A New Monster for the Cannon
There is a new monster to add amongst the Weeping Angels, Daleks, Cybermen, and other creatures that cause a bump in the Doctor’s adventures—Sandmen.
Yes, the word Sandmen might seem scary if we understood the species’ motives and features. Weeping Angels zap people to the past and feed off of their unlived lives. Daleks, who are full of hatred and evil intent, destroy everything in their way. Cybermen strip away a person’s humanity and upgrade them into a droid. Even creatures like the Heavenly Hosts had purpose and a fear factor: murderers disguised as innocent service robots. So what about the Sandmen? What do they do?
Inspiration for many of the creatures featured on Doctor Who have come from fairytales, myths, and legends. It’s become a fun tradition to take mundane aspects of life and morph them into a script. So why not take a second look at the sleep dust in your eyes? The Sleepies. The eye boogers. The gunk. The crusties each of us wash away in the morning. Scientifically known as rheum. Writer Mark Gatiss took a simple idea and ran with it. Fans should commend him for his creativity, but I think most of us viewers are stumped by the plot. If you’re like me, the first time you watched Sleep No More, you probably thought, “What just happened?” If you didn’t find the episode a complete bore, you might have watched it a second time and walked away thinking, “What a mess! Seriously. What exactly happened in that episode?”
No worries! You are not alone. The plot was a bit of a mess, so I’m here to add some clarity to the situation.
Let’s begin with the Sandmen, in case you didn’t fully understand who they are, what they want, or how they were created. Sleep No More likes to play off The Chordettes’ song “Mr. Sandman,” but the Sandmen in this episode of Doctor Who are nothing like the mythical man who carries peoples’ dreams in the form of sand. Instead, the Sandmen are creatures composed of skin cells, blood cells, and mucus. A mixture which naturally discharges from corners of the eyes, nose, or mouth while humans sleep.
In the 38th century, humans discovered a way to cheat sleep. With the help of Morpheus machines, the human population artificially speed up the sleeping process. Of course, according to the fictitious science of Doctor Who, the chemical used to speed up the brain’s sleep mode left some residual effects—enough energy to aid the creation of a life form. According to the Doctor’s theory, the sleep dust conglomerates, devours their host, and take humanoid shape.
“Well, when we sleep, the mucus crust builds up in our eyes. Blood cells. Skin cells. That’s what dust largely is. Human skin. But your meddling has evolved it. Hot-housed it. What used to be sleep in your eye has turned into a carnivorous life form!” – The Doctor
This creation story is noteworthy mainly because it’s another way to say that evil can originate from even the best of people—a theme that seems to consistently pop up throughout Season 9. Perhaps Moffat is encouraging viewers to consider each individual’s capacity to contribute to the good, or bad, deeds in the world. Or maybe not anyone’s capacity. Maybe just the Doctor’s. Season 9 has definitely been more focused on the Doctor’s life and internal struggles than any other season… but I digress. Back to the Sandmen!
Now that we know WHO the Sandmen are and WHERE they came from, what exactly do they want? What measures are they willing to take to get what they want? This is where we lose interest in these new villains. It isn’t until the end that we learn that the Sandmen want to devour humankind and then spread across the universe. The Sandmen are searching for a way to escape the Le Verrier Space Station and reach human civilization on Triton, where they can continue devouring humans and creating more Sandmen. They are fueled by physical hunger. There seems to be no depth to their species. No complexity. They are simply your run-of-the-mill monster hell bent on destroying mankind with no real motivation or thought. There’s no play off of common human fears, like typical Doctor Who antagonists do.
What’s with this Rassmussen Guy?
Don’t get me wrong. There are aspects of this episode that can, and should, be appreciated. Mark Gatiss attempted to create a new monster for the series, and with the help of director Justin Molotnikov, the episode’s aesthetics were fresh and engaging. The unusual opening credits (or lack thereof) and use of odd angles sets this episode apart from any that has been aired since 2005.
No matter how you look at the story line, though, the plot is faulty and problematic. Since there is no sequel to this episode, like the other episodes in Season 9, some of the plot flaws could stem from cramming together two different storylines. One storyline being a part one, and the other being a part two. After combining the two stories, maybe Gatiss had to cut specific scenes and subplots. That’s no excuse though. This is the longest running science fiction television series in history–airing in multiple countries and having a fan base of well over five million people*. There’s no room for half-baked plots.
So where exactly does the plot go wrong? Let’s begin our dissection at the very beginning.
