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Doctor Who – “Nightmare in Silver”

After the brilliance of “The Doctor’s Wife”, it was widely assumed (by me, and presumably some other folks) that Neil Gaiman’s second turn as writer for Stephen Moffat’s Doctor Who would be equal in offbeat humour and piercing insight into a decades-old character. These people (me) must have been surprised when “Nightmare in Silver” was not at all brilliant, but instead one of the most uneven episodes the new series has ever produced.

 

“Nightmare in Silver”, like “The Doctor’s Wife” has a lot of Gaiman hallmarks. His fascination with the grotesque nature of carnivals and theatrical illusionists, and peculiar sense of humour are definitely present. But what’s also very evident is that Gaiman is first and foremost writing as a fan. Not that I’m in possession of the statistics, but there’s a fairly good chance that most of the show’s writers were fans of the original series. The difference is, however, that no writer has as much of a “inmates running the asylum” mentality as Gaiman. You can just see him thinking “Oh man, oh man, what if The Doctor was a Cyberman?” or “Wouldn’t it be awesome to have a callback to all of The Doctor’s regenerations? They were so cool.”

 

The answer to the first question is that it would be terrifying.

The answer to the first question is that it would be terrifying.

 

These questions, though interesting, don’t tend to result in a well-formed narrative, and as such the episode isn’t terribly coherent. The plot isn’t anything new: the Cybermen are back, and that’s really about it. The Cybermen are second only to the Daleks in cockroach tenacity, so it’s never as terribly surprising as the characters make it out to be. There’s a backdrop of a massive galactic empire that’s not shown up until now, but the setting is mostly concerned with its rejects, and it doesn’t directly enter into the narrative until the climax. When it does, it’s not exactly a deus ex machina¸ but it’s not totally satisfying and it elevates a character who hasn’t got much in the way of an arc.

 

That said, Neil Gaiman is still Neil Gaiman, and he’s still a master. Despite all its plot contrivances and a certain lack of originality, I thoroughly enjoyed “Nightmare in Silver.” Firstly, The Doctor was unconventionally removed from the central narrative and it showcased his most interesting plot of the season, and one of Doctor Who’s most compelling villains. And secondly, Clara got to do things. And they were cool things.

 

I’ll start with the second. Like I mentioned in my review of “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS,” Doctor Who is very slowly breaking out of its standard Companion paradigm. With The Doctor incapacitated in his chess game with himself, he tacitly leaves Clara in charge of fighting off the Cybermen and not letting anyone blow up the planet. And she does. No fuss, no agony of command, she just up and starts making decisions. In what I’ve chose to refer to as The Siege of Comical Castle, she runs about organising a defense that’s surprisingly capable given her total ignorance of pretty much the entire setting. In between, she gets a couple fantastic interactions with The Doctor, absolutely nailing his psychology regarding romance: “Because even if that was true, which it is…obviously not, I know you well enough to know that you would rather die than say it.” Clara’s final interaction with the Emperor was odd and didn’t feel particularly organic, but it cemented the tremendous amount of independence she gets this episode. The girl uses a two-handed mace on a Cyberman. Unsuccessfully, sure, but she isn’t fucking around.  “Nightmare in Silver” shows she’s got a lot in common with the Eleventh Doctor: fast-talking, clever, good with children, and very confident of her own abilities. As such, I’m even more excited to see where their relationship goes, as he’s never been quite this well-matched with someone on his side.

 

See? Right there. Enormous mace. Damn.

See? Right there. Enormous mace. Damn.

 

Well, River comes close, but their relationship’s balance of power tips multiple times an episode, and “on his side” is relative. There was that one time she murdered him.

 

The Doctor’s plot, oddly insular, is how Gaiman’s “running the asylum” mentality manifests itself in the best way. The Doctor gets partially “upgraded” and spends most of the episode fighting with himself for dominance of his body. That sort of thing isn’t amazingly original, but the writing is wonderful and Matt Smith plays it perfectly. You wouldn’t think “The Doctor but evil and a robot” is terribly compelling, but oh dear me, he is. His behaviours, all embodying the same sort of manic energy Smith puts into Eleven, ranges from the ridiculous, calling himself “Mr. Clever,” to the actually quite menacing, the absolutely straightfaced “I have a chess game to win and you have to die pointlessly, and very far from home. Toodle-loo.” Smith also forms a distinct voice for Mr. Clever, which is often deliberately obfuscated to leave the audience (and Clara) guessing as to who’s actually talking. It’s very fun to see him against an adversary who is very nearly smarter than him, and though his defeat isn’t wholly satisfying, the interplay between the two right until the end makes it worthwhile. Meanwhile, there’s a bit of him still floating about in space, so Mr. Clever might be back. I can dream.

