Reviews: Doctor Who – Series 9, Episode 9 – Sleep No More

Chris Jordan continues his coverage of Doctor Who Series Nine with Sleep No More, the year's first weak episode.

Sleep No More is a bit of an odd episode for Doctor Who; one that is conceptually interesting, and sometimes very effective, but overall rather flawed and uneven. In a different season it might be viewed more favorably, but in the hitherto uniformly-excellent series nine, I regrettably must say that it stands out as the first weak episode of the bunch. It's still not bad, mind you; it just has compelling strengths and unfortunate weak points that more or less evenly balance each other out. The story is a bit silly and more than a bit underdeveloped, and it certainly suffers from being so far the first standalone episode in a series of richly-written two-part story arcs. But on the other hand, it has fantastic atmosphere, some genuinely tense moments of suspense, and marks a Doctor Who narrative first: Sleep No More is the show's attempt at a found-footage horror story.

"There's some sort of activity on this space station,
Clara. It feels almost paranormal."
The found-footage horror elements are what work the best about the episode. Fear not, we're not talking about handheld shaky-cam; the whole episode is seen in first-person through the visors of its soldier characters, and through security cameras around its abandoned space station setting. This successfully adds a bit of tension and immediacy to the mystery of the station, and recalls the experience of playing Dead Space more than the experience of watching The Blair Witch Project. Equally fitting to the Dead Space or Doom parallels are the genuinely freaky monsters they encounter. Scenes in which characters are peering out from a hiding place as the beasts shamble past recall the iconic first reveal of Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2. The narrative experiment is very effective, and could have made for a truly memorable, one-of-a-kind episode. Too bad the script – one of Mark Gatiss's weaker ones – lets everything else down.

The concept at the core of Gatiss's script is intriguing – in a way, a bit of a follow-up to his excellent Night Terrors from series six – but the specifics leave much to be desired. The explanation behind the nature of the monsters is silly at best; a different angle on the same concept could have worked well, but the one we get is ridiculous enough that it distracts from their creepiness. The ensemble cast of soldiers is very underwritten; they're all basically interchangeable stock characters. After the great depth given to the team from Under the Lake/Before the Flood, this is a great disappointment. The mad scientist type who resides on the creepy space station is the most interesting of the bunch (though he rather amusingly comes off as an odd cross between Data from Star Trek and Telekon-era Gary Numan), but even he ends up getting very little development and not much to do.

"One, two, Freddy's coming for you..."
Most disappointing is the total waste of Bethany Black as one of the soldiers. While the season was in production, much was made about the casting of Black as the first openly transgender cast member in the history of Doctor Who. She was announced quite prominently as a guest-star, and it was specified that she would not be playing a trans character. This made me hope that she would be playing, you know, a woman who was some sort of major presence in her episode. Instead, she gets the extremely thankless job of playing not only one of the disposable and underwritten military types, but one who feels almost insulting as a role for a trans actress. No, she's not a trans character... but she's a genderless and nameless clone slave-soldier who talks like a robot with wonky language programming and never gets a chance to develop into anything more than simply “one of a bunch of clones.” Don't get me wrong, she's not stuck in some small token role; she's absolutely one of the episode's main characters. But the episode has no time for any of its characters: she gets no more or less development or screen time than anyone else, but her character is the one who really needed it, and is hurt by its absence. It seemed like maybe her character would grow to question this future's cruel and dehumanizing use of clone worker bees to do its dirty work, but ultimately the script is just too busy to be bothered. I'm sure the role was written as a gender-neutral part in which anyone could be cast, not as some stereotyped part for a trans actress, but casting a transgender woman as an androgynous faux-human feels insulting, even if the insult was probably just an unfortunate coincidence. It's made even worse when her attempts at flirting with another team member are flatly rejected with disdain and snobbery; the rejection comes from the other character feeling superior to a clone, not from that character being transphobic, but it nonetheless leaves a bad taste. Why couldn't she have been cast as the commander of the squad, or at least a part that wouldn't accidentally play into stereotypes? This is exact opposite of how well Sophie Stone's deaf character was handled with prejudice-smashing strength and grace in Under the Lake/Before the Flood.

So there you have it: excellent, suspenseful use of the found-footage horror concept almost exactly counterbalanced by silly plot points, underdeveloped characterization, and a role for its much-touted transgender guest-star that falls somewhere between unfortunate and offensive. Its redeeming qualities save it from actually being a bad episode, but Doctor Who can do so much better, both narratively and in terms of inclusiveness; indeed, those other episodes earlier this season show exactly where this one fails and what it should have done differently. This will most likely be the weak point of series 9. Fortunately the preview for next week's Gaimanesque fantasy tale looks much better.


- Christopher S. Jordan