Silver Age Sentients: Nightmare in Silver in Perspective
Guest contributor Josh Oren takes another look at Neil Gaiman’s Series 7 episode.
May 2011 saw what is arguably the best episode of modern Doctor Who, “The Doctor’s Wife”, penned by experienced writer, Neil Gaiman. After being such a phenomenal hit, it’s no wonder that fans craved for another episode by the novelist who’s a master of his craft in storytelling. And while his first ever episode of Doctor Who went on to win a Hugo and many other awards, it set the bar pretty high, and his fans would have a big expectation of anything else Doctor Who related that he creates. As a result, Nightmare in Silver suffers from the hype, but it certainly holds up as a good enough story accompanied by some stellar performances by Matt Smith and Warwick Davis (more than enough to make up for the sub-par child performances), and with some hit-and-miss upgrades to the Cybermen.
“Well, here we are, Hedgewick’s World, the biggest and best amusement park there will ever be, and we’ve got a golden ticket!”
Within the opening minutes of the episode, we instantly knew we were in for a treat. Eye candy, to be precise. The visuals were astounding! The lively-orange and silver-blue backdrop scenery within the Doctor’s mind as he bantered with Mr. Clever looked like they could’ve been a cover straight from Gaiman’s very own Sandman series. The galaxy-that-ceased-to-be in the sky struck a sweet chord of melancholy, the Cybermen waking from their slumber in the Cyber tombs was chilling, and Porridge’s ship had a grand majestic tone of royalty that fits in with its happy ending. These few moments are examples of such scenes that would look amazing if a still was taken of them and hung up as a painting.
The plot itself wasn’t anything too complex, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Doctor and co. land on Hedgewick’s World, meet the imperial squad, encounter a Cyberman, and soon end up facing a whole army of them.
What was great about The Doctor’s Wife was seeing it reflect on old Who (Psychic containers, deleting rooms and revisiting one, etc.) and bring in some new mythos, making for a fantastic melting pot of entertainment. The Cybermen in this episode were a fusion of the “Cybus”men and the Mondas Cybermen, but this episode as a whole had also combined the history of the old Cybermen and the flashiness of the new, making it all the more enjoyable.
It should be noted that Gaiman knows the Cybermen well enough to sprinkle the episode with delightful nods to the past for old school fans to pick up on. Acknowledging cleaning fluid and gold as a weakness was a nice touch (or more appropriately, slap), the mention of “Moonbase”, the Cyber-Planner returned and was portrayed in a clever way instead of being an immobile machine, the Cyber tombs made an appearance, and on top of it all, a new creature was added to the Cybermen: the Cybermites. And while Gaiman was at it, he got to add more to the Time Lord mythos as well, explicitly stating that Time Lords invented chess, which is so logical and believable.
“Now, if you don’t mind, I have a chess game to finish, and you have to die, pointlessly, and very far from home.”
Undoubtedly the greatest scenes of this episode are Smith’s performance as both the Doctor and the Cyber-Planner, who fittingly names himself “Mr. Clever”, as they battle wits as the fulcrum of scenario in this episode. Acting in a role similar to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without looking stupid is hard enough, but Smith pulled it off wonderfully, and heightens it with the contrast in the Cyber-Planner’s character with the Doctor’s. The Cyber-Planner’s darker nature is some of the most menacing performances Smith has done all season (or perhaps all of his seasons), while the Doctor is still the hoper of far-flung hopes in the midst of 3 million Cybermen, and the good man he always believed himself to be, even sacrificing the most important piece of the game in order to win back the children. Only to come back and win by thinking outside of the box, proving in the end who really deserves the title of Mr. Clever.
Another great bit of quality to the episode was Clara’s sudden demand in leadership, which she took with little hesitation. At first you wonder why the Doctor would put Clara in charge of the platoon, but perhaps the Doctor already got the feeling that the Captain was going to be trouble later on. With Clara at the forefront, we get to see a more commandeering side to her, which Jenna-Louise Coleman acted with ease. She can practically play this character in her sleep by now. Her role in this episode was another chance to see the companion more engaged with the plot than normal, instead of being just the girl who tagged along with the Doctor.
“We defeated them all 1,000 years ago, but now he’s back… to destroy you!”
The big picture of this episode was to see the Cybermen and present them in a new light. Gaiman was brought back to Doctor Who when he received an e-mail from Moffat asking him if he wanted to make the Cybermen scary again. To which Gaiman happily replied “yes” (but not without a fond memory of The Moonbase coming to surface simultaneously), so it begs the question: Did he make them scary again?
