...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, May 13, 2013

Day 4514: DOCTOR WHO: Nightmare in Silver


Neil Gaiman's second episode for Doctor Who, in spite of doing everything humanly possible to touch the fans' buttons and warm the cockles of their cold hearts, seems to have produced something of a backlash, at least among those fans whose opinions I've been reading. Despite polling in the same mostly-about-8-out-of-10 range on the forums as the last few episodes, people voicing their thoughts have been a touch, er, negative about it.

Well, as this week's guest star Warwick Davis might put it, life's too short for the haters, so here are ten reasons I thought this was brilliant:

1. A properly constructed story with beginning middle and end. I know that that really only counts as "competence" but after several stories this year that have overdone, mistimed or generally cocked up one part or the other, this shows how decent it can be when you actually getting the mechanics right.
To take you quickly through it, in the traditional four parts of a Doctor Who story we are:

part one – introduced to the planet-sized fun-park of Hedgewick's world, reintroduced to the Cybermen and told that they're all dead, have it heavily flagged for us that Warwick Davis' character "Porridge" is – spoilers – emperor of the universe, and muse a little on the price paid for defeating the Cybermen a thousand years ago...

part two – guess what, the Cybermen aren't dead after all and we do some cool new stuff with Cybermites (a logical and yet ingenious and very creepy evolution of the Cybermats) and introduce the main threat – which evolves nicely from those musings in part one – that the humans will react to the presence of Cybermen by destroying the planet as very nearly a first resort. Unfortunately, the platoon of troops we thought would be useful turn out to be rubbish and the two children in Clara's charge have been possessed by the Cybermen...

part three – to make matters worse, so has the Doctor, and we get a face-off between the Time Lord and the invading Cyber-Planner inside his mind, while Clara and the punishment platoon try to secure Sleeping Beauty's castle...

part four – the full Cyber-army emerges from their tombs and march on the castle but the Doctor reveals that he's way ahead of the Cyber-Planner after all and springs his trap, allows the Emperor to set off the bomb and saves the day.

2. Robert Holmes used to construct stories "in the shadow of great events", so – for example – "The Ribos Operation" sees the Graff Vynda-K after he's lost his empire or "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" sees Magnus Greel's last stand after fleeing from a World War in the year Five Thousand. Obviously the model here is "Revenge of the Cybermen", script-edited and largely re-written by Holmes, where the base under siege events on the Nerva Beacon and Voga are a sequel to the unseen story of the Cyberwars.

Gaiman does much the same here, sketching in for us a Universe-spanning human Imperium which defeated the wonderfully-named Cyberiad of the Cybermen in a terrible war and at a terrible price: the destruction of the entire Tiberian Spiral Galaxy. Simon, incidentally, reads this as the destruction of the Cybermen's home galaxy, but I rather thought that the implication was that the Cyber-army was lured into a trap in a human-occupied galaxy which was then destroyed to wipe out the Cybermen en masse.

(Or, if you prefer, after the Cybermen where annihilated from our galaxy, a surviving ship managed to escape to intergalactic space. They are, after all, always establishing "new" homeworlds.)

"Tiberian" suggests the river Tiber, on which of course Imperial Rome was founded, and into which Roman traitors were thrown after execution, particularly by the Emperor Tiberius – though for Alex it suggests not the Cybermen's home but the Empire's, with the Emperor sacrificing his own people and home to destroy the enemy before running away because he can't deal with guilt of double-genocide. It makes Porridge an explicit mirror of the Doctor (and tragically suggests not just a mirror of Season 2005 but a prefiguring of next week: Porridge / Emperor has been running but must in the end return to face up to his responsibilities, just as the Doctor / [insert name here; no, don't do that] must go to Trenzalore…?), just as 'Nightmare in Silver' suggests a "dark dream mirror" all over, and the Doctor mirrors himself as the Cyber-Planner, and indeed the Cyber-Planner Doctor starts mirroring earlier Doctors. Badly.

Are the chess game and wonder-world for children from "Through the Looking-Glass, and What Clara Found There"? If the Cybermen are dark mirrors of ourselves, we see through the looking-glass darkly a lot.

And Jason Watkins' look manages to suggest a dishevelled, disreputable version of the Doctor, Willy Wonka, the Mad Hatter and (sigh) the Great Intelligence, all at the same time, which is quite impressive multiple mirroring.

It also suggests James Tiberius Kirk, and having a galaxy named after him would fit.

