Tuesday 14 May 2013

Doctor Who - Nightmare in Silver

I’m a big fan of Neil Gaiman. However, I have to be honest and say that I only actually discovered him a few years ago. Oh, I had heard about him before that. I just hadn’t gotten round to looking at any of his work. But once I did get round to it, I began devouring lots of it. I still haven’t read everything he’s written (indeed, there’s a lot I haven’t), but nonetheless, I rank him very highly amongst my favourite authors. As such, I was very excited when I learned that he was writing an episode for Doctor Who Series Six. I felt that his style was perfect for Doctor Who, and I turned out to be right. His episode, “The Doctor’s Wife” was not only the best of that season, but easily the best of the eleventh Doctor, and one of the best Doctor Who stories of all. “The Doctor’s Wife” was a wonderful homage to everything that had come before it (right back to 1963) and simultaneously took the show forward, adding to the show’s mythology, and giving new insight into the show’s most iconic character—the Doctor’s TARDIS. It did so in ways that the more recent “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” can’t even compare.

So naturally, I was excited once again to learn that Gaiman was writing another episode for Doctor Who, to air near the end of Series Seven, an episode that promised to make the Cybermen scary again: “Nightmare in Silver”. And it does. “Nightmare in Silver” is, alas, not as good as “The Doctor’s Wife”, but that really shouldn’t be held against it. It’s a clever and enjoyable episode that not only effectively reinvents the Cybermen, but also has a wonderful examination of the Doctor’s psyche. It’s not a perfect episode and there are a number of little flaws here and there (more from execution, I think, than script problems), but in a period of Doctor Who where most episodes are far from perfect, it stands out well above the majority of its competition.


Given its promise to make them scary again, it makes sense to start with an examination of the episode’s portrayal of the Cybermen. Gaiman has definitely reinvented the Cybermen in many ways. There are great nods to the Cybermen of old, but by setting the episode in the incredibly distant future, he has allowed the Cybermen to evolve (“upgrade”) into something a little different and has added a rich new history to them. Over the years, the Cybermen’s history has become somewhat blurred. The original series paid little attention to what time period any particular Cybermen story was set in, and the new series’ addition of the alternate universe Cybermen (sometimes referred to by fans as the “Cybusmen”) has made it unclear whether recent Cybermen stories (such as “Closing Time”) have featured the main universe’s Cybermen or the alternate universe’s. The far-future setting of “Nightmare in Silver” allows Gaiman to leave that baggage behind and use only the bits that he wants.

The Cybermen in this episode are considerably more powerful than the Cybermen of old. We learn that in this time period, if you encounter even a single Cyberman and cannot destroy it immediately, you must destroy the planet. It’s the only way to keep the Cybermen from multiplying and wiping everything out. One thousand years ago, there was a terrible war against the Cybermen that could only be won by destroying an entire galaxy full of sentient beings. The Cybermen are that much of a threat. Some people might argue that this makes the Cybermen too powerful and essentially unusable as an effective villain—and there is a certain logic in that argument. Making the Cybermen so powerful runs the risk of the same problem the Daleks have faced since Doctor Who returned in 2005. The only way to defeat creatures so powerful is to destroy them utterly, wipe them out of existence. Thus, in order to do another story featuring them, it has to turn out that they miraculously survived to only then get wiped out again in the new story. This has happened with the Daleks more than once. Could it end up happening with the Cybermen? Yes, it could. But by setting the story after the height of their power, it becomes about the Cybermen trying to regain that power, which is not quite as problematic. Of course, it remains to be seen what future stories may do with these far future Cybermen (if anything at all), so the problem may reassert itself. Indeed, if this version of the Cybermen starts showing up in stories set in earlier time periods (alas, Doctor Who has always done a poor job of maintaining a consistent future history, and I could easily see this happening) it could create a major problem. However, for now, in this one story, they work.

