As I’ve mentioned before, I gave up regularly watching Doctor Who sometime towards the end of the Tennant era. Nonetheless, I come back for the occasional really special episode. And last Saturday’s episode Nightmare in Silver promised to be one of those, considering it was written by Neil Gaiman.
Now I quite liked Neil Gaiman’s first Doctor Who episode, The Doctor’s Wife. It was a very good episode and probably would have ranked as a all-time top five favourite, if it had been broadcast at a time when I still gave a damn about Doctor Who. As for Nightmare in Silver – well, it was underwhelming, to put it kindly.
The episode opens with the Doctor and current companion Clara Oswald, portrayed by Jenna Louise Coleman, as well as two black kids, who were something of a surprise (apparently, Clara is a nanny and those are her charges), arriving on what looks like the fakest moonbase ever. Honestly, this would have been a good moonbase in 1973 and even in 1983, but for 2013 it’s just pathetic. Now it quickly turns out that the terribly fake looking moon where the TARDIS landed is not the real moon at all, but part of the biggest amusement park in the galaxy. Too bad it still looks terribly fake, though.
Indeed, my initial reaction to Nightmare in Silver was, “Shit, this looks like a Sylvester McCoy episode.” If you know anything at all about Doctor Who history, you know how uncomplimentary that is, because the Sylvester McCoy era of the late 1980s is widely considered a nadir of the series where even decent episodes with decent scripts were marred by abysmal production values and budgets of approximately fifty quid per episode. Now there has been the occasional episode of the new Doctor Who that looks flat out cheap – 2005’s The Long Game and Boom Town or 2006’s Fear Her come to mind. But this wasn’t a crappy filler episode, this was an episode written by Neil Gaiman, for heaven’s sake. And you don’t scimp on the production values of a Neil Gaiman episode.
Now there were some moments in the episode where it was clear that the production team spent some money, e.g. they had an army of Cybermen that was actually played by actors and there was some decent CGI in the scene of the Cybermen awakening from their tomb or the scene with a Cyberman moving very fast to kidnap one of the two kids in Clara’s charge. But most of the time, my reaction was, “God, did new Doctor Who always look so cheap and I just didn’t notice?” Because this episode – an episode written by a prominent writer whose name is a draw in itself – looks like crap. The production values would have been acceptable on the Sarah Jane Adventures, back when the juvenile spin-off still existed, but not on the parent show. Now I know that Doctor Who is considered a family show, but that doesn’t mean it has to look like a kids’ show.
But it wasn’t just the production values that dragged this episode down. No, the whole thing felt somewhat silly and campy. Now I quite like Doctor Who to be silly and campy at times. For example, the 2006 episode Love and Monsters, which pretty much everybody else hates, is one of my favourites of new Doctor Who. But silly and campy is not what you want from an episode that was supposed to make the Cybermen scary again.
So what happens? The Doctor takes his companion Clara and her two young charges to the biggest amusement park in the galaxy, but unfortunately, the park is closed, destroyed in the Cyberwars. Now the only people left holding the fort (literally, it turns out) are Herrick from Being Human, a little guy called Porridge, played by SF film legend Warwick Davies, and a platoon of soldiers led by Tamzin Outhwaite, who have been sent to this outpost as a punishment for insubordination. Among the park’s biggest attraction are three inactive Cybermen, one of which is used as a sort of Mechanical Turk chessplayer by the Herrick character and Porridge. The Doctor spots a couple of strange insects which turn out to be tiny cybermats (cybermites, the Doctor calls them) upon closer investuigation. Unsurprisingly, the Cybermen are not inactive after all. They half-cyberize the Herrick character and kidnap and take over the two kids in Clara’s charge, because apparently the Cybermen need children for reasons never fully explained. Tamzin Outhwaite wants to blow up the planet – which is apparently standard operating procedure in case of Cybermen invasions – the Doctor stops her and puts Clara in charge, while he tries to find out how to rescue the children. Alas, the Doctor’s rescue attempt goes horribly wrong, when he gets himself infected with cyberisation as well.