Painting Rassmussen as the bad guy was kinda obvious from the getgo. When his face is the first person we see, we all question, who is this stranger? As any story-builder knows, you must gain your audience’s trust immediately. How else will they hand over their criticalities and give into the suspension of disbelief? Beginning the episode with a strange character was not the best decision Gatiss made, but it had potential.
As soon as Rassmussen introduces himself, he disappears. It is clear to viewers that Rassmussen is narrating the story, but if he’s to play a huge part in everything, you would think we would immediately learn of his background story. Instead, we watch as a rescue group stumbles across Clara and the Doctor.
Later, the group finds Rassmussen hiding in a Morpheus sleep chamber. We learn that he created the Morpheus machines on Triton, and has created a Mach 2 for the Le Verrier Space Station—the machines from which the Sandmen have evolved. We finally understand how Rassmussen fits into the story; however, to add more confusion to the mix, Rassmussen dies and then pops back up. One minute, all the characters watch the Sandmen attack Rassmussen. Then a few minutes later, Rassmussen the narrator butts into the “footage” (like he frequently does) and says, “Oh, I’m not dead. But you probably guessed that by now.”
These turn of events should leave viewers looking forward to the explanations to come, but the confusion that accumulated up to this moment overshadows our curiosity.
What are viewers supposed to believe? Narrators are meant to be the source of the story, but the narrator in this story is quickly proven to be untrustworthy. We know that Rassmussen has lied to and manipulated the characters, as well as us viewers. We face the difficulty of sorting through all the information we have up to this point (questioning if what we know is true or relevant). The problem is that we don’t have time to do this.
A Story Line that Folds on Itself
From this point onward, the story line continues to fold back on itself. The multiple plot twists are not always clear and the brevity of the episode leaves no time to comprehend what’s going on.
While trapped in the freezer, Nagata (the rescue crew’s leader), the Doctor, and Clara discover that the Sandmen can’t see. Later, the trio discovers that footage of them are being recorded and stored by dust particles. Originally, I thought the Sandmen couldn’t see because they had no eyes. Then I was confused. If the Sandmen can record the rescue crew, the Doctor, and Clara running around, why can’t they create eyes for themselves to see?
According to other fandom articles and reviews I’ve read online (trying to clear up my own confusion), the Sandmen are blind because someone else is “hijacking” their visual cortexes. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I didn’t learn that last bit from watching the episode twice, but when I sat down and wrote out the plot action by action, I discovered that the Doctor does suggest (in one comment) that someone other than the Sandmen are collecting and storing the footage. That’s not an obvious comment though. The Doctor later suggests that he has a terrible idea of who that someone is, although he does not outright name Rassmussen.
Somewhat satisfied with this answer, I moved on. I thought about the footage and how some of it is in color and some of it is in grayscale. A few of the articles I read also mentioned this phenomenon. The Doctor clearly establishes that the recorded footage comes from sleep dust particles. The colored footage comes from the eyes of characters who have slept in a Morpheus Chamber, and the grayscale footage is from dust particles floating around in the air. I can understand how the dust particles could tap into the human eye/brain system, allowing the particles to see in color; however, I don’t understand the grayscale footage. The narrator, Professor Rassmussen, speaks directly to a computer. Perhaps there’s a webcam we cannot see (allowing for some color). But what about the angles which seem to come from room corners? Supposedly, there are no cameras onboard the ship. The dust particles, made of organic materials, had to somehow suddenly evolve into a high-tech camera. This makes no sense, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Moving on…
When the trio discover that the sleep dust has been recording them, they also realize two other things: 1) the gravity shields were deliberately tampered with earlier, so there must be someone else besides the Sandmen, out to get them (we later learn it’s Rassmussen) and 2) something on the ship—which is a living thing—has been moved. These two facts are vital to the storyline, so why do we learn this information within seconds? Viewers are not given the time to absorb this information, and we’re baffled by the Doctor’s deductive reasoning, or lack thereof.
In the final moments of the episode, the Doctor says, “This doesn’t make any sense.” How much more vague can this sentence get? The characters have a brief dialogue, but we still don’t get any clarification about what the Doctor is getting at with this statement. He seems confused about the King Sandman. Then he seems confused about the Sandmen’s methods of attack. Somehow he reaches the conclusion that the methods of attack are only “for effect” and the overall adventure the group is experiencing is like a story. How could everything happening only be a story when characters have died? I’m not sure what line of logic the Doctor is following, or even if his statement is a true conclusion.