I really like that “Nightmare in Silver” shows that the Cybermen can learn and advance. Previously, the Cybermen have always appeared at pretty much exactly the same technological level, no matter what time period the story was set in. One could say that this is because their lack of emotion and creativity stagnates their progress, but we live now in a time where machines can actually learn to a certain degree. The fact of the matter is, real Cybermen ought to be capable of it, too. And so the Cybermen have learned to adapt and upgrade. This makes them a lot like the Borg of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I know many others have already made this comparison. This kind of brings things full circle. The Borg are essentially Star Trek’s version of the Cybermen taken to their logical extreme. Star Trek borrowed heavily from the idea of the Cybermen when creating the Borg, so it makes sense that Doctor Who should draw heavily from the Borg when reinventing the Cybermen—even down to the hive mind and the Borg Queen-like Cyberplanner. My only complaint about the advancement of the Cybermen is that most of their new abilities are only seen once in the episode and then not used again. Their abilities to remove body parts (like heads and hands) and to turn their heads a full 180 degrees are very chilling. It’s a shame they don’t make more use of these abilities (along with their super speed) during their attack on the castle. I have also read, in an interview with Neil Gaiman, that he intended for these new Cybermen to move silently, but this was vetoed by the production team and the usual clanky sounds were put in. Silent Cyberman would have been much more effective, I think, and a much better homage to the silent 60s Cybermen of stories like “The Moonbase”, but oh well. You can’t have it all.

Of course, the best thing about the new Cybermen is the Cybermites. They are a logical evolution of the Cybermats and far more effective. The visual of them swarming out of the old chess-playing Cyberman to take over Webley is utterly creepy.

Cyber-hierarchy has been somewhat inconsistent over the years. The Cybermen have been lead by a Cybercontroller or Cyberleader. “Nightmare in Silver” brings back the idea of the Cyberplanner, not seen since the 1960s stories, “The Wheel in Space” and “The Invasion”. In those stories, the Cyberplanner was not a humanoid Cyberman, but was more like a computer, and it’s not really clear if it had any organic parts at all. In “Nightmare in Silver”, the Cyberplanner (or Mister Clever as it decides to call itself) is more like a computer virus attempting to take over and rewire the Doctor’s brain. And it is here where these new Cybermen are truly at their most frightening. I have seen some criticisms online that these new Cybermen lose the core of what the Cybermen are supposed to be: It ignores the tragedy of the Cybermen turning other people into them. But I disagree there. We see how quickly the Cybermites completely subdue and control the minds of the Webley, Angie, and Artie. They take over those three, and it’s only the Doctor who in the end prevents them from becoming complete Cybermen. On top of that, we see their attempt to take over the Doctor as well, something they’ve never tried before—and we see just how hard a time the Doctor has stopping it. When it comes down to it, the struggle between the Doctor and the Cyberplanner is the meat of this story, and it allows an examination of both the Cybermen and the Doctor himself.

I will admit, I was initially surprised at how emotional the Cyberplanner is. The Cybermen have always been about cold logic, so the natural expectation is that while the Cyberplanner is exerting control, the Doctor ought to be cold and emotionless. However, it didn’t take me long to realize what was really going on here. The Cyberplanner has not gained full control of the Doctor’s mind and is, in effect, being infected by the Doctor’s personality. Right from the start, it’s a clue that the Cyberplanner will ultimately lose (which, of course, we know has to happen, but it foreshadows the way in which it will happen). It’s too busy revelling in the processing power of the Doctor’s brain that it doesn’t even notice how emotional it’s become. It chides the Doctor’s emotional response to the children, but completely ignores its own emotional outbursts. Essentially, the Cyberplanner has become the Doctor himself. In “A Good Man Goes to War”, the Doctor says, “Good men don’t need rules. Now is not the time to find out why I have so many.” The Cyberplanner has become the Doctor without those rules. The story becomes not one about the Doctor versus the Cyberplanner, but rather one about the Doctor versus himself—and that is ever so much more interesting. We’ve always known that the Doctor has a dark side, but this is the first time in a while that the show has examined it closely (I’m not counting some of the Doctor’s recent appalling behaviour that has been treated like a joke).

