The Cybermen have always been my favorite Doctor Who monsters. When I decided to get into Doctor Who back in 2002, the first DVD I bought and watched was the Patrick Troughton story “Tomb Of The Cybermen.” For all its well-documented faults, it was that story, that Doctor, and those monsters that made me a Doctor Who fan, and so I’m always hopeful that the show will tell a story worthy of these monsters’ potential, although it hasn’t happened often. “Earthshock,” the classic series’ only really effective post-Troughton Cybermen story, basically just treated them like killer robots, while latter-day appearances in stories like “Army Of Ghosts”/“Doomsday” and “A Good Man Goes To War” reduced them to cannon fodder, a quick way to demonstrate why the Daleks and the Doctor are so much scarier.
Part of the problem with the Cybermen is that the very thing that makes them so fascinating is also what tends to undercut them as villains. The Cybermen aren’t just Daleks with legs; they aren’t driven by hatred or xenophobia. In their original conception, the Cybermen were humans (or Mondasians, if we’re being technical) who prized survival above all else, and so they gradually, voluntarily removed everything that made them human until only cold logic remained. That pathos drives their debut story, “The Tenth Planet,” but their overriding obsession with survival, whatever the cost, only becomes clear when the Cybermen are on the brink of extinction. This often translates to the Cybermen skulking around sewers and making convenient alliances with those foolish enough to believe they can control these monsters. But what’s really difficult is trying to write the Cybermen from a position of strength, as Neil Gaiman attempts to do in “Nightmare In Silver.”
The episode takes place an indeterminate amount of time in the far, far future—Gaiman suggested a quarter of a million years from now in a Radio Times interview, though I don’t believe that’s ever mentioned onscreen—and depicts a human-dominated universe still reeling from the Cyber Wars that raged a millennium prior. The Cybermen are supposedly extinct, which, as always, means they are just about to revive themselves and resume their intergalactic conquest. The huge jump forward in time means Gaiman can give the Cybermen impressive new powers, not to mention skirt any questions of whether these are Mondas or Cybus Cybermen. Now part of a giant, presumably universe-spanning network known as the Cyberiad, the Cybermen show a Borg-like ability to upgrade themselves in the face of any new threat, and there are no longer any compatibility issues with non-human species, which the Doctor learns when his mind is chosen as the new home for the Cyber-Planner.
As an episode-specific threat, this new take on the Cybermen works well, particularly in how it allows Matt Smith to play hero and villain simultaneously. The Cybermen are a credible, serious threat here in a way they haven’t been since at least “Earthshock,” and you might have to go all the way back to 1968’s “The Invasion” for the last time they struck such fear into their opponents, the Doctor very much included. The problem I had when I first watched “Nightmare In Silver” is that these don’t always feel like the Cybermen of old, and that’s particularly true of the snarling, manipulative, emotional Cyber-Planner. I go back and forth on whether that’s really a valid criticism; I don’t think the show should be slavishly adherent to its past, because that way lies creative death, but the decision to use the Cybermen as an episode’s monsters as opposed to some other alien race brings with it certain responsibilities to their past history.
And, just to be clear, this episode absolutely respects Cybermen lore. There’s a verbal shout-out to “The Moonbase,” the shot of the Cybermen emerging from their sleep is a major visual homage to “Tomb Of The Cybermen,” and the Doctor briefly makes use of the classic Cybermen’s most wonderfully bizarre weakness, their allergy to gold. While Gaiman doesn’t deconstruct the Cybermen as expertly as he did the TARDIS in “The Doctor’s Wife,” he comes close with the constant talk of blowing up the planet. The Doctor’s irritable order that Captain Alice Ferren not blow up the planet initially seems so over-the-top that it must be a gag, but it soon becomes clear that imploding the planet—or, a thousand years earlier, an entire galaxy—is the only way to stop the Cybermen. As extreme as it might be, that reaction is the only way to deal with the Cybermen’s insane drive to survive, and that apparent throwaway line actually shows the Cybermen tremendous respect. And while these elements can seem a bit overshadowed by the departures from the usual depictions of the Cybermen, the fact that 250,000 years have passed gives the episode some leeway; in fact, there’s dramatic potential in the idea that the Cybermen have gone around killing and converting for so long that they have completely forgotten why they ever started doing so in the first place. But neither the Doctor nor the Cyber-Planner ever comments on this, because there’s simply no time for idle chatter.
Indeed, the fundamental problem with “Nightmare In Silver” is that it has too many ideas and not enough time to develop them all. This episode crams a minimum of 60 minutes of story into just 45 minutes, and if there were ever an argument for reviving the two-part episodes (which were dropped for some fairly compelling reasons, per Steven Moffat), then this episode is it. Last week, I praised “The Crimson Horror” for reducing the obligatory exposition to shorthand, but that only worked because the setup was so familiar. The sudden inclusion of Artie and Angie, the two children Clara helps look after, is just taken as a given after their implied blackmail at the end of the last episode. It’s possible to guess why they are there, and Clara later thanks the Doctor for giving them a day out, but the Doctor is selective enough in who he lets into the TARDIS that it’s still deeply weird to see a couple of brats pop their heads out of the door with no explanation. That last descriptor is perhaps unfair (at least for Artie, who seems more frightened than anything else), but the story has little use for them beyond providing the Cybermites with an excuse to start the resurrection process. To really work as characters, they need at least one solid scene of characterization—to keep with the Cybermen theme, I’d suggest something along the lines of the Doctor and Victoria’s conversation in “Tomb Of The Cybermen”—and there just isn’t room for that sort of moment.