Even when Nagata, The Doctor, and Clara are making their escape, the Doctor is yelling about how Neptune’s gravitational pull is causing the Sandmen to disintegrate. According to the Doctor that doesn’t make sense.
Overall, I feel that none of the information I’ve touched upon is clearly conveyed to the viewers. If viewers did catch some information, they might not have exactly understood what was going on. It took a lot of effort on my end as a viewer to piece together what exactly happened in this episode. What must it be like for other Whovians? There seems to be no clear resolution to the story, and no additional episode to clean up our confusion. The final scene is of a dead character, Rassmussen. Yes, he is now a Sandman, but are we supposed to draw the conclusion that he was a Sandman throughout the entire episode?
Perhaps this open-ending is to allow room for a sequel, or to show viewers that the Doctor does not always have the right answers. Either way, I am disappointed. Typically Doctor Who’s unanswered questions promote a sense of sophistication and superiority in logic. In this case however, I feel that all my questions are about the mechanics of the plot and not about the story overall or the characters.
Using Minor Characters, then Discarding Them
All the minor characters except Nagata, died in this episode. Well-developed minor characters could have been this episode’s saving grace. So why aren’t they?
Deep-Ando was the first of the rescue crew to die, and his death felt a bit… cheap. To access a door, the computer interface told him to “sing the song.” The computer obviously knew Deep-Ando was who he was. She called him, “Silly Deep-Ando 6-8-9-7,” and even Deep-Ando said, “You already know who I am.”
“After the Maha Shivaratri / Oshogatsu / Christmas Party some of the crew reprogramed me… In order to enter rooms, everyone must do the song. It’s very amusing.” – Computer
I agree that it’s possible for some drunk employees to set pranks at a company Christmas Party, but I highly doubt if they were part of a large “Corporation,” like a Fortune 500 company, that they would go around changing every security code to 666 or 696969 or whatever for a few laughs. That would be a major breach of protocol and proper cause for employee termination. On the surface, Deep-Ando’s death seems creative, but upon further reflection, it seems unfortunate.
474 was the next rescue crew member to die. She was labeled a “grunt,” someone created in a hatchery and grown for combat and rescue missions. (Yes, the “thing” Chopra called a “he” was actually a she. Don’t believe me? Read her profile on BBC.) 474 was the typical brute force but no brains character-type. Which is completely false. 474 was smart and intuitive! Her broken language was supposed to be a sign of her low intelligence, but her form of language was direct, like a caveman or a toddler. The rest of the crew should have been able to piece together what she was saying instead of expecting the worst from her. (Honestly, how difficult is it to understand 474 when she says, “Chopra, don’t be anger?”) If they didn’t easily dismiss her, or refer to her as a thing and not a person, perhaps they would have realized, “Eyes. Watch. Eyes in the sky,” meant they were all being watched.
474 was the only minor character to have a shining moment. She died defending Chopra. 474 jumped through fire for this man and then sacrificed herself. I wish I knew what 474 saw in Chopra. I only see his character as a means for gaining information. Anytime the audience needed an explanation or background information, something happened to his character to reveal information or Chopra himself would comment on things. Of course, he was the next to die.
Nagata, the commander of the rescue crew, was the only person in the rescue crew to survive. Her character was most notable for being a young leader. Viewer’s probably remember her for always taking charge of situations and questioning the Doctor’s authority.
Nagata: “You have not authority.”
The Doctor: “Yes, but I’m in charge.”
It wasn’t until I studied Nagata’s character that I realized minor characters are sometimes dumbed down on Doctor Who to allow the Doctor to shine. When Nagata said we have no head cams, I immediately thought, “There’s the next thing for the Doctor to point at and look smart.” What would happen if the Doctor was ever on an adventure and the people besides his companion(s) and friends were smart and witty? Nagata spoke up about the lack of cameras, but Clara and the Doctor ignored her until 1.83 minutes later. Why is that?
I hope, my fellow readers, that all this information helped you come to terms with this episode. I covered a lot of information: defining the Sandmen, critiquing the plot, and nit-picking the minor character traits. I know I didn’t cover everything, so feel free to share your thoughts on this episode. I’d love to hear them!
*Note: Five million fans is not an accurate number since this is only based on the amount of likes on Doctor Who’s official Facebook page. I can imagine that there are plenty of die-hard Whovians that are not plugged into social media. Facebook 5.18M. @bbcdoctorwho Twitter 1.45M.