Monday, 13 May 2013

I’ll happily admit that Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite writers, and I did love his previous Doctor Who episode, 2011’s The Doctor’s Wife. So of course, I had high hopes for his return to the series, Nightmare in Silver, pitched as "making the Cybermen scary again”.

Following on from last week’s somewhat dodgy lead-in, the episode opened with the Doctor and Clara taking a couple of kids to the biggest amusement park in the universe. Unfortunately, after a brutal war against the Cybermen, the theme park was a little past its best.

As we’d expect from Gaiman, this was a wonderfully imagined dark fantasy world inhabited by a band of quirkily named misfits. From the comical castle to the creepy waxwork gallery reminiscent of American Gods' House on the Rock, plus loads of nice little touches (a giant colourful plastic flower standing out in the middle of a barren wasteland), the production designers did a magnificent job of bringing Hedgewick’s World to life visually. What a perfect setting for the resurrection of the Cybermen…

But were these new Cybermen, as Gaiman wanted them to be, scary again? Well, no. They were scarier than they have been recently, yes, and harder to kill. They were an unstoppable alien force, but that’s missing what originally made the Cybermen scary – they’re not alien, they’re human. This fear of body manipulation, this extrapolation of what we could become, and the associated body horror element of humans being cut apart and replaced with machine parts, was explored in 2005’s Rise of the Cybermen, but hasn’t really been seen since. I was hoping for more of this from Gaiman. In terms of actual Cyber-action, there were some nice scenes where a lone silver warrior stalked the platoon of soldiers, taking them out with strange new abilities, but I wasn't left chilled.

One element to Gaiman’s story that I did really like was the Doctor’s invasion by the Cyber-Planner. His Bergman-esque chess game against the darker side of himself allowed a magnificently charged double performance from Matt Smith (except for the Chris Eccleston and David Tennant impressions; I do hope they were deliberately bad). In fact, Smith’s Doctor was great throughout this episode, minus that awkward final line. I'd rather the Doctor not have the sexy likes for Clara, to be honest.

Speaking of Clara, my criticism of her in this episode is that she took on the military commander role bestowed upon her a little too quickly. I’ve been growing to like Clara recently, but her actions here didn’t seem to fit with how she’s previously been characterized by her friendly, caring nature; I’d have liked to see a little more reluctance to take up arms.

Of course, this episode had two extra companions in the form of Artie and Angie. I'm not sure why. OK, the idea of a kids’ day out to a theme park going wrong has some promise in it, but I never really grew to like the kids. Angie showing up at a military barracks and declaring “I’m bored’ as if the soldiers’ job was to entertain her really reminded me why I’m not a fan of children. For most of the rest of the episode, the two were in a walking coma, which really rendered their presence pointless except as a MacGuffin for the Doctor and Clara to save. Perhaps if some other, more imaginative, imprisonment had been placed on them – failed attempts at cyber-conversion perhaps – we could have got to care about them, and also be scared of the Cybermen, a little more.

In fact, a few of the guest characters were under-developed. Who actually was Jason Watkins’ Webley? What did the Captain do to warrant her punishment? The exception was Porridge, played with amiable charm by Warwick Davis. Like the Doctor, he was running away from his own necessary brutalities, and this guilt was explored touchingly though his growing friendship with Clara. Shame about the awkward proposal.

Also, I really like how the platoon had a speccy ginger bloke. Despite the fact that eye surgery surely will have eliminated the need for glasses much sooner than this was set, it's nice to know that this particular war movie trope, as well as the ginger gene itself, isn’t going to die out.

The best Cybermen story for a while, I did enjoy Nightmare in Silver, but it fell far from making the old enemy scary again, and far from living up to the best of Gaiman’s writing.


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