The Apocalypse Mirror (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 31 May 2013 - Reviewed by Andrew Batty
The Apocalypse Mirror
The Apocalypse Mirror
Big Finish Productions
Written by Eddie Robson
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Released May 2013
In a decaying city in Earth’s future steel birds stalk the skies and people are vanishing from the streets. Jamie, Zoe and the Doctor soon learn that the city’s days are numbered, but can they do anything to save it before they vanish like so many citizens before them?

The Companion Chronicles were created to solve two main problems for Big Finish telling stories featuring the first four Doctors. By having older versions of the Doctor’s friends relate stories of their adventures Big Finish avoided the problems of not having an actor to play the Doctor, and the companion actors being much older, allowing them to play the character at a similar age to themselves. The approach also opened up new ways of telling stories, and the rage has often made use of clever framing devices and narrative tricks.

The Apocalypse Mirror is a somewhat experimental release, which moves away from the familiar Companion Chronicles approach described above. While it is narrated from Jamie’s perspective, it lacks any kind of framing device and is highly unusual in that all three of the regular characters are ‘voiced’, with Wendy Padbury on hand as Zoe, and Frazer Hines taking on both Jamie and the Doctor. Big Finish have been keen to promote this side of the play with the DWM preview calling it “the most authentic Second Doctor Companion Chronicle yet”.

In the past Big Finish have been adamant that they would never re-cast the Doctors who are no longer with us, but this play is the closest they have come to this. Since this isn’t a full-cast play they can just about get around calling it ‘recasting’ (as Hines voices all the characters bar Zoe), but it sails very close to the wind. The problem is that even though Hines’ take on Troughton’s voice is very good, it will only ever sound like Frazer Hines doing an impression of Patrick Troughton, rather than the real thing. Recreating the past in such detail feels like a fairly futile aim, and with The Companion Chronicles already offering a neat solution to the lack of the first three actors to play the Doctor it’s hard to see why Big Finish are veering away from a format which works so well.

Given the decision to have all three regulars ‘voiced’, it’s a shame that Wendy Padbury couldn’t have been more to do as Zoe, as she disappears from the story half way through, and doesn’t return until the conclusion. The play’s supporting characters are all drab and forgettable (however, given the revelations in the play about the nature of the city and its inhabitants, the dullness of the characters is probably intentional) and giving one of these characters the second voice, rather than Zoe, might have made them more distinctive.

Where the play excels is in its imagery. The setting of the neglected and part-derelict city is wonderfully evoked in Jamie’s narration, and the Hawkers (the metal birds which grace the CD’s cover) are a memorable and very visual menace. There is a good sense of mystery created around the disappearances of the city’s people and the strange ‘nostalgia sickness’ which causes people to see flashes of the city’s greater days and these mysteries are resolved in clever and unexpected ways. Jamie is used very well throughout the play, with his sense of wonder authentically captured and Episode Two gives him a rather lovely speech arguing against cynicism and despondency.

Overall The Apocalypse Mirror is a play which is high on atmosphere but low on the storytelling complexity we’ve come to expect from The Companion Chronicles. Trying to have all of the regulars voiced is an interesting experiment in the way The Companion Chronicles tell stories, but one which feels like a bit of a backwards step, trying to solve a problem which doesn’t really exist.

FILTER: - Second Doctor - Big Finish - Audio - 1781780668

The Lady of Mercia (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 25 May 2013 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

The Lady of Mercia
Big Finish Productions
Written by Paul Magrs
Directed by Ken Bentley
Released May 2013
"Buck up, Bleaky! You’ve always wanted to see history up close, haven’t you?"
"Not this close – not actually taking part! I never wanted to be locked up and sleeping in filth and dressing up ..."
"Tough – because that’s what time travel is like!"
Tegan Jovanka and Professor John Bleak, The Lady of Mercia

It’s well known that part of Doctor Who's brief as a children’s program back in the Sixties was to educate as well as entertain. Hence, the rationale for the historical serials, where the only fantasy elements were the TARDIS and her crew. The time travellers would visit what the modern TV series now describes as "fixed points" in history, powerless to influence or change specific events but often having to extricate themselves from the politics and petty rivalries of the age.

