Nightmare in Silver

Holistic Review: Neil Gaiman promises the scariest Cybermen ever, but only partially delivers, and just when it feels like the storyline should be ramping up, it goes into hover mode.

Well, Mark Gatiss can feel better, because, against all the odds, I'm not over the moon with Neil Gaiman's second episode either. Don't get me wrong, there's some great material here, but it doesn't elevate the story in the same way that The Doctor's Wife did. It's just a good, straightforward Doctor Who story, and I was anticipating something deeper.

I knew well in advance that Gaiman's mission with this episode was to make the Cybermen scarier. Sad to say, that's a very valid mission. While the Cybermen have had their moments, mainly — in my opinion — during the 1980s, they've never lived up to their full potential, and they've felt somewhat diluted since their return. Nightmare in Silver really needed to go back to the roots of what make the Cybermen scary — their desire to "improve" humanity by forcibly and implacably cutting off our limbs and scooping out our insides in order to add cybernetic enhancements that also just happen to deaden our emotions — but that's not what happens. Instead, the story starts with our current Cybermen template, and adds an extra layer of gloss that makes them look fancier, and gives them some extra menace, but doesn't really make them scarier, as such. But you know me, I like hard facts; so let's look at how exactly the Cybermen have changed.

For starters, they have a couple of new powers: they can run at superhuman speeds, like the Flash, and they can rotate their heads 180 degrees, like an owl. This is good: slowly clomping Cybermen are alarming, but easier to escape, and the swivelling heads makes it harder to sneak up on them from behind. Plus the Cybermen seem to have acquired a stealth mode, if the one that sneaks up behind Artie is any indication, even though they do still seem to clomp en masse, probably as a tactic to terrify the locals. So that's a good start, but it doesn't really make them scarier, just more formidable. They can also detach their limbs to attack independently, but we've seen that already in The Pandorica Opens. Their first really big change is the revelation that they can now upgrade themselves instantaneously to counteract new forms of attack, meaning that weapons can be rendered useless after the first few shots. It's a great idea, and it was terrifying when it was first unveiled... by the Borg, in 1990. TNG's Borg have always been the Cybermen's closest competitors, in terms of design and motivations, and while the Cybermen have always had the advantage of saying "we were there first", their modifications in this episode only seem to make them more similar to the Borg. Both races believe that cybernetic enhancements and the elimination of emotions leads to a superior race, both are able to adapt and improve their defences as they encounter new forms of resistance, and both can assimilate nearly any form of life. At this point, where I think the Borg have their biggest advantage over the Cybermen is in their appearance: it's gruesomely obvious that the Borg have expanded their ranks through the assimilation of other living beings. The Cybermen do still have a half-human interim stage, shown here with the partly-cybernized Webley, but when the process is complete, Cybermen are indistinguishable from robots, even able to detach their heads and limbs with no adverse effects. So, for my money, the only really scary element in this story is the silverfish-like Cybermites, much tinier relatives of the comparably clunky Cybermats. They're an absolute unqualified success. Not only can they pose as innocent(ish)-looking transmitters, they can hide themselves in tiny spaces, they look disgusting as they swarm over walls and out of small openings, and they contribute the only real body horror moments of the episode, as they slither over people and, upon making skin contact, somehow install Cyber-technology directly into the body.

