Apologies for my failure to review last week’s episode “The Crimson Horror”, but I have, I hope, a good excuse for that. You see, I, for one, have not been overly enamored with this season of Doctor Who. Despite the show’s new blockbuster in the build-up to its 50th anniversary, I have to say I miss the old smaller scale Who. Apart from the continuing background thread of Clara’s recurrence throughout history, there’s been little continuity-wise to connect each episode to the next – no two-parters, for instance – and quality has varied hugely from week to week. Case and point: “The Crimson Horror”, featuring a trip “Oop North” for The Doctor and appearances by Madam Vastra and Co. Mark Gatiss‘ had some funny, quintessentially British jokes – the line “Trouble at mill” is unlikely to be appreciated by those Who fans from across the pond -, as well as a ghastly (good) performance by Diana Rigg as the villain of the week and a sympathetic one from her daughter, Rachael Stirling, as, aptly, a mother and daughter duo. It was a good episode, solid, as were, to name a few from this season, “Asylum of the Daleks”, “Cold War”, “Hide”, but it was far from classic status.
This Seventh Season of the new Who hasn’t seen any real stinkers – as, for instance, Season Two’s “Fear Her” is widely regarded to be -, but there have been no real standouts, though “The Snowman” came close (personally, I think, the best Christmas special since “The Christmas Invasion”, David Tennant‘s first full episode. Steven Moffat has previously accused, as a show runner, of being too clever for his own good, but that cleverness has been in short supply this season (“The Angels Take Manhattan”, which saw the departure of long-time companions Amy and Rory fell prey to a particularly debilitating plot hole). As such, expectations have been high surrounding “Nightmare in Silver”, which sees the return of fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, who penned last season’s “The Doctor’s Wife”, widely regarded as a genuine classic. Having previously tackled as mythologically rich a subject as the symbiotic relationship between The Doctor and his ship, the TARDIS, here Gaiman was charged with revamping all-time Top 10 Who villains the Cybermen. Though they’d technically been brought back in Season Two, this was to be the first time in the new series that we encountered the original Cybermen, which were apparently destroyed off-screen in a war with the human race a millennia. Was their resurrection a triumphant one, then?
Largely, in my opinion, yes. This season has brought back several foes from the old series, including The Great Intelligence and the Ice Warriors, to varying degrees of success. While Gaiman does indeed manage to make the Cybermen intimidating again – as Moffat apparently charged him to do -, their involvement in the episode was ultimately less interesting than numerous other components that Gaiman bought to “Nightmare in Silver”. The basic premise is intrinsically Gaiman-esque (to coin a term): The Doctor and Clara arrive at a galactic theme park – the largest and most popular in all of time and space – with their two wards only to discover to discover that it has long-since been abandoned, apart from a punishment platoon on search for the missing Emperor and a purveyor of curios and oddities, including a collection of deactivated Cybermen and one that serves as cover for a chess-playing dwarf. It’s a huge grab-bag of ideas and not all of them pay off: the various soldiers all boil down to types – fat one, geeky redhead – with Tamsin Outhwaite‘s Captain being particularly underdone. Ultimately, they simply serve as a mechanism to deliver the bomb to blow up the planet and thereby eradicate the Cyberman threat. Likewise, Angie and Archie, Clara’s wards, can be described with single adjectives: “bratty” and “winsome”.
