After his superb Doctor Who debut "The Doctor's Wife" (one of the best episodes of Steven Moffat's era), expectations were unreasonably high for the sophomore effort of renowned author Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Neverwhere). Sadly, "A Nightmare in Silver" was an episode overburdened with nonsense and whimsy; quickly becoming both repetitive and tiring. The only thing it did well was improve the design and logic of the Cybermen as callous villains; even if most of its improvements came from Star Trek's own cybernetic nemesis The Borg.
Neil Gaiman's approach to this episode was very much in the capricious style of Douglas Adams, with an abundance of wacky ideas spun together. It lacked the relative simplicity of his inaugural Doctor Who story and, for me, drowned under a weight of silliness rather quickly. The Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) arrived at a derelict alien amusement park called Hedgewick's World; promising Angie (Eve de Leon Allen) and Artie (Kassius Carey Johnson), the children Clara looks after, to have some fun that quickly turns terrifying. After meeting showman Mr Webley (Being Human's Jason Watkins) who owns a Turk-style Cyberman (once the enemy of his people, defeated a millennia ago), the mechanical menaces soon awaken from hibernation to resume war.
There were a number of things I did enjoy about "A Nightmare in Silver", or at least felt must have worked on the page (where Doctor Who's budget is less of a concern). The ways in which the Cybermen were revamped were largely successful, even if most changes owed a debt to Star Trek's The Borg, who in turn owed a debt to the show's original Cybermen. Their silver suits were sleeker, voices creepier, body language more menacing, and Gaiman introduced the excellent idea of Cybermen now "upgrading" people by having earwig-like 'cybermites' burrow into host bodies to take over their minds. I also liked the idea of setting this idea in a decrepit futuristic theme park, which means it was also something of a loose Westworld remake. It's just a pity Gaiman's vision presumably had to be scaled back, with the majority of the episode taking place in and around a castle surrounded by coloured lights.
Unfortunately, too much of everything else contained problems of one kind or another. Considering Gaiman's brief from Steven Moffat was to make the Cybermen "scary again", the tone of the story was too madcap and goofy for any kind of tension to build or actual scares to be delivered. This was a particular shame given the galvanising episode title and the clear potential for these new-look Cybermen to be a dangerous and compelling threat at last. They're no longer just metal men marching around screeching "delete" in unison, thank heavens. So quite why Gaiman decided to put them in a story where Warwick Davies was running around dressed as a flying ace, joined by 'comedy soldiers' (the fat one, the ginger one), Mel from EastEnders, and two annoying children, is anyone's guess. I think we deserved something that felt more like the nightmare the title promised.
I also didn't like the execution of the interesting idea The Doctor had to fight for control of his own mind after he's been assimilated—sorry, "upgraded", by the 'Cyber Planner' using cybermites. This ultimately led to Matt Smith having far too many scenes where he was arguing with himself (sometimes in a nothern accent, sometimes not), in-between chintzy sequences visualising the 'good' and 'evil' Doctors having discussions within the Doctor's psyche. Smith gave it his best shot, but Gaiman's dialogue just wasn't strong enough in these scenes, and it soon became very undramatic and even embarrassing to watch him try and fail to make these scenes alternate between drama, comedy and horror.
On a similar note, I found Clara too bossy and annoying for large stretches, and it's increasingly clear non-Moffat writers don't know who they're writing for yet. (A common problem whenever a new companion joins.) Sometimes Clara's believably feisty, sometimes she's fearless and assertive, and occasionally she's the stereotypical damsel-in-distress. I just didn't accept Clara as the kind of person who would immediately step up to command an army of soldiers and fight hundreds of Cybermen in The Doctor's absence. Coleman's performance just hit a lot of wrong notes in general because of the writing.
Overall, "A Nightmare in Silver" is a good way to describe what Neil Gaiman went through with this script. He's a great writer with a fecund imagination (the literary version of Steven Moffat?), but he's equally guilty of letting his creativeness run away with itself. This story was too garbled and cluttered; lacking a firm narrative, while opting for an oddball tone that worked against making these tin men chill your blood. It was like inserting The Borg into Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
There were some fun ideas, a few cool visuals, and lots of excellent modifications to the Cybermen themselves, but I can't wait for another episode to use them effectively. Oh, and I'm overjoyed Artie and Angie have been dropped off home after one adventure, because they're even worse than Martha Jones's underused family.
written by Neil Gaiman / directed by Stephen Woolfenden / 11 May 2013 / BBC1
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