Now it’s quite surprising that in the 47 years since they first appeared on the show, the Cybermen have never once tried to convert the Doctor. After all, converting the Doctor would only be logical, would it? Nonetheless, the Cybermen never tried until this episode and it doesn’t work all that well either. Instead, what happens is that the Doctor and a Cyberplanner wage war inside the Doctor’s mind and his body, which would have been very thrilling indeed, if Star Trek TNG hadn’t done the same thing with Locutus, the Borg Picard, more than twenty years ago. And considering how much I dislike that Star Trek TNG episode (yes, I know it’s popular, but I’ve never liked the Borg and I can’t stand that two-parter), comparing it favourably to Doctor Who is really something for me.
In the end, the Doctor and the Cyberplanner end up paying a round of chess for control of the Doctor’s mind and body, since – as the Doctor informs us – the Timelords invented chess, to the surprise of the Vulcans (okay, wrong franchise). The Doctor finally manages to trick the Cybermen using their old weakness to gold. Indeed, there are some nice shout-outs to old Cybermen episodes such as the fake Moonbase at the beginning, a shout-out to the 1966 episode The Moonbase, or a mention of their old susceptibility to gold and cleaning fluid (though I seem to recall that it was nail polish remover that beat the Cybermen back in the 1960s). We also get a nice sense of the steady evolution of the Cybermen who constantly upgrade themselves to meet new challenges (and indeed they repeatedly outwit our heroes by upgrading themselves).
While the Doctor is fighting the Cyberplanner (didn’t they used to be called Cyberleaders or Cybercontrollers?), Clara marshalls the defenses at a castle attraction in the abandoned park and doesn’t do too badly at first. Meanwhile, Tamzin Outhwaite still wants to blow up the planet and while Clara tries to prevent her from doing it, the detonator breaks down. Even worse, the Cybermen have upgraded themselves to get past the defenses Clare and the soldiers have set up. Oh yes, and there is a whole army of them frozen in a tomb underneath the planet’s surface, a shout-out to the 1968 episode Tomb of the Cybermen. Just as things are completely hopeless, the Doctor manages to beat the Cyberplanner and the Cyberman menace is contained by blowing up the planet after all, courtesy of Warwick Davies, who is revealed to be the Emperor of the Universe and who of course has an override code. Everyone is beamed aboard the Emperor’s spaceship and the Emperor asks Clara to marry him, while the Doctor looks on positively jealous.
The sad thing is that there are some nice set pieces and performances here. I liked the tiny cybermats. I liked the superfast Cyberman and the Cyberman who detached his hand to attack a female soldier. I liked Warwick Davies of all people as the Emperor of the Universe, which puts him in a row with such other awesome height-challenged SFF characters as Miles Vorkosigan and Tyrion Lannister, though Davies’ Emperor of the Universe channels Miles more than Tyrion. What is more, Neil Gaiman is a great writer and Jason Watkins, Warwick Davies and Tamzin Outhwaite are all fine actors. Plus, I like Jenna Louise Coleman as Clara a lot and while I’m not a big fan of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, Smith himself is undoubtedly a fine actor. So how, with so much talent assembled, could the episode end up such an unholy mess? Indeed, it’s probably telling that I can’t even remember what actually happened some two days after I watched Nightmare in Silver. For a forgettable filler episode, this would be tolerable. For a Neil Gaiman episode not so much.
Between approx. 2002 and 2008, I used to enjoy Doctor Who, both old and new, a whole lot. I’ve never been a die-hard Whovian like those people who started watching as children, but I did consider myself a fan. I stopped watching abruptly towards the end of Tennant’s tenure, when I suddenly realised that I no longer even liked the Doctor, let alone found anything admirable about him. Plus, I was really, really angry at how season 2 of Torchwood ruined everything that had been good about season 1 and killed off my favourite character (after Doctor Who had spent three years telling us that main character cannot die), all because Russell T. Davis and pals got panicked by the negative reviews of some haters.
Ever since then, I’ve tried to go back to Doctor Who once per season or so, hoping to recapture some of the magic. But instead, every time I go back the show looks worse than before. Indeed, my main reaction to Nightmare in Silver was “Crap, was this always so bad?” I think even the most die-hard fans can see by now that Doctor Who is on the decline and has been for a while. And perhaps it’s time to finally let the good Doctor rest for a while again.
The next time trailer turned out to be for the season final, which is tantalisingly called The Name of the Doctor and promises to reveal the Doctor’s greatest secret. Now I’d certainly like to know the Doctor’s name and his greatest secret, but I’m not sure if I’ll bother watching.
For a different perspective, see this interesting article by Charlie Jane Anders on the central problem with Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who.