What this cleverly hinted-at backstory enables Gaiman to do, though, is to establish that the human empire is huge and powerful and so take the threat from the Cybermen to the next level.

3. Making the Cybermen actually dangerous in a way that they have only really ever been in "Earthshock".

Ever since their first home planet of Mondas blew itself to bits in "The Tenth Planet", the Cyber-race has been on the verge of extinction and basically a bit rubbish. Their ranking as Number Two monster in the Whoniverse (see "Doomsday" for who is definitely Number One) has always been a bit of a mystery, compared to galaxy-crushing foes like the Sontarans, the Rutans or, er, the Dominators and their fearsome Quarks (look, BAFTA thought so!). Skulking in the shadows became their modus operandi for the rest of the Sixties, as they tried various hare-brained schemes to survive by taking over the Earth before they finally buried themselves on Telos. "Revenge of the Cybermen" explicitly describes the few we see as the last survivors – and the Doctor goes out of his way to tell them how rubbish they are. "Attack of the Cybermen" sees them desperate at the end of the Cyberwars, stealing time technology and blowing up Telos. The Cybermen in "Silver Nemesis" are a bit of an anomaly: everything about them suggests the very last survivors of Telos, escaped in the stolen timeship (which Ace blows up), until they pull a cloaked Cyberfleet out of their handles. Post-facto justification, if not logic, suggests that these must be ships from "The Invasion" rather than a whole new foe from the future.

Thanks to the invention of CGI, the new series has seen the Cybermen adopt the Dalek tactics of creating a huge army out of nowhere only for them all to get killed again. (Perhaps a strategy bought in from Skaro along with using imaginative, creative children for their battle computers.)

"The Age of Steel" saw the Doctor end the Cyber-threat to a parallel Earth almost before it began by making their heads go pop, and then, when they tried to invade our Universe, he vacuumed them into the void not once but twice, and their bonkers Cyberking with them. This, however, did not stop them attending the Party at the Pandorica or crash-landing a Cybership under Colchester (can we appeal to "The Invasion" again?). And they crashed another ship into the actually-not-bad "Blood of the Cybermen" downloadable game.

But if a man is judged by the quality of his enemies, then a Cyberman is even more so. Having set up the great and bloody powerful human empire, if this universe-sized empire is so threatened by the Cybermen that they resort to blowing up planets the minute they know the Cyber-threat has arrived, then you know that the Cybermen are now quite hard bastards.

The far-future setting allows for some hefty evolution of the Cyber-species along the way, and giving them some seriously dangerous new powers such as the ability to adapt and survive very quickly and to begin conversion of downed enemies via Cybermite at a touch. The fact that if you don't kill them fast enough they will, first, become immune to your weaponry and, second, then come and turn you into one of them finally gives them the tools to become a universal threat.

And anyone complaining that this also makes them too like the Borg should remember the recent Star Trek/Doctor Who comic crossover from IDW which saw the Borg allied to (and then, obviously, betrayed by) the Cybermen. Stealing Borg technology from an alternative universe is a very Cyberman thing to do.

The new Cyber-suits were sleeker and more menacing than their Cybusman predecessors, and I liked some of the movement, particularly the attack where one snatched a mace out of Clara's hands. And the baby-faced look was, I thought, a sign of them upgrading to psychological warfare too, since humans are known to have difficulty killing anything that looks like a baby.

As the Cybermen might say: clever, clever, clever.

Their plot: to bury a new Cyber-tomb underneath a pleasure planet and pick off the – as the Doctor says – "Spare Parts" that they need from the visitors is reminiscent of Paul Cornell's "Love and War", which sees similar abuse of the dead of two empires on the idyllic memorial world of "Heaven". And the irony that the Doctor himself triggers the reawakening by bringing children to the planet is recognised as the second time – after Marc Platt's near-perfect Cyber-genesis story "Spare Parts" – that the Doctor has been hailed as saviour of the Cyber-race.

(May 13th is, as it happens, the anniversary of "Rise of the Cybermen" which, as it happens, is not very based on Marc's "Spare Parts" but does at least give him a credit in the titles.)

So much for the opposition; how about the heroes.

4. A strong guest cast included, in particular, Jason Watkins as the seedy but sympathetic Mr Webley and also as the sinister Cyber-Webley when he falls victim to his own Cyberman exhibit. It's one of the better uses of the "horror of conversion" themes that underlies the Cybermen since the shock Jackie Tyler conversion in "The Age of Steel", and it takes an actor of Jason Watkins' calibre to make you warm to Webley in the small amount of screen time before he gets "turned", and so regret his subsumption into the Cyber-collective.

