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.”
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.
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.
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.