The other element of potential intrigue here is the Cyber Planner, who — in a creepy twist which gives the Doctor new higher stakes against the Cybermen — is able to install itself in the Doctor's brain, fighting him for total control of his body. While this leads to a mental war of the sort that's typically only entertaining to watch for a couple of minutes, it also promises to reveal some of the Doctor's secrets, as the Cyber Planner finds itself with unprecedented access to the Doctor's knowledge and memories. The problem being, it never delivers on this promise: it's only able to access the surface of his mind, the rest being kept under tight lock and key by the Doctor, so if we were hoping for any interesting revelations about the Doctor, or for the Cyber Planner to stir up the pot by spilling the Doctor's suspicion about Clara's origins, we're going to have to get used to disappointment. Ultimately, a boring back-and-forth mental war / argument with himself is all we get, and it's really only thanks to Matt Smith's performance that it's such entertaining viewing, because, although I'm sad to say it, there's really not much in the script itself to keep us hooked on this plotline. Especially once the mental war turns into a game of chess, which is great continuity but not particularly exciting viewing material. All I needed was a couple of interesting tidbits about the Doctor's past, his history with the Cybermen, or his relationship with Clara, but I guess there's been a moratorium on such revelations until Steven Moffat opens the floodgates next week. (And after all this buildup, we'd better get some honest-to-goodness revelations — hopefully ones which deepen the show's mystery rather than shattering it — because if we get yet another cop-out, it's gonna be really frustrating.) Without that, it just becomes two people arguing in a room, with no plot advancement.

Would you like me to tell you the very best thing about this story? Warwick Davis. Every now and then, we get an episode in which one actor delivers such a naturalistic, nuanced, delightful performance that it feels like s/he's on a completely different plane to the rest of the guest cast, and this week Warwick Davis is the man. There's never a sense that he's an actor playing a part; his delivery is so natural that he seems to completely inhabit the role. Aside from Davis' amazing performance, Emperor Porridge has such a kind face, and a warm voice, that it almost makes me wonder how Clara could turn his offer of marriage down! We don't get a lot of hints as to his true identity, but I liked the suggestion that Porridge himself is "the poor blighter that had to press the button and blow it all up." I understand there's been some recent discussion of a sequel to Willow, and while I would've been thrilled by the idea anyway, now I want to support it specifically because I'm really, really impressed with Davis.

Not that the other members of the guest cast are less than super, because I really liked them all. Jason Watkins is perfectly outgoing-yet-skittish as Webley, a showman who's spent perhaps a bit too much time stranded on his own, and there's a nice sinister tone to his voice once the Cybermen start using him as a mouthpiece. (Great delivery: "Total takings for the day: one sandwich. Better than no sandwich, of course.") Tamzin Outhwaite channels Captain Alice Ferrin's frustration — at being stuck on Hedgewick's World, at being unprepared to take on the Cybermen, and at having to bow to authority that she doesn't trust — but still demonstrates that she's an honorable woman, with the best of intentions, and quite a good commanding officer herself. But I really warmed to her ragtag group of soldiers, given character-quirk nicknames in Gaiman's script: Beauty (Eloise Joseph), whose astonishment at the disappearance of the solid-state sub-ether Ansible-class communicator's components felt very genuine; Brains (Will Merrick), the sweet geeky redhead; Ha-Ha (Calvin Dean), who, rather than being a jokester as his name would suggest, is slightly scared but brave and helpful; and Missy (Zahra Ahmadi), who — rather hilariously, if also tragically — behaves the way we all would, if plopped into the middle of a combat zone, asking "Can I hide? Is it okay if I hide?" and hoping that the Cyberman will turn tail if she informs it "Don't move! I'm in the army!"

I have the feeling that I might be in the minority on this one, but I continue to enjoy Artie and Angie. In Artie's case, I think it's mainly because he's just so eager and enthusiastic about time travel, plus he seems like a sweet kid. Kassius Carey Johnson's performance, on the other hand, feels quite stilted — as on the lines "Actually, I think it does look like the moon, only dirtier.", "I haven't got a penny, but I've got a sandwich.", "I think that was the most fun I've had in my whole life.", and "Clara, I think outer space is actually very interesting." Unless Johnson is trying to portray Artie as a total brain who doesn't have a lot of social skills, and thus comes off sounding all hypercorrected? It's certainly a possibility. For Eva de Leon Allen, on the other hand, I have nothing but praise. Oh, Angie is a right pain, disobeying everyone and acting the perpetually unimpressed teenager, but as a character she's a riot, and Allen plays her to the hilt. Immediately on the heels of her anti-gravity Spacey Zoomer playtime, the huge grin drops off her face as she evaluates the experience with "It was... okay."; the Doctor takes her to an amusement park on an alien planet, and within a few hours, she's moaning "How long do we have to stay here?!"; having just wandered off against orders, she marches straight into a military barracks and greets the soldiers with "Hello. I'm bored?" as if it's obviously their responsibility to entertain her; she dismisses her beloved nanny with "Clara? She's not my sister. She's stupid."; and, possibly the best line of the entire episode, she reacts to her homicidal Cyber-kidnapper as if it's her dad and they've just had an argument: "Put me down! I hate you!" Oh, I howled with laughter! (How old are Neil Gaiman's kids, I wonder...? Because this certainly feels like it's been written through the lens of wry experience.) Mind you, sometimes it seems as if Angie actually believes everything she's saying, rather than putting on an act for the benefit of the adults, but I choose to attribute that to her intensifying hormones. And it's not as if she just walks around complaining about everything. She also demonstrates that she's a quick thinker, realizing far earlier than anyone else that Porridge is the Emperor. There's one other thing that I have to mention about Allen, and that is that she is a stellar screamer, very firmly in the Doctor Who mold!

