Nightmare in Silver

Story No. 259 Hedgewick's World
Production Code Series 7, Episode 12
Dates May 11, 2013

With Matt Smith, Jenna-Louise Coleman
Written by Neil Gaiman Directed by Stephen Woolfenden
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Caroline Skinner.

Synopsis: The Cybermen have invaded Hedgewick's World. The only solution: destroy the planet.


To Bring Them Back in Front of My Eyes by Hugh Sturgess 2/10/18

The bisected Series 7 (2012 and 2013) is a hard beast to love. Despite it boasting the excellent The Angels Take Manhattan and The Name of the Doctor, and the very good Asylum of the Daleks and The Bells of Saint John (all of which were written by Steven Moffat), reducing the supply of new Doctor Who as Series 7 did (a sign of how used we have become to large amounts of new Doctor Who every year) made demand for them soar. In a thirteen-episode season, something like A Town Called Mercy would be a dead-average, acceptable episode. When it is 20% of that year's Doctor Who, it's a real letdown.

But more than that, it is not a golden age for the series. There is little inspiration and a lot of formula. The Matt Smith era was entering its necrotic phase, as the Tennant era did in Series 4 and Planet of the Dead. Nothing seemed to go right. However, the more one apprehends it, the more one finds to like about it. The Crimson Horror is easily Mark Gatiss' best work for the series to date, and Moffat's episodes are, as always, strong in exciting and innovative ways. Nevertheless, there is also a lot of disappointment. Particularly painful was Nightmare in Silver. After The Doctor's Wife, Neil Gaiman was catapulted to the heights of the Doctor Who pantheon, and the prospect of a Gaiman-penned story designed explicitly to make the Cybermen scary again was mouth-watering. The response to the episode that aired was almost bewilderment. What the hell happened to Neil Gaiman?

Rewatching the not-fan-favourite, what's surprising is how good it is. Sure, none of it really works, but the failure is only slight in every case. Gaiman's original idea, of a story that would portray the Cybermen as the silent, slinking menaces of his own childhood, set in a rundown English seaside resort town and told primarily from the perspective of Artie and Angie, is almost hypnotically beautiful. It is nothing like what most authors would do with the Cybermen - Cybermen in a fairground? - who are associated throughout their history with spaceships, space stations and space bases, but it is strangely easy to imagine. That simple premise is an instant classic. Get the Gaiman who wrote The Ocean at the End of the Lane and director Nick Hurran and it would have been the stand-out of 2012 and 2013.

None of those things happened. Director Stephen Woolfenden treats the story as a standard sci-fi base-under-siege rather than a childhood nightmare. Woolfenden is never going to set the world on fire, but who can blame him for this failing, when the production of the episode was so hopelessly muddled? Angie and Artie were intended to be the central, viewpoint characters, and yet they get possessed by the Cybermen early on and vanish from the plot. The Cybermen were meant to be a lurking, half-seen menace that was entirely silent, and yet they are depicted yet again as the stomping, piston-footed tin soldiers of the Davies era. Yet again, the Cybermen are the kiss of death to good Doctor Who. Not even the combined force of Steven Moffat and Neil Gaiman can withstand their ability to turn gold into dross.

In fact, this might be the biggest problem of the episode as broadcast. Gaiman's mission was to make the Cybermen scary again, but the Cybermen's fear always came from the childhood experiences of writers who were children in the late '60s (like Gaiman). Gaiman makes a good go of it by creating the concept of the Cyberiad, an unstoppable hive-mind of constantly upgrading rogue technology, but introducing the Cybermen as feared, unstoppable monsters whom you would gladly sacrifice a galaxy to destroy comes across as almost comical, because the Cybermen have always sucked. I won't repeat ad nauseum the argument to that effect I made in my review of The Moonbase, so I will say that Gaiman's proposed solution - to make them figures of the uncanny - sounds to me like the best possible solution to the problem of making the Cybermen scary, but it's a trick that can only be used once. Television today is very different to what it was when The Moonbase and Tomb of the Cybermen traumatised a generation of children, and relying on keeping Cybermen opaque, distant and silent is bound to fail.

The episode bypasses this entirely, instead going all-out to make the Cybermen a superbly capable sci-fi robot. They use Cyber-mites to almost instantly convert their victims, they upgrade themselves swiftly to adapt to any weapon (the inspiration of the Borg is obvious), and they can disconnect various body-parts and direct them independently. The shot of the Cybermen using Quicksilver-style super-speed to dodge through a hail of laser bolts to grab Angie is visually striking and a real achievement by Woolfenden, but it highlights how the goal of making the Cybermen figures of fear has been abandoned in favour of simply giving them more cool toys.

