“The poor blighter who had to press the button”: ‘Nightmare in Silver’ Review

As it turns out, I’m glad to have had an excuse to delay this review. In retrospect, Neil Gaiman’s first Doctor Who script, “The Doctor’s Wife,” was remarkably simple in construction: The TARDIS’ soul gets transported into a human body. An evil intelligence steals the physical TARDIS, with Amy and Rory trapped inside. The Doctor and the human-TARDIS have to get back to the physical TARDIS, rescue the companions, defeat the evil consciousness, and get the TARDIS’ soul and body rejoined before the TARDIS’ human body dies. It’s a race against the clock. Easy. In the meantime, of course, we are made privy to all varieties of fascinating character interaction: The Doctor and the TARDIS finally being allowed to speak to each other and express unsaid feelings; Amy’s psychological torture as the bad guy, House, presents her with various forms of Rory-related guilt. Such character-driven moments were the true purpose of that very simply-plotted story.

In contrast, “Nightmare in Silver,” is much more frenetic and plot-driven. It’s bigger, too. You can tell that, given the critical and popular success of “The Doctor’s Wife,” Steven Moffat and/or the BBC made a point to give Gaiman a sizable budget for his imagination to utilize, maybe the biggest of the season. “Nightmare in Silver” has a huge cast, huge sets, huge special effects, and a huge amount of plot to match. This was one that definitely needed at least two or three watches to really gather in all the hugeness. While a little hard to follow at times, and lacking the simple joy and sadness of “The Doctor’s Wife,” Gaiman is a master of fantasy and Sci Fi for good reason, and “Nightmare in Silver” is a worthy if somewhat less special successor.

Like Mark Gatiss’ revamp of the Ice Warriors earlier this season, Gaiman was tasked with “upgrading” the Cybermen, one of the classic Who villains. In doing so, he used the characteristic Who blend of past in future in a way that felt true to the roots of the monster and the show and yet fresh. Gaiman’s Cybermen feel thinner, sleeker and faster (as all upgraded technology these days does) and yet somehow closer to their steampunk roots. The “dead,” chess-playing Cyberman may remind modern viewers of the automaton robot which could draw in the recent book and film adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and that automaton in turn was based on actual period automata, early modern and Victorian self-operating machines often displayed by traveling showmen and at fairs. In fact, there is on record an automaton called The Turk which played chess (operated by grand masters, of course) in exactly the same way as the Cyberman in Gaiman’s episode. Similarly, the cybermats have evolved into the tiny cybermites which, while smaller and more insidious, also hark back to classic stop-motion animation, giving them the same feeling of both old and new with which the rest of the episode is steeped.

Striking though the new Cybermen are, I can’t help but feel that the episode seemed a bit rushed and overcrowded. The plot necessitated the need for the “punishment platoon,” due to their weaponry, but I’m not sure we needed them there otherwise. If Gaiman had been given two episodes in which to let his ideas breath perhaps the story would have really been able to revel in his ideas. Likewise, I was a bit disappointed with the lack of development for the kids. We entirely skip what could have been the fascinating scene of the Doctor inviting them along for a trip, only to immediately arrive in Hedgewick’s World of Madness where big sister Angie immediately starts complaining for no apparent reason. I’m not opposed to the characterization of a grumpy teenage girl: It’s a real enough phenomena. However, I’m sorry if this is all we ever learn of her. Why does she despise Clara, who apparently “always turns up and spoils everything,” other than the fact that this is a recognizable trope? There are some things that Moffat-driven Who does very well, but I do miss the reality and texture that Russell T. Davies brought to the companions’ lives. I suppose Gaiman shares some of the blame. He should have realized 45 minutes was too constricted to fit in all the ideas he had, and could have simplified Angie’s characterization rather than give us an illogical one.