The tone of many historicals in the Hartnell era was quite earnest, even adult (eg The Aztecs, The Crusade, The Massacre) while others were more humorous in style (The Romans, The Myth Makers, The Gunfighters), although never at the expense of the drama – the Doctor and his companions were often still walking a fine line between safety and danger.

Of course, with some notable exceptions (The Highlanders in the Troughton era and Black Orchid even later in the Davison era), the historical drama was dispensed with after Hartnell’s time, largely because young fans preferred the SF/fantasy element. Big Finish has since its inception revisited the historical format quite frequently and successfully, spanning all of its Doctors, from Tom Baker through to Paul McGann.

Peter Davison’s Doctor has had his fair share of historicals (eg The Eye of the Scorpion, The Council of Nicea, The Church and the Crown, The Kingmaker), most of which were tongue in cheek affairs. The Lady of Mercia continues that vein. Structurally the tale is different from some of the other BF historical dramas (and particularly the 1960s TV historical serials) in that it is as much a time travel story as an historical. It starts unassumingly at a 1980s university, where DIY time travel experiments are occurring in the physics department, a conference about mediaeval queens is about to commence and unruly students are, as one academic character describes it, “revolting” (as much in character, as in vociferious protests!).

Indeed, based on the above description, The Lady of Mercia initially has all the ingredients of a Douglas Adams script, even down to the jibes about students and undergraduates. Certainly, writer Paul Magrs seems to channel Adams a lot in the narrative. When a warrior princess is inadvertently brought into the present and disrupts the opening drinks session at the conference, it seems a little coincidental that a female French academic perceives the princess to be part of the performance, much as the two art critics in the Louvre in City of Death perceive the dematerialisation of the TARDIS to be part of the art. Some of the supporting characters from the university are very flawed in an Adams-esque way too. There is a married couple in the story – an historian and a physics scientist - who have both been engaged in extra-marital affairs. One of these trysts is with a student who is leading the protest against the very same physics department that his lover works for!

However, once the story’s time travel element comes to the fore, The Lady of Mercia gradually morphs from an Adams-esque comedy into a serious historical adventure. Tegan finds herself swept back in time and, despite her best efforts, caught up in the intrigue and politics of 10th century Mercia. Indeed, on three occasions she ends up pretending to be someone she isn’t, initially posing as a "world-renowned" Australian academic historian in 1983, as a princess in England in the Dark Ages and ... well, the third would be a spoiler but insofar as the humour of the story goes, it’s a masterstroke for her bossy character!

Of course, like the Hartnell historical serials, the TARDIS crew, including Tegan, are powerless to stop the natural course of events, despite the sympathies they have for the characters they meet (notably the mediaeval Queen Æthelfrid and her daughter Princess Ælfwynn). And it is in the climax that Magrs is not imaginative enough and overall delivers a fairly dull, disappointing script. If you’re going to create a “warts and all” impression of a historical time, society and place – and Magrs portrays the political situation and the dramatis personae in 10th century Mercia extremely well – then you also need to rock the TARDIS crew to its very core (and through them the listener as well).

I’ve always been struck by the conclusions to other Doctor Who historical tales whereby something tragic happens to a supporting character that you grow to love and respect – if only to reinforce to the companions what an omnipotent , unforgiving mistress history is and how dangerous time travel can be. It happens in Sanctuary (Virgin NA, 1995), The Shadow in the Glass (BBC Books, 2001), World Game (BBC Books, 2005), Doctor Who and the Pirates! (BF, 2003), and even Earthshock (in which, of course, Adric’s demise was part of the web of time). The Lady of Mercia would have benefitted enormously from a similar approach but sadly it peters out to a fairly predictable, lacklustre conclusion. Even then, none of Magrs’ characters – especially the academic characters - are sympathetic enough for the listener to feel any grief if one of them is lost.

