Neil Gaiman gained many accolades for his last foray into Who-dom, The Doctor’s Wife. These included, but were not limited to, the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) and the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation. Gaiman had some huge expectations to live up to with his sophomore effort; an uphill battle that many fans would take to heart. All I noticed for the last few weeks was a steamroller of hype leading up to Nightmare in Silver, and I held back. I know that whenever I let hype color my eyes when it comes to TV and film, it always ruins my experience. The ill-fated Brett Ratner film, X-men 3, is a prime example of this, I got far too hyped prior to release and was utterly destroyed by what could have been an average film – to me it was an atrocity on celluloid. Noticing the general lukewarm reception to Nightmare in Silver earlier today, it looks like this over-hype may have happened to a lot of Doctor Who fans. This season seems to be the most divisive season since the McCoy era, some love the episodes and others are complaining endlessly. Let me get this out of the way, Nightmare in Silver is not as good as The Doctor’s wife, but my enjoyment of the episode did not hinge on this; I really liked it despite its flaws.
As you can probably figure out, Nightmare in Silver is a Cybermen episode. Gaiman said many times in his lead up that he wanted to “make the Cybermen scary again”. This is a tall order because many feel that they haven’t really been scary since the Patrick Troughton era. Unsettling? Yes, but “scary” is hard to pull off with a large metallic dude stomping around shouting “DELETED” and other catchphrases. What we have is an updated version of the original Cybermen; they have evolved long enough that they now strive to “Convert” other creatures aside from just humans. They have become sleeker, employ an updated version of a Cybermat (now called a cybermite and used in partial Conversions), can warp time to teleport briefly, and have removable body parts that act as decoys, drones, and searchers. Is somebody under that table? Just take your hand off and walk it over to them! Is a pesky non-converted person behind you? Swivel your head around like an owl! These upgrades make the Cybermen more of a threat and in that regard scarier in mass. While I would have enjoyed something more disturbing than what we have here, an overpowered and nearly Borg-like version of these guys is pretty hopeless to our heroes.
These upgrades and the general “feel” of the episode was almost exactly like Rob Shearman’s 2005 episode Dalek. In that particular piece we were shown the “upgraded” time war-outfitted Dalek model including some crazy new technology like a force field, swiveling midsection, and the ability to take DNA by touch. In Nightmare in Silver fans are treated to a new Cybermen fresh from an undisclosed “Cyber war” that can do the aforementioned feats of awesomeness like teleportation. It was this little head nod that made me enjoy this episode quite a bit, since I generally like “base under siege” episodes quite a bit.
The plot follows the Doctor, Clara, Angie and Artie (The kids Clara takes care of) as they attempt to visit the best theme park in the universe. If you recall, Clara got blackmailed by Angie and Artie in The Crimson Horror and basically forced The Doctor to let them tag along. When they get there, they realize that the whole park is in ruins after a huge battle with the Cybermen long ago, and a group of world-weary soldiers and con-men are hiding there. The gang runs into a man named Webley (Jason Watkins) who has a surprise – a hollowed out Cyberman that “magically” plays chess against all that would try to defeat it. This is an obvious allusion to the infamous automaton “The Turk” that wowed players such as Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin way back in the eighteenth century. And just like the real Turk machine, this Silver Turk (also the name of a Big Finish audio play with a similar plot) is a fraud. A man named Porridge (Warwick Davis) is actually under there moving the arms and such. This “shell” of the old Cybermen waits until Webley is alone and dumps Cybermites all over the place putting its plan in action. Pretty soon, people are partially converted, the kids get captured, and an army of Cybermen awakens from one of their infamous “Tombs”.
