The title, Sleep No More, is a quote from Macbeth. Is it directly referenced in the episode?
Yes, I love a bit of Shakespeare! It was actually the original title for Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and I love it – it’s a beautiful line and it just popped into my head. [The story] is essentially a satire on our working lives. In the future we’ll have no time at all – you just work – and humanity barters away the most blessed thing there is… sleep. Shakespeare and all the poets were right that there’s something more to it than we know; it’s not just about having forty winks, it’s something we need to do… or the monsters will get us.
Why did you opt for the ‘found footage’ format?
Found footage is familiar in films but it’s never done on TV and one of the many things I love about Doctor Who is the chance to do something unusual and keep pushing the format. It’s great we can still do that after 50-odd years and (the format) allows narratives leaps because it doesn’t have to be sequential. There’s a bit where Reece [Shearsmith, guest star in this episode] is talking to the camera – “We’ve had our own troubles” – and then it goes straight in to the bit where the spaceship is crashing. That would normally be a series of things but you can just cut straight in, and I found that really exciting.
You can’t shoot it like a conventional episode but the thing still has to make sense if you watch it again; you can’t cheat. There are certain viewpoints I couldn’t use, meaning that I lost an entire POV [point of view shot] from a character. I only got to visit the set for one day but it was a very difficult and challenging shoot because of all those limitations. As actors, the first thing you’re taught is not to look down the camera, but when you’ve got a POV camera that’s the first thing you do. I found it very challenging. I had a long conversation with Justin [Molotnikov] the director and stressed, “For goodness’ sake, don’t ignore your instincts, we want to get as many POVs and coverage as possible to keep reminding people that it’s not an ordinary episode.”
Was the script so prescriptive that you wanted to direct it yourself?
I did [direct] a ghost story a couple of years ago [The Tractate Middoth] and I would like to do some more, but it was quite enough just to [write] this episode. Justin has done a brilliant job and I’m really pleased with it. There are always things that don’t play quite the way you seem them in your head, but I wrote this as if it were a horror movie and I really didn’t have to pull back – it’s wonderfully scary. You have to remember that it’s a Saturday night show and it’s not going out at midnight – but not far off! (laughs) I love the monsters; they’re really creepy
In a season dominated by two-parters, Sleep No More is in the minority by being a standalone, but we understand that it too was originally mooted to be a two-part story?
I’d always wanted to write a two-parter and plotted it that way, but the more I thought about it after I came up with the ‘found footage’ idea I realised it’s just wasn’t going to sustain it. It’s a very particular style… and Steven [Moffat] agreed. The great thing about the two-parter is that you get a cliffhanger and can spread things out. I did an early draft where it was basically just the Doctor and Clara exploring this empty space station – like [Tom Baker 1975 story] The Ark in Space, but once I’d made the decision to make it a single episode it needed some immediacy. I think it really benefits the episode.
Did you have to strip out many of the story elements, or was it just a case of making it leaner?
It’s the classic William Goldman thing – you just come in later in the conversation. Everything which would have been part of the slow build has already happened. In terms of new grammar we all learnt very early on [when making the new show] that essentially the pre-titles sequence is episode 1. With Cold War – the Ice Warrior one – the pre-titles was absolutely a haiku version of an old episode one. You get the set-up of the submarine, they find something in the ice and then the Ice Warrior smashes out. Cliffhanger! It’s done in a minute and we’ve become used to that.
I wrote it for Reece – it’s perfect for him. He’s been badgering me for years. Reece has a strange knowledge of Doctor Who. He used to share a flat with a friend and they were obsessed with Colin Baker’s first season, particularly Timelash, which he can recite almost word for word! [His character] Rassmussen is what I call an ‘Ian Hendry part’ – a moral coward. There’s a line I really like where he says ‘You’re on a rescue mission. I’m the crew. Rescue me!’ He just wants to get off there.
In addition to being shot in found footage style, the episode also has no opening title sequence.
That was my idea and I was a bit disappointed that it was leaked in advance. I’ve always got a fondness for something that differs from the format. In Jon Pertwee’s first season the titles were never the same from story to story because they were experimenting and it’s a nice thing to do. If you look closely at all the letters that stream across the screen [at the beginning of the episode] you’ll see the names of the characters and then it briefly lingers on ‘Doctor Who’, so you know it’s still there.
