The first time Neil Gaiman wrote for Doctor Who, it was an episode that many people seemed to love. It had sparkling dialogue, some reasonably clever sequences and a wonderful central performance from Suranne Jones, whose role was the sort of thing you’d expect from Helena Bonham Carter (only without the body odour). In a season that began with an ineffective monster and closed with an ineffective twist, with comparatively little of substance in between, it was a breath of fresh air. The problem with ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, of course, is that for all its goodness it’s far less clever and original than the Confidential contributors would like to think it is, and the episode has coasted on a false sense of ‘innovation’ for the past two years. It’s a debt that Gaiman paid, to a certain extent, last Saturday evening, in a Cybermen story that was so shamelessly and openly derivative that it almost came across as cheeky. Almost.
I’m never sure of the extent to which the walking metal hulks that have graced our screens since 1966 were a direct influence on the design and concept of the Borg. Certainly there are elements: a seemingly unstoppable force of former humans fused with machinery, bereft of emotion, stomping across the galaxies, seeking to convert others to their cause, in a quite literal sense. But the whole point behind the original Cybermen was that they’d encased themselves in metal purely as a defence mechanism, in order to survive. Universe conquerors they were not. That came later, and it was to their detriment, because we realised that for a seemingly lethal force the Cybermen were actually a bit crap in battle, once you figured out they were allergic to gold. This particular weakness was taken to ridiculous conclusions in the latter years of the show: the Doctor’s explanation about gold dust corroding their circuits was plausible, but having Ace fire pound coins from a catapult in ‘Silver Nemesis’ was not. And they wonder why the show got cancelled.
(The gold thing always struck me as a bit silly, to be honest. It was a generic weakness inserted when the writers figured they needed a quick resolve on how to beat the Cybermen with limited resources. It’s rather like Green Lantern’s supposedly omnipotent power ring that apparently has no effect on yellow, simply because its extraterrestrial designers didn’t know what yellow looked like. This was being discussed at a seminar I once attended that basically rubbished GL, with the panel leader pointing out that in a straight fight, Laa-Laa could have him.)
But what Gaiman does in ‘Nightmare in Silver’ is give the Cybermen a thoroughly Borg-like makeover. It’s like watching Mission Impossible II: a film that borrows (intentionally or otherwise) from The Matrix, which itself borrows from earlier John Woo. Rather than standard programming instructions, they now work as part of a hive mind, a collective consciousness (which proves to be a vital plot point towards the end of the story). They upgrade using nano-technology (more on that later) rather than big saws and conversion units. What’s more, their resistance to previously effective weaponry increases as the episode moves forward, with attacks that kill one Cyberman proving ineffective on the next, as the metal warriors become impervious to the guns with the tedious repeated phrase “Upgrade in progress”. The gold allergy remains, of course, as epitomised in a scene where the Doctor appears to fight off a nano-infection with a sweet wrapper.
All right, it’s a golden ticket. Still, the damage is done.
There is an early sequence in which a lone Cyberman ambushes a squad of unprepared soldiers, but I spent too much time shouting “CYBERMEN DON’T DO THAT!” to actually enjoy it very much. The troops are dreadful – a bunch of misfits sent to the backwards end of the universe for their collective failure to obey orders, only to encounter a threat that is very real – but it’s hardly their fault that the Cyberman is able to outrace the Flash and bend time like Neo. It gives them an edge that we haven’t previously seen, and a battle advantage that makes them more threatening than they’ve ever been (a necessary act, given that for the bulk of the story there are only two or three of them) but it’s hardly fair. Actually it just looks silly.
But once you’re past the twaddle of this bit, the story kicks off proper and Gaiman has a blast being as silly as he can be with the airport security nightmares. They remove their limbs! They rotate one hundred and eighty degrees, owl-like, so you can’t disable them with a crafty EMP! And, of course, they set up cunning booby traps by placing disembodied heads on a pile of boxes so that an unsuspecting soldier will sneak up unawares, allowing the headless Cyberman to attack her from behind – even though, on a repeat viewing, the apparent Cyberman-in-waiting is so OBVIOUSLY A HEAD ON A PILE OF BOXES that the silly hussy frankly deserves an early grave. Honestly, it’s Darwin in action.
So much for the Cybermen. What of their reasons for being there, and the story itself, given that it has come from the pen of one of the great storytellers of our age? Well, unfortunately it simply isn’t very good. Opening in a disused, rundown amusement ‘planet’, the Doctor and his companions step out onto a mock-up of the moon’s surface similar to the one that NASA used when they faked the Armstrong landing back in 1969. Clara’s brought her employer’s children along, essentially to fulfil their blackmail request, and curiously no one sees fit to mention the extraordinary coincidence of them only discovering the photos of her since she’s been travelling with the Doctor, when (according to the predestination laws of the Whoniverse) they’ve presumably been in the textbooks for years. Luckily there are also no Silence, so I suppose we should be thankful for small mercies.
The Doctor is carrying a golden ticket – a setup I really should have seen coming, but in the first instance it gives Gaiman the excuse to introduce them to the park’s well-dressed owner, Webley, played by Jason Watkins, whom regular BBC viewers may recognise from Dirk Gently. He’s obviously carrying off the Willy Wonka look, right down to the cane.
