After the almost universal acclaim (and a clutch of awards) for “The Doctor’s Wife” in 2011, the next episode to be written by Neil Gaiman had a lot to live up to. “Nightmare in Silver” makes good use of the Doctor’s second-most famous enemies, the Cybermen, but it’s a step down from Gaiman’s previous outing, with gratuitous guest characters and a grab-bag of under-developed ideas. Revolving around the fate of two children, at times it feels like an episode from the late lamented Doctor Who spinoff series for kids, The Sarah Jane Adventures.
At the end of last week’s episode, the children that Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) is looking after, Angie (Eve De Leon Allen) and Artie (Kassius Carey Johnson), found out about her travels with the Doctor (Matt Smith), and they’ve now apparently cajoled him into giving them a trip in the TARDIS. A common trope of children’s TV is that the child protagonists are shown running rings around the lumbering adults, and there’s an element of that here with Angie later being the one who reveals a particular plot twist. Unfortunately, she tends to come across as an overly smug, teenage brat, and it’s probably just as well that she and Artie are shunted to one side for most of the episode.
At the start, there’s a tone of whimsical, Willy Wonka-ish fantasy as the Doctor brings Clara and the children to Hedgewick’s World, the universe’s biggest amusement park. However, they’ve arrived at a time when the place has been closed down due to mysterious disappearances (later revealed to be caused by the Cybermen using the patrons to replenish their population). They meet a stranded showman, Webley (Jason Watkins), a typically quirky Gaiman character who spends a lot of time demonstrating a recreation of the famous fake “automaton” chess player with which Wolfgang von Kempelen mystified spectators throughout Europe in the late 18th century. It’s a cute way to introduce a Cyberman, but these initial sequences are very slow-paced. Once Webley gets assimilated by the Cybermen, the fantasy element quickly recedes as he’s reduced to spouting exposition at the Doctor.
One of Gaiman’s stated objectives for this episode was to make the Cybermen scary, and they certainly display some impressive new capabilities: They’re fast-moving, for the first time ever, and have the ability to detach their heads or limbs, which can then act independently. It’s quite an upgrade when the standard method of dealing with them is now a planetary implosion. Unfortunately, their presentation here is rather too derivative of the Borg from Star Trek, with their “cyber-mites” causing eruptions of metallic appliances on the faces of their victims, and their ability to instantly adapt to any tactic used against them. Gaiman also includes lots of fan-pleasing references to past Cybermen stories. There’s too many to list all of them, but among the most prominent are gold being used as a weapon against the creatures, the shot of a triple column of advancing Cybermen that was a memorable cliffhanger in 1982’s “Earthshock,” and a lovely wide shot of dozens of them that harks back to 1967’s “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” but on a scale the story’s makers could only dream of.
The Doctor becomes infected by the cyber-mites, and has to fight off a takeover of his body by the central controller of the Cybermen. This involves a lot of scenes of the Doctor playing chess against himself, which would have been very dull had Smith not gone for broke with his performance. He gets to do a lot of acting with himself, both in split-screen and by simply switching between characters. His shouting and sneering as the “Cyber-Planner” is an odd way to depict a supposed machine intelligence, but he certainly sells the conflict within the Doctor. A nice touch is the scene where the Doctor seems to be expressing deep feelings for Clara, only for her to realize it’s the Cyber-Planner. On the other hand, Smith’s brief impersonations of his two predecessors, Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, could politely be described as loose approximations.
As cannon-fodder for the Cybermen, the episode provides a platoon of soldiers, but portrays them as a collection of losers and screw-ups reminiscent of the comic bumblers in “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe.” The captain of the troops (Tamzin Outhwaite) is the only one who’s more than one-dimensional, and she dies halfway through, leaving the stage free for Clara to take command. The direction of the episode, by newcomer Stephen Woolfenden, is no more than adequate, and is particularly confused in the scene where the captain gets shot by a Cyberman (the editing and choice of reaction shots obscure what’s going on for no reason).
By far the best of the guest cast is Warwick Davis as Porridge, the diminutive operator of Webley’s chess-playing “robot” who turns out to be the leader of the galaxy-spanning Roman-style human empire in which the episode is set (Gaiman building on a throwaway line in 2005’s “The End of the World”). The reveal of the Emperor’s identity is well done, though his subsequent saving of everyone by transmat is a little too easy a resolution—and raises the question of why he didn’t do it before. The subplot of the lonely emperor running away from his throne and falling for Clara could almost have been a separate story in itself. Even with it being mostly unspoken, Davis and Coleman work well together, and make a surprisingly effective moment of their final scene.
Coleman has another good episode, bantering well with Smith as usual, and showing Clara as a good leader when she smoothly takes command of the soldiers and comes up with ideas for dealing with the Cybermen. As for the season arc-plot, about Clara being “the impossible girl,” that’s been spinning its wheels for some weeks now, and this episode is no different, simply repeating what’s already been established. But as a prequel for the next episode (released online by the BBC) hints, all is about to be revealed.
Next Week: We finally get some answers, about what’s going on with Clara and much else, in Steven Moffat’s season finale, “The Name of the Doctor.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: For another Cybermen story that involves their vulnerability to gold and a threat to explode a planet, check out 1975’s “Revenge of the Cybermen,” starring Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, and Ian Marter.
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