While the villains in this episode are obviously the Cybermen, but their leader is actually none other than The Doctor! During one of the kerfuffles, he is partially converted and his body is taken over by a cyber-consciousness. In a creative twist to a battle of wits, we see the internal battle in The Doctor’s mind played out with amazing shots of Matt Smith talking to himself. Whether you see two opposing versions of his mind arguing in his head, or the quick cut Gollum-esque arguments in the real world, the banter is both hilarious at times and scary at others. “Evil Doctor” the Cyber-Planner is really over the top, and nearly and comically mustache twirling as Mrs. Gillyflower last week. While it should have been cringe-worthy, I liked the scene where The Doctor plastered his “golden ticket”(admission to the theme park) to the circuits on his face and temporarily took complete control of his body, thus utilizing the tried and true Cyberman weakness.
Warwick Davis is awesome in anything he is in, and I really enjoyed him as Porridge here. Whether it is last year’s Life’s Too Short, or the fantasy classic Willow, he is one of those guys that seem pretty under-rated for how good of an actor he is. I know that a lot of that can be chalked up to his height, but those barriers seem to be fading with Davis and Peter Dinklage finally getting some substantial roles. I also felt that Jason Watkins did a fine job in the small amount of the episode he was the focus of, props for his half-Cyberman face. Now that I’ve mentioned the good part of the guest cast, here is the bad – CHILD ACTORS! I’m not usually a fan of child actors because they don’t act like children at all; they act like tiny adults that are smug and douche-y. If you met an adult that was like most characters portrayed by child actors they would get the crap kicked out of them in seconds! There are a few exceptions like Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine, but for every one of her, you have ten Jake Lloyds from The Phantom Menace. To me the kids seemed tacked on, I’d be amazed if they were in the original script, as they felt somewhat superfluous and contrived just to put children in peril. I especially did not like Angie as “know it all kid” characters are the worst. Dear science fiction writers- we do not want young Anakin, Wesley Crusher, Adric, or Boxy in our shows! Thanks, the fans. Oh, I nearly forgot the inept soldier characters, and you will too – nothing memorable about them to be honest.
While the music wasn’t that noteworthy, I will say that I enjoyed the sound design, especially with the new Cyberman voice. While the original 1960’s voice is still the creepiest, the voices in Nightmare in Silver seemed a lot like a cross between the Cybus models and the 1970’s ones. Special effects were decent, if not low-key, in this episode. Certain scenes like the Doctor’s brain were realized in a truly beautiful way – as an energy filled void with a brain glowing behind the Dual Doctors. Other things like the Cybermen teleportation seemed sort of bland, as that scene could have been terrifying had it been done right. I think this season has been a real work in progress on the director side of things, and it shows with some of the choices made like this.
All in all, I enjoyed tonight’s episode and felt it was above average. I think fans will judge it too harshly as many expect a great writer to constantly top themselves each time. People need to realize that Shakespeare himself didn’t make classics all the time; plays like Timon of Athens are a testament to that. This was classic Gaiman faire that fans of Neverwhere and Mirrormask will enjoy. And while it isn’t his best work, it’s still better than anything else on TV.
Since I don’t have cable I watch Doctor Who on Amazon Prime, maybe you should as well!
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- Neil Gaiman Interview: Part One (musingsofamildmanneredman.com)
- Doctor Who “Nightmare In Silver” Scary Future Cybermen (lezgetreal.com)
- TV: Doctor Who: “Nightmare In Silver” (avclub.com)
- Doctor Who: Cybermen’s latest upgrade in Nightmare in Silver has all the makings of an awesome trilogy (mirror.co.uk)
- Doctor Who Review: “Nightmare in Silver” (nerdist.com)
- Doctor Who ‘Nightmare in Silver’ – Series 7, episode 12 (blogs.independent.co.uk)
- Neil Gaiman Discusses Rebooting “Doctor Who’s” Cybermen (spinoff.comicbookresources.com)
- ‘Doctor Who’ writer Neil Gaiman: ‘Cybermen are the scariest monsters’ (digitalspy.co.uk)
- Doctor Who S07 E13: Nightmare in Silver (biffbampop.com)
- Gaiman Wants to Make Cybermen “Scary” Again (sliceofscifi.com)