This does mean that we’re treated to a lot of the Doctor shouting at himself, and unfortunately, the eleventh Doctor’s shouty moments are amongst his most annoying. That said, I think Matt Smith does a very good job at it. He puts just enough subtle difference in his performances to make it difficult, but not impossible, to tell the two versions of the Doctor apart (however, his delivery of the line, “Theeeeeeeeeeeeey’re heeeeeeere!” is cringe-worthy). The real scariness in this episode is less the cool new powers of the Cybermen and much more the realization that evil Doctor isn’t that much different than good Doctor.

Moving away from the Doctor and the Cybermen, the stand-out character in this episode is definitely Porridge, played by Warwick Davis. I like Willow, but I have to admit that I was never very impressed with Davis’s abilities as an actor in that movie, but here he utterly blew me away with a very sympathetic performance. The revelation that Porridge is the emperor is effectively foreshadowed. I actually didn’t guess it the first time and, on second viewing, had to resist the urge to hit myself every time one of the clues to his identity showed up. His marriage proposal to Clara at the end seems a little out of the blue. He does have a number of very effective scenes with Clara, and it is possible to see some affection for her in them, but it doesn’t quite reach the level of wanting to marry her. I wonder if perhaps this is an area that suffered from deleted scenes. I am aware that a lot had to be cut from Gaiman’s script (including several scenes at the beginning that were never filmed, but would have established the children’s presence better, as well as one that explains why the Doctor leaves the kids at Webley’s instead of in the TARDIS) because it overran considerably, so maybe there was originally more development of this. That said, whatever the reason, it doesn’t quite work believably in the final product. Apart from that, I really love the character of Porridge.

Unfortunately, the thing that most lets this episode down is the presence of the two children, Angie and Artie. We know so little about the two of them that it’s impossible to care much about their fate. Instead, they just come across as a couple of spoiled brats, particularly Angie. I realize Angie is meant to be a typical teenager, rebelling against everything the adults tell her and acting unaffected by world (while secretly still dealing in her head with her mothers death, although that’s not touched on at all in this episode), but it’s still very difficult to believe that she’s not impressed at all with space-time travel, and spends most of her time whining about wanting to go home—especially when, in just the last episode, she was blackmailing Clara into taking them along! Apparently, there were plans to have Angie and Artie appear in more episodes before this one, to develop their characters and establish more believably how they found out about Clara’s travels with the Doctor, but for some reason or another, those plans were dropped. As a result, there’s no believability to them in this episode. Angie cleverly determines that Porridge is really the emperor (and is the only one, other than the platoon captain, to figure it out), yet I just don’t believe she really has that ability because we’ve never gotten to know her. Artie’s chess-playing abilities are similarly unbelievable—not just because we haven’t seen them before but also because he’s so easily defeated by a very simple move, despite supposedly being in his school chess club. On top of all that, the performances by the actors are just not very good. Luckily, Gaiman has the Cybermites take them over quite early on, and they spend most of the episode as zombies.

Clara plays a strong, active roll in this episode, competently taking command of the platoon of rather incompetent soldiers. Alas, while it plays well for this episode, her command abilities do seem to come out of nowhere, as we’ve seen no evidence of them before. Indeed, my wife reacted with incredulity when the Doctor first gives Clara the command from the platoon captain (who is oddly nameless in this episode—at least, I can’t find a moment when her name is mentioned). Clara continues to be a bit of an enigma—and by that, I’m not referring to the mystery surrounding her, but rather her personality. Early on, I felt she was starting to get some decent character development, better than Amy had, but unfortunately, she’s developed the same inconsistency that Amy had. She’s consistent within a single episode, but not from episode to episode. Each writer seems to have a different opinion of what she’s supposed to be like, as if they were given very sketchy details about her character. We have learnt nothing more about her goals and aspirations since “The Rings of Akhaten”, leaving her a generic person who wants to travel and otherwise fits whatever the current story needs her to.