Yes and no.
Yes, especially because of a particular new feature where the Cybermen actually upgrade past their weaknesses, continuously adapting to survive (Trekkies will argue that this is a Borg-like quality, while Whovians will reply that the Cybermen inspired the Borg). And on top of that, the upgrade went across the whole Cyberiad network, like an ever evolving hive mind. An enemy capable of adapting to any weakness (minus an implosion device to the face, that tends to do the trick with anything), running on cold logic and converting its enemies into one of its own? These Cybermen could give the Daleks a run for their money.
It was speculated that the Cybermen weren’t going to make noise when they walked, which could’ve been amazing and scare the audience in a Weeping Angels fashion: you’d see nothing one second, look away for a few, and then turn back to see a Cyberman has crept up on you in silence. While this would’ve been superb, the production team did the sensible thing in not making them silent (but they were quieter). It wouldn’t have transitioned well in modern television, as it would’ve looked like an editing error to the audience to see a Cyberman walking and hear nothing. While the Cybermen don’t scare instantaneously to make you jump in your seat, their concepts alone are enough to make goosebumps surface.
The new Cybermen design is definitely a plus, making them look more human than the clunky “Cybus”men ever did, and making the Cybermen resemble humans was always the point: people who wanted to improve their lives by adding metal and plastic to their bodies and unfortunately went too far with it. While classic episodes have dwelled on this long enough to scare a generation of viewers, there was hardly any evidence of the Cybermen in this episode being a result of mechanized humans. They were just simply machines woken up from hibernation. It may have been implied that they were converted humans, and if so, that wasn’t made clear. It’s not a fault all on its own, but it does lose its past horror aspect of seeing an android and knowing that it was a human once, and now nothing more but plastic and metal with (maybe) a literal heart, but devoid of soul. This is probably the main problem with the new Cybermen, as that trait was probably one of big reasons why these are known as some of the most iconic enemies in Doctor Who.
Another problem is that the episode was close to making the Cybermen too powerful. Our first scene with a Cyberman shows it running through a haze of bullets a light speed. Thankfully that was the only time we saw one go that fast, but it does make one wonder why the rest of the Cybermen don’t just run at light speed. The biggest problem was this: One Cyberman proved to be a hassle to eliminate, and 2 Cybermen would be almost impossible. But 3 million? Compared to the rag-tag team of the punishment platoon, the odds were so impossible you can’t help but know that they were going to get out alive, and not just because you know there was for sure going to be another episode next week. Although it’s fair to say that the army of Cybermen was presented to show that not only did the Doctor not have a chance, but that the whole universe didn’t.
Even still, it’s admirable to see the Clara and the platoon still fight the leagues of Cybermen with only 5 hand pulsors and 1 anti-Cyber gun at their disposal, all the while still looking for other ways to deal with the enemy and constantly having to adjust and adapt as they went along. It’s just unfortunate that the Cybermen were much better and quicker at upgrading than the punishment unit was.
“I was sent her because I didn’t follow orders… I can make up for that.”
Unfortunately, the Cybermen weren’t the only ones to have flaws. It’s rather odd that the Captain explicitly mentions that her unit was sent there as punishment for her disobeying orders, only to have her disobey orders again and get herself killed this time around. It’s plausible to say it’s just in her character to be a loose cannon who doesn’t follow any rules, but there wasn’t much purpose to her role.
The ending was mixed bag, the good having been Angie noticing that Porridge was the emperor, proving that children can (emphasis on “can”) be good company to the Doctor, as they can spot things that adults are blind to, while the bad being that the savior of the episode was a deus ex machina when Porridge voice activated the safety mechanism and warp jumped the whole crew to his ship, making the episode fall victim to a quick ending. But at the very least, when the Cybermen were destroyed into nothing more than fine silver dust drifting in space, the lone Cybermite still leaves us hoping for the Cybermen to return.
A ho-hum ending shouldn’t be seen as a huge set-back to the entire episode. It’s not the ending that people tune in every Saturday for, but instead the journey along the way. The episode didn’t exactly meet its hype, (something I fear Gaiman will always have to struggle against when it comes to Who), but it was a fun, beautiful journey and a great Cybermen story that proved to be a splendid addition to the season, and a good hor d’oeuvre to the tasty main course of a finale known as The Name of the Doctor. It may not have been the Cybermen episode everyone expected, but at least they can upgrade past their weaknesses, including love (*ahem* Closing Time, anyone?). And if the future Cybermen episodes are of the same quality as this one, if not better, then we’re truly witnessing a true upgrade in progress.