Nightmare in SilverBookmark and Share

Sunday, 12 May 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Nightmare in Silver
Written by Neil Gaiman
Directed by Stephen Woolfenden
Broadcast on BBC One - 11 May 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode. 

The problem with Neil Gaiman striving to prove that The Doctor’s Wife wasn’t a one-off piece of Who brilliance is that, inadvertently, he might have ended up proving that The Doctor’s Wife was a one-off piece of Who brilliance. Although Nightmare in Silver doesn’t quite make that case, nor does it fully live up to Gaiman’s previous episode.

Things get off to a bumpy start with a moonscape which is far too obviously a stagey set. Its rampant artifice undercuts young Artie’s assertion that they must be on the moon, making him look a bit daft, and it also devalues the initial appearance of Jason Watkins’ Webley. One imagines that, in the screenplay, this moon was perhaps meant to look just like the moon, with the result that a door suddenly springing opening within its dusty terrain would prove genuinely surprising and strange. But here, Webley’s arrival fits right in with a set seemingly designed to look like, well, a tatty old set. As well as upsetting any notion that Nightmare in Silver is going to examine themes of simulation and reality, the Spacey Zoomer ride also upsets fan expectations. It’s presented as an anti-gravity theme park experience, immediately suggesting that the Cybermen will be defeated via a reference back to the Gravitron from The Moonbase. But this “Chekhov’s gun” is very much left unfired, remaining in place as a moment of pure wonder for Artie and Angie rather than becoming a clanking great plot device. If the Spacey Zoomer ride isn’t activated for its story potential, then the Doctor’s golden ticket most certainly is, as Gaiman gleefully toys with fan knowledge. Indeed, this story’s opening gambit seems to be just as loosely based on Marc Platt’s Big Finish audio The Silver Turk as Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel were on Spare Parts, though there’s no end credit for Platt this time round. Perhaps the concept of a Cyber-chessplaying marvel simply occurred independently to both Gaiman and Platt.

Angie and Artie are given a particular narrative rationale – the Cybermen need children as part of their scheming – but this is so rapidly superseded by the Doctor’s utility that the topic of childhood creativity versus mechanical or literal thought is rather blunted. As a result, it becomes hard to see what the child characters bring to events, and why they’re called for here. Gaiman’s story keeps on promising thematic weight, as if rifling through his very own authorial “world of wonders”, only for various themes to be over-run by the requirements of a mass invasion plot and an internalized, schizoid threat. Appearance vs. reality, or child-like imagination vs. machinic predictability, are both subordinated to an action-adventure plotline.

As things turned out, the UK broadcast of Nightmare in Silver was forced to compete with football silverware over on ITV, so maybe the emphasis on brash, colourful action was a canny move. But I wonder whether earlier drafts of Gaiman’s screenplay might have focused more significantly on the theme park setting and on Cyber plans in relation to childhood sensations of awe, wonder and playfulness (something which would have made greater sense of the Spacey Zoomer ride scene too).

Ahead of transmission, much publicity was wrung from the notion that Nightmare in Silver would make the Cybermen scary again. They are certainly given some shiny gimmicks, including head reversal, detachable bits, and the brilliantly realised -mites rather than -matts, along with speediness that stirs up a veritable Cyber-wind. But are they genuinely creepy, unsettling and uncanny? Russell T. Davies decreed that his Cybusmen were steel entities rather than silver monsters – hence The Age of Steel – in an attempt to make them seem more plausible, real-seeming and industrial. In the setting of Hedgewick’s World, battling in Natty Longshoe’s Castle, massed ranks of silver Cybermen somehow feel less real, and more of a fairytale threat, despite talk of Cyber Wars and needing to detonate a planet to destroy just one of their kind. It’s as if the lurid blasts of coloured light (meant to cost-effectively transform real-world locations into Disney-esque simulations of a castle) capture these Cybermen in a glare of unreality. Even when we’re confronted by what should be a jagged, ugly absence in the sky – destruction on an epic scale which supposedly destroyed the galactic Cyber-threat – we’re instead given a visual that looks both flatly stylized and beautifully astral at the same time. An air of artifice floats dangerously around these Cybermen, making their gimmicks seem too much akin to showman’s tricks – “roll up, roll up, see what new things they can do!” The ragged world of Nightmare in Silver also runs the risk of looking as if production values have malfunctioned: ‘Webley’s World of Wonders’ seems a lot like cobbled-together Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures’ gubbins, and the Emperor’s craft also feels very familiar in the visual grammar of BBC Wales’ Doctor Who.

Setting budgeting issues to one side, there is an effective guest-star turn from Warwick Davis as Porridge while Jenna-Louise Coleman continues to convince as the highly competent Clara. But discussing this tale without reflecting on Matt Smith’s work would be impossible. Smith gets the opportunity to play both hero and villain, and this duality (sometimes represented very clumsily on-screen) is the real heart of Gaiman’s work. Such character splitting is a well-worn trope of fantasy, but astonishingly it’s not something that’s ever been this fully explored in a battle between the Doctor and the Cybermen, and its inclusion here notably elevates the story’s intrigue. But any mythology-expanding potential is crowded out by too much other business, whether it's massed ranks of Cybermen, explosions, firefights, or a character who might remind some viewers of the ninth Doctor’s survivor guilt. If only this episode had been more prepared to explore a claustrophobic, internal struggle for control of the Doctor’s mind, as well as more extensively exploiting anxiety over whether and when the Doctor is really himself, then Nightmare in Silver could have attained a purity of purpose and a truly terrifying tone. But larded with action-adventure planet-busters, Emperor issues (how many disguised identity subplots and ‘big reveals’ do we need?) and kids to be saved, this all becomes rather overloaded. Or perhaps it’s a case of story as theme park, with lots of different entertainments being toured around without ever cohering into one structure.

Matt Smith’s bravura acting shines through despite the faintly pantomimic visuals of left-side and right-side 'selves'. And the Cyberplanner is all the more chilling for being portrayed through Smith’s performance, even if his renderings of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant are oddly caricatured. I wish that visual effects could have included strongly CGI-augmented shots of Cyber-components growing and developing into the Doctor’s body, however: the winking lights and facial prosthetic that we’re shown are fairly cartoonish. The outcome is a nightmare that isn’t allowed to be very nightmarish in terms of body-horror or corrupted, violated identity.

As Neil Gaiman’s sophomore story after The Doctor’s Wife, this episode – which could almost be dubbed ‘The Doctor’s Mind’ – is ultimately too much of a mixed bag to hit home. And to depict theme park fantasy and artificiality really convincingly perhaps takes a greater sense of realism than this episode’s production values can always muster.