Clara, too, continues to fit the Doctor Who mold beautifully, and although we don't learn that much more about her, and I still don't have an ear for "Clara dialogue", she gets some great moments this week. Putting her in charge of the soldiers was a great move. Thanks to the Doctor's authority behind her, she seems comfortable with command and really steps up to the plate, continually standing up to Captain Ferrin and refusing to back down. She demonstrates that she's not a bad strategist, either; she knows when to delegate to the talented people around her, and she comes up with the idea to electrify the moat. (No surprise that electicity isn't a barrier to the Cybermen, but it was worth a try!) Plus she gets to disintegrate a Cyberman, which is always exciting, and she bravely attacks another with a mace! Her line "Chess game. Stakes." indicates that she's not the sort of person to waste time, or at least that she's conscious of time being short, which I very much appreciate. I enjoyed Coleman's delivery of "Right, wonderful day out, Doctor, but time to get the kids home.", "Is that something they're likely to do?", "Just a mad guess here: it blows up the planet?", and "I'll have that, then." And I really dig her jacket.

Even though the Doctor's mental war with the Cyber Planner is a bit of a yawn, what salvages it is Matt Smith's impressive performance. For the third time in just the second half of series 7, he's been given the opportunity to play an aspect of the Doctor — in this case, a twisted, evil, Cyber-tinged version — that we've never seen before. The Cyber Planner is like the Doctor in many ways, but it's also taunting, cruel, smarmy, and cold. What makes Smith's performance all the more impressive is that the distinction between the Doctor and the slightly-slimier Cyber Planner is very subtle, but it's clear every single time that their personalities switch. I noted with interest that the Cyber Planner showed quite a few emotions — among them envy, amusement, curiosity, annoyance, satisfaction, disdain, impatience, anger and a sense of humor — possibly because it was hooked up to the Doctor, a brand new alien life-form that the Cybermen had never tried to incorporate before? Certainly the Cyber Planner doesn't seem to realize that it's doing this, because it later mocks the Doctor for succumbing to his feelings ("Emotions, Doctor! And all for two human children you barely know!"). As the Doctor, my favorite of Smith's deliveries are "Good point!", "So... good news... I have a very good chance of winning my chess match!" and "See ya!" I also enjoyed the disappointed expression on his face when he's not selected to play chess with Webley. And as the Cyber Planner, I loved: "Relax, relax! If you just relax, you will find this a perfectly pleasant experience!", "This is brilliant!", "Really? That's your secret weapon? Cleaning fluid?", and "Now, if you don't mind, I have a chess game to finish, and you have to die, pointlessly, and very far from home. Toodle-oo!" There's also a great scene in which the Cyber Planner mimicks the ninth and tenth Doctors' accents, and Matt Smith really sells it.

