13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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NIGHTMARE IN SILVER
In Nightmare In Silver, Neil Gaiman takes on a foe so chilling, so utterly terrifying that it turns viewers’ bowels to water and sends them, shrieking, for whatever uncertain refuge they can claw out behind the sofa.
That’s right. Bratty kids in the TARDIS.
After penning an episode of exquisite beauty in The Doctor’s Wife, Gaiman has a lot to live up to. Also, children. Is he equal to the task?
A bit. Sadly, it’s no Doctor’s Wife. What’s in here to like, we like a lot. But there are also places where it falls flat on its face.
About those kids. Brr, ugh, ew, get them away from us. First of all, they’re blackmailing Clara into taking them into the TARDIS by threatening to tell their father, because naturally their father’s going to believe Clara’s a time traveller. Then, when they do get into outer space, it’s oh so boring and lame and can we go home now? Dear God!
And even worse than that is the terminally irritating smug superiority as Angie points out how she’s getting everything right. Gobsmackingly, the adults around her smile fondly at this: personally, we’d have made her spend the next ten years on the naughty step. The boy isn’t quite as toxic, but that’s small consolation. The upside is that at least they didn’t infest the entire episode as we were afraid they might. When a character’s personality is dramatically improved by being Cyberfied you know you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere.
And what are they doing in there, anyway? Supposedly the Cybermen are attracted by their limitless potential, or some such guff, which is quickly forgotten when the Cybes get a whiff of Doctor brain. And Angie figures out who Porridge really is, which is hardly vital - they make such a fuss about the missing Emperor that it was anvil-droppingly obvious it was Porridge.
Of course, the answer to why the kids are in it at all is that they’re there to teach us a Lesson. In case you nipped out to put the kettle on at this point: the Doctor sacrifices his queen because of his concern for the wee ones, yet still wins the game: emotion, particularly love, wins over cold hard logic. Write that down somewhere.
But the most critical question is: did Angie achieve the impossible dream and unseat Adric as Most Annoying Teenager? Yeah, nah. There was something about Adric that invariably brought out a homicidal rage in us: pesky as she is, Angie can’t hope to aspire to those heights.
Leaving aside the kids, though, it’s a totally excellent beginning. The theme park, with the Spacey Zoomer ride and tacky sideshows, is delightfully British rubbish entertainment to its core. Neil Gaiman clearly loves that stuff, as evidenced by his graphic novel with Dave McKean Mr Punch (some of his best work, in our opinion). Not for Hedgewick’s World Of Wonders the polished perfection of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Instead, we get Natty Longshoe’s Comical Castle, a castle so dubiously side-splitting it has to have “Comical” in its name so you know it’s supposed to be funny. And we urge you to freeze frame the park map. Mushroom World! Eyeball Terror! Priceless.
Webley’s World Of Wonders is equally delicious. Jason Watkins is an actor who’s cornered the market in looking harmless but being just a little bit sinister, and he’s in top form here. And his creepy Cyberman chess machine and waxworks, with its nod to Spearhead From Space, is as atmospheric as all get-out.
Then Warwick Davis arrives, which is a doubleplusgood bonus, because he’s an extraordinary actor. His real identity isn’t exactly a stunning revelation, but the just-alike-enough-to-play-fair statue is a nice wheeze. As both Porridge and the Emperor, Davis injects a lovely gravitas that really lifts the material. All that stuff about the million trillion dead people could have just been maudlin, but not in Davis’s hands. The burden he has to bear at being (pretty obviously) the button-pusher not once but twice is genuinely affecting. And his look of resignation at the end as he waves goodbye to Clara and takes up the crown again is BAFTA quality.
Abandoned amusement parks aren’t the freshest apples in the barrel, but we don’t care. We feel like little kids looking into a toyshop window. Slightly run down, yes, but a marvellous, magical, wonderful toyshop. We want to run into the amusement park and never come out. Imagine how cool it would be to explore in there! That’s where we really wish the episode had headed - what a waste of a fantastic setup. But instead Mum tugs at our hands and drags us away. We have to go to the hardware shop instead. Because here come the Cybermen.
Apparently Neil Gaiman wanted to make the Cybermen scary again. This is a laudable aim, given what tin figures of fun they’ve become over the years. Does he succeed? Yes, mostly, but at a very high price.
What works really well is that the Cybermen are used mostly as seasoning. The central battle is within the Doctor, so the actual Cybermen are just used round the edges, keeping their impact sharp.
What’s not so good is that Gaiman gives them limitless powers. An enemy who can do pretty much anything from spinning its head around to rewiring itself in a puddle is, frankly, kinda boring. They’re like the villain version of the sonic screwdriver. The best characters are ones where you know exactly who they are. Since the Cybermen can do whatever, that makes them vague and nebulous and therefore dull.