In fact this "horror of conversion", while allegedly central to the Cybermen's character, is rarely touched upon by the TV series, and notably when it does – "Attack of the Cybermen" – it's accused of going too far. Russell's "scoop and serve" version, that sees the Cybermen reduced to tin suits with a human brain stuck in, is visceral and yet oddly clinical. Big Finish audio have played it up more, perhaps because you can go further on audio, in particular in Gary Russell's "Real Time", but the real go-to book on conversion is Steve Lyons Virgin "Missing Adventure" "Killing Ground", where we get the full convertee's eye view of the process. Eew!

The members of the punishment platoon don't get a lot of screen time to make their presence felt, and consequently some seem to have found them disposable, but I like them. And Tamzin Outhwaite as their Captain manages to squeeze quite a few moments out of what she's given. It's pretty clear that she's worked out who Porridge is, and what it probably means. And it's nice too that she's a do-the-right-thing soldier rather than just following orders, so she tries to give the Doctor and Clara time to save the kids but when it comes down to it, she's going to set off that bomb anyway.

The real kudos, though, has to go to an outstanding performance from Warwick Davis as the world-weary Emperor who has just run away in search of a quiet life, who also has the cheek to (King Peladon-like) ask for Clara's hand in marriage once it's clear he has an empire and a Temple of Peace -shaped flagship to offer her.

Porridge's sadness for the poor bloke who had to push the button is clearly self-pity, by the way, but also forms a bond between himself and the Doctor.

The story is a little bit fast and loose about how long ago the Cyberwar was; Webley suggests a thousand years, but the ongoing paranoia suggests either a more recent conflict or that Cybermen have continued to pop up in the centuries since "the big one". It's therefore not completely certain that Porridge isn't hinting that he himself was the one to push the button, or whether it was an ancestor of his, but that he empathises as the responsibility should it happen again will fall to him. As indeed it does, and he isn't found wanting.

Mind you, that far into the future humans living for a thousand years might be commonplace.

And yet, in the light of all that, Matt still manages to top that by giving us...

5. Two Matt Smiths for the price of one. The Cybermen have clearly bitten off more than they can swallow when they try to turn him into their new Cyber-Planner. And Matt shines as he turns in a Superman III -esque contest of Doctor versus evil-Doctor.

The view from inside the Doctor's head, reminiscent of Tegan's trippy trip into the Wherever where the Mara dwell, is done beautifully, with the left side (the left brain?) all golden regeneration-energy fairy-dust in Time Lordy swirls and circular writing, while the right side is all cold steel-blue dots joined up into an electric network. It's a perfect representation of the conflict between the Doctor's creative energy and the Cyber-hive mind. It also suggests that Time Lords are the highest culture and the Cybermen are still at the level of dot-to-dot in comparison.

Back in the real world, the fact that the Cyber-Planner seems positively berserk – Matt turning it up to, er, eleven – is a nice recognition of the way that the Cybermen have no experience of and no preparation for dealing with emotions. The fact that this drives them nuts goes all the way back to "The Invasion" and it's nice to see it referenced here.

Matt as the Cyber-Planner is quite deliciously evil, revelling in cruel deceits and taunting Clara, and by proxy the Doctor. And also dropping hints about this year's "big story arc", which sits rather nicely with him being an out-of-control version of the Doctor's personality, wanting to tell Clara and at the same time thinking "secrets keep us safe". And it tricks her into bringing the detonator for the bomb within its reach. Destroying the detonator is, of course, part of escalating the peril. It's a "rule of three" - we know the Cybermen will be killed by the planet bomb, but first the unfortunate Tamzin is shot, so she cannot detonate it; then Clara looses the detonator here... but we've already been shown how (third times the charm), there's still a way to win.

Alex though, asks if destroying the remote activator is about saying 'This stick-shaped-tech-thing you're carrying as a magic wand to solve the plot? Not so much.' Which is a criticism / more mirroring from Neil that he quite likes.

If there is a weakness to the episode, it's that the Cyber-Planner, as performed by Matt, has the same effect on the Cybermen that Davros has on the Daleks, namely he is so interesting and so charismatic that it reduces the titular villains to extras in their own show, and makes them seem more like dumb robots. They aren't, but the bias of the short screen time robs them of some of the necessary balance and layers to show that properly. What we were missing, I think, was a Cyberleader to interact with Clara and give some (entirely logical, of course) personality to the serried ranks of troops.

