? Obviously that's not part of the camera footage, but something inserted on top of it. Nor is it the Morpheus signal inserted into the transmission, because Rasmussen identifies that as being contained in one or more of the flashes of static. So what is it? Among the various pieces of information to be seen arranged within it are the words "Doctor Who". This is surely not the work of Rasmussen/Morpheus, to whom that expression would mean nothing. So Who put it there?

"It's his real name. Look at the screens!"

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Aylwin 3 weeks, 1 day ago

Oh, and another thing - the fact that the cameras are part of the monster is a bar to showing its defeat through camera footage. Metadata added to that transmission is another matter though.

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Przemek 3 weeks, 1 day ago

I love both your and mx_mond's readings. Thank you!

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Chris C 3 weeks, 1 day ago

The reveal with Clara's viewpoint must, surely, be a trick that the found-footage genre has never attempted before. Despite the freaky contrivances used to get there, the ambition of it is stunning and a perfect example of what Doctor Who is for.

There are the bones of a classic here; give it decent characters and even the most basic of effective monster-attack setpieces, and we'd have a game. But even Capaldi is visibly frustrated with the outcome. The scene in which the Doctor starts quoting Macbeth - an honestly unneeded attempt to make the Gatissness of the premise sound clever and Moffatian - transforms into bathos from the way Capaldi stares, so plaintively and devoid of hope, into the camera lens, as if wishing for us to rescue him from this hell. (Especially if the rumours of the ep's troubled production have any substance to them).

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mx_mond 3 weeks ago

I’ll understand if not, but would you be comfortable sharing the rumours here? I haven’t heard anything about what the production of this episode looked like.

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Chris C 3 weeks ago

Don't expect anything resembling a credible source here - all I can find left is this tweet (https://twitter.com/colseywolsey/status/630687525040979968) which is only given any credibility by knowing about the POV gimmick in advance - but one or two reports were floating around during filming that production crashed at some point and Gatiss had to do rewrites. It's not out of the question for an episode done in such a radical style to have severe hiccups. Take it with a massive helping of salt anyway.

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mx_mond 3 weeks ago

Understood; thanks anyway!

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Aylwin 3 weeks, 1 day ago

Incidentally, I have noted for some time that, when loaded on a browser configured in certain constricting ways, many Tardis Eruditorum articles begin with just the word "It's", followed by the image, with the rest of the text appearing below, putting one in mind of the opening of a Monty Python episode.

This just seemed a more than usually appropriate image for that, so I thought I'd mention it.

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Daru 2 weeks, 6 days ago

I've been noticing that too! (and quietly chuckling to myself with each post)

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David Ainsworth 3 weeks ago

Among the weirdnesses of this episode: Gatiss, as writer, can potentially be located in the story either as the villain (the one assembling the footage/making the story, the one using the story as a medium to communicate) or as the Doctor, not triumphing over but defeated by narrative without even realizing it. Even little touches like the Macbeth reference hint at that possibility (as invoking "the Scottish play" in a theatrical setting invites a curse upon the production nearly as powerful as the writerly decision to stage the episode as found-footage where the cameras both are characters and don't exist).

I thought it odd that more wasn't made of the Doctor's own relationship to sleep. Gatiss surely remembers the Doctor's assertion that "Sleep is for tortoises," but the dynamics of suggesting it's come back for revenge just never materialize. Worse, Gatiss doesn't address the ways in which the show (especially in its new incarnation) has engaged with or elided sleep. Is Gatiss even sharp enough to realize that his episode sets itself up for sharp criticism via sleep jabs? Or is he hoping that critics will find it a sleeper?

El, I'm especially curious what you make of a show like Doctor Who in 2015 England presenting an episode with Sandmen which, so far as I could see with my limited knowledge, seems not to register the Sandman series at all. Is it just that Gatiss is trad in a late 60s way because so many of his cultural reference points seem locked to that period?

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David Anderson 3 weeks ago

I suspect most people who know of Gaiman know of him as a children's writer. Early nineties comics with no merchandise targeted at children are fairly niche.

One could possibly find thematic links to Hoffman (the thing you look at destroys you).