The episode’s strongest conceit is in Cyberizing The Doctor, a plot development so unexpected and yet so resoundingly obvious you can’t believe it’s never been done before. The assimilated Webley, the aforementioned showman, played by Jason Watkins, gets in a line about how they’ve only recently developed the technology to do so, but it feels a bit hand-wave-y. Similarly, the Cybermen’s kidnapping of the children as somehow necessary to their plans just feels like a way to work them into the script – one of Gaiman’s trademarks is the fairytale logic he brings to all his projects, but here it feels like a contrivance (though it does provide the cool visual of a Cybermen phasing through the soldier’s ranks at supersonic speed). For the first time, I think, in the whole series run, we enter The Doctor’s mind as he engages in a battle of wits with the consciousness of the Cyber-Planner, who, due to his host’s brilliance and strength of personality, takes the form of an evil Doctor. We’ve seen evil versions of The Doctor before when his sixth incarnation came face to face with The Valeyard, and, more recently, in “Amy’s Choice” back in Series Five in the form of Toby Jones‘ Dream Lord. That the smug, obnoxious evil Doctor (or Mr. Clever, as he dubs himself) also bears a notable resemblance to Colin Baker‘s controversial take on the character seems to fit: with our Eleventh Doctor’s adaptation of one of Fifth self’s best-known lines (“Brave heart, Tegan”) in last week’s episode, it was about time the Sixth got a look in.
The Mr. Clever persona allows Matt Smith to really let rip, all high campery and snarling, manically reeling off The Doctor’s catchphrases in quick succession. Somewhat disappointingly it comes down to a game of chess between The Doctor and the force occupying his head space, but this, at least, is well-utilized: as Mr. Clever moves his pawns, the newly awakened Cyber-army advances on Natty Longshoe’s Comical Castle where Clara and the remaining survivors are holed up. The new Cybermen are clearly a menace, but, unlike the Cybus versions, for which electrocution was the favored method of termination, they seem to kill relatively few people. It’s only Warwick Davis‘ Porridge who really sells them with his tales of sacrificing a whole quadrant of space just to defeat them. The Cybermen’s body horror goes a long way to redeeming them: the detachable hand that crawls, Thing-like, along the floor and leaps on your face; the head that rotates 180° and spies you just as you think you’ve snuck up on it. Even so, The Doctor’s internal duel is very much at the heart of this episode, in comparison to which everything else seems secondary.
Despite these flaws, Gaiman has a feel for the character and for the show that many other writers lack. If there was a poll, I’m sure he’d be the number one choice to takeover Executive Producer role from Moffat when he steps down (even if he’ll never take it – a fan can dream). Watkins Webley is a vaguely pathetic but honorable, even loveable man, while Davis’ Porridge has tremendous gravitas and a wry, ironic sense of humor, as well as a jaw-dropping secret I won’t spoil here – unlike the soldiers, they are compelling, not in part to the performances of Watkins and Davis, more so than almost any other supporting character the show has had this year. Yet again, however, the ending lets “Nightmare in Silver” down, a deus ex Emperor that makes most of what has come before basically irrelevant. Despite my enjoyment of the episode, I wasn’t, despite my best attempts, able to love it as I had hoped. What I applaud is its ambition, its willingness to explore the characters, not to rest on its laurels: when Mr. Clever pretends to be The Doctor, using Clara’s obvious infatuation with him to manipulate her, and she sees through it and slaps him, I almost applauded. This is strong writing for strong characters; it’s just a shame the showcase isn’t as polished as it might be. Nevertheless, “Nightmare in Silver” remains one of my favorites of Season Seven.
In any case, the end is almost upon us – the end of the season and, if what the promos have promised us is true, the end of Doctor Who as we know it. The oh-so-promisingly titled “The Name of The Doctor” is said to feature the long-awaited journey to the Fields of Trenzalore where The Question will be answered, as well as the revelation as to who and/or what Clara truly is. It will also see the return of Madam Vastra and Co., Richard E. Grant‘s Dr. Simeon – last seen as the vessel for the Great Intelligence -, River Song, and the first appearance of the Whisper Men, creepy white-faced, featureless creatures in tails and top hats (vaguely reminiscent of The Gentlemen from Buffy episode “Hush”). It seems like a lot to pack into a single episode, especially one set to lead into the 50th anniversary special. Who is The Doctor? What set him on his way? Where is he going? Perhaps with so many humongous matters to convey, “The Name of The Doctor” is setting itself up as a disappointment, but, nevertheless, I live in hope. Given I’m out of the country from this Sunday, I’ll try to get my review of the finale written and posted before I go…