Of course, the Cyber-Planner may like playing the Doctor – nice that Clara sees through it; nice the way the Doctor later passes her test for being himself again – but it isn't as in control as it thinks it is, as evidenced by the way the Doctor plays...

6. The Curse of Fenric gambit of "I bet you can't work out how I'm about to beat you at chess". And, as in "The Curse of Fenric" the Doctor's winning move is to, er, alter the rules.

The chess motif suggests that the anniversary celebrations that have so far seen a first Doctor type story in "The Rings of Akhaten", a second Doctor monster-era one from "Cold War", a third Doctor Quatermass crossover in "Hide" and then allusions in dialogue to fourth and fifth Doctor's eras (while arguably getting the actual stories the wrong way around) in "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" and "The Crimson Horror" have – alas poor Colin – skipped ahead to a story for the devious seventh Doctor.

(Or is the Sixth Doctor hiding in plain sight, another Valeyard?)

Rule One is that the Doctor lies, and it's a bit of a screaming clue when the Doctor says that the Time Lord and the Cyber-Planner allegedly control exactly the same share of his brain when he makes his chess-based challenge. The Cyber-Planner may not smell a rat (Cybermen have no noses) but I do.

Obviously he's got another motive, and like Sylvester McCoy's grandmaster on a thousand boards, he's thinking many moves ahead. He knows that the humans are going to blow up the planet as soon as they realise that the Cybermen are in charge. Plus he's recognised the Emperor. (It's not just a case of if Angie can do it, so can he; he drops hints repeatedly to Porridge that he knows the true situation.) So he can safely deduce that the Cybermen are not his real problem; Porridge will destroy the planet and because he's Emperor all human survivors will be transmatted to safety.

No, the Doctor's problem is that the two children he's brought with him, Angie and Artie who Clara is helping to look after, are currently under cyber control and will be left behind by the Imperial flagship.

Of course, he's made a monumental error of judgement by leaving them in Webley's Emporium rather than sending them back to the TARDIS, because tucking them up among the scary exhibits is really such a good idea – and it is a shame that Gaiman had to delete the scene where the Doctor explains that he's paranoid about letting children into his ship because they "push buttons".

So the whole business with the chess match, indeed quite likely the only reason he allows himself to be infected by Cypermites in the first place, is in order to fool the Cyber-Planner into releasing Angie and Artie.

And as soon as it's let the kids go, the Doctor "Fenrics" it out of his cranium with extreme prejudice.

Think about it: is it remotely logical for the Planner to make the offer to release the kids?

I realise that the Planner isn't being logical, but even in its warped, sadistic way it has nothing to gain from this. So why do it? Unless it's not the Planner's idea at all, but one that the Doctor has cunningly slipped into its mind, and it's so dizzy with the pleasures of emotions that it doesn't realise that it doesn't really make sense.

7. Gold of course has never really made sense as the Cybermen's Achilles' Heel – except that, alchemically, it feels right, in the "gold beats silver" sense.

In fact, the New Adventure "Iceberg", written by David "the Cyberleader" Banks, has it that this is a vulnerability that the Doctor himself added to the Cybermen when they were seeking to, well, upgrade themselves following their defeats in "The Invasion" and "The Tenth Planet", and this would certainly help to explain why it's their software that reacts badly to interaction with gold (something that makes more sense than it plating their respirators, especially when in "Earthshock" they seem quite happy to survive in the vacuum of space but retain they old gold weakness.)

Here the Doctor gets a wonderful moment of ingenuity, turning the Willy Wonka reference that he's been waving under our noses since the start of the story into an instant patch to disable the Cyber-Planner.

8. Clara gets to go totally baddass, leading the troops of the punishment platoon like a pro, improvising defences and seeing through the deceptions of the devious Cyber-Planner, even if it still manages to get the trigger for the bomb off her.

It's actually quite a dramatic shift in her character – I mean it's really good to see her in full-on Sigourney Weaver from "Aliens" mode, and it's definitely Sigourney Weaver from "Aliens" not Sigourney Weaver from "Alien", and Jenna-Louise Coleman rises to the challenge of making her strong and just a very little bit cold – but you have to admit that it's not quite where she's been at so far. It's almost as though she's adapting to be exactly the companion that the Doctor needs.

Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but what with the Cybermen upgrading all over the place, it did strike me as a subtle in a blatant-if-you-think-about-it way of Clara the perfect companion "upgrading" to be perfect here too.