Other elements of the episode are underdeveloped, but there tends to be enough there to make Gaiman’s mad ambition worthwhile. The punishment platoon is a clever concept, but the story leans too heavily on the fact that one soldier is fat and another wears glasses as a way to convey their incompetence. Indeed, Captain Ferren is actually quite capable, and the reason she’s there at all is because she once disobeyed the standing order to blow up a planet; once again, this is a good idea, but the storytelling is too condensed for it to have the proper impact. The most effective use of the platoon comes when one lonely soldier is patrolling a dark corridor as a Cyberman approaches. She plaintively asks whether it would be all right for her to hide, and she tries to scare off the Cybermen by shouting she’s in the army. It’s a funny sequence, and it also taps into an underlying absurdity of Doctor Who’s countless base-under-siege stories, which call for supposedly competent soldiers to be summarily picked off by the monster.
But really, this is Matt Smith’s episode, and whatever objections I might have about the Cyber-Planner as a representative of the Cybermen, he is one hell of a terrifying villain. Indeed, while the Cyber-Planner does briefly make a familiar point about the folly of emotions, he’s less a Cyberman than he is an alien intelligence filtered through the dark side of the Doctor’s psyche. As such, Smith’s work here recalls Toby Jones’ performance as the Dream Lord in “Amy’s Choice,” and both Gaiman and Smith take obvious pleasure in twisting the Doctor’s usual daffiness into something darker. He turns in a pair of powerhouse performances, and part of the fun is that it’s sometimes impossible to tell which of the two characters Smith is playing at any given time. There’s any number of brilliant moments that could be singled out, but I’ll just point to his mid-episode status update to Clara and the soldiers, in which the Doctor admits he’s run into a few setbacks while covering his face, both to hide his cybernetic implant and to stop Clara from attacking him. His forced attempt at his usual goofy exuberance contrasts brilliantly with his final command, in which he coldly orders the soldiers to immobilize him quickly.
The main guest star for this episode is Warwick Davis, who brings considerable gravitas to his role of the emperor hiding in plain sight. This final reveal is only a twist inasmuch as the Doctor and Clara don’t notice the fairly obvious truth; Captain Ferren instantly treats him as a hugely powerful person and chastises him for running away from his responsibilities, and Davis conveys the unfathomable responsibilities of his position when he explains to Clara that he feels sorry for the poor soul who had to destroy an entire galaxy to defeat the Cybermen. While this is a fairly obvious twist, I must admit I didn’t actually guess Porridge was specifically the Emperor until Angie pointed it out. But it is arguably an unnecessary secret for the episode to keep, as part of the reason I enjoyed “Nightmare In Silver” so much more on a second viewing was that I could see precisely how Porridge fit into the larger story. He acts like the emperor throughout the episode, and his interactions and motivations make far more sense in hindsight, which in turn makes the episode better.
The great joy of watching Doctor Who—and the great terror of reviewing it—is the fact that the show can tell any story, inhabit any genre, and explore any topic on any given week. That means the criteria I used to judge “The Crimson Horror” are wholly inadequate to evaluate “Nightmare In Silver,” and I don’t just mean that as a critic. Each Doctor Who story require you to get on its particular wavelength, and while the best do that immediately—which is one reason why, yes, “The Doctor’s Wife” is better than “Nightmare In Silver”—it’s still possible to construct a worthwhile episode that only really pops on the second viewing. Indeed, I generally find Doctor Who stories improve when watched again, as I now know what a given episode is trying to do and can more easily fill in narrative blanks when necessary. This episode has far more blanks than a wholly successful story really should, but the sheer scope of Gaiman’s ambition makes up for it. His reach exceeds his grasp, but the world he creates is so complicated and so fascinating and all the characters he populates it with are so compelling that it’s absolutely worth spending time in, even if 45 minutes isn’t nearly enough. I’ve rarely been as disappointed by a Doctor Who episode as I was the first time I watched “Nightmare In Silver”—and I’ve rarely been as impressed with an episode as I was the second time I watched it. As such, I really have no choice but to split the grades this week. So then…
Grade on initial viewing: B/B-
Grade on second and hopefully all subsequent viewings: A-
- Fine, I’m still not a fan of how Clara is used in this episode, as she shows a natural flair for command that doesn’t really fit with the occasional, understandable cowardice she showed in “Cold War” and “Hide.” I hate to say it, but Clara’s attitude here seems way, way better suited to Amy Pond. I’m tempted to chalk this up to the generally overstuffed nature of the episode—Clara could just be showing a natural flair for command, and once again there’s just not enough time to acknowledge that transformation. I’ve got more to say about how the show has used Clara, but since I’ve already written more than enough, I’ll save it for next week’s finale. Indeed, my delaying tactic seems rather in keeping with how the show approaches its own overarching narrative.
- Insane, Obviously Wrong Theory Corner: Maybe this is just because I recently rewatched “The Wedding Of River Song,” but what if all the narrative gaps in this episode are actually the result of more meddling by the Silence? After all, there are few faster ways to harm the Doctor in the eyes of those who love him (in other words, the audience) than to stick a couple kids on the TARDIS. Plus, this would mean the Cybermen are upstaged yet again by some more powerful threat, which is very them.
- Matt Smith gets to imitate his two predecessors—between this and “The Almost People,” I think he’s close to the complete set. Those with a better ear for English accents can correct me, but I think Smith misses the mark on Christopher Eccleston’s Mancunian accent and goes with a more rural Northern sound. Still, he gets the intonations largely right for David Tennant’s Doctor, although I would have liked an overly long “Well…” to be thrown in there. I should point out that this is the Cyber-Planner imitating the previous Doctors, rather than the Doctor himself, so these are more mean-spirited caricatures than wholly accurate impersonations.
- “Do you think I’m pretty?” “No, you’re too short and bossy and your nose is all funny.” “Good enough!”