And some of the skills they’re given are badly used. We liked the superspeedy motion. In The Matrix. In 1999. Having given them that, why do we only see it once? It makes no sense that if they can do that they choose instead to revert to Mr Stompy.
And while we have to give ‘em a pass since we can’t prove their technology couldn’t work this way, we think upgrading themselves in the middle of a dangerous situation without any input of other resources is just cheating. We can buy that one Cyberman shorting out in water would lead the others to upgrade, but not that the original one could do it in situ. You’d think it would at least have to be turned upside down, shaken out and dried with a hairdryer first.
Also, this massive scope creep, a la Steven Moffat’s annoying ad hoc expansion of the Angels’ powers, sets a terrible precedent. We feel sorry for anyone having to write future Cybermen stories in which they have no limitations. Blowing them up is all you can do, and they’ve already used up that plotline.
Since the Cybermen came before the Borg, we’ve always snickered at assertions that Doctor Who copied Star Trek. But in this case it has to be admitted that with all that assimilation stuff (and the cyberpunk version of Seven Of Nine’s facial decorations) the Cybermen are far too Borgesque for comfort. They used to be quite scary enough without having to threaten to suck in everybody around them, thanks.
And then the Doctor takes on the Cybermen, first via Webley, and then in a battle for his own mind. Despite the presence of children in this episode, this struck us as very much for adults. We can’t imagine kids finding all that dialogue very riveting, but we were entranced.
This kind of split-personality dialogue can be a catastrophe in the wrong hands, but Matt Smith’s hands couldn’t be more unwronger. It skates on the edge of disaster all the way through, with the potential for embarrassing failure all too evident, but in an acting tour de force Matt Smith has full control at all times. He really is spectacular here.
It might be said that the Mr Clever half of the equation should be more emotionless: apart from the fact that Cyberleaders in the past have often tended to be remiss in this department anyway, we’d contend that this is a reasonable artifact of the conversion process on a Time Lord. As a result, Mr Clever is evil and devious, and Matt Smith’s performance, a lot darker than he usually gets to be, is utterly mesmerising.
And things get even better when Clara joins the conversation. This is, we suppose, a three-hander, and it’s beautifully written and flawlessly acted. Bravo.
It’s about here at the halfway point, however, that the episode starts to suffer, like so many others in this benighted all-one-episode season, from the Curse Of 44 Minutes. They invest quite a bit in Tamzin Outhwaite’s character, what with her surreptitiously identifying the Emperor and struggling with conflicting orders and all, and then splat, she’s dead. Gaiman also tries hard to give us something to care about with the red-shirt extras: we particularly like the woman who asks if it’s OK to hide then shrieks to the Cyberman “Stop! I’m in the army!”. They’re all too believable as a platoon of losers sent on a crap assignment to the edge of nowhere. But there just isn’t enough room for them to come fully alive before being crushed out of existence.
What’s more, the plotlines come to abrupt end with a whurp and a smell of burning electrics. The Doctor flicks in an instant from insisting that the planet not be blown up to trying to figure out how to blow up the planet. The previously reluctant Emperor’s right there with him. Don’t blow up the planet! Oh, OK then, you’ve twisted my arm. There’s yet another deus ex machina ending. As the Emperor says, “And that’s that”. Up the planet goes, with not a word from the Doctor about all the people living there who’ve just suffered a fiery death. Why raise the issues if you’re just going to brush them under the carpet?
Clearly, there’s a lot wrong with this. And yet we enjoyed it all the way through. Apart from the good bits we’ve mentioned (which are very good indeed, the crown jewel being Matt Smith’s performance), this just feels like proper Doctor Who to us. Neil Gaiman gets it down to his bones. Despite the problems with this episode, we want more.
MORAL: If your king is in danger, try castling.
PLAN B: GET FUNKY
“Cyberman! Get down!” What for? Isn’t it just going to tread on you? Running away very quickly would seem to be the better option.
WHEN CHAIRS ATTACK
Someone else throws a chair - in slomo, no less. We’re sensing a pattern here.
MORE SPEED, MORE MESS
If Angie really had been scooped up by a Cyberman moving at that speed, it’s likely to have done her quite a bit of damage. Human bodies aren’t designed to come in contact with that kind of acceleration.
“Delete”’s gone. Yay! Replaced by “Upgrade”. Oh.
I’LL BE BACK
“You watch. One day, I’ll be Queen of the universe.” And then there’s the loose end of her Cybermited phone. Oh, God, no, please.