Nightmare in Silver – review

"Now, before we begin... which way do the horsey pieces move again?"

“Now, before we begin… which way do the horsey pieces move again?”

Talk to nearly any Doctor Who fan, and they’ll agree that Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife (2011) is one of the all-time, bona fide classics of the new series. It was the work of a writer who clearly loved Doctor Who and, more to the point, knew how to use the show’s mythology to tell a decent story. In my jaded opinion, it was the only enjoyable episode in the otherwise execrable Series Six, and it’s one of the few stories from new Who that I’ve ever gone back and rewatched.

Which means that everybody’s expectations were sky-high for Nightmare in Silver, Gaiman’s sophomore Who story. Moffat promised us that this episode was going to “make the Cybermen scary again”, a tall order considering that the silver giants from Mondas haven’t actually been scary since about 1968 – they’ve been misused again and again in the new series, from the pointless and eminently forgettable The Next Doctor to the James Corden-infested stupidity of Closing Time.

So did Gaiman succeed? In that regard, yes. The Cybermen have finally become the empire-destroying techno-soldiers that Eric Saward always wanted them to be. Or to put it more succinctly, we’ve all finally admitted that the Borg are the best Doctor Who monsters ever to be invented by Star Trek. Which isn’t a problem, as such; as Ben Aaronovitch pointed out, “while talent borrows and  genius steals, Doctor Who writers get it off the back of the lorry, no questions asked.”

And Matt Smith’s slightly campy Cyber-Planner alter ego was surprisingly effective – the Mondasians have always suffered from having either incomprehensible voices or David Banks as their spokesman, so Mr Clever was an excellent means of conveying the raw cruelty and intellect behind the Cyberiad, and wonderfully acted by Smith. Warwick Davis also turned in an incredibly engaging performance as Porridge, the Emperor-in-hiding, and we finally got to see Jenna-Louise Coleman taking charge of the situation, after several episodes of Clara sitting around and not doing much.

There was so much fantastic imagery at play here as well, from Natty Longshoe’s Comical Castle under siege from an army of cybernetic knights to the beautifully stylised chess pieces. Gaiman has always been an intensely visual writer, and after the relatively spartan The Doctor’s Wife, he clearly relished the sumptuousness that he was afforded in this episode.

But there were two big problems with Nightmare in Silver, and unfortunately they almost overwhelmed the rest of the production. As I said last week, I’m not keen on children in the TARDIS, and Angie & Artie were the worst yet (alright, alright, maybe not as bad as Gareth Jenkins). Their acting was so painfully flat and stilted that I genuinely couldn’t tell whether or not they’d been successfully de-Cyberised at the end of the episode. I know it’s bad form to expect BAFTA-winning performances from children, but they were so irritating to watch that you get the feeling Gaiman hurriedly sidelined them before they could do any damage.

The episode’s other major fault lay in the direction. Scenes of the lone Cyberman stalking the halls of castle should have been tense and pants-wettingly exciting. Instead, we got a series of badly cut sequences where the Cyberman took off his head and now the girl is dead but there are two Cyberised soldiers because Laser gun. Similarly, the Captain’s death was so perfunctorily shot as to be completely meaningless. The editing has been a problem all throughout this series, and here it felt as though it was actively working against the story; maybe it’ll turn out that Stephen Woolfenden is just Neil Gaiman with a bit of Cyber-stuff glued to his face.

It’s a real shame, because at its heart this could have been a great episode. The air of fairytale provided a sharp contrast to the relentless technology of the Cybermen, and there were a lot of good ideas floating around that never quite managed to pay off. But as I said in my review of The Rings of Akhaten, I’d rather have too many ideas in play than too few.

While a valiant and noble effort on the part of Gaiman, this story will always take silver to The Doctor’s Wife‘s gold.

FINAL RATING: 3.5/5

ODDS & ENDS:

  • Do the Mill know the difference between an explosion and an implosion?
  • I picked Warwick Davis’ reveal before the credits, but that’s cos I’m a chess nerd.
  • Nick Briggs has finally given us some comprehensible voices for the Cybermen – the last ones sounded like a 90s dial-up modem choking on a bit of apple.
  • It’s heartwarming to know that the Cyber-Planner keeps a series of BBC publicity shots of the various Doctors handy.
  • The Doctor’s comment about Clara’s skirt was totally unacceptable.
  • Oh good, the purple coat’s back. Where have you been, purple coat? NB: I would happily watch a mini episode about the purple coat’s adventures.
  • Next week: the return of River bloody Song. But in keeping with my attempts to be positive and upbeat about Who this year, I’ll reserve judgement until after the episode.

When not reviewing Doctor Who, Patrick Magee is the wife of James Erskine, Lord Grange, a Scottish lawyer with Jacobite sympathies. More of his ramblings can be found here, and you can buy his novel As Baile: A Story hereHe’s also had the place redecorated. You’ll like it; look around.

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