It's not fashionable to like Mark Gatiss's Who scripts, but I'm keen on most of his episodes, the exception being series six's Night Terrors. Like that episode, though, Sleep No More is a case of style over substance, blessed with strong visuals but without the heft of a decent story to back them up. There are some excellent ideas here, but very little exploration of any of them. The compression and elimination of sleep, the distressing notion of genetically engineered "grunts" for combat, the potential of a video to infect its viewers with a malevolent force; all of these could form the basis of an intriguing, potent science fiction story, but none of them are used to any real effect here. There are hints at an interesting future world, where there's idealogical conflict between "Wideawakes" and "Rip van Winkles"," and where civilians are conscripted into the military to serve alongside both career soldiers and indentured servants. So little of this explored at all. Who holds the power here? Who is this army fighting? Why do people willingly give up their sleep to get ahead, and who are they working for? Nothing is elaborated upon beyond soundbites.
I'm not generally a huge fan of the found footage school of film. I struggle to see past the artificiality of it all. One of the more effective elements of the script is that it embraces this artificiality, not simply using the cobbled together footage as a visual conceit, but as a storytelling one. The drawbacks of the approach, however, are the same as they ever have been, from Blair Witch to Cloverfield. The storytelling lacks coherence. We need to be told what has happened to characters who die offscreen, and have incidences explained to us because we can't fully make them out. It's goes to far into a "tell, not show" method of storytelling.
The characters fall foul of the sketched-in nature of the story. Capaldi is as watchable as ever as the Doctor, even he seems to be lacking interest in proceedings. Jenna Coleman might as well not be present, so minimal is Clara's contribution to the story. This episode has received some coverage for its casting of Bethany Black, the first openly transgender actor in the series, and this is rightly praised. However, her character, the aforementioned grunt designated 474, gives her virtually nothing to work with. Is she a good actress? I honestly couldn't say, based on what she has to do here. None of the other guest actors, bar Reece Shearsmith, gets much better. I can only praise the episode for continuing this series' trend for diverse casting, but only the white cis guy actually get anything decent to work with. Although presumably that's more because he's old mates with the author.
In fairness, though, Shearsmith is great here, doing what he does best: a shifty, slightly unsettling character. Rasmussen's villainy is blatant from the start, and it's not intended otherwise. He stands by in his Dastari specs and a monochrome suit straight out of a Pertwee serial, every inch the Doctor Who villain. The monstrous Sandmen are also very effective, a revolting concept well rendered, their ill-defined formes well suited to the found footage format. However, they make no sense at all, either scientifically (we're used to that, of course), or narratively. There's so much that could be done with the concept of removing sleep from human life, but all we get is eye-gunk monsters with dubious and poorly explained origins. The final scene, with Rasmussen (or is it a copy of Rasmussen? I was left confused), crumbling away as he speaks to the audience is creepy as hell, but it's lost in a script that has no real impact overall. When the story makes absolutely no sense, it's probably not a good idea to have the Doctor point it out.
Sleep No More boasts arresting visuals and a potentially interesting central idea, and has the guts to leave things open-ended, with the Doctor escaping but crucially not stopping the villain's plans. However, this is lost in the general confusion of the finished product. An interesting experiment, but one that was scuppered by poor handling.
This episode is set in the 38th century, during which time the Indo-Japanese nation is a major force in the Solar System. According to the Doctor, a tectonic realignment occurred merging India and Japan, which was part of the Great Catastrophe. He says to Clara that she has this to look forward to, which suggests it might be something in her personal future, although he could just be speaking figuratively. If he does mean it's shortly to come, it's tempting to suggest that the Great Catastrophe is the same as the Great Cataclysm, an event that saw a huge rise in sea levels and major environmental change, and formed the backstory of the Australian K-9 TV series, which was set around 2050. However, it's quite likely it's an event further into the future and closer to the time of the episode. Interview's with Mark Gatiss in the latest DWM have him make the link with the event that led to the evacuation of the Earth mentioned in the serial Frontios, something normally cited as being much, much further in the future, while Bethany Black thinks it might be linked to The Sun Makers, in which humanity relocates to Pluto, and is apparently also set in the 38th century (but I've no idea where she got that date from). So make up your own head canon on that one, I guess.
We've not seen the 38th century before (barring possibly Sun Makers), but the Peladon/Galactic Federation serials featuring the third Doctor are generally accepted to take place in the 39th century, although there's absolutely nothing in the episodes themselves to suggest that. According to The Daleks' Masterplan, in the year 4000, Uranus is a planet of some importance in the Solar System, but Neptune is hardly mentioned. Here, though, it's a hub for the Indo-Japanese culture, with a major population living on its satellite, Triton.
The Doctor says people don't put "space" in front of things, like "space restaurant." I'd suggest the takes a look back at some of his old serials.
"When I say run, run!" is, of course, a bit of a second Doctor catchphrase.
Most pertinent line: "It doesn't make sense! None of this makes any sense!"