TV Review: Doctor Who 9.9 “Sleep No More”

Doctor Who
Season 9, Episode 9 “Sleep No More”
Directed by Justin Molotnikov
Written by Mark Gatiss
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Reece Sheersmith, Elaine Tan
BBC America
Air date: Saturday, November 14, 2015

This week’s episode of Doctor Who, 9.9 “Sleep No More,” seems to pose a question: Can the Doctor ever lose? In over 50 years, we’ve seen some rather pyrrhic victories (as in “Doctor Who And The Silurians” or “A Good Man Goes To War”), some inevitable stalemates (as in “Genesis Of The Daleks), or even the occasional tragedy (as in “Earthshock”), but we’ve rarely, if ever, seen him lose. What would a loss look like? Would the Doctor escape? Would anyone be hurt? How would the Doctor fail to grasp the full scope of the situation?

Writer Mark Gatiss presents us with such a situation this week. Framed as a sort of found-footage horror film, the Doctor and Clara escape with their lives but allow their enemy to achieve its goal. This raises two competing sets of issues. First, there are matters of plot convention; the twist ending that sets up an escape and/or sequel to a horror film is a pretty stock affair at this point. At the same time, this competes with the fact that the Doctor’s success rate averages somewhere very close to 100 percent of the time. An entity that defeats the Doctor had better be something pretty special, and sadly, much of “Sleep No More” is worse than average. Given Gatiss’ track record with the series, as well as his work on Sherlock and An Adventure In Space And Time, one should hope for better. This time, he pretty well missed the mark.

The biggest failure is one of premise. What we get is the basic idea behind James Cameron’s Aliens with none of its strengths. A team of soldiers is dispatched to a remote outpost that’s gone dark and ignores all contact. That outpost becomes a base under siege. Much of the action is viewed over video signal, shown in the first person.

In the case of the 1986 film, we are treated to a very solid ensemble cast, each with a concise, well-drawn role. We come to appreciate each of the strengths of each of them. There is Bishop, the artificial life form and Hicks, the capable grunt. There is Lieutenant Gorman, the well-meaning but inexperienced leader of the expedition, and Sergeant Apone, the experienced backbone of the group. There are Vasquez and Drake, a pair of equals and opposites, who lean on each other in combat. There is Hudson, the comic relief. Though we don’t know much about any of their back stories, none is interchangeable with the other because they are all distinct personalities.

Here, we get next to nothing. Four soldiers arrive: Nagata, Chopra, Deep-Ando, and 474, a cloned grunt. We know very little about them. We know that 474 is grown expressly to be a shoot first and don’t ask questions later soldier. We know that Deep-Ando refuses to give up sleeping. Aside from some additional bickering, that’s pretty much all we are told. The characters of “Under The Lake” feel positively fleshed out compared to this.

There are similar comparisons to be made between the monsters. In Aliens, we see updated versions of the chestbuster and alien from the previous film. Instead of a solitary creature, this time they are hive insects with a truly menacing queen. They employ group combat tactics, that genuinely shock the soldiers sent to investigate them. In “Sleep No More,” the monsters are created from particles of mucus and dead skin by a machine that compresses a whole night of sleep into five minutes. This premise also has holes that seem large enough to drive a truck through. Are the sandy bits nano-machines? How do they collect all the video footage? How do they organize? How are they controlled? All they do is show up and try to look scary as if they belong in a first person shooter game.

Finally, we have our heroes and traitors. For heroes, the Alien franchise has Ripley, and here we have Clara and The Doctor. Aliens represented an expansion of the Ripley character as we saw her maternal instincts. The Doctor and Clara do little to expand on their existing relationship, and the Doctor is positively ponderous. It’s hard to believe that he is the same freewheeling character we saw last week. He also loses, and to a relatively weak foe. For defectors, we are made to wonder if Bishop will defect in Aliens as the artificial life form Ash did in the previous film. Bishop turns out to be solid, and a human, Burke, sells out the rest of the group in spite of his initial assessment that he’s “actually a nice guy.” Here, the defector is Rassmussen, the creator of the machines that created the Sandmen. He’s reasonably effective, and has a secret of his own… which I won’t tell here. Spoilers.

No, this whole episode was a pretty strong miss. Since it is not the first of two parts, it’s not the set up for something else. What I’m sure was supposed to be a taut update of the old idea of injecting a horror film element into a Doctor Who episode instead shows the Doctor losing to a pretty run of the mill foe. That just doesn’t pay off dramatically. It’s not especially riveting at the finish, or really any point on the way. This is the worst episode of the season so far.

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