 

Children are rarely interesting characters in Doctor Who¸ and “Nightmare in Silver” didn’t, unfortunately, change this. Who children can be interesting, especially when the story concerns their ageing – the best examples are Amy in “The Eleventh Hour” and Kazran in “A Christmas Carol” – but they’re usually irritating bit players or hostages of some sort. This week, they were both: I cringed when Artie and Angie turned up at the end of “The Crimson Horror” and they didn’t get the slightest bit of development beyond “Enthusiastic Child” and “Surly Intelligent Teen”, respectively. The impression I got when they were “upgraded” was that the show realised that there was no way to make them interesting and turned them into stakes, instead. True, it did get them to stop talking, but replacing one sort of bad writing with another, less irritating form of bad writing doesn’t fix either. Angie figuring Porridge (Warwick Davis) out as the Emperor didn’t really make her less obnoxious, and you can’t help but agree when Mr. Clever points out that sacrificing the chess game to save them is pretty pointless.

 

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Let’s not talk about them any more.

 

Another big episode for what is definitely probably going to be something romantic with The Doctor and Clara. I do like how Mr. Clever uses what’s already there to screw with both of them, as it doesn’t take too much to get either out of their comfort zone regarding each other. With Clara this is somewhat understandable, given the “madman in a box” deal, but The Doctor having the emotional maturity of a teenager is a little wearing. Nonetheless, the episode had a lot of lingering looks and pauses, as well as a line describing them as a couple that neither bothers to deny. Something has to come to a head soon, and perhaps The Doctor, however unlikely, will actually admit how he feels about another person.

 

“Nightmare in Silver” didn’t work all the way through, but when it did, it did with style and a flourish. It asked what would happen if The Doctor’s intellect was put behind a vast and implacable machine, and the answer it gave was not only satisfying but at times frightening. It played to fears of dehumanisation better than any Cyberman episode has to date, and though they still aren’t interesting villains, they can at least be helpful in providing one.

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Doctor Who – “The Crimson Horror”

One of the major features of David Tennant’s run as the Tenth Doctor was a recurring cast of humans with which he’d built up a bond and who all got individual character arcs in the second to fourth series. Midway through the sixth series, Matt Smith started to do the same thing, but with a different take. Of course there are a bunch of people across time and space that The Doctor knows, but that doesn’t mean we know them. Most of them have at best an implied history with The Doctor, giving the writers a lot of flexibility in developing them, or not. They can be there as supporting players, static characters, or entire episodic focuses, have few pre-conceived notions attached, and require little in the way of introduction. This week, in “The Crimson Horror,” we check in with Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax in Victorian Yorkshire as they investigate a series of deaths involving a rather silly shade of red.

Jenny and Madame Vastra are very fun to hang around in their two previous appearances in “A Good Man Goes to War” and “The Snowmen.” They’ve got a nice dynamic with each other and The Doctor where none of the parties are on a significantly higher footing than any other and can exchange repartee without upsetting any sort of balance of power. In “The Crimson Horror” The Doctor does his usual distracted “I’m an alien and don’t have time to explain”, but the ladies aren’t having any of it, even when the only explanation they get for Clara being alive is “It’s complicated.”

Though Jenny, Strax, and Madame Vastra serve as the protagonists for the first half of the episode, they unfortunately get pushed to one side once The Doctor and Clara turn up again. Their introductory scenes are quite good, however, presenting the mystery of Sweetville, a pseudo-religious commune that preaches its Victorian Stepford Wives vision as the solution to a coming apocalypse. This, somehow, has to do with all the dead red people turning up in the river. Not that I’d call them crimson, exactly. Beetroot is closer.

