Storytelling As a Weapon, Doctor Who: Sleep No More, Reviews, 16/11/2015

When I started watching Sleep No More, I thought it was reasonable enough. Mark Gatiss is known for writing the more middle-of-the-road Doctor Who stories. When he's good, like The Unquiet Dead or The Crimson Horror, he’s pretty alright. When he's bad, like Victory of the Daleks or The Idiot's Lantern, it’s pretty meh.

Rasmussen: the most powerful villain in Doctor Who.
Follow my story, and I'll show you how.
That's what makes Gatiss such a dependable Doctor Who writer. When everything comes together and he fires on all cylinders with an intriguing story concept, cool imagery, and snappy dialogue, you get a solid episode. When production falls short of that, the episode isn't great, but it's still okay.

After watching his Doctor Who stories for a decade, I figured he'd never produce a classic. But he's probably the most dependable Doctor Who writer in the current stable.

I’ve said something similar about Toby Whithouse, that he’s dependable enough at producing reasonably competent scripts to keep in the stable. But Gatiss is superior to Whithouse in many ways. 

Take the remarkable, innovative direction out of The God Complex and you have a story no better than this season's biggest disappointment, Under the Lake and Before the Flood. Whithouse can write a competent action sci-fi story, but there’s nothing to it except the action. 

He regurgitates tired themes about anti-heroic male angst, and without that, he really just has a story of the most boring action beats imaginable, and antagonists so painfully generic as to be literal wastes.

Gatiss, however, is a marvellously ambitious writer. He loves Doctor Who for how you can throw so many ideas into a story that a 45-minute episode becomes a dizzying conceptual maze. 

The freakish lighting scheme and jittering camera of Sleep
No More
 makes the dust monsters even more twisted
and shapeless than they already are. They're a brilliantly
Lovecraftian creation.
And because he has a powerful nostalgia for classic Doctor Who driving his creativity, callbacks to the past are a pleasant frisson on his work. In Sleep No More, the Doctor even says Patrick Troughton’s classic line, "When I say run, run!” 

It’s quite appropriate for a story that recalls so much of the Troughton era: unambiguously evil, destructive monsters, the base-under-siege format, a cookie-cutter supporting cast, and a dark lighting scheme that made what was happening to individual characters in a particularly tense moment uncertain.

That atmosphere was a direct lift of a technique from The Web of Fear, but it was also innovative, using an otherwise tired found-footage technique for a fascinating purpose in the story. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Elements of Sleep No More come from Gatiss’ other favourite era, the Hinchcliffe years when the Doctor was Tom Baker. The episode’s tone of claustrophobia recalls The Ark in Space on a contemporary budget. The nature of the Sandmen are very much in the tradition of that story’s monsters, the Wirrn.

They’re an infection that overtakes your body and personality by literally consuming you. The horror of The Ark in Space lay in watching Commander Noah be eaten alive as he continued to walk and talk, fully conscious of what was happening to him. Even when he’s just got green bubble wrap around his hand, Noah's performance sells the horror of his experience.

Phil Sandifer, whose analyses are linked throughout, is
a major proponent of the importance of meta-fiction to
Doctor Who. So I'm in debt to him for this post. He
also described a phenomenon that I think is happening
to Clara this season: the show's fabric changing so that
she has no place in it. His analysis of Tom Baker's
last season described the same thing happening to him.
The bizarre political setting of the story – a catastrophic rearrangement of Earth's plates have physically merged India and Japan by the 38th century – recalls the similarly weird human society of The Ark in Space

In that story, the extreme technocratic societies of Golden Age sci-fi are pushed to their limit, with people’s whole identities determined by their role as assigned by a universally militarized government. The supporting cast succeeded by rebelling against these roles.

The Wirrn expected the humans to act something like they did, with total uniformity. That's why they infested their commander first. The Wirrn believed that humans would follow their chain of command, so never break from their commander’s orders. When the Doctor encouraged them to turn against Noah, they were able to fight the invaders off. 

This image of the human future, and the vulnerabilities of a thoroughly hierarchical society, expressed a fear of total state control that was a powerful presence in Western culture of the 1970s, thanks to the ongoing Cold War against the totalitarian Soviet Union.

Sleep No More similarly engages the politics of its time, in a way so important to the plot that I have to stop talking about the history of Doctor Who and warn you of 


Gatiss imagines a human society so driven to maximize labour productivity that people have begun buying Morpheus pods, chambers that condense all the rejuvenation of the sleep cycle into a few minutes. 

The Doctor tries to stare out of a screen, how he signals
that he's taking control of a story. But this only seems to
work when the crew controls the story. In Sleep No More,
a character in the story controls the cameras. You can
see Clara pushed to the edges. I think I'll have more to
say about her role this season next week.
The episode even shows a corporate hologram message explaining all the benefits of having to sleep only five minutes every month. The conceptual villain of the story is that the drive to force people to work without rest just to make a living – essentially our modern economy – creates machines that produce all-consuming monsters that feed on human flesh.

