Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 13–Nightmare in Silver

“Hail to you, the Doctor – the saviour of the Cybermen!”

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Having penned the instant classic The Doctor’s Wife, renowned author Neil Gaiman was back this week for a second stab at a very different kind of Doctor Who episode. Nightmare in Silver was an attempt at something more like a horror story, something which Neil can do very well – read Sandman issue 6 for a good example. And the Cybermen are good fodder for horror, as their 1967 story Tomb of the Cybermen shows.

There were more than a few deliberate echoes of that classic here; but even as a fan, I’m not sure Neil Gaiman really pulled off making this an effective horror tale. The mechanical horror of the Cybermen sat rather uneasily with his trademark quirky and whimsical imagination. Both aspects of the story were great, in isolation; together, I’m not sure they entirely gelled.

The setting was very Gaiman – the abandoned former amusement park of Hedgewick’s World, largest funfair in the galaxy. Which galaxy wasn’t made entirely clear; we were in the far future here, with a Star Empire whose ruler had gone missing after a massive war with the Cybermen. The war was eventually won by destroying the Cybermen’s entire home galaxy – brutal and ruthless, but effective.

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Though here, for the nitpicking fanboy, was the first problem with the script’s reinvention of the iconic monsters. Till now, there’s never been any hint that they came from any galaxy other than our own; their planet of origin, Mondas, was twin to the Earth, and their adopted planet, Telos, didn’t seem that far away. Previous mentions of ‘Cyberwars’ have usually involved Earth itself, something fairly unlikely if they came from outside our galaxy.

The Doctor found himself embroiled – yet again – in the Cybermen’s resurrection after trying to bring Clara’s young charges on a fun trip to the fair, after their insistence on ‘having a go’ at time travel last week. I must say, I found it somewhat unlikely that he would have agreed to this so easily, especially given that he never seems to be able to go anywhere without encountering mortal danger. The kids, Artie and Angie, weren’t given a whole lot of depth, and spent most of the ep in a Cyber-induced walking coma, which made me think their inclusion was both unnecessary and a rewritten addition to the original script.

It was, however, good to see Jason Watkins – Being Human’s best villain Herrick – as seedy interstellar showman Webley. Webley, with his down at heel sideshow exhibits, was another very Gaiman character, and also reminiscent of Carnival of Monsters’ similar showman Vorg. As Webley was part-converted by the Cybermen, Watkins went from scruffy geniality to sinister with the ease we’d previously seen in Being Human; in an ep without many notable guest performances, his was probably the standout.

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Because that was another of the problems here. In a story with quite a few guest characters, the only ones given any noticeable depth or personality were Webley and the mysterious ‘Porridge’. The military ‘Punishment Platoon’ stationed on the abandoned planet for no stated reason looked interesting, with the likes of Tamzin Outhwaite in charge, and Skins’ Will Merrick popping up briefly as a bespectacled ginger soldier, but it wasn’t until the end credits that I realised any of them apart from the CO had been blessed with names.

Still, ‘Porridge’ the Galactic Emperor was a nice character, with a cynical and world-weary performance from Warwick Davis. It was, again, a very Neil Gaiman plot that the Emperor should choose to run away for a quiet life, and Davis gave him the right air of self-loathing for the part. It was never much of a mystery who he really was though; that waxwork in Webley’s museum was so obviously a taller ringer for Davis’ distinctive features, I assumed his identity was meant to be telegraphed throughout.

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So, a quirky and interesting setting, with some interesting plot threads already in the missing Emperor, the abandoned funfair and the inept Punishment Platoon. But that all lends itself to a slightly humorous style that was rather at odds with the intention to produce a horror story. And when the Cybermen turned up for real – rather than Webley’s dusty relics – they seemed a little incongruous for a setup that, on the face of it, seemed rather light.

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Still, the Cybermen themselves were dealt with deadly seriously, and given a degree of reinvention that potentially makes them more interesting. They had, for the first time since their 2006 reappearance, had a subtle redesign, made more noticeable by the appearance of the previous models in Webley’s collection (though how he got his hands on the actual Cybus ones from the alternative reality was a bit of a puzzle).

The redesign makes them sleeker, and their faces seemingly even more blank. They also have a new style voice (again by Nick Briggs, of course) that’s rather more comprehensible than their previous one. Gaiman also takes advantage of lessons learned from the race that ripped them off – Star Trek’s Borg. Like the Borg, they now accomplish Cyber-conversion by nanites, injected by tiny new ‘Cybermites’ that resemble miniature versions of Tomb’s Cybermats. Also like the Borg, they can ‘upgrade’ to resist any Achilles Heel almost instantly – you can’t get rid of this lot by randomly chucking gold coins in their general vicinity.