Artie and Angie don't work, since they are superfluous to the plot and (I think?) too old for their dialogue (Angie behaves more like a very young teenager and Artie's fear of the dark suggests a prepubescent boy than a twelve- or thirteen-year-old). I understand what they were meant to do, but I think this is the clearest example of a complete failure in this episode. Everything else works to a degree, except for Angie and Artie. Angie is yet another grumpy, bratty teenage girl, so of course she's whiny and disdainful of Clara for "always ruining everything". She and Artie forced Clara to take them in the TARDIS, now she's bored by the amazing alien planet because there's no phone reception. What is added by this crude distillation of middle-aged writers' ideas about teenagers? Despite writing Artie as a very old-fashioned boy (shaking the Doctor's hand at the end and reciting the standard line that it was nice of you to have me), Gaiman stumbles when faced with the sheer modernity of the two children (in the original draft, they and Clara were Victorians), and this is almost synecdoche for the episode as a whole: Gaiman, Moffat (and Capaldi) et al were terrified of Cybermen when they were children, but modern TV just works differently, and the tricks that worked then won't work now (and vice versa).

The extensive rewrites are fatal to Gaiman's ambitions. Gaiman should have trusted his instincts and hewn more closely to his original idea: that is, to tell the story from the perspective of Angie and Artie. Children's adventure fiction need not be hokey. It can be terrifying. Pirates, smugglers, kidnappers, cannibals - not merely are these archetypes of terrifying childhood villains, they are good allegories of the Cybermen themselves. If Gaiman wants the Cybermen to be the half-seen monsters that terrified him as a child, then actually make them child-snatching nightmares. Cybermen in the style (behavioural if not visual) of the White Walkers would seem to fulfil Gaiman's aim. Give Angie or Artie the job of commanding the punishment brigade (children commanding troops is a solid trope of children's literature), so we see their growing terror and desperation as the Cybermen overcome all their defences. They could shoot the entire episode at Angie/Artie height, so the Cybermen fill the screen and everything looks frighteningly big. As it is, the story has the kids but doesn't do anything with them.

It's possible Moffat had second thoughts about the quality of the child actors in question. In that case, the alternative would be to put this earlier in Series 7b, so it is Clara's first outing in the TARDIS. Jenna Coleman is neotenous herself, and she seems to be playing Clara as a children's adventure heroine throughout her first season. So why not play up to this by making her the heroine of a terrifying children's adventure in which she is immediately thrust in the leadership of a band of soldiers fighting off invincible giants? In the episode as broadcast, Clara is so capable a leader that the feeling of helplessness the Cybermen could otherwise evoke is lost.

But I'm turning what's meant to be a positive take into a string of insults! I liked Nightmare in Silver upon rewatching, so from now on I'm going to stay positive. The bizarre, unthinkable juxtaposition of a fairground menaced by Cybermen works. And what amazing visuals. The tableau of Clara and Porridge walking along severed train lines towards a skeletal fairground silhouetted against a sky scarred by a massive black hole, a starry ocean at the end of a lane, looks like an illustration from one of the classic Doctor Who annuals.

There are no deeper meanings behind the use of Hedgewick's World of Wonders, but it's an effective setting that heightens a sense of the uncanny about the Cybermen that had been hidden since, if we're being fair, The Tenth Planet. Their redesign is much more effective than the art-deco look of the Cybus-era Cybermen, and their generally unspeaking nature does heighten the sense of barely sentient creatures driven by ingrained programming rather than pantomime plotting. (While Gaiman probably was not thinking of this, this view of the Cybermen as barely sentient insects driven by instinct first appeared in half-form in The Pandorica Opens and it was later developed spectacularly in Death in Heaven.)

And, for all my criticisms, their newfound powers do go a long way towards making them a serious threat. Their invulnerability to attack provides a number of "uh-oh" moments, particularly when the Cyberman in the electrified moat shrugs off the sudden shock. The episode actually makes them too powerful: creatures that are so virulent that a single individual is cause enough to destroy an entire planet (and for all the Doctor and Clara's lectures about finding another way, in the end that is the solution) are simply too powerful to play meaningful roles in stories on a regular basis. (The same thing has affected the Daleks since they were reintroduced in 2005: they are ever-diminished to allow the series to tell stories other than "the Daleks turn up and curb-stomp everyone".) Credit where credit is due: Gaiman may not have made the Cybermen the terrifying nightmare he remembered, but he has radically reimagined them to be a top-tier threat.