Despite her competence at command in this episode, she does display a few other oddities. She shows surprisingly little concern for the two kids she supposedly looks after, and after being confronted (finally!) with her being “the impossible girl”, she barely reacts at all. She questions it briefly at the time, then apparently forgets about it. I was expecting her to bring it up at the end, right after the kids leave the TARDIS—except she doesn’t. Yet again, an opportunity to truly develop her character is glossed over. It happened in “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”, then in “The Crimson Horror”, and now here. I don’t actually blame Neil Gaiman for this, as I’m certain it’s because Steven Moffat hasn’t revealed anything of the Clara mystery to the other writers. They’ve simply been given instructions to mention the mystery every episode, but are unable to advance it in any way. Unfortunately, this really shows, and it is making Clara not only inconsistent in her portrayal, but static and dull. The Doctor’s tacked on (and very uncharacteristically lustful) speech at the very end makes a point, yet again, of telling her how perfect she is, but we don’t really get to see this perfection. Instead, we just see a character who is getting increasingly boring.

There are a number of little nods in this episode to things from the past, something that’s very much a recurring theme in recent episodes. I talked last week about the apparent pattern of referencing past Doctors in order by episode. It was something I was initially sceptical about, but had come round to believing might just be true. This episode has made me sceptical again, as I can find no clear reference to the sixth Doctor in this episode (other than his face appearing in succession with all the other Doctors). Adding nods to the past is definitely deliberate, but I don’t think they’re happening in order.

While there aren’t any strong references to the sixth Doctor in “Nightmare in Silver”, there are definitely strong references to the second and seventh. The references to the second Doctor come in the form of Cybermen stories from his era. I particularly love the mention of cleaning fluid being effective against the Cybermen (this refers to “The Moonbase” where the Doctor creates a concoction to use against the Cybermen made primarily out of Polly’s nail-polish remover). The gold vulnerability is also a nod to Cybermen stories from the seventies and eighties (although at the time it was supposedly because its non-corrosive nature clogged the Cybermen’s breathing apparatus; how this is part of their “code”, I’m not really sure). The chess game between the Doctor and the Cyberplanner is a wonderful nod to the seventh Doctor story, “The Curse of Fenric”. It also shows more of the Doctor’s less-than-perfect qualities that I discussed earlier—his willingness to cheat. In “The Curse of Fenric”, the Doctor confounds his enemy with a chess conundrum, one that Fenric becomes obsessed with solving, not once considering that the Doctor, the ultimate good guy, might be lying to him. Similarly, when the Doctor tells the Cyberplanner that he can win in three moves, Mister Clever becomes obsessed with finding the solution, not once considering that the Doctor might not be trustworthy. But in the end, the winning move that Fenric so desperately seeks turns out to be an illegal move, and the Cyberplanner can never find a solution because the solution doesn’t exist.

There are a few minor problems in the episode here and there. I felt that Webley was under-developed. The nameless platoon captain was better developed, but was rather callously forgotten about after her death. But overall, these are mostly ignorable problems because the rest of the episode comes over so well.

Overall, “Nightmare in Silver” is an excellent episode. It breathes new life into the Cybermen and provides a new insight into the Doctor’s psyche. It’s quirky, fun, and enjoyable. It may not be as good as Neil Gaiman’s previous offering, “The Doctor’s Wife”, but it’s still well ahead of what I’ve become used to in recent Doctor Who, and a reminder of just how good the show can be and even might be again.


  1. I find in surprising how well you take the 180 degrees change in how Cybermen behave. To me this episode was a demonstration of how someone in the writing team (Gaiman? Moffat?) managed to completley miss the point of what cybremen are.

    So far in the show, while the word "upgrade" was spoken by Cybermen many, many times, they always refered to upgrading other people. upgrading them to become cybermen.