Webley has a lone Cyberman holed up in his lair, controlled by Warwick Davis in this week’s bit of stunt casting. Davis is fun enough to watch, but his role is basically to fawn over Clara and wax lyrical about the nature of morality in sloppy, obvious hints that he’s hiding something. The unresolved would-be love story is a dig at social conventions, but it feels cheap. This is probably because there is comparatively little of Porridge (as we must unfortunately call him), because he has to share the screen with both the aforementioned misfit soldiers and Clara’s charges, neither of whom would look out of place in the Tracy Beaker dumping ground, and both of whom have the acting skills to match.
What’s worse, the only reason Angie and Artie are there is so they can get captured, which gives the Doctor something to do before the implosion of the planet. That’s it. This is foreshadowed in a stunning lack of judgement by the Doctor himself – who, at the end of a smashing day out, elects not to return the children to their planet of origin and instead decides to stick around and investigate the strange insects (must we refer to them as Cybermites?) that are scurrying around the complex. Having decided that he wants to stay, the Doctor then leaves Angie and Artie in an unguarded room and tells them specifically (and rather heavy-handedly) ‘not to wander off’. Yes, Gaiman is poking fun. But it’s the sort of staggering sloppiness I’d have expected from Mark Gatiss or Helen Raynor. Why not lock them in the TARDIS, which is the safest place for them to be? Just leave them by the swimming pool and tell them not to touch anything. It would have been more sensible, if not necessarily foolproof. Gaiman then attempts to redeem the insufferable Angie by having her solve an important mystery in the closing scenes of the episode, but it’s far too little, far too late. It isn’t helped by Smith mugging into the camera in one of those look-this-is-a-monitor shots, resolving to rescue the children he never should have taken his eyes off in the first place.
It is at this point that things get interesting, when the Doctor is himself affected by the parasitic insects and partially transformed into the Cyberplanner, a throwback to the 1960s, with the remainder of the episode taken up by his struggle to maintain control. The battle for the Doctor’s brain takes place in three places: an empty sound stage that allows Mr Smith room to jump about a bit; in front of a reasonable CG-mock-up that echoes the insides of the Doctor’s head; and – for much of the second half of the episode – over a chess board.
Truth be told, it is Smith’s performance once the partial transformation takes place that redeems the episode. Able to let loose as never before, he turns the Cyberplanner into everything Toby Stephens’ Dream Lord was, and more – by turns sneering, malicious and sarcastic, with the scene in which he attempts to dupe Clara (thoroughly unsuccessfully) a particular stand-out moment. If we remember Smith for nothing more than ‘The Eleventh Hour’ and this, it cements him as a tremendous actor, who shows us a side to the Doctor that we seldom see, making it all the more powerful when we do. It doesn’t completely work, of course – the Doctor’s attempts to control his arm are a clumsy parodic echo of Body Parts, and there was something about those multiple camera angles that seemed…oh, I don’t know…familiar.
While all this is going on, Clara has undergone an awkward metamorphosis into a military leader, whose task is to fortify the defences against a rampaging horde of CG Cybermen. Faced to draw on reserves she never knew she had, Clara has plenty of good ideas, but there’s no hesitancy, no second thought to anything she does, and that – after such a relatively short period in the TARDIS – makes her transformation all the more unconvincing. She holds it together for the sake of the soldiers she is commanding, and stands her ground when challenged, but we never once see the mask slip, making it a superficial performance. That’s bad enough, but the team she’s commanding is made up largely of expendable female soldiers who don’t need to be named, and two characters of relative importance who never get beyond being The Fat One and The Geeky One.
(I’ll leave you to work out which is which.)
Still, it does at least solve the mystery of whatever happened to Charlie Pringle from Postman Pat.
The finale, too, is a bitter disappointment. The Doctor wins the chess game by cheating, and Porridge reveals his true colours and destroys the planet, successfully vanquishing the horde of Cybermen with far too many seconds to spare. The children return home, alive and seemingly unaffected by the ordeal of having been hypnotised by a demonic artificial intelligence and out-acted by a mute extra in a metal suit. There is no point, no lesson learned, no moral quandry. I’m not asking for a public service announcement in the manner of Masters of the Universe, but for a villain as complex and potentially interesting as the Cybermen, such superficiality can’t help but leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
It could all have ended in tears. Ultimately, however, the story escapes by the skin of its teeth, thanks to the battle lines that are drawn after the Doctor’s infection and Stephen Woolfenden’s tight, focused direction in the second half. The sequences with Clara were tedious, but the Doctor’s schizophrenic arguments with himself constituted the most entertaining scenes I’ve witnessed in the show since ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’. The Cybermen themselves are played largely for laughs, and not always in a good way, but there is an undercurrent of menace that we haven’t seen for a while – and if Gaiman only managed to make them threatening again by cheating, then perhaps we should not hold it against him, if he can write the Doctor so effectively. ‘Nightmare in Silver’ is a poorly-structured, ill-conceived episode with little to recommend it except Smith, and the things he does with the words he’s been given. But that, in itself, might almost be enough. Almost.