Despite the script’s flaws, the production meets Big Finish’s usually high standards and the performances from the cast make the story a lot livelier and entertaining than it truly is on paper. The regulars – Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton and Mark Strickson – have all commented that they enjoyed the script because it wasn’t overly complicated, although I don’t feel it necessarily does their characters justice. Janet Fielding is wonderfully ballsy as Tegan and relishes playing the part in a more regal, swashbuckling style but the same cannot be said of her fellow travellers. Nyssa is reduced to the archetypal companion, asking the Doctor the usual questions, while Turlough is the teaboy (much to his disgust) at one point and brawls with an undergraduate for comic effect at another ("I’ll tell you what, posh boy, I’ve made a right Eton mess of your nose!" "It’s Brendon, you cretin! Brendon!"). And Mark Strickson used to complain that all too often in his TV series days Turlough would spend too much time in various states of captivity! I’m not sure Turlough’s lot in The Lady of Mercia is much of an improvement.

The other performances from the guest cast are all competent, with four of the actors convincingly taking on dual roles in both time periods. Although the mediaeval accents are very clichéd (evoking for me shades of Games of Thrones!), the fact that guest star Kieren Bew can sound so different as the menacing Dane knight Arthur Kettleson compared to his whining contemporary part as Barry shows just how talented Big Finish’s performers are.

While The Lady of Mercia is not your run of the mill historical, its premise is too lightweight for a full fledged two hour drama. The titular character’s real story has been mostly lost to history and legend and while Magrs offers a plausible interpretation of how events may have played out, it is not “meaty” enough to have warranted a full cast audio drama. Is it any wonder Magrs includes a time travel sub-plot and injects plenty of humour into the script as filler? This story would have fared better as a 60-minute Companion Chronicle, told from Tegan’s point of view, with much of the university/time travel sub-plots jettisoned. In that format, The Lady of Mercia would have been a more compelling story, particularly if narrated by Janet Fielding who would have given it a great stand alone performance.

FILTER: - Fifth Doctor - Big Finish - Audio - 1781780730

Tip of the Tongue (Puffin Books)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 23 May 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Tip of the Tongue
Written by Patrick Ness
Puffin Books
UK release: 23 May 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.

There can be no doubting Patrick Ness’s credentials as a writer of YA fantasy, and this Puffin series continues to add ‘big name’ authorial value to its month-by-month releases. Reaching the fifth Doctor’s tenure, Tip of the Tongue features Nyssa as the Doctor's sole companion, also including some smart continuity references to Adric and Tegan near its conclusion.

Ness excels at creating fantasy worlds. Here it’s America in 1945, but very much with an alien twist. Strange creatures dubbed 'Truth Tellers' (which attach themselves to their recipient’s tongue) have invaded Temperance, Maine, meaning that locals can indulge themselves in expressing plenty of plain, unvarnished reality. Of course, Ness can’t resist having some fun with this concept, working in a version of a “does my bum look big in this?” gag, but he also strikes a more serious note by illustrating just how much society hinges on degrees of tact, if not innumerable white lies. Constant truth-telling offers a ready way for veracious intruders to disrupt human existence, it would seem.

Appropriately enough, Ness withholds the full truth of his own tale, and as a result there’s a satisfying twist towards the end of proceedings. He relies on his readers’ sense of what constitutes a Doctor Who story (e.g. extraterrestrial threat) to misdirect and mislead, and the “Dipthodat” race are ultimately not quite what you might have expected… If economy with the truth gives rise to a clever denouement, there is nevertheless a danger that this doesn’t always feel exactly like Doctor Who. It’s more of a scenario which the Doctor happens to breeze through, with our celery-sporting hero reduced almost to a guest-star role. Ness is far more interested in his own original characters and their relationships, focusing on the friendship between young Jonny and Nettie rather than centring events on the Doctor and Nyssa (even if the latter’s trousers cause a bit of a stir in 1945 Maine).

