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Doctor Who: Nightmare in Silver (Review)

I trust the Doctor.

You sure he knows what he’s doing?

I’m not sure I’d go that far.

– Clara and the Captain make sure they’re on the same page

Nightmare in Silver might not be as breathtakingly ambitious as The Doctor’s Wife, but Neil Gaiman’s sophomoric Doctor Who script retains the writer’s charm and wit. A collection of wonderful high concepts thrown together into a blender, distilled to their essence and gleefully sprinkled across forty-five minutes of television, it’s a beautiful reinvention of the Cybermen. After all, the show’s golden anniversary probably wouldn’t be complete without a visit from the Doctor’s silver nemesis.

Face-off!

Face-off!

The Cybermen have been quite difficult for the revived Doctor Who. While Dalek did a beautiful job rehabilitating the threat of everybody’s favourite omnicidal pepper pots, Rise of the Cybermen felt like a bit of a damp squib. Even when Cybermen-related episodes like The Next Doctor or Closing Time worked reasonably well, it wasn’t down to the monsters themselves. They felt like convenient plot additions to fill out the obligatory background threat against the more interesting drama. They are familiar and boring. As one soldier shouts, “I’ve heard about the Cybermen since I was in my cradle. I’m not afraid of you!”

That said, it isn’t as if the problems with the Cybermen are unique to the revived television show. Arguably, the monsters haven’t really worked particularly well on television since the late sixties. To rhyme off a list of post-Patrick-Troughton Doctor Who Cybermen stories is to name a bunch of clangers. Revenge of the Cybermen, Attack of the Cybermen, Silver Nemesis. The only real exception is Earthshock, and I’ll concede I’m less fond of that one than most.

To the moon and back...

To the moon and back…

So it feels appropriate that Gaiman should really go back to the Patrick Troughton era. Troughton’s second incarnation of the Doctor is often overlooked, mostly because so few of his episodes survive. However, the actor continues to have a lasting legacy. He’s very well-respected among those with a deep interest in the show’s history. Matt Smith has gone on record identifying Troughton’s The Tomb of the Cybermen as his favourite story. Troughton’s “nutty professor” performance is a very clear influence on both the appearance and the portrayal of the Eleventh Doctor.

Given that this fiftieth anniversary half-season has been so thoroughly retrospective, with episodes like Hide and The Crimson Horror serving as affectionate throwbacks to the Hinchcliffe era, it feels appropriate that this episode should be something of a tribute to Troughton. The Cybermen were introduced opposite his predecessor, but they really came into their own against Troughton. And Gaiman seems to realise this. Nightmare in Silver is packed to the brim with affectionate acknowledgements and nods and Troughton-esque concepts.

His own worst enemy...

His own worst enemy…

“Is this like a moonbase or something?” Angie asks, when the Doctor arrives at an interstellar amusement park. I see what they did there. Like in Enemy of the World, the Doctor finds himself playing opposite himself. In Enemy of the World, Patrick Troughton played the evil Salamander as well as the Doctor. Here, Matt Smith doubles as both “Mr. Clever” – the Cyber-Planner – and the Doctor. As Mr. Clever, he gets to drop another in-joke, warning the Doctor that “they’re waking from their tombs as we speak.”

The amusement park planet itself feels like something zany and “out there” like something from the black-and-white era of the show. In particular the blurring of fantasy and reality (and a giant fantasy castle!) calling to mind The Mind Robber, another story about a villain planning on exploiting the Doctor’s radical imagination for his own sinister purposes. Although the Cybermen are the headline attraction here (and more on that in a second), it’s “Mr. Clever” who is the most striking aspect of the episode.

A relic...

A relic…

He manages to do something remarkably clever. He provides the Doctor with an individual adversary, something that’s quite tough to do with the Cybermen. After all, a Cyber-Controller or a Cyber-Leader is still a guy in a suit with a limited amount of personality. “Mr. Clever” is the intelligence of the Cybermen filtered through the Doctor’s personality. It allows Matt Smith to square off against himself (which he does wonderfully) and it also makes the Cybermen seem terrifying. Imagine a creature using you against you.