The rest of the episode is filled with ideas and moments. There is a wonderfully funny moment when Clara asks whether the castle is a proper castle with a moat and a drawbridge, and the (unnamed?) captain of the punishment battalion replies, "Yes, but comical." Porridge is a fantastic creation, played ably by Warwick Davis, showcasing the mass of ideas Gaiman is shoving into his story, however compromised its original principle. The writing for Clara in Series 7b is rather generic companion-writing, a distillation of pluck and wit, perhaps deliberately so (as part of Moffat's story-arc crusade against story arcs), but her actions here - as a supremely capable military commander who does not hesitate to accept responsibility over the lives of the soldiers on Hedgewick's World - fits perfectly with her depiction in the Capaldi era as a bossy control-freak masked by an overly bubbly personality. Jenna Coleman did not get the writing she deserved as an actress in Series 7, but I think it's excellent to see a companion (and an "ordinary" one at that, not a superhero like Captain Jack and River) slide so easily into a position of authority; often companions succeed when given positions of authority, but with a facade of bumbling uncertainty to emphasise their lack of expertise.

I will even defend Mr. Clever. Matt Smith's Cyber-controlled alter ego isn't the performance of a lifetime, but it shows how easily Smith can pull off a villainous turn that is very effective, despite being on the surface a series of leers and threats. Smith becomes quite skin-crawling in his delivery of lines like "Oh, this is just dreamy." The concept of a blatantly emotional CyberPlanner duelling it out with the Doctor over chess inside his own mind makes a nonsense of the notion of the Cybermen as emotionless marauders, but it adds to that mystical, uncanny element of the Cybermen, which Elizabeth Sandifer memorably described as "qlippothic", that Gaiman is trying to restore. The armies of voiceless, unthinking Cybermen make a curious juxtaposition with the giggling, ranting Mr. Clever. The chess game is another idea of Gaiman's that cannot fit into a forty-five minute episode alongside dozens of others, but I'm at a loss to think of what would have worked better in its place. Sandifer's description of Mr. Clever as a mere "facial prosthetic" in front of a "blatant green screen" seems a mite unfair.

Nightmare in Silver shook fandom's faith in Neil Gaiman like an earthquake in the Vatican. But it's actually a strong, if not solid, approach to the challenge of making the Cybermen frightening. Gaiman attempts to reconnect directly to what frightened him about the Cybermen as a child, while also realising that doing so requires effort and inventiveness, not a simple repeat of the aesthetics and cliches of the 1960s (a sci-fi base-under-siege, for instance). Nightmare in Silver is trying to recreate the experience of childhood in impact but not the details, trying to be to the current generation what The Moonbase and Tomb of the Cybermen were (for all their faults) to Gaiman's generation. We won't know if he's succeeded for a long time, but it is a far better story on its own, immediate merits than it is generally held to be.

You're too short and bossy, and your nose is all funny by Evan Weston 18/11/20

After the towering success of The Doctor's Wife, there was no Doctor Who episode more anticipated by fandom than Neil Gaiman's second effort, reportedly an attempt to rehabilitate the Cybermen after Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, The Next Doctor, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang and Closing Time had ruthlessly thrown them into the villain gutter. The result is Nightmare in Silver, which basically chooses "Neil Gaiman" as its genre of the week and rolls with it. It's a story with a lot of quirks and a lot of flaws, and it almost certainly qualifies as a pretty massive disappointment based on the hype, but it's ultimately more good than bad.

"Neil Gaiman" as a genre is basically "dark" young adult/children's lit mixed with a fantasy element or two, which is about as accurately as you can describe Nightmare in Silver. It decides to world-build a little bit within Doctor Who, as The Doctor's Wife did with its TARDIS-eating monster that the Doctor had never heard of, but this time it's a bit more egregious. I know the idea is to make the Cybermen scary again, but there's no backstory at all for how they managed to become the scourge of humanity for thousands of years. You figure the Doctor would at least bring that up on one of his several trips to this exact period throughout the new series, but Gaiman decides to just make it up and go with it. I suppose I can live with that, as he does take the time to explain how the Cybermen ended up at Hedgewick's World.

He also mostly succeeds in making the Cybermen a genuine threat again, but not within the framework of this story, if that makes any sense. I'm genuinely looking forward to their next appearance, but the actual metal men aren't all that frightening in Nightmare in Silver. For one thing, the slow-motion running thing was just totally obnoxious, and the face is a bit too cute-looking on the new design. However, when they began to invade the comical castle in bunches, I did fear a bit for the punishment platoon. The problem really came down to the lack of competence in the subjects of the Cyber-hunt - the soldiers didn't belong anywhere near a battlefield. Had they been elite security units like those in, say, Dalek, the Cybermen would have convinced more while picking them off.