Has this experience piqued your interest in doing more experimental work?
The brilliant and… I think mostly unrecognised… thing about Doctor Who is that there’s nothing you can’t do. Even when you do a two-parter the second part is different. I think that’s really worth celebrating – it’s great to think you can keep pushing it after all these years. And it not necessarily just the format. When I did The Crimson Horror (in Series 7) it was the first Northern Doctor Who since (Colin Baker story) The Mark of the Rani, with actual Northern actors in it… and it felt really fresh. We haven’t explored the whole of Britain, never mind the universe! Jamie Mathieson’s episode last year, Flatline, which I absolutely loved, is the first story since 1964 which has dealt with the ‘Dimension’ part of TARDIS: why had no-one thought of that before?
A bit of both really. It was a conscious decision this year to have a bit more fun, though oddly enough this is a very dark episode with not many laughs. Whereas Robot of Sherwood was a deliberate knockabout and it was very refreshing writing a grumpy Doctor in response to an annoyingly optimistic Robin Hood. It always takes time [for the Doctor to settle] – I think it’s a fascinating procedure for any actor coming to that role. Although Peter says: “I’m just the Doctor, not necessarily the twelfth one.”
Have you been enjoying this series?
Yes, I am enjoying it so much. And I don’t know anything else about the rest of the season, so it’s a wonderful surprise just to tune in. They try to spoil things for me – I saw an embargo sheet about the last few episodes and I said: “‘Nooo!” I love the two-part format, which has been very distinctive this year. I really enjoyed The Zygon Invasion, which I watched twice, also because my dog was really annoying me the first time! You know, I can’t watch Doctor Who on Christmas Day – I have to watch it on my own later – because I figuratively become a small boy again, saying “Shut up!” because my family keep talking.
Where are you in terms of future stories? Are any in gestation?
I have a hatchery! (Laughs) You have a store of ideas – some are just tiny things while others are more thought out. Then it’s a question of what might fit in the season. As a Doctor Who fan you can suffer from fatal nostalgia – the most pernicious of all diseases – so you need to try and keep surprising yourself. You could you do a very traditional story and feel you could put any Doctor in it, while other times it’s very specific and could only happen now. Steven has asked me if I’ll write a sequel [to Sleep No More]. There’s a history of groupings – two Mara stories in Peter Davison’s time, two Yetis [for Patrick Troughton] – and there’s something reassuring about a show having a rapid response. I also like the way there’s an interface between this show and modern concerns: I’d love to do a story about fracking. Fracking is obviously a bad idea. As well as shale gas, maybe there’s something else lurking there? I’d love to do that. It’s called ‘Frack off and die!’ Ha! But that’s all it is for now – just an idea.
I literally couldn’t say no. How could I? I’ve always wanted to play Dracula and I had a wonderful time. It was all very close-mic work and I loved it all. I watched a few Hungarian language things – [Transylvania] was actually Hungary not Romania at the time – and they all sound just like Bela Lugosi but you’ve got to be careful, I think, because it has been mocked so much. You either go the urbane Christopher Lee route or do the Hungarian thing – I’ve settled for something in between. My favourite one is the [BBC 1977] Louis Jourdan one. I watched it again quite recently and it really stands up. As well as being a great BBC classic it’s got this weird sickly atmosphere still. It’s very 1977 and is a really good adaptation. When they cut off Lucy’s head… it’s horrible.
Looking ahead to the 60th Anniversary, do you have another Adventure in Space and Time [his 50th anniversary dramatization of the birth of Doctor Who] in you? The JNT years maybe?
I was absolutely over the moon with the response to it… and I still am. I still get tweets from people who have just watched it – where have they been? – and it was everything I wanted it to be. It was a very special story and – as I said at the time – oddly enough it’s not my own Doctor Who experience as Jon Pertwee was my Doctor. But I grew up with that story as a creation myth and it meant so much to me. Everything just came together. There are amazing stories to tell about most of the Doctors, particularly if there’s a troubled period, but I can’t imagine there’s a will to do that really.
Mark left shortly after the interview to jet to New York for a screening of Sleep No More, before returning to London to host the Millennium FX Show at the Doctor Who Festival in London the following weekend. Six hours is a long time on a plane coming back from the States – will he be able to avoid sleeping?!