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Tarantulette 3 weeks ago

More than just possibly! The monster within, the fragmented structure (epistolary novel as a possible precursor to the found footage episode, as mentioned above, the focus on eyes/perception/ways of seeing (a telescope/spyglass in the original, cameras here), the ashen, sooty imagery (throwing sand into your eyes = the malicious sleep dust), the narrative confusion about what is or isn't real, the link with obsessive industrialisation of society ("Den Fortschritt verdanken wir den Kurzschläfern. Langschläfer können nur bewahren" : "we can thank those who sleep little for our progress. Those who sleep long can only ever conserve things)," the significance of heat and fire, the extremely downbeat ending... it's almost an adaptation of Der Sandmann! There's room for a Black Archive length book comparing the two.

Most importantly, the original has a heroine called Clara (clarus = clear = the Enlightenment), who represents rationalism in the Romantic hero's eyes but nonetheless has an ability to appreciate the more poetic sides to existence. It's Nathanael's failure to recognise her as a human being of his own stature and individuality that constitutes the real horror of the story.

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mx_mond 3 weeks ago

I never got around to watching Sleep No More until this weekend, because I’m not a fan of either found footage or space bases as a setting, and while I don’t hate Mark Gatiss, his name didn’t draw me to that combination either.

I quite enjoyed the use of found footage here, which was more than just a gimmick (even Rasmussen’s narration, which I found grating and blatant, turned out to have a purpose), I liked the anti-capitalist message and its connection with sleep (for anyone interested in that relationship I’d recommend Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep). Unfortunately, overall the episode was quite boring and I think that it would help if the characters were more fleshed out.

I enjoyed observing the influence that RTD’s Cucumber/Banana/Tofu had on Doctor Who (I’ll have something to say about that in series 10 as well). While I’m not sure if Moffat was aware of who Davies had cast in his show, it was great to become a fan of people like Laetitia Wright, T’Nia Miller, or Bethany Black in the Spring of 2015, then in the Autumn see them in Doctor Who. But of the three, I think Bethany Black was the most wasted in Sleep No More. While the inhumanity of the character wasn’t in any way related to Black’s transness, I was sad to see her in the role of a creepy, aggressive clone. I would love it if she was cast in Doctor Who again; given how underlit this episode was, I don’t think there would be a problem of people recognising her.

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Sean Case 3 weeks ago

While I definitely would like to see more from Bethany Black,it was nice to see a gender reversal of the old trope of the neglected man pining after a disdainful woman.

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mx_mond 3 weeks ago

I think I would appreciate that reversal more without the predatory undertones of “Chopra pretty” and Chopra’s clear discomfort.

I guess I would rather we just retire this trope altogether.

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Przemek 3 weeks ago

The clone plot was one of the worst examples of wasting a good idea in DW, I think. I hope Bethany Black gets a second chance somewhere down the line.

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MattM 3 weeks ago

Sleep No More is one of those stories that on an intellectual level I feel I should really like - it's different, it's experimental, it's being brave... but it just doesn't work at all. Much like a lot of the later Moffat era actually, for me. I think it's fascinating how you can rationalise something where each part seems to work but as a whole it doesn't.

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crossaffliction 3 weeks ago

I feel like Gatiss's final two episodes are both disappointing in that I was really looking forward to them based on the concepts, but they both ended up being kind of bleh.

On the other hand, you pointed out probably why I actually dislike this episode rather than "Empress of Mars"; the booger monsters just gross me out a bit too much.

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Jonixw 3 weeks ago

I am so excited to read Eruditorum Press in the coming weeks. Face the Raven, Heaven Sent and Hell Bent is what this site is made for. This felt like a great preview, kind of like the episode itself, something calm but interesting before the storm.

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Daru 2 weeks, 6 days ago

Overall I found the story really interesting but some of the elements a bit wanting - but I still find myself hooked by it somehow and find the ending stays with me still. And I love what you say Phil about the sleep monsters and them coming out of the realm of the disregarded and thrown away aspects of life - that's great stuff there.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 2 weeks, 6 days ago

*coughs politely*

Who?

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Daru 2 weeks, 4 days ago

Really sorry Elizabeth - apologies to you, really.

Won't happen again.

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Kate Orman 2 weeks, 6 days ago

"the sort of thing Doctor Who routinely makes instead of sense"

_Gods_ I miss that. When I'm writing SF things actually have to make proper sense, which is a drag.

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