Doctor Who, Series 7, Episode 13: “Nightmare in Silver”
Written by Neil Gaiman
Directed by Stephen Woolfenden
Airs Saturdays at 9pm (ET) on BBC America
This week, on Doctor Who: We meet Locutus of Doctor, Porridge has good taste in Queens, and the Cyberiad is back en masse
Life-long Whovian Neil Gaiman made a big splash with his first contribution to Doctor Who, series six’s fantastic “The Doctor’s Wife”. When word came out that he was returning in series seven to pen the return of the Cybermen, fans were understandably excited. Unfortunately, “Nightmare in Silver”, while it has its charms, is massively uneven and nowhere near as satisfying as the emotional and eminently rewatchable “The Doctor’s Wife”. This is one of the most qualitatively schizophrenic episodes in quite a while, so to best approach it, I’m ditching my usual format and going for bullet points.
- Matt Smith’s performance/The Cyber Controller. Giving the Doctor his most cunning, equally matched villain in ages, an evil version of himself, pays off in spades. Other than a couple very strange accent bungles, Smith is in top form and seems to be having a wonderful time. Yes, it’s highly reminiscent of the terrifying reveal of Locutus of Borg from Star Trek: TNG’s “The Best of Both Worlds” (in a bad way- there’s nowhere near the same sense of loss and fear here), but it’s also highly reminiscent (in a good way) of the Valeyard, an evil(ish) reincarnation of the Doctor from his future (between his Twelfth and Thirteenth regenerations), who faced off against the Sixth Doctor for the entirety of season 23 (1986). There’s still plenty of time for whoever is showrunner in the coming years to play with the Valeyard and decide whether to include him, but for Classic Who fans, bringing back the notion of an evil Doctor is pleasant treat and for NuWho fans, it’s just great to see the Doctor actually match wits with someone on his level.
- Warwick Davis’s performance. There are not-insubstantial problems with the writing for Porridge, but seeing Warwick Davis actually do some dramatic work is fantastic. It’s been far too long since he’s had a meaty or particularly nuanced role (no, Harry Potter doesn’t count) and it’s great to see him actually get something to play. Yes, the scarred-man-running-away-after-doing-terrible-things-to-end-a-war past is on the nose and yes, it’s weird that he’s supposedly human but has been alive since the Cyber wars (when they haven’t seen a Cyberman in 1000 years), but Davis’ charisma makes up for most of that and his closing proposal to Clara, while very out of the blue, is a cute nod to Fifth/Sixth Doctor Companion Peri’s abrupt departure to marry Krontep warrior-king Yrcanos (Brian Blessed) offscreen.
- Jason Watkins is also very strong in his small role- it’s too bad he doesn’t get more to do.
- Cybermites. If Doctor Who is going to be true to the Cybermen’s history, every time we see them they should be somehow changed. There are several updates this time (which are overall a mixed bag) and the best of these are the cybermites. They’re creepy for those of us less than thrilled with burrowing insects and they’re a logical progression of the Cybermats, which served a similar purpose in Classic Who and reappeared in NuWho’s “Closing Time”. The design is creative, they’re used well, and they make sense, plus the return of the gold weakness is treated perfectly. We’ll get to some of the other upgrades a little later.
- Design. The waxworks display is atmospheric and cool and the amusement park in general looks pretty good. The CGI is a bit more hit and miss, but the shots we get of space, particularly the missing Tiberian spiral galaxy, and the visualization of the inside of the Doctor’s head, look fantastic.
- Use of chess. The Doctor has a long history with chess, most memorably the Seventh Doctor’s match against Fenric in “The Curse of Fenric”, and it’s neat to see it back here. We’ve seen the Eleventh Doctor play live chess briefly, in “The Wedding of River Song”, so it makes sense that it would be a favorite of this regeneration as well and his go-to for a stalemate.
There are clearly a number of entertaining and successful elements of this episode, which only makes it all the more frustrating that most of “Nightmare in Silver” doesn’t make any sense. This episode does not stand up to rewatching. At all. The leads make a number of out of character decisions, the world established unravels with the slightest pull, and far too much of the episode relies on “… ‘cause” for its logic. The episode seems to actively ask viewers to shut down their brains in order to be able to enjoy it and that’s something series should never do.
