A world without sleep turns into a real nightmare.

By Kelly Connolly
November 15, 2015 at 03:01 AM EST
Credit: Simon Ridgway/BBC America
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Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by science fiction’s vision of the future — or by Mark Gatiss. I feel called out by both after “Sleep No More,” which is basically the TV equivalent of that poem my dad wrote me on my 10th birthday about how I hadn’t slept in a decade. I’ve wished more than once that sleep could be optional. Imagine everything we could read or learn in that time; imagine how much easier it would be to pull those all-nighters in college. But the fantasy of staying up all night is basically rooted in a desire for time to ourselves — whole hours with no one to answer to but our own interests. If everyone were awake, we’d have to be plugged in then, too.

Doctor Who’s greatest fear for the future is that we’ll be stripped of everything but our functionality. Religion will militarize, armies will be grown, and even sleep will become an unaffordable luxury for the dedicated employee. Enter Morpheus, a pod designed to condense a month’s worth of rest into five minutes. It’s become a political issue, splitting the population between “Rips” (so named for Rip Van Winkle) who reject the machine and “Wide-Awakes” who embrace it. Morpheus’ inventor, Professor Rassmussen (played by Gatiss’ League of Gentlemen collaborator Reece Shearsmith) operates out of a space station orbiting Neptune in the 38th century. The station fell silent 24 hours ago.

A rescue crew based on Triton arrives to investigate, led by young commander Chief Nagata. Nagata and crew member Deep-Ando, both Wide Awakes, are joined by Chopra, who doesn’t want his sleep “colonized,” and 474, a “grunt” bred for low intelligence and brute force who’s developed a crush on our resident Rip. The team finds Rassmussen’s station apparently empty, aside from — who else? — the Doctor and Clara, who’ve gone space exploring — er, exploring. (“It’s never space restaurant or space champagne or space hat.”) The Doctor’s psychic paper announces them as engine stress assessors, and Nagata agrees to let the pair tag along.

Their expedition is interrupted by Hulk-like dust creatures that chase the crew into a room of the space station. The room is lined with Morpheus pods, one of which grabs Clara, giving Doctor a good 15 seconds of panic before he’s able to get her out. Rassmussen, who’s been hiding a few pods down, explains what just happened with the aid of a hologram pitch lady: The pods are semi-sentient, programmed to take people who need sleep and then alter their brain chemistry, changing what it even means to need sleep in the first place. How better “to get the edge on your competitor, to turn that extra profit”?

The Doctor is not amused. “Sleep is vital,” he argues. “Sleep is wonderful. Even I sleep.” But we’ve never seen it, and neither has Clara. Perspective — our perspective — is key, as the story is told from found footage that Rassmussen claims to have pieced together after the fact. Even the opening credits are different. Whose story is really being told here, and why are we watching at all, when the first thing Rassmussen says is, “You must not watch this”?

The professor wants out of this space station now, but those creatures — which Clara has taken to calling Sandmen, after Morpheus’ signature “Mr. Sandman” tune — change the equation. The Doctor believes the Sandmen to be made of sleep dust: the kind we usually just wipe from our eyes. The longer a person uses the Morpheus chamber, the more the dust accumulates. It’s not clear whether it consumes the host or takes its own form, but those questions make leaving the station even riskier. If they return home now, they risk spreading an infection that they don’t even understand yet. Found footage, hulking monsters, possible airborne contaminants — we’ve got ourselves a horror movie.

NEXT: Death by karaoke

In true horror fashion, the crew is being picked off one by one. Deep-Ando goes first, after a battle with a security system that won’t open its doors until he’s “done the song.” (This episode is vindicating for those of us who’ve never liked “Mr. Sandman.”) As his screams echo the halls, the station’s anti-grav shield goes down, pulling it toward Neptune. The Doctor gets the shield back online, but in the commotion, a Sandman consumes Rassmussen, and although Clara, Nagata, and the Doctor make it to the relative safety of cold storage, the others do not. An explosion blocks Chopra and 474’s path. The grunt sacrifices herself to save the Rip, and he decides too late that maybe she’s not so bad after all.

A slower kind of death is going down in cold storage. Aware that they’ll freeze if they stay in there much longer, the Doctor opens the door to let in the Sandmen while he, Clara, and Nagata hide in meat bags. They make a run for it when they realize that the Sandmen are blind. The creatures’ visual receptors have been hijacked — they’re the source of the footage that we’re watching, which explains why the perspective keeps shifting. One second, we’re looking over everyone; the next, we’re seeing the action through someone’s eyes, or, specifically, the sleep in those eyes. That’s why we’ve never seen Chopra’s perspective — and that’s why we only started seeing Clara’s after she was pulled into the pod. Morpheus is already rewiring her brain.

Clara stays confident (too confident?) in the face of that news; she’s sure that the Doctor will fix it. For now, what matters is finding who hijacked the footage. They find Rassmussen hiding out in the rescue ship, already playing his video on a loop while a Morpheus pod rolls through the hallways to meet him and Chopra dies at the hand of another Sandman. Rassmussen is all for it. He believes that the Sandmen are the future, and it’s only right for humankind to teach them well and let them lead the way.

To prove his point, he opens the pod, releasing what he claims is Morpheus’ first client. A Sandman emerges. The Doctor distracts the creature with a singing hologram and locks it in the room while Nagata shoots Rassmussen, amid Clara’s protests. But was the Sandman really patient zero? Does the dust consume the host? Why wasn’t that Sandman blind? “It’s like this is all for effect,” the Doctor wonders as Clara practically drags him back to the TARDIS. They can ask those questions later.

More Sandmen surround the TARDIS, so the Doctor powers down the anti-grav shields again, and the creatures turn to dust as he, Clara, and Nagata make their escape. Back in the rescue ship, Rassmussen finishes his video. There never was any infection, he says; the Sandmen were just part of the show. The Morpheus program is still transmitted by an electronic signal that changes the sleep centers of the brain — and the signal is in this video. (“There it is. Tickles, doesn’t it?”) By throwing in a few classic horror tropes and ordering everyone not to watch, he’s all but ensured that everyone will.

And the man behind the curtain isn’t even Rassmussen anymore. He rubs his eye, and the entire socket turns to dust. As his human form falls apart, he gets the last word: “Excuse me, you’ve got something there, just in the corner of your eye.” Is this what the Morpheus program does to everyone? What has it done to Clara? Like the Doctor, we don’t get all of the answers. We’ve already lost this one. I’d lie awake thinking about it, if I ever had time to sleep.

Background radiation:

  • The fact that Clara keeps getting trapped in dream worlds seems suddenly like it matters even more.
  • “Hold my hand.”
  • “Oh yeah. Not just this.”
  • “All right, consider yourself—” “Part of the furniture!”
  • “Shakespeare. He really knew stuff.”

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