In the last, meta-fictional, element of classic series influence, Reece Shearsmith plays Rasmussen, the villain of the story. Shearsmith himself played Patrick Troughton in Adventures in Space and Time, the TV movie Gatiss wrote about the origin of Doctor Who for the anniversary celebration in 2013.

The meta-fiction aspects of the story make Sleep No More the most fundamentally radical and pessimistic Doctor Who story that I think has ever been written. It goes like this.

Since the Troughton era, the Doctor's awareness that he was part of a narrative was a central part of his power. The Doctor defeated evil forces by taking control of the story, creating conditions where the villains couldn’t possibly win. Manipulating the field of battle is the core of his non-violent style of fighting. 

Troughton and many Doctors after him would signal their control of the narrative by staring through television screens, sometimes at the viewer and sometimes at other characters. 

Here, everyone stares through the camera at the viewer, because we see the story through footage collected from the sentient dust particles that the Morpheus machines create. The first and last person to stare through the screen at the viewer in Sleep No More is Rasmussen.

Mark Gatiss' purest moment of meta-fiction, at least up to
this point, was inserting Matt Smith's contemporary
Doctor into a story about the real-world origin of
Doctor Who, as a vision of William Hartnell, whose
Doctor was the only one without any meta-fictional
The Morpheus machines create an electronic signal, which condenses sleep in an individual. The Mark II Morpheus machines induce a sleep so powerful that they create the dust monsters. Their inception begins with an electromagnetic signal interacting with a human mind.

If you’re going to keep a human's attention on any electromagnetic signal, you weave a pattern with it that creates a story. In other words, you edit footage into a coherent, gripping narrative. We can't look away from a good story. 

Rasmussen edits the footage from Morpheus-infected people and the dust motes clinging to them into an exciting adventure mystery: the Doctor Who episode Sleep No More

At the end of the story, Rasmussen reveals that the signal transmitting this episode carries the wave that infects each viewer with the process that turns them into dust creatures. The episode ends with Rasmussen, himself entirely transformed into a dust monster, revealing that the viewer is infected, and that he’s transmitted the episode throughout the Sol system.

But the Doctor never stopped this from happening. He, Clara, and the last survivor of the human supporting cast fled to the TARDIS, where the Doctor removed the infection from Clara and our guest cast. But the last time we see him, he's running away from the camera and inside the TARDIS.

The last face the viewer sees on her television screen is Rasmussen’s. He’s taken control of the story. The Doctor signals that he’s taking control of the story by looking through the camera, through his awareness that he's in a story. 

When Mark Gatiss writes straight Doctor Who stories,
the result is a mixed bag. But when he assembles a
story meta-fictionally, it sings.
No matter how many times the Doctor stared through the screen, Rasmussen was always the one operating the cameras. The Doctor’s most powerful weapon on his own show – his metafictionality – has been stolen from him.

The first time this happened was a Troughton story, The Enemy of the World. The villain, the dictator Salamander, tried to steal Doctor Who by taking control of its story and shifting its genre from futuristic spy-fi to apocalyptic dystopia. 

He could do this because he had a special relationship with the Doctor that allowed him the same non-violent power: to change the genre and context of the narrative so that only he could win. This special relationship was meta-fictional: Salamander was also played by Patrick Troughton.

In Sleep No More, Rasmussen has control of the story from the start: he's the cinematographer, editor, and developed the story concept. The Doctor is only ever an interloper in Rasmussen's story.

And Rasmussen is, meta-fictionally, also the Doctor: Reece Shearsmith also played the first meta-fictional Doctor, Patrick Troughton, in Mark Gatiss’ openly meta-fictional film about the origin of Doctor Who. Like Salamander, he's an evil reflection of Patrick Troughton's Doctor. Reflected through many more lenses, but still a reflection.

In The Enemy of the World, Salamander was only ever defeated because he tried to take control of the TARDIS. It's the most meta-fictional element of Doctor Who, the vehicle that can take Doctor Who to every kind of story that can be written. 

Rasmussen has learned his lesson. He's triumphed in his story because he never tries to attack the TARDIS. He instead forces the Doctor and Doctor Who out of his story, the story of humanity's destruction by a terrifying infection.

With Rasmussen the Sandman, Mark Gatiss has made a unique achievement so far among Doctor Who writers. He's created a villain that defeats the Doctor more thoroughly than any other, both within the story and meta-fictionally, through the same power to control the story.

The next challenge of Doctor Who's writers will be figuring out how the Doctor can defeat a villain with even greater meta-fictional powers than his own. Who wants to step up to that?


  1. Of course, the Doctor won by altering the signal of the transmission so that it would hit a parallel universe where said signal would have no effect, but that's just stating the obvious.

    1. Ah, yes. Where instead of transmitting to the settlements of the Sol System in the 38th century, it went out to the Earthbound audience of the 21st century as a Doctor Who episode.

      We're layers deep in meta-textuality by now. Which is excellent.

  2. I think there were moments here where Shearsmith did a better Patrick Troughton impersonation than he did in An Adventure in Space and Time. Which seems oddly appropriate.