    The entire point of Cybermen was that they belived themselves to already be perfect, a superior race. Their quest to "upgrading" humans was not even truly evil, it was just them acting according to a perception that having the upgrade and becoming a cyberman is so important, that they will force organic creatures to go through the process.

    What that means is that Cybermen already percieve themselves as perfect. The upgrade to *becoming* a cyberman is already the ultimate one. So when, in this episode, they upgrade *themselves*, that means they had to recognize that they are *not* perfect, which means an upgrade is possible. That is a HUGE change, and it is glossed over and not pointed at by the story, meaning, I think, that the writers might not even be awere of that fact.

    In your previous review of "asylum of the Daleks" you stated that while the episode had a really good story to tell, it would have worked better with Cybermen, and that was a very accurate idea. I believe that by the same logic, this story would have been great, if it was about a robotic race other than cybermen.

    Breathing new life into an existnig race in the show is a good idea, but not at the price of undermining EVERYTHING that the race is about, without even pausing to talk about that. At least, that's how I see it.

    Also, a question - do you have any thoughts about the fact that season 7 of doctor who didn't have a single story arc that lasted more than one episode? I think a two-episode story arc was exactly what the show needed to create a slower sotry, that would have had time to spare to develop the character of Clara and her relationship with the Doctor. To me, all the stories so far seemed frantic with action.

    1. Obviously, I don't think the change undermines what the Cybermen are all about, but I do think I see where you're coming from. I see the Cybermen in this episode as a logical far-future evolution of them (and it's clear that "Nightmare in Silver" is set thousands, probably tens of thousands of years in the future). As I state in the review, I do think it would be a bad idea for this version of the Cybermen to start showing up in stories set closer to modern day (and that includes stories just a few centuries in the future).

      That said, I think there's a lot about these Cybermen that is very true to the whole concept of the Cybermen. However, a lot of it is drawing on the Cybermen from the 60s stories, and I can see how, for someone only used to the version seen since 2006 (and I believe you mentioned in a previous comment that you weren't very familiar with the original series), these Cybermen might be somewhat jarring. This is definitely a problem with the episode that hadn't occurred to me.

      The Cybermen have been somewhat inconsistent over the years. Their appearance has changed drastically, as have their voices. Even the sounds they make when they move. The stomping sound is entirely an invention of the new series. The 60s Cybermen were completely silent in their movements and rarely spoke. In the Tom Baker story, "Revenge of the Cybermen", the Doctor refers to them as "total machine creatures" and the story completely ignores the idea that they are converted humans. In the story, the Cybermen are virtually extinct, but this last batch of Cybermen releases a plague to kill all the humans on board a space station (instead of converting them to more Cybermen) so that they can use the station as a bomb and crash it into Voga, the planet of gold (this was the first appearance of gold being deadly to Cybermen).

      The 70s and 80s Cybermen were much more vocal and had conversations with each other, something the 60s Cybermen never did.

      So I suppose those of us who have watched the show for a much longer time are more used to the idea of changing what the Cybermen are. The only thing that's never really changed is their technological level, and that's why I was really glad to see an episode which has them learn new things. The Cybermen's history has also been rather inconsistent over the year, so I like that Gaiman moved the setting into the far future in order to create a sort of coherency for their history (even if that new history only really works for this one episode).

      I disagree with your interpretation that the Cybermen believe themselves perfect. They believe themselves superior, but that's not necessarily synonymous with perfect.

      At any rate, as I said, the flaw in this story's version of the Cybermen is that it relies on the audience being more familiar with how much the Cybermen have already changed over the years, and a show as old as Doctor Who can't rely on everyone having seen everything. Neil Gaiman is a professed fan of Patrick Troughton's Doctor and he perhaps focused a little too much on paying homage to the Cybermen of that era.

      As for your question about the pacing, yes, this year has been too frantic. They've been going for a "blockbuster movie in 45 minutes" as Steven Moffat himself put it. I think it was a mad choice. As you say, there's been no room to breathe and develop relationships.