Doctor Who has had its share of scary episodes. Creeping shadows. Statues that move when you’re not looking. Monsters that erase your memory of them. But this week it decided to go full horror film, and the results are pretty scary.
Want to really freak out a Doctor Who viewer? Find a threat the Doctor is helpless against—a threat he never fully understands, and doesn’t triumph over.
That’s right: This time the Doctor loses. When the episode ends, the survivors just run away in the TARDIS. The threat is still out there. Potentially destroying all human life.
(Perhaps we’ll revisit this threat in a future episode. It would make sense, for the Doctor to intervene to stop the spread of such a scourge. Cleverly, though, in a series made up almost entirely of two-parters, this is one of only two standalone episodes. Our expectations are subverted—we get a cliffhanger with zero resolution. But more on that later.)
And of course the worst part is that in the end, the enemy is us. What’s scarier than the Doctor’s childhood fear, the monster under the bed? How about the monster behind our eyes? The one wearing our skin?
There is a series of brilliant misdirections at the center of this episode, and the Doctor—usually a master of misdirection himself—doesn’t quite seem to see them.
“Sleep No More” wants us to think it’s about sleep, but it’s really not about sleep at all; it’s about the unconscious. Just like it wants us to think it keeps quoting Macbeth, when it’s really quoting Freud.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all Psych 101 on you. But clearly the (utterly terrifying) Sandmen are not all that they seem. The episode never satisfactorily explains their origins or their nature. The newest version of the Morpheus system, which has reduced the human need for sleep to five minutes per month, has greatly accelerated the accumulation of eye-corner “sleep dust,” which Wikipedia tells me is technically called “rheum.”
And so somehow the compression of sleep has also allowed the accumulated rheum to evolve very quickly into a conscious life form with malevolent intent. I guess? It is also strongly implied that Morpheus robs people of the necessary mental relief and healing that sleep brings, which somehow comes back to haunt them in the form of these monsters.
But the connection between these two things isn’t explained. Nor is whether these are monsters that have evolved purely from icky eye-corner deposits, or whether they are themselves humans who have been transformed. The Sandmen are repeatedly said to have eaten the space station’s crew. But then Rasmussen also implies that one of them used to be a person. Not to mention the fact that he’s revealed to be made of the same sleep dust himself at the very end of the episode.
Whatever the case, the Sandmen are living nightmares—the repressed desires and wounds and sufferings that we generally deal with and assimilate in our sleep. “Every morning, we wipe the sleep from our eyes, and that keeps us safe,” the Doctor says, “safe from the monsters inside.” But without sleep, these expressions of our basest unconscious have come to horrifying life.
For Freud (OK, maybe just a bit of Psych 101), these repressed emotions come back to us in the form of the “uncanny”—the manifestation of things we think of as familiar in ways that are suddenly unfamiliar, weird, and alienating. This episode is full of scenes invoking the uncanny, from the hijacking of the first-person camera trope to the spooky distortion of a familiar 1950s pop song to the melting of a human face into dust. They’re meant to jar us out of our comfort with the familiar things of our world, to show us the troubling unconscious associations we have with them. To confront us with what really lies beneath, what we have always known was there all along.
The uncanny shouldn’t be a problem for the Doctor, though. He is the Lord High Chancellor of the uncanny. He is its handmaiden and its standard bearer. But here the weirdness of the whole thing seems to stump him, his usually effortless insight failing: “It doesn’t make sense. None of this makes any sense!”
This is the second clever bit of misdirection in the episode. The Sandmen may be lumbering around trying to eat people, but they’re not the real monsters here. There may be floating dust that somehow hijacks people and makes them into cameras, but that’s not the real menace either.
It’s the horror movie those dust-cameras are making—that is the actual threat here.
From the episode’s very first moment, Rasmussen (whose first name, Gagan, sounds a lot like the German for “against”) announces to us that we shouldn’t be watching it. A warning we ignore, and so we fall into its trap, revealed at the end: The movie itself is the infection, not the Sandmen or the dust. By watching it, we have supposedly ourselves become carriers of the scourge that will wipe out humanity.
And the Doctor can’t quite wrap his head around it, because he’s let himself become part of the movie. He’s inside it, so he can’t see it in its entirety. But we can. Or at least we can try.
I anticipate that a lot of the reviews of this episode will compare it, unfavorably, to The Blair Witch Project, or Cloverfield. But the real antecedent to “Sleep No More” is The Ring.
As a horror movie about a haunted videotape, The Ring had the eerie ability to make horror movies themselves seem uncanny. When you reflected on it, it brought you face to face with uneasy questions like: Why do we enjoy scaring ourselves with fiction? And why, once scared, are we so desperate to share that terror with others? (“You have got to see this movie, it is so scary!”
Likewise, by making the episode itself the vehicle for its plague on humanity, “Sleep No More” suggests that there may be troubling aspects of the way that we watch, enjoy, invest in and talk about Doctor Who.
There are a myriad possibilities here, and it will invite a different reading from each viewer. A lot of people will probably find the episode deeply unsatisfying because of this indeterminacy. Personally, I found it compelling—despite the episode not really hitting all of its most ambitious marks—because a couple of interesting thoughts jumped right out at me as I watched Rasmussen’s face blow away.
For example, the fact that the episode ended without closure—not simply the Doctor not winning, but also never quite explaining what the hell was going on—made me think about how over-reliant I have become as a viewer on the Doctor to be my deus ex machina/problem solver/master of exposition. I don’t have to figure out the mystery myself, because I have a trusty Time Lord along.
But Doctor Who has long been invested in the question of whether the Doctor makes his companions weaker or stronger by helping them out of a jam or letting them fend for themselves. What if my approach to the show is making me somehow more naïve in my approach to the world, like the gullible Wide Awakes who think Morpheus is helping them?
Then, of course, there is the association made here with unchecked capitalism. Dedicated to wringing maximum productivity out of every worker, Morpheus suggests that they can become more-evolved humans, übermensch-like, solving the problem of their imperfect bodies.
But then, the Doctor is all of these things: the ultimate problem solver, a man with an advanced body (two hearts!), a man who can even cheat death. What is he, if not the endpoint of this fascist-capitalist ideal? And if Doctor Who fills me with the longing to escape this world, to be like its hero and explore all of time and space, isn’t that more than just simple escapism? Doesn’t it reveal a desire to become somehow better than lowly, Earth-bound humans? We only need look to Ashildr/Lady me (was that her voiceover in the “next time” preview for episode 10?) to see where that could lead us.