The Doctor’s personality gives “Mr. Clever” an identity that’s powerful and fun, but it’s just a paint job on something a lot more primal and terrifying. It is, after all, stolen. Grand theft me. It makes the threat simultaneously more personal (it’s the Doctor!) and yet less personal (being used in the service of a massive faceless evil!). It also helps that it gives the show some absolutely wonderful visuals. In particular, the sight of the Doctor playing chess against himself is a delightful spin on what has become a cinematic cliché since The Seventh Seal.

There is one more way to upgrade a man, but it is an intricate and precise as a well-played game of chess...

There is one more way to upgrade a man, but it is an intricate and precise as a well-played game of chess…

I like that Smith seems to be having fun with “Mr. Clever.” David Tennant’s catchphrase! A dodgy but game attempt at Christopher Eccleston’s accent! Smith is a wonderful Doctor all of the time, but he’s fantastic performer when he’s given the right material. Like Eccleston and Tennant, he truly excels when the script plays to his individual strengths. Here, Gaiman seems to hit on some of the early ambiguity in Smith’s Doctor. There’s something decidedly unwholesome about the way “Mr. Clever” talks to Clara. All the intelligence, authority and wit, but none of the heart. It’s a great performance.

But enough about “Mr. Clever”, although he’s a fairly effective example of the magic Gaiman works with the Cybermen. To be fair, a lot of the ideas suggested by Gaiman here seem obvious in hindsight . That’s not a criticism. What is often the strength of Gaiman’s writing is that a lot of what he writes seems so obvious and yet never would have occurred to anybody else. The notion of trying to upgrade the Doctor and to use his intelligence in service of the Cybermen is a great idea, as is the use of an old abandoned theme park to trap children.

Head-to-head...

Head-to-head…

That’s a very basic fear, right there. Like Moffat, Gaiman manages to work a very palpable real-world fear into a fantastic framework. Here, it’s “the people who vanished from the amusement park”, which is a popular urban legend. Apparently the Cybermen are using the theme park to capture children, which is a wonderful hook. Not only does it make the Cybermen more sinister (something long needed), it also makes the threat decidedly creepier.

“We needed children,” the Cybermen explain, which is a nice little nod to the way the show itself works. Like Doctor Who, it seems that the Cybermen thrive on the unencumbered imagination of children – the “infinite potential” that their imaginings might might offer. It makes a great deal of sense. The Cybermen are defined as mechanical monsters, so it seems rational for them to harvest imagination and ingenuity in order to survive.

March oft eh Cybermen...

March oft eh Cybermen…

Gaiman also does his best to make the Cybermen not only conceptually scary, but terrifying on their own terms. Here, Gaiman’s work isn’t quite as novel or ingenious. It’s logical, but it’s also familiar. The notion that the Cybermen should be able to essentially adapt to any tactic or weapon used against them is a clever one (“upgrade in progress”) even if it does seem like a concept borrowed from the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Indeed, the “on-the-go upgrade” seems to be a nod to the on-the-fly assimilation by the Borg in Star Trek: First Contact, right down to the minor mechanic work.

This isn’t a bad thing. The relationship between the Cybermen and the Borg is a hot topic for fans, and tends to get quite passionate. I don’t really mind one way or the other. It’s quite likely the Borg were at least influenced by the Cybermen (after all, the first episode to tease their appearance, The Neutral Zone, includes a sly visual reference to Doctor Who), but the Borg work much better than the Cybermen had worked since the late sixties. Turnabout is fair play, so Gaiman’s appropriation of some of the physical attributes which make the Borg terrifying makes a great deal of sense here.

Frame of mind...

Frame of mind…

As a side note, though, I do really like that the Cybermen do seem to following modern design trends. In particular, the notion that smaller is the future – that the key isn’t making things bigger and bolder, but rather smaller and more agile. Even the Doctor admires the work, noting, “Not even a Cybermat anymore; Cybermites.” It’s another one of the many small touches which add up to an effective reinvention of an iconic foe.