What does come as an unqualified success, though, is the Cyber-planner who takes residence in the Doctor's mind. Mr. Clever, as he calls himself, is the first great individual Cyberman in the new series, thanks to a phenomenal performance from Matt Smith. You had to figure the writers would find some way to turn Smith into a villain at some point, as they did David Tennant in The Waters of Mars, but this was brilliant stuff. After watching Nightmare in Silver, I'm devastated that Smith wasn't cast as the Master - his high-flying zaniness is matched by a campy yet genuinely sinister villainy that makes the character even more interesting than the Eleventh Doctor. Mr. Clever is easily the best thing in Nightmare in Silver, and he offers a completely new take on Matt Smith as an actor. In his fourth-to-last appearance, we are still discovering new talents of his, and his versatility is unmatched by either of his new series predecessors. The character itself is wonderfully evil, playing with his foes and laughing maniacally at every opportunity.

Besides Smith's remarkable performance (one that ranks near the top of his best work, I should think), the only other really memorable turn in Nightmare in Silver comes from Warwick Davis as Porridge, the Emperor who ran away because he was lonely. The parallels between Davis' character and the Doctor are obvious, and Davis does an excellent job in the episode's denouement of delivering the character's pain. Unfortunately, he's a bit underused for the bulk of the episode, but not nearly as badly as Being Human's Jason Watkins is. Watkins shows up early and gets to have some fun for five minutes or so, but he's quickly converted into a Cyber-stooge and takes a backseat to Mr. Clever less than a third of the way into the story.

The other actors are merely bad or unimportant. I audibly cheered when Tamzin Outhwaite's supremely annoying Captain was killed by a Cyberman, and the rest of the platoon (as mentioned previously) was so ridiculous that I couldn't get into any of them as actors, save Calvin Dean as a soldier who valiantly stands up to the Cyberman in the name of his dead comrades. Unfortunately, it appears Dean's character was named Ha-ha, which causes me to lose any of the respect I had for him. Suffice to say this is, Davis aside, one of the worst supporting casts on a Doctor Who episode in a long time, and were it not for Smith's phenomenal work in the lead, Nightmare in Silver would have really fallen apart.

Included among the negatives are Eve De Leon Allen and Kassius Johnson as Angie and Artie, the two children Clara looks after back in 2013 England. Angie and Artie have somehow dug up pictures of Clara from all across history, despite this being nearly impossible for school-age children to do even in the internet age, and now they are flying through space with the Doctor. This would be fine, but Johnson and especially Allen are just, well, awful. They react to an interstellar amusement park with all the excitement of a dead housefly, and they annoy constantly whenever they are on screen. It's no wonder the story picks up immediately after they are put on stand-by mode by the Cybermen. I deeply wish the Doctor hadn't sacrificed his queen for their safety.

This is also Clara's worst episode to date, as Gaiman has absolutely no idea what to do with a character this bland. Clara hasn't received any real development since The Rings of Akhaten, and by now I'm just incredibly frustrated with her arc and can't wait for the mystery to be solved so we can actually develop her character. Gaiman takes "bossy" and uses that trait to inform everything Clara does in Nightmare in Silver, allowing her to take charge of the platoon and actually lead it competently and without fear, something she's clearly not capable of as a middle-class nanny. She also tends to forget about the children's safety more often than she should, and why someone so caring would ever leave them alone is a complete mystery to me. Coleman doesn't even try that hard this time around, as we're just going through the motions until The Name of the Doctor.

So there isn't much to write home about when it comes to Nightmare in Silver's performances or its story, which is based almost entirely around the Mr. Clever concept and only takes off as a base-under-siege narrative in the final fifteen minutes. The production, though, is back to stellar levels, making Hedgewick's World feel every bit the dilapidated theme park it purports to be. The new Cybermen are a bit too adorable for my tastes, but they are shot beautifully by director Stephen Woolfenden, who lets their silver coats shine so brightly as to make them inhuman, which is the whole point. The final battle at dawn is a tremendous success of pacing and production, and I really enjoyed the repurposing of The End of the World's Platform One as the Emperor's throne room.

Nightmare in Silver is a competent episode of Doctor Who with a ton of flaws, buoyed by a virtuoso performance from Matt Smith and some ace production values. This is fine for any old story (though it's one of Series 7's lesser efforts, to be sure), but Neil Gaiman built himself far higher expectations with The Doctor's Wife, which won a Hugo and widespread acclaim back in Series 6. I do hope Gaiman returns to form in his next story, if he does decide to return to Doctor Who, but matched up against expectations, Nightmare in Silver has to be viewed as a minor disappointment.