Last month’s Roots of Evil simultaneously captured the flavour of fourth Doctor-Leela adventures and conveyed Philip Reeve’s authorial voice, whereas this time round we get more of a character study, and a carefully thought-out, localised transformation of history, but not something which necessarily fits snugly into the Davison era. Instead, Tip of the Tongue skillfully combines its truth-telling theme with a coming-of-age tale, where the reality of the human heart becomes something subtle and malleable – something not fully in the grasp of its teller – rather than a mere matter of reportage. Ness makes us care about Jonny and Nettie, and with more than a hint of “new Who” permeating the turn of events, emotional realism becomes just as important here as the matter of an alien incursion.

Ultimately, Tip of the Tongue contradicts its title; unlike a word that’s almost remembered, yet can’t quite be recalled, this material is always under its author’s control, and it’s a beautifully crafted piece of fiction - a good story first and foremost, and a Doctor Who story second, as if viewed from the perspective of somebody who would usually be a bit-part character. And where child actors can sometimes pose a problem for televised Who, no such difficulties plague the written word. Young characters come into their own in this deft integration of YA fiction and the Whoniverse.

To be sure, Patrick Ness hasn’t written a novella which simply apes family entertainment TV, nor one which offers unbridled SF spectacle in literary form. And, unusually, fan service is almost an alien concept here (bar a few moments of continuity referencing, and the fifth Doctor’s attitude towards travelling companions). But perhaps the most compelling form of “fan service” lies in creating a thematically coherent, intelligent and consistent story-world that never feels programmatic. Tip of the Tongue isn’t a “game changer”. It doesn’t promise any big secrets or any devastating reveals. Yet, perhaps unwittingly echoing Peter Davison’s portrayal of the Doctor, this month’s Puffin ebook combines quiet integrity with true warmth and charm.

FILTER: - eBook - Fifth Doctor - 50th Anniversary - B00B54TZBA

The Rescue (AudioGo novelisation)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 21 May 2013 - Reviewed by Andrew Batty
The Rescue, read by Maureen O'Brien
Doctor Who - The Rescue
Originally starring William Hartnell
Written by David Whitaker
Narrated by Maureen O'Brien
Released by BBC AudioGo, April 2013
The Rescue is a rarity in pre-00s Doctor Who. At only two episodes (50 minutes) in length, it zips along at a fast pace handling the series’ first ever companion changeover deftly and swiftly. The idea of a four-hour long reading of an adaptation of such a slim and expedient story is a rather daunting one.

In adapting The Rescue to fill the page count of a Target novel, Ian Marter uses two main tricks. Firstly, (and understandably) he expands on the events of the TV version, including scenes of the rescue ship en-route to find the survivors of the Astra, further background on the planet Dido and its inhabitants, and more exploration of the planet than we saw on screen. Secondly, he writes lengthy descriptive passages about the locations and the action taking place.

Unfortunately, the majority of this protracted description comes in the first half of the story, making it a bit of a slog to get through, but things do pick up past the half way point.

Many of Marter’s additions to the story (particularly the expanded role for the surviving Didoids and the exploration of their history) are very welcome, adding depth and background, while also ironing out some of the dangling threads and inconsistencies in the TV original (such as the rescue ship). However they also lead to a rather odd structure and uneven pacing with this version of the story carrying on well past the defeat of its villain.

Marter is very successful in emphasising and expanding the script’s focus on appearances being deceptive, with this motif recurring in the characters of Bennett, Koquillion, Sandy and the Didoids, along with the terrain of the planet Dido. He also has a refreshingly different turn of phrase and choice of reference points to some of the other Target writers. A particular highlight comes early on in the novel, where Vicki is described at length and compared to Joan of Arc.

One surprising change Marter makes comes in the epilogue. He ends the story on an unexpectedly downbeat note, but one which he has carefully foreshadowed throughout the novel, and it ties together many of the themes of the original script and the additional ones Marter has added.