Gaiman’s script crackles with wit, even if it doesn’t delve quite as deeply into the Time Lord as his earlier work for the show. I like, for instance, the acknowledgement that the chess game is really just an attempt to stall on the part of the Doctor. When Clara asks what the stakes are, the Doctor cheerfully responds, “If he wins, I give up my mind and he gets all my memories along with knowledge of time travel… but, if I win, he’ll break his promises to get out of my head and then kill us all anyway.”

Guess who's back!

Guess who’s back!

While none of the supporting characters here are quite as well-defined as Idris or even House, Warwick Davis is pretty great as Porridge. (It’s nice that Angie figures out who he is long before even the Doctor – the beauty of a child’s perspective.) Porridge feels like another nod to the Troughton era. He’s a runaway renegade, the most powerful man in the universe who makes a living pretending to be an eccentric.

Like the Second Doctor himself in The War Games, Porridge only goes home when a threat emerges so serious that he cannot face it alone. He must end his own freedom to take responsibility for events beyond his control, and must call for back-up from a world he abandoned long ago. Yes, the planet-destroying weapon is a deus ex machina, but no more so than the arrival of the Time Lords at the end of The War Games. Between this and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, I seem to be quite forgiving of deus ex machina endings when they serve as clever thematic links to the show’s past. I’m a sucker, I guess.

Shouldering responsibility...

Shouldering responsibility…

I also liked the unconventional dynamic here. After several weeks of the traditional “doctor and companion” set-up, it’s nice to have a departure. One of the joys of having Amy and Rory was the fact that it upset the traditional TARDIS set-up, and it’s very fun to see the Doctor using the TARDIS to provide a “kids’ day out.” It underscores the fact that he’s very good at building a surrogate family, especially one that isn’t almost exclusively composed of beautiful young women (and Mickey… and Jack!). Because that would a very weird family.

Allowing kids to travel with him seems like exactly the sort of reckless thing the character would do, and keeping them on the planet while he investigates is exactly in character. It’s a shame that Clara doesn’t call him on it, though. He could have dropped the kids off home before continuing on his investigation, and things would have been a lot safer. The Davies era would definitely have had Clara take issue with his cavalier attitude. It’s one thing to risk the life of a companion who volunteers, but two kids who have no idea what they’re doing? (Again, it isn’t weird that he takes them… it’s weird that he’s not called out on it. Although I do like he sacrifices his queen to get them back healthy.)

Tomb raider...

Tomb raider…

Nightmare in Silver isn’t quite the classic that The Doctor’s Wife was. However, it is great fun. I wouldn’t mind seeing some more of Gaiman’s work on the show next season.

You’re playing chess with yourself?

And winning!

– Clara and the Doctor

You might be interested in our other reviews of this season’s episodes of Doctor Who:

 

Note: To celebrate the show’s fiftieth anniversary, I’m doing reviews of the show (past and present.) Last week, I did Peter Davison’s first season, ending in Time-Flight this morning, so feel free to check it out. Those reviews will be on hiatus until June, when they’ll return with Davison’s second season, if there’s still an interest.

3 Responses

  1. I’ve been looking out for your review on The Crimson Horror all week! Where is it??

    Anyway! Brilliant episode. Very much enjoyed it – I love Gaiman’s writing, and Matt Smith doing the whole Mr Clever/Doctor thing was just brilliant. He makes for a very interesting, twisted version of himself. I especially loved the references to Eccleston and Tennant. They were quite nicely done.

    • Really liked it. Not quite The Doctor’s Wife, but Mr. Clever was ingenious and the concept was fun. And the dialogue sparkled.

      And I was actually away for the bank holiday. Had to reschedule a getaway due to family stuff. Ah, the real world! 🙂

      Only got to watch The Crimson Horror today. The review’ll be up a 7am GMT tomorrow. Thought it was solid, but not Hide/Journey/Nightmare good. Would have been better, I think, in a run of episodes not including Cold War and Hide. But Diana Rigg was great.

      • I liked it, but yeah I agree it wasn’t great. The Tom Tom joke was a bit…off, for Doctor Who. It felt almost like it was trying to be, in part, light hearted. Still, it’s a nice way to build up to whatever they have in store for Clara. And I do like how they seem to be establishing the idea that Clara does go back to her normal life, with the Doctor coming to pick her up….

        Almost like…they’re dating. 😛

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