Doctor Who: Nightmare in Silver (BBC1)

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I have a confession to make this week: I was up to my ears in work over the weekend, and was in a distracted mood for everything else that evening, which means that this week’s episode of Doctor Who wasn’t able to really grip me or even sink in properly (and also explains why it’s taken longer to write this post than usual.) I suspect this is mainly my own problem/fault, although if I were being harsh I could suggest that the very fact that the episode ‘happened’ without actually demanding my attention suggests that it wasn’t all that it had been hoped it would be.

In many ways, this was the episode we should have expected from Neil Gaiman when we originally heard that the fantasy author was going to write for the series. Instead we first got the brilliant “The Doctor’s Wife,” which set such high standards for any follow-up story that it was almost impossible to meet even with appropriately lowered expectations set firmly to ‘realistic’ in advance. It’s still full of recognisably authentic Gaiman-esque touches, being set in the richly textured and slightly off-kilter landscape of a derelict amusement planet populated by memorably quirky characters none of whom are or end up being what they initially seem to be – of which the same could be said about the Doctor and Clara themselves.

There’s a great cast here including Jason Watkins as amusement impressario Webley, Warwick Davis as his diminutive sidekick Porridge and Tamzin Outhwaite as the captain of a punishment platoon, but with the exception of Davis the guest line-up is rather underused. The real focus here is the return of the Cyberman, with Gaiman saying in advance that it was his intention to make the Doctor’s silver nemesis scary again. By and large he achieves his ambition, easily restoring them from where we last left them (short-circuited by a father’s love for his son) back into a fearsome foe that can only be stopped by wiping out whole planets. While some of the reboot on display here includes gimmicks we’ll likely never see in the series again, many of them – the ‘superspeed’, the disturbing Cybermites, the instant upgrades, the head snapping backwards – are well worth adding to ongoing Cyberlore.

The one false note in the set-up is the inclusion of the two children from Clara’s regular life back in London, who found out about their nanny’s new travelling habits in an odd clunky coda at the end of “The Crimson Horror.” Considering how much it takes to crowbar Artie and Angie (Kassius Carey Johnson and Eve de Leon Allen) into the episode in the first place it’s rather bizarre that they’re put into stand-by mode (or in human terms, a coma) at the first opportunity. At least Angie gets a nice pay-off moment near the end, but otherwise it’s hard to see the point of them. If you’re going to make such a fuss about having two very young kids aboard the TARDIS then at least make it worth doing: this entire episode should have been told exclusively from their point of view, showing the Doctor and his world(s) through their eyes – an opportunity to make everything bigger, brighter, more insane and fantastic than our regular ‘helicopter’ view. Instead it does nothing and the episode is actually rather tamely but technically proficiently directed by Stephen Woolfenden, with little pretension to a conspicuous visual style in the way that Saul Metzstein had so successfully pumped up “The Crimson Horror”. For example, the potential of the scene where the children were left to sleep in a room full of inert  ‘monsters’ ended up really quite flat and absolutely squandered.

Woolfenden did get to show off a little with the Doctor’s internal conflict scenes, which were snappily realised and which contain a lovely visual throwback to the show’s past and the character’s previous incarnations. But now we’ve arrived at the episode’s weakest aspects: the long sequences during which the Doctor has to mentally struggle against being assimilated by the malign Cyberplanner. This should be a real tour de force moment for the show’s star Matt Smith that allows him to deliver a knock-it-out-of-the-park bravura performance worthy of a Bafta, but the odd thing is … It misses the mark. It’s not an outright flop by any means, and Smith is doing some interesting things, but it seems that either the script or the direction beats him in the end. The evil slyness when the Cyberplanner is in control doesn’t come off while other moments are too broadly played, leaving us with something much less interesting than it probably looked on paper. Smith can’t even really pull off the riffs on his immediate predecessors’ quirks and catchphrases, probably because he’s trying to do them as they would be channelled by the Cyberplanner – one layer on top of another on top of another, and it’s just a reach too far for him.

Jenna Coleman also has trouble with her character here. It’s not the actress’s fault but rather the script, which seems to have a different concept of Clara from that which we’ve seen to date in any of her three lives. The idea that she would take charge of a group of soldier misfits and organise with such assured glee and relish is something more along the lines that Rose would have done in season 2 back in 2006; for Clara, it’s such a disconnect from the previous stories that even Coleman can’t sell it and make it part of a coherent continuity. It’s fair enough, then, that she decides to just have some fun with it and hope no one notices how oddly the character is behaving. Maybe this ‘different personality every week’ is a clue to Clara’s ultimate secret (which we learn in next week’s series finale) – but the problem is that if the character is becoming so inconsistent from week to week that we have no chance to know, identify with or even like the character. It’s not only baffling, it’s also distancing us from caring about either her secret or her fate.

This post feels like it’s been very critical. Again, I point to my opening statement about being overrun by work when I watched this, and I haven’t had time to rewatch it since either, so I could very well be much more down on this than it deserves. It’s certainly not the weakest episode of the season (Akhaten is going to win that prize, alas) because the Gaiman-esque touches and the rejuvenated Cybermen are overall such solid successes. It’s just that as a whole, the episode has problems and feels like it needed more development work before it was rolled out to the viewing audience.

Perhaps the oddest ‘criticism’ – if it even qualifies as such – is that underneath its stylistic trappings this episode felt strangely old-fashioned. Not just the familiarity of the Cybermen, or the setting – which felt a very Seventh Doctor sort of set-up – or even the battle of wills that put me in mind of classic serial “The Brain of Morbius”. It’s also the way the episode splits up its protagonists, features a base (or castle in this case) under siege, and a platoon of soldiers that’s like a riff on UNIT or “Earthshock” that made it feel like the whole thing had time-travelled from the olden days while picking up a decent CGI budget along the way – although it has to be said that there were slightly more dodgy FX shots than usual this week.

I get the strong sensation that I will like this episode more in hindsight and will come to appreciate its strong points much more with a bit of distance than I do right now. That happened to me a lot with Russell T Davies-era instalments – episodes that I didn’t like initially, like “Partners in Crime,” eventually became big favourites on subsequent rewatches. It’s why the old stories are always better once they’ve taken root in the ‘golden memories’ section of one’s brain. Right now I’m just feeling oddly non-plussed about “Nightmare in Silver”, wanting to warm to it more than I do but at the same time oddly constrained by the frustration of being unable to shake the sense that it just didn’t knock it on the head when it needed to most, and should have been a few notches better all round from all concerned.

The final episode of this series of Doctor Who, Steven Moffat’s “The Name of the Doctor”, is on Saturday May 18 2013 at 7pm on BBC1, with a repeat on BBC Three the following Friday. There is currently a five-minute prequel for the episode available on the BBC red button service, “She Said, He Said”, which is a rather leaden pair of monologues albeit with nice performances from Smith and Coleman. The series is also available on the BBC iPlayer. Series 7 part 2 is out on DVD and Blu-ray on May 20.

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