Marter captures all of the regulars very well and (as previously shown in The Companion Chronicles) Maureen O’Brien is an excellent reader. She’s very good at adopting different styles of delivery (with the exception of a weak American accent), and unsurprisingly, she excels when taking on Vicki's dialogue. One slight weakness is her portrayal of the Doctor, who she performs in an austere tone, meaning some of the humour of the story (present in the script and in William Hartnell’s performance) doesn’t come across, particularly in the Doctor’s early scenes with Ian and Barbara.

Typically, the audio design is very good and the music and effects are subtle, in keeping with the tone of the story and enhance the experience, rather than distracting the listener.

While Marter's take on The Rescue doesn't quite succeed in stretching the story out to fill the required length it is an interesting curio which offers unexpected insights into one of the highlights of the Hartnell era.

FILTER: - First Doctor - Series 2 - Audio - BBC Audio - 144582633X

The Name of the DoctorBookmark and Share

Sunday, 19 May 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - The Name of the Doctor
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Saul Metzstein
Broadcast on BBC One - 18 May 2013
This review contains plot spoilers from the outset and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode. 

“It’s the closest Who’s ever come to poetry, And we haven’t yet reached the anniversary…”

This has to be Steven Moffat’s greatest reversal. Having set up the expectation that we’ll finally learn the Doctor’s true name, instead we get a figure (presumably an unknown incarnation) who has failed to act in “the name of the Doctor". It’s slightly muddled in the execution though: a cheesy “introducing John Hurt as the Doctor” crashing over the story’s events feels like the polar opposite of Sherlock’s on-screen text, being faintly ludicrous rather than classy. And haven’t we just been told in closing dialogue that this Hurt version has failed to carry the Doctor’s name? But no, he's captioned as “the Doctor”. Of course, it’s a moment designed for maximum impact, so perhaps it's irrelevant if it doesn't gel with what we’ve heard.

The same problem – impact over logic – occurs elsewhere in this finale-that’s-actually-an-anniversary-prequel. The Whispermen are its greatest exemplar: they speak in rhyming couplets and look immensely creepy, but we never get much in the way of explanation or rationale for any of this. They may as well be known as Gimmickmen, amounting to precious more than sensation-seeking for its own sake. From the special effects sequence where Dr. Simeon peels away his face and is regenerated afresh we can surmise that these Whispermen are shells upon which the Great Intelligence can imprint information – but given that G. Intelligence Esquire is supposedly pure information without a body, the precise materiality of the Whispermen remains murky. Never mind; they look distinctive and they sound distinctive – perhaps they’re the first entirely self-referential Doctor Who monster, hollow except for the formulaic need to make an instant audio-visual impression.

Sections of the audience may be tempted to describe much of this episode as ‘fanwank’. And there’s certainly no denying the thrill that accompanies seeing the first Doctor and Susan about to escape from Gallifrey. Even here, though, Moffat doesn’t simply deliver fan service. Instead he executes yet another inversion, leading his fellow fans to assume that Clara is about to disastrously undo series’ history – creating a Doctor who’ll never have any adventures – when in actual fact she’s getting the show back on track. Regardless of patchy picture quality and a far from seamless integration of new and old footage, I’m not completely sure that fanwank is quite the right term for this. It’s the ultimate retcon, for sure, rewriting the Doctor’s entire timeline so that the current companion becomes the longest-serving “travelling assistant” in the show’s history (pub quizzes are going to have a field day with all this). Perhaps ‘fan-swank’ would be a better description for such an audacious, showy reworking of every previous production team’s work, and every previous era of the programme, in the image of the current producer-fan showrunner and his creations. In an instant, Doctor Who’s history becomes permeated by the here-and-now; all discontinuities and developments since 1963 are bound together and unified by “the impossible girl”.

