‘Nightmare In Silver’, written by Neil Gaiman, is the most effective Cybermen centred story since their return in the new series. It is an extremely tense story as the odds increase against our heroes and even the Doctor is turned against them.
Spoilers From Here On In!
Following on from last episode Clara has been forced to bring along the two children she looks after, Angie and Artie, with her in the TARDIS. It is a shame we don’t get to see the Doctor’s reaction to this as he seems happy enough to take them Hedgewick’s World of Wonders, the biggest amusement park in the universe.
Typically for the Doctor he has arrived after it has closed and fallen into ruin. The only residents are two-bit showman Webley, his assistant Porridge and a motely platoon of imperial soldiers.
There is still one exhibit that catches the Doctor’s attention, the last Cyberman. Reduced to a chess playing machine, referencing the historical Silver Turk, it sets up the theme of the episode, man vs machine.
It isn’t long before it is revealed that the Cybermen haven’t been defeated at all. They have been hibernating beneath the planet and they have been upgraded.
I have been disappointed with previous Cybermen episodes. The introduction of the Cybus models muddled their continuity and made them little more than robots. While they were effectively used in ‘The Pandorica Opens’ and ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ they were wasted in ‘Closing Time’.
I was therefore looking forward Neil Gaiman reinventing them and he doesn’t disappoint. Their sleek, new design retains their robotic nature while still reminding you there is someone inside.
Their ability to upgrade themselves almost instantly and their host of surprising tricks all make them a much more convincing threat. You believe that they could covert planets so quickly that the only way to stop them would be to destroy star systems.
This advanced model even eliminates the Doctor’s one defence against them, they can now cyber convert any species. Infected the Doctor fights for control over his own mind as the Cybermen try to turn him into a new Cyber Planner.
These scenes are great, with Matt Smith brilliantly switching between the role of the Doctor and ‘Mr Clever’, as he calls himself. This is enhanced by the direction from Stephen Woolfendeen and the production design, particularly when we switch to ‘inside’ the Doctor’s mind, amber Gallifreyan swirling around the Doctor’s side while the other is electric blue lights pulsing in a dark cloud.
This compromises the Doctor, forcing the others to tie him up. There are scenes here that are reminiscent of ‘The Curse of Fenric’ as the Cyber Planner tries to trick Clara by pretending to be the Doctor. This increases the unease of the episode, as the Doctor isn’t reliable anymore.
It also continues the theme throughout the season, of the Doctor asking Clara to trust him while holding back information. Here, with the Cyber Planner in control of his mouth, some of those secrets are revealed.
With the Doctor locked in an internal battle for control of his brain it leaves Clara in charge of the platoon as they hold off millions of Cybermen. These scenes are thrilling, as every victory the good guys score is momentary as the Cybermen upgrade themselves.
They could have been more effective if the platoon had been played as a joke or if we’d gotten to know them better, which would have added more weight to their demise. It was interesting that they were only dying because the Doctor wouldn’t allow them the easy option of blowing up the planet.
The resolution is nicely set up through out the episode, with Porridge revealed to be the missing Emperor, the only one who can still destroy the world after the Cybermen had destroyed the bombs trigger mechanism.
While he and everyone else survives the destruction by beaming up to the Imperial ship that comes to rescue them in seconds it is still a sacrifice. Porridge had given up his freedom in order to live up to his responsibilities. It is easy to see the parallels with the Doctor here.
There are some really talented guest stars here. Jason Watkins as Webley and Warwick Davis bring a lot to their character, required to bring both humour and pathos to their roles.
Warwick Davis in particular communicates a lot that is unsaid, especially given the later revelation that he the Emperor. This can be seen in the conversation about the wax work of Emperor as they unknowingly insult him or his conversation with Clara about the destroyed star system.
The actors playing the platoon use their limited screen time to communicate the fear and vulnerability of their characters, raising them up from mere cartoonish characterchures.
The curse of the bad child actors strikes again with Eve de Leon Allen as Angie and Kassius Carey Johnson as Artie. Their youth does not excuse some painful delivery and acting but they are not helped by the script.
While generally the writing is strong, especially with the plot, there are some terrible characterisation and lines for the Angie and Artie. Their behaviour was completely unrealistic, tarnishing any scene in which they were present.
From the opening where they initially believe they are on moon despite being able to breath and experiencing gravity to Angie walking into a barracks of soldiers to declare she is bored to her petulant statement that she hates the Cyberman who kidnapped her their inclusion only harmed the overall episode.
This is shame as it ruined the reveal that Porridge was the Emperor. We are supposed to be impressed by Angie’s insight but instead it is annoying. We see this earlier as well, as Angie guess that the chess trick is done through mirrors is similarly supposed to be inspired when it is in fact nonsensical.
While Clara was more prominent this episode I’m becoming increasingly of the mind that Jenna-Louise Coleman simply doesn’t have the range the role requires, unless she is being told to play it that way.
In ‘Cold War’ I mentioned that Clara was unmoved by the grisly murder she witnessed and here she barely reacts to the kidnapping of the children, the death of soldiers or the loss of billions of lives. Yes she calls it horrible but there is barely a flicker of emotion in her face or inflection in her voice.
This emptiness in her character makes it hard to find depth in her character. While Warick was able to communicate his characters internal turmoil without saying a word I find it hard to know what Clara is going through in this adventure.
Angie and Artie are in danger, the Doctor has been infected and she is in charge of a platoon yet she takes it all in her stride. What is Clara feeling or thinking about this? Jenna-Louise Coleman isn’t giving anything away.
I can ignore these grumbles because I did enjoy the episode. This is how the Cybermen should be, this is how you make them scary. Having the Cyber Planner have plenty of character is a step in the right direction, even the partially converted Webley was still engaging. They don’t have to be flat, monotone beings that can be destroyed with emotions.
I also liked the references to the past, even bringing up their weakness to cleaning fluids and gold (although this was a physical problem with their breathing vents and not a software issue). We even got a glimpse of the previous Doctors.
I hope this sets the template for who the race are used in the future.