Mark Gatiss has written some of Doctor Who’s most highly rated recent storylines. This week he’s back with a particularly scary one involving troubled scientists, a spaceship orbiting Neptune and a new alien that would keep even a Time Lord awake at night.
TV&Satellite Week caught up with the actor and Sherlock co-creator to talk sleeplessness, creating monsters and casting his old League of Gentlemen friend Reece Shearsmith in the story…
What can you tell us about this episode?
“It’s called Sleep No More and it’s set on a space station in the distant future. For a long time I’ve been obsessed with the idea that we all seem to be working 24/7 these days, with no time off. In the future that only gets worse, so they’ve invented a machine which eliminates the need for sleep.”
How does it work?
“You have a five-minute burst in this machine and it does you for a month, meaning you can work all the time. But meddling with nature has dire consequences…”
The story was shot in a very unusual way – can you explain?
“We’ve done it as ‘found footage’. So it’s all told from different camera point-of-views. It was a real challenge to make, but very exciting. It’s never been done on Doctor Who before.”
Who does Reece play?
“He plays Rasmussen, the scientist who invented the machine. He’s a bit of a moral coward! Reece is a real old-school Who fan. For some extraordinary reason he knows the  Colin Baker story Timelash backwards. He and his old flatmate used to watch it about five times a week.”
How do you think Reece would handle a real-life alien invasion?
“I think he’d get very cross. The monsters would probably run away from him.”
There’s a mysterious new alien species in this episode – did you design it yourself?
“I described them a lot in the script. One particular thing I wanted – I’ll give this away – was a gaping maw of a mouth. Just a big, horrible hole. When they suddenly loom into shot it’s very frightening.”
Didn’t the monster in your Christmas ghost story The Tractate Middoth have a huge gaping maw?
“Yeah! It’s something I’m slightly obsessed with. I think I can trace it back to the famous animated version of A Christmas Carol, by Richard Williams. When Marley’s ghost undoes the bandage round his chin, his jaw drops about three foot. I’ve never forgotten that!”
Are you a good sleeper?
“Funnily enough, I’m not. On the last series of Sherlock I started getting palpitations. The [on-set] nurse said, ‘How much coffee are you drinking?’ And I suddenly realised I was drinking it like water. So I’ve stopped and that’s definitely helped. I’ve been sleeping extremely well lately.”
If you had command of the Tardis, where would you go?
“Despite my love of the past, I’d really like to see how things turn out 100 or 200 years from now. One of my formative influences is the 1960 film The Time Machine. The magic of that moment when he pushes the lever forward and the sun arcs overhead! I like to imagine that’s how time travel would be.”
How much does your friend Steven Moffat fill you in on the Doctor Who series secrets?
“Genuinely, I stay away from all that. I want to watch the show the way I always did. I hardly knew anything about the second half of last season. The ‘Next Time’ trailers were so exciting because I didn’t know what was coming.”
Do you think we’ll ever see a female Doctor?
“I think there will be and I hope there is. But it should only be because the right person comes along, not because anyone feels under a stupid moral obligation to push it. I want Peter to carry on for years. But I’d love it to happen someday. The entire audience would shift. You might lose a few curmudgeons but you’d gain a fantastic role model for girls and an entirely different concept of the show.”