- Clara. Clara is commanding, clever, and charismatic this week. She’s incredibly likeable and Jenna Louise Coleman continues to do a fantastic job with what she’s given. It’s too bad Clara’s behavior feels utterly false to anything we’ve seen prior. We’ve seen her be incredibly protective of children and wonderful at communicating with them (“The Rings of Akhaten”). Here she’s a terrible nanny. Tucking her charges in on sofas in the middle of a creepy waxworks exhibit when the TARDIS is literally right around the corner, complete with bunkbeds? That’s horrible childcare even if the Doctor didn’t have his, “We’re all about to get sucked into an adventure and almost die” face on. We’ve seen her scared and hesitant, unsure of herself or what to do (“Cold War”, “Hide”). Here she’s comfortable in a military command position. This hasn’t been built to, either- her entire experience in “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” is wiped from her memory and she’s barely in “The Crimson Horror”. She acts these ways because the episode needs her to, not because it’s true in any way to her character. She also doesn’t seem nearly concerned enough that everyone around her is dying gruesomely, but that’s a consistent issue with Doctor Who.
- Angie’s the worst. Seriously. Artie’s better, but mostly because he’s barely in the episode. Her performance is just bad. There’s almost no consistency in her attitude, other than that she’s aggravating. She started out the tag of “The Crimson Horror” giving Clara a hard time, but gently, with a smile. Here she starts out a brat. Then she’s smiling again, then she’s spewing hate toward someone who’s been caring for her for quite a while, it seems, and who is supposedly great with kids. At the end of the episode, she’s utterly nonplussed, as is Artie, about having been partially converted into a Cyber Controller and she’s back to gently ribbing Clara. It’s terrible characterization on the whole and hopefully we’ve seen the last of her.
- The Doctor/Clara. Not only do we get a sexually predatory, ogling Doctor again this week, we have the Doctor returning to Clara as “The Impossible Girl”. Not Clara, a fully realized and complex individual, but a nondescript, though sexually and mentally enticing, mystery to be solved. The show can’t keep her personality straight- it doesn’t care enough to, and that disinterest in Clara as a person transfers to the Doctor (making his romantic feelings for her all the squickier). First we had The Girl Who Waited, another Companion defined entirely for far too long by her life-long relationship with the Doctor. Now we have The Impossible Girl. What will we get next?
- The Moon? Parts of the world don’t make sense. In the distant future, why is there a replica of the moon, complete with 20th century US flag, a universe away from Earth? ‘Cause it’ll look cool? The current run of Who has been far too concerned with what will look cool and not nearly concerned enough with what will make any modicum of sense (see “Angels Take Manhattan”). The two needn’t be mutually exclusive.
- The Cybermen’s inconsistent behavior. They have superspeed, until they don’t (whenever someone shoots at them). They decide to march slowly towards Clara and co. rather than superspeeding up or shooting them when they’ve been ordered to kill. The cybermites and other random metal on and in the various partially-upgraded characters disappears when they regain themselves. Literally disappears- no blue glowy parts on the ground, no dead mites, nothing. This episode was clearly an excuse to bring back Cybermen and give the Doctor (and Matt Smith) an excuse to battle himself, but the lack of basic thoughtfulness or concern towards anything else is frustrating.
- Natty Longshoe’s Comical Castle. The castle makes for a good setting, but how does Gaiman seed that the location is like a regular castle, but comical, and then give us absolutely nothing comical within? All we get are a few colored lights angled on the walls. This seems like a perfect Gaiman touch, but the potential is completely wasted.
- Deus ex Machina ending. Yes, it is clear Porridge is the Emperor from early on, but why do we need a Deus ex Machina spaceship save at the end when the characters could just hop in the TARDIS? The TARDIS has materialized around the Doctor and Companions before. And why wouldn’t they bring the TARDIS to their base of operations early on anyways, if only to make sure these ever-upgrading badass new Cybermen don’t get their mitts on her?
- The Time Lords invented Chess. This is a particular pet peeve for me. Like the human concept of a doctor (or healer) coming from the Doctor (“A Good Man Goes to War”), here we find out humans didn’t invent chess. Why? Each time a human invention or great work gets attributed to the Doctor or the Time Lords in general, it doesn’t serve to make them more special or impressive, it diminishes humanity’s accomplishments. It used to seem like the Doctor liked humans because of their ingenuity, creativity, and ability to reach beyond their limitations. Now it seems like he just wants someone to parrot his ideas and tell him he’s cool.
On the whole, this episode has some really great moments and performances, but they don’t make up for its long list of frustrations. The strengths of “Nightmare in Silver” show the potential of this series and this creative team. It’s too bad they are so rarely living up to them.
What did you think of this episode? Any predictions on the much-hyped reveals for Clara and the Doctor next week? What do you think River will have to say about the Doctor’s new affinity for tight skirts? Post your thoughts below.