Doctor Who Series 7 Episode 13 review: Nightmare in Silver

Posted: 28 October 2013 in entertainment, television
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Multi-award winning author Neil Gaiman returns to the universe of Doctor Who on a partially successful mission to make the Cybermen scary again with a Nightmare in Silver.

Doctor Who - Nightmare in Silver

Neil Gaiman’s previous contribution to Doctor Who was The Doctor’s Wife, which garnered widespread acclaim for its inventive plot, oddball characters and grungy setting. Unfortunately his follow-up of Nightmare in Silver was a far different and poorer affair. Granted the special effects were more than up to par with rampaging hoards of Cybermen, an entire amusement world depicted and an ever-fluctuating environment representing the interior of the Doctor’s mind, but the script continually felt as though it needed two or three more drafts to draw together disparate concepts, fill in the plot and generate rounded characters.

Inspired by fears of increasing spare part surgery potentially robbing people of their humanity, the Cybermen first appeared in William Hartnell’s final story The Tenth Planet and came to prominence during four adventures in the Patrick Troughton era. Traditionally the second most popular monster in Doctor Who that accolade has been passed onto the Weeping Angels in recent years.

In the classic series the Cybermen were near-vampiric alien cyborgs originating from Earth’s lost twin world of Mondas, the result of misguided attempts to artificially prolong the race’s lifespan. Until Nightmare in Silver the Cybermen of the revived series were a diluted version hailing from a parallel Earth. The product of the maniacal John Lumic, head of Cybus Industries, these human upgrades were merely brains atop, admittedly imposing, bodies of steel – only a tiny step from being mere robots. Drawing inspiration from The Moonbase and The Tomb of the Cybermen (acknowledged with the materialisation of the TARDIS on a diorama of the Moon and Cybermen lurking within “tombs” below the planet’s surface) Gaiman resurrected the ethos of the Mondasian Cybermen and placed it within the Cybus Industries’ shell.

For the most part Gaiman succeeded in his objective to make the Cybermen a foe to be reckoned with once again. Throughout the story the cyborgs revealed previously unknown talents that bolstered their ability to assimilate and generally frighten. These Cybermen could run (in “bullet time” no less), bodily parts acted independently of the main cyborg and they were now able convert non-humans. That last point doubtless had Doctor Who fans around the globe checking all the previous Cybermen television stories to see if non-humans had been converted before. It looks like Gaiman did his homework in that respect though as no obvious candidates present themselves. The closest to a non-human being converted comes with the mercenary Lytton in Attack of the Cybermen who hails from the satellite Riften 5. Though it could be reasonably argued that it was a human colony world as there’s no televised evidence to the contrary. Also, Lytton died before the process was complete so if was an alien he may have rejected the complete conversion.

The ability of the Cybermen to continually upgrade based upon the obstacles they encounter is reminiscent of the Borg in Star Trek. But as the Borg were a ripoff of the Cybermen in the first place it’s fair enough that Doctor Who should “borrow back” from another enduring science fiction franchise. The similarities and differences between the Cybermen and the Borg are demonstrated in a limited comic book series Assimilation2. The two cybernetic races first form an alliance and then ultimately battle each other in a historic crossover between Doctor Who and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The presence of a “punishment platoon” seemed solely designed to enable the Cybermen to show off their newly acquired skills in a game of shadowy cat and mouse, well Cybermen and human, that evoked the stalking of the Xenomorph in Alien 3. Former EastEnders and current New Tricks star Tamzin Outhwaite was wasted in a spit and cough appearance. Her primary function as Captain Alice Ferrin seemed to involve being constantly overruled by Clara, who was appointed commander of the troops courtesy of the Doctor’s psychic paper. For a brief instance Clara got to be interesting. Not for long just a few moments. Jenna-Louise Coleman was supposedly chosen because she worked best alongside Matt Smith and could talk faster than him. Whilst there is a hint of chemistry with her leading man it’s nowhere near as strong as that enjoyed between previous Doctors and companions. Plus, whilst she may be able to deliver the lines she’s given speedily there’s zero conviction behind them. All in all Clara continually emerges as the worst companion since Mel Bush (Bonnie Langford) back in 1986.

The episode’s primary setting of the abandoned amusement planet of Hedgewick’s World of Wonders and its collection of mannequins, chambers and themed areas brings to mind the House on the Rock, a genuine and surreal complex in Wisconsin, USA, composed of rooms, streets, gardens and shops, that Gaiman utilised in his novel American Gods.

Another new addition to the Doctor Who mythos comes with the Cybermites, tiny relatives of the Cybermats first seen in The Tomb of the Cybermen and most recently in Closing Time. These tiny small worm-like affectations of the cyborgs take control of Angie and Artie, the children who Clara is nanny to. Unfortunately not even a writer of Gaiman’s award-winning talent can make these young people interesting whether they be possessed or unpossessed. There’s a rule somewhere that children and science fiction often mix as effectively as oil and water and here’s a prime example. For every success, such as the youthful leads of The Sarah Jane Adventures, there’s a hideous clanger like Wesley Crusher of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The presence of Angie and Artie doesn’t enhance proceedings one jot and one has to wonder why Steven Moffat ever decided to involve them in the Doctor’s life. During the Hartnell and Troughton eras it was more or less a given rule that no one except the Doctor and his companions enter the TARDIS. Now it seems any obnoxious child can cross the dimensional threshold.

Taking the prize for most, possibly only, interesting guest character/actor is Warwick Davis as the mysterious Porridge, aka Emperor Ludens Nimrod Kendrick Cord Longstaff XLI. Most famous for his role as the Ewok Wicket in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, the title character in Willow and a fictionalised version of himself in Life’s Too Short, Davis’ Porridge is ultimately something of a deus ex machina but few people can carry off a flying helmet as nattily as him.

These constantly upgrading Cybermen can even play chess (which is revealed to be a creation of the Time Lords) and the main narrative thrust of Nightmare in Silver is effectively the Doctor playing a game against himself after being infected by the Cybermites. The chess-playing Cyberman evokes The Turk, the fake chess-playing machine constructed in the late 18th century and exhibited all across Europe for nearly 50 years. A damaged chess-playing Cyberman also makes an appearance with Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor in 19th century Vienna in the audio play The Silver Turk.

At times it’s difficult to keep track of whether it’s the genuine Doctor or the cyber-infected aspect of him speaking but it’s certainly a tour de force performance from Matt Smith, switching from one version to another numerous times in the course of a single scene. Overall it’s mainly Smith’s acting that prevents the episode from becoming a complete mess.

Neil Gaiman has won a whole slew of literary awards, including the Hugo, Nebula and Carnegie Medal, and will probably win several that haven’t even been invented yet. An author of his stature writing for Doctor Who is the equivalent of Ian Rankin writing for Sherlock or Joss Whedon penning Wizards vs Aliens but even Gaiman can’t arrest the lacklustre trend of Series 7b. It’s painful to label anything penned by the creator of Morpheus, London Below and Shadow as below par but in the case of Nightmare in Silver there’s little other choice.

Despite all his other commitments there’s every likelihood that Gaiman will contribute a script to Doctor Who in 2014. The Daleks have been rumoured…


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