But if the Whispermen and the “old man” who may or may not be “the Beast” both apparently represent a demand for attention rather than water-tight storytelling, there are other elements that deliver more immediate substance. The giant Police Box is a wonderful idea, though I wish effects shots had clearly incorporated human figures, so that the scale of this TARDIS tomb could be better established and appreciated. Its brilliance is intensified by the fact that Moffat’s Asylum of the Daleks opened series seven with a giant Dalek statue; the show’s icons have therefore neatly book-ended this (split) run of episodes, transformed into vast story-world monuments to themselves. Of course, this wasn’t the only callback to Asylum, as “soufflé girl” makes a re-appearance, lending the notion a newfound thematic and emotional resonance. Whether or not he plans all these grace notes and motifs, it has to be said that Moffat’s writing creates an impressive sense of unity and wholeness on occasion, even if casting the Doctor and Clara back into the Time Lord’s own time-stream pushes this gutsy desire for a grand unified theory of Who perhaps a little too far.

Moffat also weaves River Song coherently into proceedings, crafting moments of real heart and emotion among the story mechanics. Likewise, the Paternoster Gang are generally well-served, although Jenny’s demise is far too easily taken back, and this twisty-wisty stuff reminded me of problems I had with The Angels Take Manhattan where characters were dead, then saved, then lost again, and all so rapidly that any emotional through-line was sorely attenuated. We also know that Moffat enjoys abruptly collecting characters together across time and space, and the “conference call” allied to dream logic was another great idea which enabled an epic sense of scale to be achieved round one ornately decorated table. However, the ‘stars going out’ sequence was just too much of a riff on a previous Moffat cliffhanger for me, and the impact of this scene was weakened as I began to reminisce about The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang. It’s one thing to play on fan nostalgia via blurred or re-graded clips of old Who, but I’m guessing that this “universe without the Doctor” business wasn’t intended to activate memories of Moffat’s own previous scripts. Self-referential Who starts to become jumbled up with showrunner self-repetition here, not always to the episode’s benefit.

“Bodies are boring”, we’re pointedly told inside the Doctor’s tomb, as if Moffat is also anticipating fan commentary to the effect that some of these plot points have sort of happened before in Doctor Who, albeit not on television. Lawrence Miles’s novel Alien Bodies revolved around the apparent discovery of the Doctor’s future coffin, and revitalised Who storytelling on its initial 1997 publication. The Name of the Doctor works hard to justify its place as an equally revitalising game-changer, but it left me feeling slightly ambivalent: I partly hope that all this retconning and will-to-unity is tidied away by the end of the anniversary special so that Doctor Who’s history can return to its gloriously ramshackle and uneven pastness rather than being assimilated into latter-day coherence. Clara's blunt assertion that "my story is done" also raises the question of where the character can be taken next.

The real strength of The Name of the Doctor, and one reason why it will live on long after anniversary kerfuffle has died away, and long after excitement over the digital blending of classic and new Who has abated, is that it combines a lot of very funny lines with some beautifully poeticised writing (and I don’t mean the Whispermen’s rhymes). Clara’s heightened, stylized talk of “I blew into this world on a leaf” comes elegantly close to encapsulating life as art. The Doctor’s account of his own time-line is similarly poetic, and even Dr. Simeon is compelled to admonish the Time Lord with a curt request for “less poetry”. Closing dialogue likewise rings out as precisely composed. Moffat’s sheer love for words, and their scrupulous manipulation, shines out in these and many other moments, for example in the need for precise interpretation of "the Doctor has a secret he will take to the grave. It is discovered." Rhythm and metre have rarely felt as central to a Doctor Who script as they do here. It’s just a shame that Moffat’s desire for anniversary unification – seeking to bring together all of Who’s history at the same time as articulating his own prior scripts and creations – reduces new elements such as the Whispermen and the Big Secret Ending to somewhat incoherent attention-grabbing. But viewed as a set-up for November 23rd 2013, it’s hard to fault this blend of showmanship and sheer wordplay.

FILTER: - Television - Series 7/33 - Eleventh Doctor

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.

FILTER: - Television - Series 7/33 - Eleventh Doctor