While I don't love Gaiman's script as much as his previous effort, it does succeed in being scary and quirky and funny. I love the concept of a "punishment platoon", which — together with the personality of the soldiers — instantly gives us some sympathy for these military folks, which is something that Doctor Who doesn't typically do, given that it usually portrays the military as trigger-happy idiots who blindly follow unwise orders. The reveal that the Doctor does actually possess a golden ticket is done very subtly, such that I didn't even make the connection between "Cyberman story" and "the Doctor has something made of gold". (Then again, in our times, "golden tickets" are usually made of gold-colored foil, so that probably put me off the scent a bit!)

The redesign of the Cybermen is one of the story's biggest draws, and they do look great. It's nice, too, that we get to see a couple Cybermen of the most recent design, for comparative purposes. The new Cybermen are a bit sleeker, and more muscular-looking, and oh, I'm so happy that we've finally lost that Cybus logo. Their smooth faces look less skeletal than the previous version, but they're equally, if not more, unsettling. Actually, in some ways they look a little more feminine now, I think in part because of their top-heavy chest units, which is an interesting change. It subtly suggests a kind of androgyny, which is appropriate since we don't know what gender any given Cyberman was in life. I also like, even though it's yet another Borg-esque addition, that we now have a name for the mental hive that the Cybermen use to communicate: the Cyberiad. Neat. And appropriately Welsh-sounding. The addition of light-up mouths that flash when they speak may not be glass-jaw cool, but is cool nevertheless. My only gripe with the new design is that, for reasons I haven't even been able to put into words, the new-style Cyberman looks a bit silly when it punches Ha-Ha.

In other effects work, the graphic of the overgrown run-down amusement park looks great, as does the effects shot of all the Cybermen awakening in their tomb. It's brilliant that the detailing around the doors in the Valkyrie matches the handholds in Tomb of the Cybermen. I love the background (and the simple but effective music) in the Cyber-network scenes set inside the Doctor's head. Plus we get a shot of all previous ten Doctors, yay! Any and all shots involving the Cybermites are fantastic and icky: a swarm of them crawling over the wall, and the freaky shot of them pouring out of the Cyberman's eyeholes and up Webley's arms. Unfortunately, we've also got one of the worst effects shots that the series has seen in ages, as the Cyber-army lines up in font of the moat. It looks awful, like a model shot with a bunch of toy Cybermen. Had they at least varied the Cybermen's stances, it might have looked a bit more natural.

In terms of sets, Webley's hall of waxworks looks like a fun place to explore, and it's suitably creepy when necessary, although I do wish they'd taken advantage of the opportunity to add a classic monster to his menagerie. As it is, the only "classic" monster represented is a member of that fish-eyed alien race from The Rings of Akhaten. The room that the soldiers have taken over for their base rang bells with me: is it the same location where they filmed the soldiers' base in The Doctor's Daughter? I love the way they've lit up Castell Coch in cheery purple and green, to represent Nattie Longshoe's Comical Castle.

Murray Gold's score blends into the episode well. But what's with that old sound effect when the Cybermites attack the Doctor? I must admit that it took me out of the story a bit. I can't think when it was used before, but I know that we've heard it under different circumstances. (The Superfriends sting makes a return appearance, too, when Webley produces a penny from Angie's ear, but I like that one a lot, so I don't mind.)

First-time director Stephen Woolfenden does a perfectly good job with the script. The most stunning shot in the episode is the Cyberman moving in bullet-time, as it dodges weapons fire to kidnap Angie. I was also fond of the freaky shot of the Cyber-hand stifling Missy's screams.

Finally, the title is awesome. Much better than "The Last Cyberman"! Bravo to whomever suggested the change.

Minor points:

Making the Cybermen scary again was an excellent goal, and Nightmare in Silver goes some way toward achieving it, but I wish it had gotten more in touch with the roots of why the Cybermen are disturbing, rather than simply giving them extra abilities. And I wish that the second half of the episode had involved more depth than "the Doctor argues with the alien presence in his head while Clara and her gang defend a castle against an attacking Cyber-army". But, taken as a straightforward Doctor Who episode, it's got some great creepy moments and an entertaining plot, so I guess I have to blame the hype machine yet again for raising my expectations higher than they should have been.

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