Nightmare in Silver Review

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Clint Hassell reviews Neil Gaiman’s latest episode.

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Because they both involve fantastic elements that transcend reality, fairy tales and science fiction seem closely related. However, their differences are many. Fairy tales are short, concise, cautionary tales that usually lack real characterization. For example, neither Hansel nor Gretel have truly defining characteristics, and their story is really just a warning for children to not wander off. In a fairy tale, the fantastic elements are often utilized to quicken the plot – to get Cinderella a dress at the last minute, in one instance – and do not always adhere to an internal story logic. On the other hand, great science fiction uses the fantastic elements inherent to its narrative to examine some aspect of the human condition. Character development is essential, because the setting may be alien (literally!) and the realism of the characters’ responses may be the only aspect with which the reader can identify.

Neil Gaiman is certainly a brilliant writer, and unquestionably one of the greatest of our generation. However, due to the reliance on fairy tale motifs, his script for “Nightmare in Silver” proves problematic, especially in the context of the greater Doctor Who narrative.

For example, if the Cybermen are so dangerous that seeing even one is cause to implode an entire planet, then there is no way that even Cyber-scrap would be allowed to exist. Yet, Webley has three nearly-complete Cybermen, which ultimately prove his undoing. This cautionary lesson fits in with Gaiman’s fairy tale aesthetic, but is so illogical that it feels out of place within a science fiction context.

The episode’s second act is steeped in folklore as the Doctor plays a chess game, with the fate of the universe seemingly in the balance. While there is a benefit to the allegory – the board is literally black-versus-white; the sides are evenly matched, yet opposed – and the scene does allow Matt Smith the opportunity to amaze, the storytelling device has been used so often as to be clichéd.

The resolution of “Nightmare in Silver” is unforgivably marred as Angie recognizes Porridge (à la “The Emperor’s New Clothes”) as the Emperor. (Note that the littlest person is revealed as the most important – another fairy tale trope.) Porridge states that activating the bomb will not only destroy the planet and eliminate the threat of the Cybermen, but that he, the Maitland children, the Doctor and Clara, and all of the soldiers would be teleported to safety. Why, then, did he not detonate the bomb before the Captain and various platoon members were killed or “upgraded”? Not only is it frustrating for the audience to realize that the entire preceding hour – the triumphs and the bloodshed – was for naught, but it ruins Porridge’s character as he is complacent in the deaths of others (a fact I am surprised Clara did not use as her reason to reject his marriage proposal).

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So, the prop department totally missed that part about Hedgewick’s being the biggest amusement park in the universe, huh?

Considering Gaiman’s script embraces a fairy tale theme, it is disappointing that the scenes at Natty Longshoe’s Comical Castle fail to fulfill the promise of its premise. Imagine the humor inherent in the terrifying Cybermen being stymied by something so whimsical as a wobbly bridge. The opportunity was present to examine how, having no emotion, a Cyberman would observe and interpret an optical illusion – a hall of mirrors, for example – differently than a human. “Nightmare in Silver” could have accomplished a standard Moffat trick and turned a seemingly mundane amusement park attraction into something sinister and frightening. What a missed opportunity!

Gaiman’s extensive use of fairy tale elements is most damaging because it practically necessitates the inclusion of the Maitland children (who, as in “Hansel and Gretel,” are even given a “don’t wander off” speech). Angie’s “Hello, I’m bored” line is so uncharacteristically self-absorbed as to not be believable. Here, the character is a two-dimensional representation of a teenager – an idea, a meme, a glyph – which would be suitable for a fairy tale, but feels out of place in Doctor Who.

Worse, the inclusion of the children hurts Clara as a character. Thus far, Clara has been shown to identify with motherless children – to be willing to give up a year of her life to help the Maitlands work through their loss – making her a terrific nanny. Here, she is complacent in their endangerment. Clara still does not have much of a personality beyond being generally talkative, resourceful, and maternal, and Gaiman’s script undermines one of those three tenants of her character.

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I thought the planet was supposed to implode?

All this being said, the most disappointing aspect of “Nightmare in Silver” is not Gaiman’s use of fairy tale motifs – it is, after all, a defining aspect of his work – but that he incorrectly portrays the Cybermen. Created in the 1960s as a response to the growing use of technology to artificially enhance or prolong human life, the Cybermen of Doctor Who have similarly operated from the belief that replacing organic parts with metallic limbs (and eliminating emotions) afforded humans a longer, better life. What made the Cybermen so terrifying is that they weren’t evil, per se, just misguided. Here, despite their battle cry, the Cybermen are unconcerned with “upgrading” humans, but are using humans as spare parts to add to the Cyberiad in a war against humanity. The ideology shift is jarring, making these new monsters, Cybermen in name only. They have become the Borg for Star Trek, with, “You will be upgraded,” really meaning, “You will be assimilated.” Now, humans are “subverted,” not “converted.”

Unfortunately, this shift of the Cyber-paradigm most affected the episode’s centerpiece: the dialogue between Eleven and a half-Cyber-controlled version of himself. “Mr. Clever” never seems like a Cyberman, as he displays blatant emotion and a temper. True, Mr. Clever is only in control of half of the Time Lord’s mind, and is therefore affected by the influx of the Doctor’s emotions. However, the character lacks any of the cold, calculating qualities that previously typified Cybermen, meaning that the most prevalent part of the episode doesn’t feel as “cyber” as expected. Playing the coldness of the Cyber-mind against the inherent warmth of the Doctor’s hearts could only have added to the dialogue.

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T. J. Eckleburg

Were there aspects of “Nightmare in Silver” on which Gaiman capitalized? Absolutely! For the 49.881% that was misguided, there was 49.881% that exemplified the best of Doctor Who. Considering that much of his work centers around the Freudian concept of the uncanny – that something can be recognizable, and yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a cognitive dissonance, of a feeling of “uncomfortable familiarity” – Gaiman is, in theory, ideally suited to author a story about the Cybermen. His attention to detail is admirable, as he provides reason for the Mondasian and Cybus lines of Cybermen to join together, foreshadows their uprising in the third act via the subplot of missing spare parts at the barracks, and realizes that the inherent plasticity of a child’s developing brain is more suited to cyber-conversion. (Why has no one thought of that before?) Also, the concept of an ever-upgrading Cyberman is a fantastic addition to the mythos.

The episode provides Clara many opportunities to be resourceful – again, one of her only defining traits – and helps rectify her treatment otherwise in the script. It is gratifying to see this companion develop to the point that she believably contributes to saving the day, rather than having her actions be a means to convince the audience that she great and we should love her! Clara’s impassioned speech that she is only alive because she obeys the Doctor’s orders is classic “companion,” and seeing her armed with a giant laser rifle and, later, a mace recalls both Rose and Ace.

Gaiman incorporates several interesting ideas about the Doctor, too – that Eleven could be “reconstructed via the hole [he’d] left”; that he’d “do something about that”; that he could’ve regenerated to defeat the Cybermen, but had a valid reason to avoid that outcome. Gaiman practically tailors his script to give Matt Smith an opportunity to act opposite himself, à la “The Almost People.” Matt doesn’t disappoint, shading his portrayal of both characters with such finesse that it makes a bold statement: the Cyber-controlled “Mr. Clever” and the Eleventh Doctor aren’t so different.

Perhaps a better episode for Gaiman to have written would be “Amy’s Choice.” The story contains many fairy tale elements much more suited to Gaiman’s talents, and it would’ve been interesting to see his take on the Time Lord/Dream Lord interplay.

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