All griping aside, Gaiman is once again primarily interested in the Doctor. The entire Cyberplanner plot was clearly modeled on the Eleventh Doctor’s persona and Smith’s abilities. The Cyberplanner-possessed Doctor became a parody of the Eleventh Doctor’s twirly, manic style and it was fun to watch Smith flick between minds like a light switch. The dialogue between the two of them zipped by so quickly that even after two viewings I’m sure I didn’t get it all. Once again, we’re reminded that the Doctor’s memories and secrets are of vital importance. As the faces of the ten previous Doctors flash by the shared brain, I could feel Moffat & co. gearing up for the impending finale and anniversary. The moment when Smith broke into the Ninth Doctor’s famously “Northern” accent and imitated the Tenth Doctor’s oft-repeated catchphrase “allons-y” with such snide relish was amusing, and made me curious to see how the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors will react upon meeting each other in the anniversary special.

It can’t go unnoticed that once again we have a story in which the Doctor is seen to be, or at least has the potential to be, villainous. Indeed, he is the other face of the same coin, “evenly balanced.” The game of chess, which is apparently of Time Lord origin, is fittingly manipulative and intellectual and it’s fascinating that the Doctor is playing against himself. Are we meant to understand everyone else as pawns in whatever game the Doctor is playing? He may be playing for a noble cause, but he knows how to sacrifice the necessary pieces: Most conspicuously, his Queen. If I were Clara, I would feel a little apprehensive about the particular move. Clara at least seems a little aware of this. When asked if he knows what he’s doing, she admits, I’m not sure I would go that far,” a nice callback to Amy’s line in Gaiman’s first episode: “[Time Lords are] just what they’re called. It doesn’t mean he actually knows what he’s doing.” It was nice to see that in the end, however, the Doctor realized that keeping his friends safe is more important than winning the game, and finally wins by cheating. However, it is more disconcerting that this is exactly what he predicted the Cyberplanner would do, once again suggesting that the two are only two sides of a coin.

Though we don’t realize it to the end, all thematic strands converge around Porridge, the Emperor in disguise, a well-known storytelling trope. Most of what Porridge says and does is less about him than it is about the Doctor and Clara. Is the Doctor also some sort of hidden rule, or someone who has forsaken their duty for anonymity (his name is, of course, conspicuously unknown). Like the Doctor, he has committed murder in the name of defeating the enemy. “I feel like a monster sometimes,” he explains to Clara, “because instead of mourning a trillion dead people I just feel sorry for the poor blighter who had to press the button and blow it all up.” Certainly we’re meant to see the Doctor as the “poor blighter” who committed genocide against his own people for the sake of the universe, but I wonder if it’s also a slight rebuke to us the audience. Do we, who love and sympathize with the Doctor, forget to mourn his victims? With the 50th looming so close, and rumors flying of a possible revisit to the events of the Time War, I suspect that the Doctor is going to be seriously judged for his actions, and their nobility or monstrosity examined.

Clara seems to have got the memo that Porridge’s words apply to more than himself. She turns down his marriage proposal (probably not a position she was pining for anyway) with the very simple explanation “I don’t want to rule.” Oh, Clara, haven’t you read any fairy-tales? The ones who don’t want to rule are always the ones who are fit to. Porridge understands this. “That’s the right answer,” he confirms to one of his soldiers. Resist it though she might, the Impossible Girl will definitely find herself in some position of decision-making authority, and the very fact that she does not covet the position will make her the worthy candidate. Let’s not forget that the Doctor, given his psychic paper derived authority, put Clara in charge of the army while he went off to get the kids, and it was Clara who mobilized the ragtag troops and led the defense. Whether this is the Doctor once again turning his companion into an effective weapon, or a sign of Clara’s innate leadership skills, or both, remains to be seen.

Meet me back here for the series 7 finale, “The Name of the Doctor.” I have seen it and will have a lot to think about before I can turn out that review. Let me just say that it is miles ahead of the series 6 finale, and has made me suitably impatient for the 50th anniversary special, which is I suppose what I hoped it would do.

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About Katherine Sas

I graduated from Messiah College in 2009 with a B.A. in English Literature. I'm a student of all things arts and humanities, in particular Tolkien, the Inklings, and the fantastic and imaginative tradition in storytelling.
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