Jenny is tasked with infiltrating Sweetville and her scenes are nicely unsettling in the way a lot of Doctor-lite episodes are. The audience isn’t given much indication as to what the hell is up, and The Doctor isn’t around to spout technobabble and run off. When Jenny does come across him, grunting and immobilised in a cell and the same beetroot colour as all the corpses, it does nothing to dispel the air of wrongness Sweetville gives off.

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See? Look at that and tell me it’s crimson.

A couple minutes later, a groaning, staggering Doctor gets shuffled off to a convenient machine which turns him back to his upbeat self, whereupon he commences to solve the mystery. Jenny and Vastra get in a few more scenes and some repartee with him, but are noticeably absent or silent for the episode’s buildup and climax. The solved mystery isn’t quite as interesting as the unsolved one, though it does involve a disturbing red parasite (“Mr. Sweet”) living on Sweetville matriarch Mrs. Gillyflower’s (Diana Rigg) chest.

Despite the Doctor’s return being oddly disappointing, I can’t complain too much about this week’s plot because of the great relationship between Mrs. Gillyflower and her blind daughter, Ada (Rachael Stirling). The audience is given the impression that Ada is Mrs. Gillyflower’s one link to reality, a humanising factor that could prove redemptive in the episode’s conclusion. As it turns out, no. Mrs. Gillyflower’s only emotional connection is to the alien parasite living on her chest. It’s refreshing to see a human villain so thoroughly unsympathetic, and Diana Rigg plays it to the hilt. Ada, meanwhile forms an attachment to The Doctor, her “monster”, while he’s in captivity and her interactions with him after he’s freed gives her the self-confidence to confront her mother, who, just in case we thought she was remotely decent, was responsible for her blinding. Ada adds an element of cathartic violence to Doctor Who that the show usually forgoes, particularly satisfying when she snaps and starts beating her mother with her cane. Equally great is when, after Mrs. Gillyflower is disposed of and her chest parasite crawling pathetically away, Ada crushes it without hesitation. The Doctor, considering how to humanely remove it, is stopped in his tracks with a “On the other hand…” followed by confused sputtering.

The Doctor and Clara get a few little moments this week, but beyond some lingering glances and hugging after Clara gets freed from the Victorian Stepford Wives Machine, the relationship isn’t pushed any further. That’s fine; it’s ticking along in the background, but it’s a bit of a comedown after last week’s huge leap.

To offset that very minor gripe, “The Crimson Horror” has a wonderfully stylistic flashback when The Doctor explains to Jenny how he and Clara got into Sweetville. The sepia tone and blurry edges of the “projection” fit in quite well with the setting and is an unusual treat for a show that doesn’t play around too much with its format.

I think it would have been nice to get some sort of explanation as to why Strax is still alive. Wikipedia tells me some silliness involving the Doctor Who novelisations, but it’d be nice if there was some sort of clue for the sort of person who doesn’t enjoy reading poorly-written science fiction that doesn’t quite grasp the concept of an adaptation. He’s a very entertaining character to have around, but you can’t seemingly kill someone off and re-introduce them a season later without letting the fans in on why. It’s sloppy writing.

That said, he had easily the most charming scene of the episode with street urchin Thomas Thomas. Inhuman characters forming human connections to small, adorable creatures is not new or original in any sense, but the contrast between the two is far too amusing to dismiss. Even funnier is Strax’s brief conversation with his horse, which military discipline dictates he must execute and eat. In retrospect, that’s actually quite a well-thought-out joke. Being Sontaran, he can’t assume the horse isn’t sapient and thus must treat it as an inferior officer that has failed in its duty to transport him. Furthermore, the brutal efficiency of Sontaran culture dictates he has to eat it; not doing so would be a criminal waste of resources.

You start allowing this sort of dereliction of duty and military discipline falls apart.

You start allowing this sort of dereliction of duty and military discipline just falls apart.

In “The Crimson Horror”, Doctor Who continues its streak of surprisingly affecting B-plots though oddly misusing some interesting recurring characters. It has some quite good bits, and Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling have some lovely performances, but it never quite comes together as an episode. Not a bad way to spend three quarters of an hour, but not brilliant by Who standards. Next week, though, Neil Gaiman returns for “Nightmare in Silver,” and if anyone can make the Cybermen interesting again, it’s him.

