If you’re reading this, I warn you, it’s probably going to be a long one. I’ve worked on it for a while.
After reading Hoffman’s The Sandman, apart from the song constantly getting stuck in my head I also couldn’t stop thinking about a Doctor Who episode that took the legend of the Sandman and reinvented it into something that, as my title suggests, is a bit more sci-fi. It’s kind of confusing, but I’ll try to explain.
The title of the episode is brilliant in its own way. “Sleep No More” basically describes what the episode is going to be about, but is still vague enough that you wonder what it is going to be about. It is set in the 38th Century, after the Great Catastrophe where India and Japan are the ruling powers. The Great Catastrophe has basically led to humans fleeing Earth to find a home on Triton, one of Neptune’s moons. The episode itself is actually set on an abandoned ship that is orbiting Neptune, with a four person crew assigned on a rescue mission to see why the ship fell silent. The episode is pieced together in a found footage style using footage from the crew’s helmets and security cameras in the ship, with narration by the scientist Rassmussen, whose voiceover on a black screen warns the viewer not to watch the video in the beginning, “You must not watch this. I’m warning you, you can never unsee it.” (0.00 – 0.22). Naturally, this would typically make someone want to continue watching.
Now, initially when I re- watched the episode I thought that perhaps I’d find parallels between the episode and Hoffman’s short story, but I realized when I was grasping at straws that there were none, so I looked up an interview with the writer of the episode, Mark Gatiss, who said that his inspiration came from his experiences with insomnia throughout his life. Now the title makes even more sense.
What I love about legends is the way that they can be transformed into anything, from Hoffman’s story, designed to blur the lines between appearance and reality and freak you out, to the children’s movie Rise of the Guardians (Ramsey, 2012), in which the Sandman is a lovable guardian who helps children fall asleep and makes sure that their dreams are happy and bright. I think you can imagine though that my favourite interpretation of the Sandman is Mark Gatiss’ version. Back to the episode.
Rassmussen claims that he is the one who put the videos together in an attempt to explain what is going on, making it seem that he is the sole survivor of whatever is occuring. Through the footage we meet the crew, who go into the ship and run into the Doctor and his companion Clara who have also just arrived on board. My first grasp at straws was the name similarity between the Doctor’s Clara and the Klara in Hoffman’s story, but really the only similarity is in the sound of their names. You hear Clara say that she feels as though she’s being watched, and the Doctor explains it as paranoia. The leader of the crew tells the two that they are now under her command, and they resume their scope of the ship. Another camera catches the Doctor and Clara talking when the Doctor sees a layer of dust just under the camera, swipes it up and remarks that the ship must have been dead for a while before blowing the dust in the direction of the camera.
After further exploration of the ship and an incident with crew member 474, a Grunt who, in the 38th century, are a breed of human solely made for their strength and brute force, a monster is attracted to the team and begins chasing them. They run away, 5 out of the 6 people in this newly enlarged team barely making it through the doors to a room. They close the door on the monster’s arm, the arm disintegrating into a pile of dust. The Doctor takes a sample to find that the dust is actually made of mostly dead skin cells and mucus. Inside the room they’ve found themselves in are a line of bulky, pod like devices. The crew explains that these are Morpheus Devices, named after the god of dreams, but that they are more than just sleep pods. Clara activates one to find that when activated, they play a holographic video of The Chordettes singing the famous “Mr. Sandman”, a song with a chirpy, upbeat melody and slightly unsettling lyrics. The song itself may even invoke a sense of the uncanny, and it especially did in this context. The device then opens up and traps Clara within it, for only a minute before the Doctor is able to get her out, pulling the wires from her and waking her up. She gets out and they find that her pod wasn’t the only occupied one, and that the pod at the end is not empty. Clara is able to talk to whoever is inside and convince them to open up their pod, and they do, only for us to find that it is Rassmussen inside the pod, hiding.
To elaborate the whole ‘it is more than a sleeping pod’ thing that I mentioned earlier, Rassmussen activates another hologram that explains to the Doctor and Clara what exactly the Morpheus Devices do. As it turns out, by targeting the sleep centres of your brain and altering your brain’s general chemistry, it concentrates your sleep down to only five minutes a month. In this five minutes the device gives you all the chemical benefits of rest but without the time it takes to actually get it. The crew reveals that these devices are commonplace back on Triton, where efficiency is valued. Rassmussen then proudly reveals that the Morpheus Devices are his invention, but Clara and the Doctor are disturbed by this society’s need for efficiency going so far as to allow the fundamental chemistry of their brains to be changed in such a way. Chopra, one of the rescue team members, agrees with them. In fact, he is the only crew member who doesn’t use the devices. This is where the Doctor devises a theory.
The Doctor’s Theory: The monsters that inhabit the ship are actually made out of the dust that forms in the corner of your eye when you sleep.
Explanation: This mucus crust is made of blood and skin cells, and the electronic pulses that Morpheus sends into your brain to alter its chemistry actually caused the cells to evolve into a carnivorous life form. The longer that you are in Morpheus the more dust builds up, until it entirely takes over the host. The dust conglomerates and then can mold itself into human form after it eats its host. It’s quite an adaptive creature, actually.
