Tuesday, 14 May 2013

WHO REVIEW: 2013-7: Nightmare in Silver

Overhyping is killing me this year. The penultimate episode of season seven/eight/7-b/33/whatever, Nightmare in Silver was bigged up ridiculously in the lead-up to its broadcast. Well, so has every episode this year, it’s part and parcel of the Doctor Who publicity engine. Even so, this time it really promised something. Neil Gaiman, fantasy author extraordinaire, vowed to make the Cybermen scary again. This was even described as the Cybermen’s equivalent of Dalek, the episode that redefined the pepperpots as unstoppable monsters to be truly feared and yet pitied. I’m not going to get into the current debate regarding how much of the final script was Gaiman’s work, as opposed to Moffatt’s. I don’t know the ins-and-outs of what happens behind the scenes at Cardiff, all I can go on is the credits on screen and the information on the official site and in the official magazine. Whoever wrote it, though, Nightmare in Silver is a drastically flawed episode, and Gaiman is the name pinned to it. I really, really don’t want to attack his work. He’s one of my favourite authors. But that just means my expectations were particularly high this week. The Doctor’s Wife was Neil Gaiman’s tour de force debut as Doctor Who author, and I guess Nightmare in Silver was his difficult second album. I fully accept that even the greatest writers can’t knock the ball out of the park with every single piece of work they write, but even so, Nightmare in Silver was a disappointment. It’s entertaining throughout, and we shouldn’t turn our noses up at that, but this is Neil Gaiman, for crying out loud. He’s better than this.

After last week’s clumsy linking scene bringing Clara’s young wards into the Doctor’s world, we knew we were getting two kids aboard the TARDIS. I’m fine with that. It’s a kids’ show. The problem is with the kids in question. Both the actors are fine, but aren’t really up to the calibre of some of the child actors we’ve had over the last couple of years, and haven’t the skill to make anything more of the material. Which would be fine if this was Gaiman’s usual grade of material. Instead we’ve got one boring young boy who doesn’t really say much, and one sulky cow who remains distinctly unimpressed by travelling through time and space because, you know, she’s a teenager and all teenagers on telly are like that.

Then you’ve got Clara, who, despite the best efforts of Jenna-Louise, still lacks much in the way of character. In fact, she seems to be rapidly losing character as the series progresses. Perhaps this will all be part of her mysterious backstory that is due to be revealed next week, in which case I shall reconsider her, but for now she’s feeling very sketched in. In this episode the Doctor installs her as commanding officer of some military idiots (who, in fact, follow her because the Emperor tells them to, but more on that later), a task she takes to with aplomb. Essentially, Clara playacts at being a soldier, spouting unconvincing commander dialogue, which might work if she had a character of her own. Instead, she’s simply an unconvincing character, for almost the whole episode. Only her reactions to the children’s assimilation seems real.

So, those soldiers. It’s a punishment platoon, a group of incompetents sent to this isolated planetoid to keep them out of trouble. Fine, if this episode were a comedy. Perhaps it was supposed to be, in an earlier draft, and the idiot soldiers are a remnant, after having had any actual humour removed. I can see no other explanation for this bunch of characterless morons. The only marginally successful character among them is Tamzin Outhwaite’s Captain, and she’s a blandly drawn cypher portrayed by a bland actress. Still, at least she’s canny enough to recognise her Emperor, and to try to deal with the Cybermen in the only sensible way: by blowing the bastards up. However, she’s shot dead whilst trying to do so, in one of the most ineptly directed sequences in recent Doctor Who.

Two actors do their utmost to redeem the episode. One is Jason Watkins, for once getting to play a pleasant character instead of a complete bastard, as Webley. Sadly, he gets little to do before he’s assimilated by the Cybermen, but nonetheless he’s very entertaining to watch. Shame we’ll never see him as the Doctor – I could really see him pulling that off. The second notable actor, and the most impressive in this episode, is Warwick Davis as Porridge, the abdicated Emperor. I confess I wasn’t expecting him to be terribly good, based on previous experience of him outside of monster costumes. I was very pleasantly surprised; Davis gives a subtle, measured and very likeable performance.

There are other niggling problems. The scenes on the Spacey Zoomer ride are cute, but look very shoddy. I realise that they’re supposed to look shoddy, what with this being a rundown park (and possibly as a cheeky wink at the old Cybermen serial The Moonbase), but viewers flicking over to that initial landing would be likely to think Doctor Who had returned to being cheap and cheerful and flicked over to ITV’s Saturday night nonsense. The imperial starship throne room is Cardiff’s Temple of Peace, again, fast becoming the most overused location on BBC drama television.

It’s the plot holes that bother the most, though. Doctor Who has almost had more plot holes than plot this year, but this episode is a particularly bad offender. The Cybermen have been extinct for a thousand years, but are so dangerous that the platoon still has some anti-Cyber technology around. Fine, got that, no problem. I just don’t understand how that millennium of Cyber inactivity fits in with everything else we hear about. Porridge talks about the Cyberwar as if he took part. OK, maybe he is a thousand years old, but a little mention of that wouldn’t go amiss. Webley has been waiting to get off Hedgewick’s World for six months, having arrived unaware that it had closed down. Yet the Cybermen have been holed up there for a thousand years, waiting for a child to arrive so that they could turn him or her into a Cyber Planner. How long has the place been closed? Did it struggle along with no under-18s arriving for ten centuries, the empty Cyberman shell sitting patiently? Did the Cybermen never think to try another planet, where children actually lived?

