Doctor Who episode 813: Nightmare in Silver (11/5/2013)
‘You’re the impossible girl. He’s very interested in you.’ Neil Gaiman’s first Doctor Who episode was a largely successful experiment. This is an unmitigated disaster. What happened? I can see that this is trying to do for the Cybermen what Rob Shearman did for the Daleks – making them a relentlessly scary force. It does this by using a lot of the same tricks (tricks we already saw again a few weeks ago in Cold War), starting with a decrepit, forlorn survivor of a great war turned into a piece of entertainment before it regenerates into a Borg creature continually upgrading, resistant to the usual attacks, and able to spin or separate different parts of its body (just like Shearman’s Dalek).
The difference is, the Cybermen might be implacable but they’re also useless. A single Dalek exterminated Van Statten’s entire bunker. This huge army of Cybermen, bigger than any seen before, doesn’t even manage to wipe out a couple of kids and some punishment duty soldiers, and finally gets defeated, like Fenric, by a chess problem. They’re as hopeless as Captain Ferrin’s team. They might look beautifully shiny and sleek – silver, rather than the brushed steel of the Cybus versions, and with the shape of Blake’s Ghost of a Flea – but there’s nothing else to them. They’re the least effective Cyber force since – well, since the hapless scavengers in Closing Time, or the cannon fodder the Doctor explodes at the start of A Good Man Goes to War. This era really hates the Cybermen.
Instead of Cybermen, the main threat comes from Matt Smith talking to himself. The Cyber Planner is, sadly, as useless as its Cybermen. It doesn’t help that Smith decides to play his alter ego as a comic book supervillain, delighting in his own evil, cackling at Clara, and getting annoyed when the Doctor keeps reasserting control. Given the Cybermen are famously emotionless, this feels like a weird choice, and I suggest a more interesting contrast to the 11th Doctor’s freewheeling whimsy might have been a tightly controlled, brutal character more like Smith’s own Daemon Targaryen. As the episode pins so much on this dual role, this is a significant problem. Especially when the Doctor is back on the ick with lines like, ‘A mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that’s just a little bit too tight.’
And the third big problem is Clara. This episode is catastrophic for Clara’s characterisation. She genuinely is “the impossible girl” here, not the ordinary woman Series 7 has so far suggested she really is. She’s been upgraded into a hyper-confident military commander who barely suppresses a smirk when the children in her care are kidnapped and converted into Cybermen (and why have them in it, really, when their survival seems largely incidental to the rest of the plot). Her unfeasible abilities to wield a Cyber-killing bazooka, direct military operations and parley with an alien psychopath make me wonder whether this was written with River Song in mind. There’s practically no difference between this new take on Clara and Bonnie the ISIS Zygon. I don’t buy it.
But then, I don’t buy this episode at all. Occasionally there are sweet moments (many involving Porridge, whose sympathy for the man who has to press the button to destroy a galaxy foreshadows forthcoming revelations in The Day of the Doctor). The use of the golden ticket is good. The CyberMites are neat. The setting is memorable. The point is to apply a comic strip aesthetic to the TV show, with larger than life characters; double-page spreads (like the huge Cyber army attacking the castle, or the ruins of the theme park), and snappy speech bubble dialogue. I wish it hadn’t been such a bad miss.
Next Time: The Name of the Doctor
A really unfortunate mixture of Moffat with his eyes off the ball (solving awful production problems elsewhere, I understand) and Gaiman losing what one would hope was a much better earlier draft in a hard drive crash.