The last time Neil Gaiman wrote an episode of Doctor Who it was widely considered the best episode of the season; his second episode, therefore, was greatly anticipated. Unlike “The Doctor’s Wife,” his memorable first outing, “Nightmare in Silver” was a bit of a disappointment. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, but it is a flawed episode, mainly, I think, due to time constraints. It was a good episode, it just fell a bit short of the bar that Gaiman himself had set with his first episode.
If I try to explain all that was going on in this story, it could take all night, so I’ll just run through the basics. The Doctor brings Clara and her charges, Angie and Artie, to Hedgewick’s World of Wonders, the universe’s best amusement park. Unfortunately, the park is in disrepair having been closed for some time. The only inhabitants are a military (punishment) platoon, Impresario Webley and his assistant, Porridge.
The Doctor becomes intrigued by strange insects, so he (and, therefore, his companions) stay to investigate. He and Clara soon learn about the society in which they find themselves, the main points being that the emperor is currently missing and there was a massive battle between the people and the Cybermen 1,000 years before. The war ended because they destroyed an entire galaxy to eliminate all the remaining Cybermen. Of course, it soon becomes apparent that the Cybermen are not extinct and the tiny insect looking things, called Cybermites, begin to take over the minds of Webley and the children.
The bulk of the episode has Clara leading the platoon (and Porridge) against an advancing army of Cybermen and the Doctor battling the Cyber-Planner (who is inside the Doctor’s head) in a high stakes game of chess: the winner gets the Doctor’s mind.
One of the strengths of this story is its characters. Just about every character you meet has at least a bit of personality to them (even the platoon members, although they are the least developed characters). Neil Gaiman has a knack for creating interesting, eccentric characters and this episode is no exception. He even made Clara an interesting character in this story, when I traditionally have had a more neutral attitude towards her. I really enjoyed the character of Webley, the showman who was willing to settle for a sandwich as payment, and I was disappointed that he was the first converted by the Cybermites (yet, I did enjoy Jason Watkins’ portrayal of the Cyber-Planner, but that also was over too soon). The most interesting character in this story, however, was Porridge/the Emperor. Warwick Davis did a great job with the character, portraying a man on the run from his responsibilities, yet he was not an irresponsible man. He and the Captain of the platoon have some great moments that help develop how each of them ended up on this particular desolate planet (without completely giving away Porridge’s identity).
A deserted amusement park is a great setting for a story. The idea of conducting a battle for survival with only old rides for cover is a great idea, I just wish more use would have been made of it. We only really see the Spacey Zoomer and Natty Longshoe’s Comical Castle (I know they don’t have the budget for more), and I was disappointed by the Comical Castle. The platoon captain emphasized the comical part to Clara when she chose it as their defensible location, but nothing really comical was ever seen; it seemed like a regular castle. I wonder if their was more to the castle that got cut because of budgetary reasons or time constraints.
One of Neil Gaiman’s goals with this episode was to make the Cybermen scary again, and I thought he achieved his goal. One of the big complaints about Cybermen was that they are quite slow and clunky when they move which is no longer the case with the upgraded Cybermen in this story. They also are a far scarier enemy with their ability to instantly upgrade to correct weaknesses. While some of this was a bit hard to believe (I can see them fixing programming errors, but they also seemed to be able to fix physical weaknesses), it made them an undefeatable enemy. How can you defeat an enemy who can very quickly correct any weaknesses you can find? I was also a bit disappointed, however, that these Cybermen are even less human than any of the others we’ve seen. Part of what makes the Cybermen so disturbing is the idea that they used to be just like us, that somewhere in that metal casing is what’s left of a human being. These Cybermen might as well have been completely robotic; with their ability to detach parts of their bodies, what’s left of the human element anymore?
As a huge fan of the Troughton era Cyberman stories, I loved the references the Gaiman scattered throughout this story. He brought back the Cyber-Planner first used in “The Wheel in Space” and “The Invasion.” The Cybermen are seen coming out of the tombs first referenced in “Tomb of the Cybermen.” I also think there were also several references to “The Moonbase.” The travelers appear to have landed on the moon when the episode opens and Artie even thinks they are on some kind of “moonbase.” There is also a reference to the weather controls malfunctioning, which was the purpose of the aforementioned moonbase in the Troughton story. Finally, the Doctor referenced the Cybermen’s susceptibility to cleaning fluids, which was discovered by Polly and used by Ben, Polly, and Jamie to stop the Cybermen. Gaiman even references the Cybermen’s weakness to gold, mentioned in the Tom Baker story “Revenge of the Cybermen.”
“Nightmare in Silver” had a great, complex plot, but a lot of things were left unexplained or unclear. I have a feeling this was due to the editing of the script. Even Neil Gaiman has mentioned things that were cut for time, like a scene explaining why the children don’t sleep in the TARDIS. I think an example of this can also be found when the Doctor is first confronting the Cyber-Planner. He mentions the people who disappeared from the park like it has been mentioned before, but this is the first time the viewers have learned this information. It seems like their must have been an earlier scene in which the Doctor learned why the park closed, but when it was cut, the Doctor’s line wasn’t changed. Maybe I’m just biased because I’m a huge Neil Gaiman fan, but I don’t think the gaps are from poor writing, just some sloppy editing to fit the episode into its allotted time.
Other than that, I only had a few problems with the story. I thought the children were a big weakness in the story. I didn’t particularly care about them (especially not Angie, who just seemed like an obnoxious brat) and they spend most of the story in a walking coma. Why did they need to be there at all? Another tiny complaint, but this one was not a big deal for me, was that I would have liked to have seen Matt Smith differentiate a bit more between the Doctor and the Cyber-Planner. He did the shoulder jerk, and the Cyber-Planner was a bit darker, but he still acted and spoke a lot like the Doctor. I know he was in the Doctor’s body, but I thought there could have been a bit more of a distinction.
Overall, I enjoyed the episode, but I think it would’ve benefited from being a two parter. I think that would have eliminated the unexplained events and allowed for more character development. A two parter would have allowed for the characters to develop at a bit more of a leisurely pace and the back story of the Cyber War and the amusement park could have been explained more fully. As I mentioned before, I feel like pieces of information that would have been nice to have were cut for time. Maybe next time, if there is a next time, Moffat will let Gaiman write a two parter. Maybe, as he’s stated he’d like to, when he creates his own monster?