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Doctor Who – “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”

Since the midseason break, Doctor Who hasn’t been bad, but it’s been floundering a bit trying to figure out how The Doctor and Clara are supposed to relate. “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” finally gets that out of the way while delivering an entertaining forty-five minutes with a surprisingly convincing subplot. The Doctor’s finally realised that Clara’s a person, not a puzzle, and though she doesn’t remember most of the episode due to a Big Friendly Button she has some sort of suggestion of a future with him beyond milling about in the cosmos.

 

It’s also nice to see the show clawing its way, inch by inch, out of the Companion paradigm it’s had for six and a half series. Not too much of course; Clara living up to her full potential as a character might scare some folk, but I’d disagree that this episode was just about her running and screaming. There’s certainly a large element of that, because it’s what Companions do when they’re stranded somewhere without The Doctor, but when it was casually revealed that she’d learned his name, it gave her long-term leverage over him that’s only precedented by River at her most obnoxious. “Let’s Kill Hitler”…ew. The “not doing the hugging thing” moment was also quite nice, as it showed her actually not putting up with his silliness. I mean, it was invalidated by them doing the hugging thing later, but she commented on it, and it was acknowledged, which is better than nothing.

 

I think it’s pretty damn silly to think that pounding the reset button meant anything permanent both in the context of integrity of the episode and the overall plot. The Doctor buggered around with his own timeline, in the TARDIS, using a shiny crack that looked suspiciously like the ones that pervaded Series 5. Nah, there’s no way all the plot advancement that happened in that episode will ever come back to haunt him. Clara will remain totally ignorant until the end of her run, because that’s what always happens. For a show ostensibly about time travel, there’s a reason they don’t hit the reset button too often. On top of being (usually, though tonight was an exception) unsatisfying narrative-wise, it has consequences.

 

On that note, it seemed that the TARDIS’ characterisation, as it were, seemed significantly different than in “The Doctor’s Wife.” It’s hard to imagine Sexy going quite that insane. Well, actually, it’s very easy to see her going that insane, but not a self-destructive sense. I’d put that down to Gaiman’s voice bleeding through into the writing of “The Doctor’s Wife.”. She was really obviously trying to channel both Death and Delirium, which worked, but doesn’t translate so well to architecture.

 

Speaking of references, I got a huge Amnesia: The Dark Descent vibe from the time zombies. Especially when there was only one in the Victorian library and it was indistinct and vaguely humanoid. Get out of the darkness Clara, your sanity meter is going down!

 

The robot plot, often the sort of thing that seems tacked-on, worked far better than it should have. With so few character beats between the Van Baalens, the relationship was conveyed pretty effectively, and solidified in the wall-stabby bit and resolved all within a few minutes. I can’t decide whether they were a plot device or at least peripherally necessary to the episode’s premise, but it was nice to see “obviously-dead-by-the-end-of-the-episode” characters have such a compelling plot that functioned alongside the development of the Doctor-Clara without either devaluing the other. The open end was lovely, too. I’d honestly like to see them back later, with the exception of Bram, who mostly served to make Gregor look good by comparison.

 

Still no idea where the show is taking this particular Companion-Doctor relationship. I’d be surprisingly fine with a romance if they could find some way of ending in a way that hadn’t already been depressingly done to death. Wherever it’s going, the fact that The Doctor’s finally realising she’s a human being can only mean good things. I don’t buy into the fandom’s assertion that Doctor Who delivers some of the best emotional punches on television. Companion goodbyes are usually pretty depressing, but they’re no more than well-done, in contrast to what all the .gifs of David Tennant being sad in the rain seem to suggest.

 

Doctor Who, for me, has firstly been about creating human narratives out of fantastical situations and secondly about writing a show with totally arbitrary stakes, setting, and capabilities and making it convincing. The Doctor, his screwdriver, and the TARDIS are bottomless wells of plot-based power, and yet most every week manage to convince me that this particular situation can’t be solved by the snap of the madman in a box’s fingers. It’s probably the best treatment of a character with infinite power I’ve seen on a screen. That’s quality writing right there, and I can forgive occasional unwieldy dialogue and ridiculous situations if it can keep me convinced. 

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