The Cybermen need children to act as Cyber Planners. I’ll buy that; the Daleks did it once already, so it can work. Yet, once they finally have some kids, they don’t use them, and turn the Doctor into the Planner instead. What a waste. The Cybermen as child-snatchers – that’s a horrible idea, and one with some real mileage, and it gives us a chance to use those kids effectively. As it is, it feels like something left over from an earlier draft, since there really doesn’t seem to be any need for the kids to be in the episode as it is.

It’s also a rare weak episode for Matt Smith, in his dual role as the Doctor and ‘Mr Clever’ the Cyber Planner. Turning the Doctor into a Cyberman isn’t a bad idea, but the way it’s portrayed here is woeful. While part of me balks at the terribly emotional Planner, I can forgive that; the Cybermen are forever going on about how logical they are and dismissing emotions while clearly displaying them themselves. The Doctor’s alter ego is, in fact, a rather damning indictment of the Doctor’s own character. There’s not so much difference between them; Mr Clever is the Doctor with the safeties off, with all the humanity drawn out so that there’s nothing left but the manipulative bastard we all know he really is. In practice, though, what we get is several scenes of Matt Smith arguing with himself. It works reasonably effectively in the Cyberspace of the network, but in the real world it involves an extremely over the top Smith pretending to be two people. SFX likened it to that old sketch in which the drag act sings the male and female parts of a song, with different makeup on either side. It’s not that bad, but it’s not dissimilar.

The Cybermen then. They’re what the episode is all about. The new design is very effective, not vastly different to the one they’ve been using, with some modifications, since 2006, but different enough to feel new. It’s less clunky, simultaneously less robotic and less human looking, which is a feat. The faces, harking back to the Troughton era looks, are very effective. It’s also fantastic to see them really move, sweeping through throngs of people at superspeed.  The Cybermites are a great addition to the mythology, a miniature variation on the Cybermats that crawl inside people’s bodies and convert them to the Cyber cause. A brilliant idea, nicely realised onscreen. There’s more than a hint of the Borg to these new Cybermen, of course, and that’s something a lot of people have picked up on. But why not? The Borg are the Cybermen done better anyway, so why not nick their best bits? The implants that grow across the faces of the Doctor and Webley are very Borg-ish, and the Cyber network is the collective consciousness that marked the Borg out as inhumanly enmeshed with each other back in their debut. Like the Borg, these new Cybermen can adapt rapidly to attack, ‘upgrading’ in moments. They sound unstoppable.

Unfortunately, they’re not. In spite of their superhuman speed, the three million strong Cyber army slowly stomps towards the castle like they did back in 2006, taking an age to attack the platoon. This army, so deadly that it warranted the destruction of an entire galaxy, kills what, two people? The useless squad stand up to them without much bother. While the Doctor’s plan of tricking the Cyber Planner into using all the Cybermen’s processing power to play chess is a very clever one, it does rather reduce the threat that they’ve spent all episode building up. That’s kind of inevitable, I suppose, since they can’t actually be unstoppable, but… damn it, they’re still vulnerable to gold, for crying out loud. That was crap at the in the eighties, can’t we leave it there?

 Of course, they are finally defeated by blowing up the planet. Which is fine, because it turns out the imperial throneship will turn up instantly when it is activated, and beam everyone to safety. Only Porridge didn’t activate it earlier because he doesn’t like being Emperor. Good thing only a couple of people died fighting the Cybermen, then, or he’d really have felt guilty. I’m not surprised Clara didn’t marry him. Although, after the danger he put her young friends in, I am surprised she didn’t tell the Doctor she’s see him next Tuesday.

The big problem is that this episode fails in its stated mission. It was supposed to make the Cybermen scary. Perhaps it did, for a few young viewers. But for most of us, creepy detachable body parts and all, the new Cybermen are an improvement, but still a long, long way from terrifying. Much as Nightmare in Silver was fun, but still a long, long way from quality.

Doctor Data: In Cyberspace, the Doctor teaches the Cyber Planner about regeneration, showing him his previous incarnations (no sign of John Hurt) and threatening to force a regeneration to kill the Planner and knock out his network. When speaking through the Doctor’s mouth, the Cyber Planner cycles through some regenerations, shouting “Allons-y!” in the manner of the tenth Doctor, and affecting a northern accent that, I can only assume, is Matt Smith’s attempt at impersonating Christopher Eccleston. The Cyber Planner says the Doctor’s brain has had “ten complete rejigs.”

Monster, Monster, Monster: We see three Cybermen initially, one of which is one of the Cybus Industries parallel universe models, and two of which are the Matt Smith era version that has been subtly redesigned. Gaiman is of the school of thought (as am I) that these are a hybridised version of the Cybus-men and the Telosian Cybermen. The new version, sleeping in tombs beneath the surface of Hedgewick’s World, are superior upgrades, and can now convert non-human species to Cybermen. Their network/collective consciousness, and their empire, is called the Cyberiad.

Future History: The Cyberwar was fought a thousand years prior to this episode, which is set around 250,000 years in our future. A new human empire (the Fifth?) spans several galaxies. The Tiberian spiral galaxy was destroyed to end the war (so must be no more than a thousand light years from Hedgewick’s World in order for the devastation to be visible).

Links and references: The waxworks in Webley’s museum include a Blowfish alien (from Torchwood), an Uvodni (from The Sarah Jane Adventures), several background aliens from The End of Time and The Rings of Akhaten and a puppet from The God Complex.

Best Line: “Please stand by. You will be upgraded.”

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