Independent and intelligent Doctor Who publishing from I.B.Tauris. Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow since 2010.
BBC1. 7.00 pm. 11.05.2013.
Written by Neil Gaiman
Directed by Stephen Wooldenden
I’ve mentioned before in this blog how, under the aegis of current showrunner Steven Moffat, Doctor Who has embraced a wider range of science fiction story templates than under his predecessor Russell T. Davies. There has been less reliance on the Earthbound invasion narrative or the celebrity-historical adventure, and more scope for fantasy and what the production discourse of the classic series called ‘sideways’ stories. The ‘old monster’ story has been less frequent, and, when it has been done, has attempted to ring the changes on what might have become a rather tired formula.
The recruitment of acclaimed fantasy author Neil Gaiman – best known for The Sandman comic book – has been the surest indication of Moffat’s desire to push Doctor Who further into the realm of imaginative fantasy than the more traditional monster of the week stories that had been a hallmark of the Davies era. Gaiman’s debut Doctor Who story, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ in Series 6, was notable for the levels of both its intellectual and visual imagination. It reminded me of classic series stories such as ‘Warrior’s Gate’ and ‘Castrovalva’ with its more oblique story-telling, and its emphasis on characterisation rather than action. The news that Gaiman was going to write a Cyberman episode for the current series was welcomed within fandom, and ‘Nightmare in Silver’, if a less evocative title than the once-mooted ‘The Last Cyberman’, certainly demonstrated the imaginative ideas and concepts that we would expect. Hence we had a giant futuristic theme park, a space waxworks, a fairytale castle, a dwarf emperor, and a new generation of Cybermen following their latest upgrade. This, too, has been a feature of Moffat’s Doctor Who, elsewhere exemplified in the New Dalek Paradigm of ‘Victory of the Daleks’ and the revamped Ice Warrior who appeared earlier this series in ‘Cold War’. And we had the Doctor appearing like Locutus of Borg, playing chess against himself for control of his own mind.
There is no question that ‘Nightmare in Silver’ was full of ideas, some of them brilliant, and visually stunning (unlike the equally anticipated but ultimately slightly disappointing ‘Journey to the Centre of the Tardis’). Yet in a sense this was also the episode’s principal weakness: that there was simply too much going to on to make a wholly successful episode. There were enough plot strands for three or four separate stories, but not enough space in 45 minutes to develop each strand in an entirely satisfying way. A case of too many ideas but insufficient plot, which is preferable to the opposite, though resulted in an episode that, like others in this series, was less than the sum of its parts.
Take, for example, the presence of the children, Arty and April, introduced as Clara’s charges in ‘The Bells of St John’, and here travelling for their first adventure in the TARDIS. Their presence is consistent with a motif we have seen before in Moffat’s Doctor Who: episodes such as ‘The Eleventh Hour’, ‘The Hungry Earth’ and ‘Night Terrors’ have introduced child characters as surrogates for younger viewers, while also allowing adult fans to remember what it was like being an eight-year-old captivated by the wonders of Doctor Who. This time, however, the sole reason for the presence of the children seemed to be driven by a mere plot device to bring the TARDIS to Hedgwood’s World (‘We needed children, but they stopped coming. You brought us children.’) Yet the children were quickly sidelined, hardly featuring in the second half of the episode when the Cybermen seemingly forgot what they had wanted them for in the first place. (It had something to do with incorporating the children’s imaginative faculties into their latest upgrade which is supposed to be ‘undefeatable’.)
The setting of the space theme park-cum-wax museum has been done before, too, notably in classic series episodes such as ‘The Space Museum’, ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ and the unmade ‘The Nightmare Fair’. Again the idea was introduced and then seemingly forgotten in ‘Nightmare in Silver’: an early reference to a ‘Golden Ticket’ invokes Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory but other than a brief anti-gravity experience there was no real sense of being at large in such a fantastical world. Even the defence of the magical castle with its moat was hurried and underdeveloped in comparison to, say, the classic series story ‘The Androids of Tara’. Tamsin Outhwaite appeared briefly before a rather undignified early exit, Warwick Davis was under-used as Porridge, and the future system of political organisation referred to as The Imperium left various questions unanswered, not least where it belongs in the history of the Great and Bountiful Human Empire.
