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Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: Doctor Who, Nightmare in Silver

Series 7, Episode 13

Grade: B
Verdict: Neil Gaiman's much awaited return doesn't turn water into wine, but still decently entertains on its own merits given the two massive child-sized handicaps that stand in his way. The episode features a very welcome redesign of the Cybermen and another stunning Matt Smith performance, but logic holes and a few too typical series tropes keep this from being an outright winner.

The Cybermen have posed a major challenge for the new series each season in which they appear. It's funny to think of them as the Doctor's second biggest enemy historically, as every appearance they've made in the revived Doctor Who has been as cannon fodder. We joke about how ineffective the Daleks are each time they come to conquer or defeat the Doctor, but the Cybermen are often in worse straits. In the Second Series, they weren't much more than a patsy to show just how much tougher the Daleks were by comparison. From that debut appearance on, they've only fleetingly appeared and the last time they featured in an episode they were defeated by "the power of love" (cue: groans). Needless to say, Neil Gaiman had his hands full in his attempt to revive the Cybermen and "make them scary again" as per Steven Moffat's wishes. 

There was a time when the Cybermen were possibly the most interesting of the Doctor's rogue's gallery, unfortunately that hasn't been since 1967 or so, when they appeared in the Second Doctor serial "Tomb of the Cybermen", which still stands as my favorite of the black and white era Classic Who stories. The initial origin of the Cybermen, residents of the planet Mondas who so obsessed with the concept of survival replaced parts of themselves piece by piece until nothing remained but steel shells, was a powerful one. At some point, the decision was made to turn them into "Daleks with legs" basically, and more or less every color appearance of the Cybermen have been as killer robots rather than the fascinating creatures that are on display in the aforementioned "Tomb.." and "The Tenth Planet". Big Finish with their wonderful Fifth Doctor audioplay "Spare Parts", which dramatized the origin for the Cybermen, is a "look" at just what kind of Cybermen we've been missing over the years. 

In Gaiman's hands the Cybermen are definitely of a "new-look" variety, no longer the clanky Steampunk robots of the past few years, there's a sleeker design that is almost swimmer-like. This is fitting, as when these Cybermen move, they go into hyper-speed and come much closer to being the efficient killing-machines they've always been envisioned as. Thanks to the far-future in which this episode takes place in, the sudden change to the Cybermen features are easily explained away as after-effects of something called the "Cyber War", good enough reasoning all told. Gaiman's script also gives the barest hints of an on-going issue with the Cybermen, in that they've forgotten just why they conquer and assimilate in such a Borg-like fashion.  Unfortunately, as this one of the few Doctor Who episodes where two parts would have been warranted, there just isn't enough time for the story, particularly when a chunk of focus is directed at some of the less effective parts.

In regard to the children, Angie and Artie's sheer presence in the episode's proceedings are problematic. While it's not uncommon for the Doctor to invite strangers onto the TARDIS, he's usually somewhat discriminating and it takes at least one adventure on Earth or some other compelling reason for him to bring them on board. Something about the idea that these kids were able to basically blackmail Clara into getting onto the TARDIS and The Doctor just acquiesced with this is a bit bizarre. The episode tries to make the argument that he's simply trying to take them to the "most fun amusement park in the universe", but this sort of set-up is just a recipe for disaster and all it earns for the audience are two more potential hostages/Cybermen fodder. The stakes in such an episode are also quickly lowered, because as this is a family show, the children are in no real danger. By episode's end, as could be predicted, they wind up going back home safe and sound. This predicament is compounded by some unfortunate performances by Eve de Leon Allen and Kassius Carey Johnson. If we as the audience don't care about the characters, and the performances and scripting gave us little reason to do so, then we see them as basically what they are, plot devices. 

The other problem I had with the script that Gaiman provided were some of the presentation issues that were present in its final form. The explanation for why the brigade was on site, as a punishment platoon, was a fairly inspired one. The problem being, the only characterization we ever grasp onto the individual members are superficial at best. In terms of gauging their incompetence, one is a fat guy, the other wears glasses, the other is a scared girl. With a better fleshed out script that was allowed to breathe, there might have been more meat in final product with which the viewer could grasp a better understanding of just what makes this crew tick. It's too easy a trope to simply rely on the bumbling soldiers that often populate the series and are easily bumped off, and I was hopeful that Gaiman would avoid it. This was a case of compressed storytelling possibly hampering greater vision. Additionally, I found myself confused during the discussions between Porridge, played by this week's special guest Warwick Davis, and the Captain, not because I couldn't piece together the fact that Porridge was the missing Emperor that the Platoon was seeking, but why they were being so coy about it in the first place. Not fully knowing for sure Porridge's role in the episode hampered my enjoyment of the performance that Davis was giving and it was just a bit of an odd misdirect that didn't have alot of reason to be there. Additionally, his proposal to Clara at the conclusion of the episode felt so unearned that I wanted to scream. Thankfully Davis' gives a terrificly weary performance that was enjoyable.

The real star of the show, as has been the case for the past few weeks, and perhaps his entire tenure, is Matt Smith. Watching him double as both The Doctor and the Cyber-Planner was a wonderful bit of dual performance, and the way the script so wonderfully mixed and matched which character's dialogue that Smith was conveying was a brilliant showcase of not only how clever Gaiman can be, but also the versatility of performance that Smith is capable of. My favorite bit of exchange came when Smith as the Cyber-Planner tries to convince Clara that he's actually The Doctor by appealing to her possible attraction to him. Not only is it a humorous scene, but it also gives Smith the chance to once again delve into the darker elements of the Doctor. He pulls off these powerful performances with such aplomb and I've found him so delightful not only all season, but since his debut in 2010. Ever since he first arrived on the series, he has owned the role in a way that maybe no actor short of possibly Patrick Troughton and mid to later Tom Baker has been able to accomplish. Even David Tennant needed almost a full season to find himself in the role, while Smith has slipped into it like a perfect pair of slippers and has yet to let me down. 

"Nightmare in Silver" has a very strong tale in its base, with an incredibly effective reinvention of the Cybermen that I hope is somehow carried over into their future appearances and we can put the horrible memories of "Cybus" long past us. The episode just isn't able to slip past being just good due to what I surmise circumstances that are beyond Gaiman's control, running time and casting being the most obvious culprits. I also can't help but express some level of frustration at how the arc-heavy episodes have been spread throughout this half of the series. The mystery of Clara is supposed to front and center and we're now we're upon the finale and we get just before it isn't quite filler, but not too far removed from it. This episode, much like "The Crimson Horror" before it feel more like an episode 2 and 3 rather then the ramp to what looks to be a massive conclusion. On its own merits, I enjoyed the story quibbles and all, despite that it felt a bit outside of Gaiman's proverbial "wheelhouse". Yet, as a piece of the overall arc, I can't help but feel let down. On the other hand, Moffat returns next week along with Richard E. Grant as the Great Intelligence, of whom I wish we had seen more of throughout the episodes between "The Bells of St. John" and now. I can only hope we get a stunning conclusion, one as strong as last series' finale, certainly the right man is up to bat. For what it's worth, I'm going to attempt a rewatch, and perhaps my feelings for "Nightmare in Silver" will strengthen, I have a feeling they might.

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1 comment:

  1. The 'blackmail' the kids used in the episode previous made NO sense. Since when does the Doctor care if some kids know he exists?

    I really enjoyed this one, easily the best Cybermen story yet. I totally agree, the delete-emotion version of them is SO BORING so it was interesting to see something different without having to go through a tedious origin explanation. This might have been my favorite episode of 7.2.


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