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There was also some expansion of an idea played with in The Pandorica Opens – that their various mechanical parts can function, and even kill, independently. We saw one soldier caught unawares by a creeping Cyber-hand, and another tricked by an apparently hiding Cyberman that turned out to be merely a disconnected head, its headless body creeping up behind to grab her. And at one point, a Cyberman proved to have the ability to turn its head fully 180 degrees to face an attack from behind. That had shades of the Dalek’s spinning mid-section in Dalek, a trick we’ve never seen them pull since.

So the Cybermen’s reinvention was pulled off with some style, and had a few inventive surprises to ‘upgrade’ them into more frightening menaces. And yet, this style of imagination seemed to clash with the rather more whimsical setting and characters – perhaps this was Gaiman’s intention, but it seemed incongruous rather than an interesting tonal juxtaposition. On the face of it, having a Cyber army storming Natty Longshoe’s Comical Castle should have been quite amusing, but it certainly didn’t work to create horror.

The linchpin of this juxtaposition was the attempted conversion of the Doctor into a ‘Cyber-Planner’ (a term previously only mentioned, and not onscreen, in 1968’s The Invasion). It was well-realised, with Matt Smith, given the opportunity to fight himself like Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II, at his most manic and comical. The sequences set inside his head, with the normal Doctor squaring up to the Cyber-one, looked great and made sense in the context. And Smith’s gleefully malicious Cyber’-Doctor showed that he could certainly pull off playing a villain (or perhaps ‘overplaying’ would be a better word here).

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And yet, given the Cybermen’s much vaunted lack of emotion, the Cyber-Planner seemed rather too gleeful – he had emotion aplenty, including sadism, satisfaction and malice. He also served to reduce the actual Cybermen to little more than mindless automata, in much the same way as Davros did with the Daleks in the classic series. A lot of the aspects of the Cybermen’s reinvention here were great, and will hopefully be revisited – but the Cyber Planner should perhaps be left on the shelf.

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Clara got a lot to do this week, as the Doctor effectively put her in command of a combat unit (albeit a somewhat inept one). She proved more than equal to the task, barking out stern orders with such confidence that nobody questioned her authority. It was fun to watch, but seemed oddly out of character (insofar as Clara’s been given one) that she should so readily take to the role of military leader. Still, perhaps this capability is one more reflection of the mystery surrounding her, which was once again hinted at here by the smirking Cyber-Planner.

There was a lot of invention and imagination on display here, but somehow it never really gelled into a coherent story – let alone a frightening one. It came off rather as a lightweight romp, which felt a little odd for such a significant re-interpretation of a classic monster. It didn’t help, that, while there were quite a few deaths, we didn’t really care about any of them, as none had been well-drawn as characters. Written by anyone else, I could have forgiven a lot of this, and still found the story enjoyable, if inconsequential. For a Neil Gaiman, this was something of a disappointment.

Classic Series references

As the Doctor explained Time Lord regeneration to the Cyber Planner inside his head, there was a fan-pleasing montage of every Doctor so far projected onto his brainscreen behind him:

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And later, he seemed to be experimenting with impersonating the Doctor’s previous selves; Matt Smith did another rather awful ‘Northern’ accent as Eccleston before exclaiming “Allons-y!” – something I’d hoped never to hear again.

The Cybermen’s HQ sets were nicely designed with visual cues directly recalling the original Tomb of the Cybermen, most notably the semi-circular ‘steps’ used to climb around:

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And we were informed that their previous weaknesses, to ‘cleaning fluid’ (The Moonbase) and gold (Revenge of the Cybermen onwards) were a fault of their earlier ‘operating systems’. Perhaps they were running Windows Vista.

Next week

Well, the end of the series has really crept up on us, hasn’t it? With no particular sense of buildup, suddenly next week we’re at the culmination of Steven Moffat’s Big Mystery – The Name of the Doctor. It looks like a big one – lots of explosions, the return of Vastra and Strax, together with Richard E Grant as the Great Intelligence, and, presumably, some sort of answer to the mystery of Clara. Though knowing Steven Moffat, it’ll be an answer that will just lead to yet more questions.

Will Clara’s nature be revealed? Is River really dead (again)? And will Steven Moffat incur the wrath of millions of fanboys by actually revealing the Doctor’s name? Come back next week to find out…