Here is where I skip a ton of drama that goes down by saying that a ton of drama goes down, the gravity shields that keep the ship from being pulled in by Neptune’s gravitational pull are deactivated (but the Doctor reactivates them), and this further breaks up the crew and the monsters kill Rassmussen. The Doctor hacks into the leader’s helmet cam to review earlier footage of Rassmussen being eaten, finding something odd in the way the monsters do so. We see a pod being transported somewhere and then the cameras cut back to the Doctor and Clara dubbing the monsters ‘Sandmen’ before the Doctor remembers something the leader mentioned earlier; she said that their helmets are not equipped with cameras. The Sandmen break into the room that they’re in and that’s when the Doctor sees that the Sandmen are blind. Rassmussen cuts in here, showing that he’s alive. The Doctor, Clara and the leader all escape the Sandmen and the Doctor now shows us that there is footage being taken wirelessly and stored somewhere, but there are no cameras anywhere doing that job. The Doctor explains this with his line, “[T]he dust has been watching us. Each little organic speck, just a tiny spy, drifting through the air. The monsters have been with us all along. That’s why the Sandmen are blind, their visual receptors are being hijacked! But by whom? And why?” (31.52 – 32.16).
The biggest twist in the episode happens when the Doctor points out the reason for the PoV footage that was shot. The rapid cutting and the amount of people in the group, in addition to the amount of different angles that we got from the dust specs alone was enough to trick the audience into thinking that the PoV footage was shot from every person’s perspective. It wasn’t. There were two people whose perspectives we never see; and those are the Doctor’s and Chopra’s. Everyone who had been inside Morpheus had a PoV, even Clara. This leads the Doctor to theorizing that being in the Morpheus Devices for even the shortest time begins the process of becoming a Sandman. This revelation was enough to send a chill down even my spine.
So the Doctor figures it out, even finds that Rassmussen is still alive and they corner him. Rassmussen tells them that he was willing to sacrifice himself for the betterment of the Sandman race, that the Sandmen spared him because he promised that he would find a way to get them off of the spaceship and into Triton so that they could spread. He plans to use Patient 0, the box that I mentioned was seen being transported earlier, the first Morpheus client who hasn’t slept in five years, and release him into Triton to spread his spores. Rassmussen explains that the Morpheus Devices are constantly evolving and changing and as a result, so are the Sandmen. Their ability to infect others goes beyond the devices now, they are able to use spores to infect their victims.
The Doctor finds inconsistencies with Rassmussen’s story, and tries to figure them out but they don’t have time. They have to get back to the TARDIS and escape, but are blocked by Sandmen. The Doctor then destroys the gravity shields, causing Neptune’s stronger gravitational field to pull apart the Sandmen. They get into the TARDIS, but not before the Doctor looks around and yells, “It doesn’t make sense! None of this makes any sense!” (42.12).
The episode ends with Rassmussen getting up from the seat that the leader shot him down in earlier, explaining that the whole story in the video was really just a ruse that he put together to embed the same electronic glitch that Morpheus used in the sleep process into the video, therefore kickstarting the Sandman process in the viewer and spreading the ‘virus’ to whoever watches it. With one last smug smile, he rubs his eye and it crumbles into sand, the rest of his body following suit.
Whether or not Rassmussen was successfully able to release the video is not known, and the episode ends without us knowing the fate of the Triton people. We do know Clara survives, but that is about it.
Believe it or not, that was my shortened summary.
As I said before, I love when legends are recreated and revamped into different genres and made into their own original stories. Within this episode I mentioned the Freudian uncanny of the song “Mr. Sandman”. But even the Doctor seemed to feel his own sense of the uncanny when he realized that the story just wasn’t adding up, and to the Doctor that’s the worst kind of conclusion.
Not to mention Darwin would have had a field day in this spaceship, analyzing the components of the evolution and creation of the Sandmen.
What I appreciate the most about this episode though is the annoyance I felt when I didn’t initially understand what was happening, and then the annoyance I felt seeing that Rassmussen had created this whole story in the end solely for his own purposes, to fulfill his own agenda. I mean, talk about unreliable narrators. Not to mention just overall confusion that stayed with you throughout the episode, only for it to be resolved into utter annoyance knowing that the hero of the story, the Doctor, didn’t see the ultimate plan of Rassmussen’s to release the video he created. Ultimately, the hero lost without properly realizing it. That’s not supposed to happen. Well, I mean, welcome to Doctor Who, where things that are dead don’t stay dead, races that are supposed to have been wiped out turn out to be alive and thriving, and a pansexual time traveler who doesn’t take life seriously ends up being the oldest being in the universe. And that last one I’m not even referring to the Doctor.
I just hope that there’s a sequel in the future.
“Sleep No More.” Doctor Who. Writ. Mark Gatiss. Dir. Justin Molotnikov. BBC One, 2015.
“The Chordettes. “Mr. Sandman.” Mr. Sandman, Cadence, 1954.
Rise of the Guardians. Directed by Peter Ramsey, DreamWorks Animation, 2012.
Hoffman, E. T. A. The Sandman. 1816.