9. References to classic series Cyber-stories that I spotted include: regeneration ("The Tenth Planet"); bouncing on the surface of the moon, and explicit mention of a moon base ("The Moonbase"); the tombs of the Cybermen ("guess", but the design incorporates some nice touches to allude to the design work of the Sixties classic; mind you, it also resembled the galleries of "Attack of..."), also a single Cybermite / Cybermat left at the end; the destruction of an entire galaxy ("The Wheel in Space"); the Cyber-Planner doing all the talking the Cyber-arm largely silent, and the reaction to emotion ("The Invasion"); the last of the Cybermen, gold (see above), and bombs that fragmatise – is that even a word? – a whole planet ("Revenge of the Cybermen"); bombs that destroy a whole planet (again), and "My army awakes", with three columns of Cybermen advancing on the camera ("Earthshock"); the Cybermen get their own "Raston Warrior Robot" moment, moving faster than can be seen ("The Five Doctors"), which makes sense as they'd upgrade to defeat an future Raston warriors they encounter (lord knows how they'd deal with Raston Lap Dancers ("Alien Bodies")); partial Cyber-conversions, in particular the way half Webley's face gets covered ("Attack of the Cybermen"); the secrets of the Time Lords, chess (see above) and silver in the title ("Silver Nemesis").

You can work out for yourselves if there are nods to new series stories "Rise of the Cybermen"/"The Age of Steel", "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday", "The Next Doctor" or "Closing Time", but...

10. "The Silver Turk" by Marc Platt was the opening story for Big Finish's 2011 series of adventures for Paul McGann's Doctor with Mary Shelley. Yes, that Mary Shelley. (And we've already had a "Witch from the Well" reference in "Hide", which leads us to wonder if the "Army of Death" might have something to do with Trenzalore next week.) Apparently no one knows how the historic Silver Turk automaton really worked, although a dwarf concealed under the table is one of the more popular theories.

And, as a bonus, Marc's "Spare Parts" gets a name-check slipped into dialogue.

Alas, no place to slip in a mention of the excellent (sorry) sort-of-trilogy "The Reaping", "The Gathering" and "The Harvest". And couldn't Briggsy have persuaded the Emperor Porridge to name his flagship the "Sword of Orion"?

So, I've now written three-and-a-half thousand words of good things about this episode and only skimmed the surface, and the fact that there is so much to write about surely, surely is the real sign of just how great, how packed with ideas and whimsies and things to make you think this was.

I think the 2012 half of series seven was, in spite of a couple of episodes not quite ending well, a marked improvement on the convoluted disappointments of series six, and the 2013 half, in spite of a couple of episodes not quite ending well, an improvement on 2012, and – a wobble for "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" aside – getting better week on week ,with these last two episodes real triumphs.

What could possibly go wrong now?

Next Time... As Alex and I keep singing when we watch the Prequel "She Said He Said", didn't we have a loverly time the day we went to Trenzalore... Much is promised. Will it be delivered? Or will it be "A Good Man Goes to the Wedding of River Song" all over again? If his name turns out to be "St John" I will scream. Time for the answers? And everything that's been done in "The Name of the Doctor".

There has been what can only be described as a bit of a FLUFF up, and the BBC's American distributor has sent out copies of Series Seven Part 2, including the series finale, a week early. Fans are being advised to spend a week in a medically induced coma to avoid spoilers.

So I doubt anyone is reading!


Bob The Fish said...

"Alex though, asks if destroying the remote activator is about saying 'This stick-shaped-tech-thing you're carrying as a magic wand to solve the plot? Not so much.' Which is a criticism / more mirroring from Neil that he quite likes."

Given that the solution to the whole episode was the Doctor whipping out the sonic screwdriver, I doubt that it was a criticism on the sonic screwdriver being the solution to an episode's threat.

Millennium Dome said...

Hi Mr Bob,

I think we must disagree on the "solution to the whole episode". I don't think that there was ever any doubt that the Doctor could get the Cyber-Planner out of his own head; the winning move was to trick the Planner into letting the children go first.

The Cybermen are then destroyed by the bomb which the Planner thinks that it has disabled. Only the Doctor was ahead of it there too. The Cybermen's problem is that they think only in terms of pawns; the Doctor wins by advancing one of the pawns to Emperor.

And even if the solution does depend on the sonic, who's to say Neil Gaiman might not have been having a little fun at the universal problem solver's expense along the way?