Of course the main business of the episode was the reintroduction of the Cybermen, last seen in ‘Closing Time’. I’ve always felt that in their original form – cyborgs who have replaced their flesh and blood parts with robotic limbs and implants but in the process have lost all their humanity – the Cybermen were more plausible and interesting antagonists than the Daleks. The look of the Cybermen has evolved over the years as they have gradually shed their last vestiges of individuality (who now remembers that in their first appearance in ‘The Tenth Planet’ the Cybermen had individual names?) but they have tended to become mere robotic villains bent on conquering the Earth, with only lip-service paid to their reason for doing so: i.e. that they need human bodies in order to propagate their own race. The latest version Cybermen have been slightly remodelled again, looking more sleek and streamlined than the bulky automatons who have appeared in the new series since ‘The Rise of the Cybermen’/’The Age of Steel’. And Doctor Who has also adopted an idea from the Star Trek continuity series by bringing in nano-technology: the latest incarnation of the deadly Cybermat is a Cybermite that converts human cells from inside the body.
The Cybermen raise more continuity issues than most Doctor Who monsters. In the classic series there were two Cyber colonies, from Mondas (‘The Tenth Planet’) and Telos (‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’), whereas new series Cybermen were created by mad scientist John Lumic in a parallel universe (‘The Rise of the Cybermen’/’The Age of Steel’) that was supposedly sealed off at the end of ‘Doomsday’ (though it was subsequently reopened in ‘Journey’s End’ and ‘The Next Doctor’, in which the Cybermen slip through the gap between universes). In their design the Cybermen of ‘Nightmare in Silver’ are descended from those Cybus Industries Cybermen but the narrative references to their vulnreability to gold (‘Revenge of the Cybermen’) and cleaning fluid (‘The Moonbase’) are from the classic series. So, too, was an all-too brief CGI shot that referenced ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’. There were references to the defeat of the Cybermen in the Cyber Wars, suggesting that the events here are supposed to be in the same time frame as ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’, though the Imperium is not compatible with what we knew about future human history from the classic series. There again the entire universe was rebooted at the end of ‘The Big Bang’, so perhaps all previous continuity should be disregarded.
The most interesting strand within the episode, however, was Doctor’s partial conversion into a Cyberman, and the contest between the Good Doctor and the Bad Doctor through the metaphor of a game of chess. Doctor Who has rarely done this sort of dual identity motif, which in contrast has been a frequent device in the world of Star Trek. This provided a welcome opportunity for Matt Smith to demonstrate his acting skills again, with subtle variations in vocal tone and facial expression indicating which Doctor has the ascendancy in their battle of wills. Yet, once again, this motif was underdeveloped, and was hurried through to a resolution as there was too much plot business going on elsewhere. I would have liked to see a whole episode built around this motif, rather than it being one of several ideas all competing for narrative space.
Otherwise ‘Nightmare in Silver’ featured another montage of previous Doctors, harking back to Matt Smith’s debut in ‘The Eleventh Hour’, and an ironic reference to Moffat’s ‘Nobody dies’ from ‘The Doctor Dances’. Porridge’s proposal of marriage to Clara recalled King Peladon and Jo Grant in ‘The Curse of Peladon’, though here it seemed tacked-on. I haven’t been able to work out how and why Clara was able to assume command of the defence of the castle against the Cyber army when there has been no previous suggestion of her military leadership skills.
Gaiman is such a good fantasy author that it seems appropriate to speculate why ‘Nightmare in Silver’ turned out to be a rather unsatisfying episode overall. It would be fair to say that his Sandman comics are more about atmosphere and ideas than plot, and perhaps ‘Nightmare in Silver’ needed a rewrite from an experienced television story constructionist to knock it into a more coherent narrative shape. Or perhaps the episode was a compromise, as various ideas were mooted, one or two of which would have combined to make a cracking story, but there was a desire to cram too much in for 45 minutes. Whatever the reason, and despite its stunning visuals, ‘Nightmare in Silver’ was ultimately a disappointment. ■
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History, a second edition of which will be published by I. B. Tauris in September 2013.