In every series of Doctor Who, there must be at least one or two brushes with some old-school foes—the standards being the Daleks and the Cybermen. These episodes are often my least favorite, because they usually feel forced—the showrunners feel obliged to include them; everyone wants to do something cool and new with the iconic, creaky old foes; no one wants to rock the boat too much. The main struggle is that no matter what the writers and character designers do, it's hard to make large, slow hunks of metal feel truly terrifying now.
I'll give it to Neil Gaiman—he came as close as anyone could have to making Cybermen scary again. A lot was riding on "Nightmare in Silver," Gaiman's second Doctor Who episode; his first, "The Doctor's Wife," is extremely beloved and one of my favorites. Like "The Doctor's Wife," "Nightmare in Silver" explored a familiar character from the Whoniverse in a completely new way, by letting us look into the cheeky, cruel mind of a Cyber-planner. Throw in the fact that the Cybermen were taking advantage of "patches" to continually upgrade themselves to resist attack, and we had ourselves some Cybermen Plus! Although this episode was fantastic, it didn't match the heart of "The Doctor's Wife"… but that's not to say it was a wash! Far from it; "Nightmare in Silver" seemed to benefit from a good chunk of the budget and a heaping helping of the "will they or won't they?" tension of this season, and it was marred only by the familiar Wizard of Oz-like rescue ending.
The episode found The Doctor and Clara taking her babysitting charges, Angie and Artie, to the largest theme park in the universe—a theme park that'd long since been abandoned because people kept disappearing from it. All that was left was a very jumpy platoon and a friendly oddball of a guy, Webley, who still had a few remnants of the theme park he was willing to share with the kids. One of his tricks was a hollowed-out Cyberman who played chess, which scared the hell out of The Doctor, until he realized it was actually being controlled by a man named Porridge (Warwick Davis!!). Davis turned in one hell of a performance in this episode—emotional, complex, and very enjoyable.
The kids were ready to leave, but The Doctor was very interested in some little robotic worms he'd found scurrying around, so they set up camp for the night. Of course, trouble ensued. Webley was attacked by the robotic worms and became part cyborg, Artie was grabbed by a Cyberman and also became part cyborg (either that or he was just wearing an intense Bluetooth), and Clara learned about the Cyber Wars from Porridge. Humanity had no chance of beating the Cybermen during these wars, as the Cybermen would just upgrade themselves to fix any weaknesses the humans identified, so the humans did the only thing they knew to do: They blew up the whole galaxy. Terrible, sure, but "No more galaxy, no more Cybermen."
But there were more than just hollow CyberMen about; there was an actual, functional one that showed up, and when we finally saw it, it looked menacing, shiny, and slightly redesigned since the last time we saw the Cybermen, in "Closing Time." The superfast movement was a nice touch. The Cyberman took Angie, and The Doctor put Clara in charge of the platoon. They scampered off to find a defendable position to try and attack the Cyberman on the loose.
It turned out that the Cybermen needed children for spare parts, and the theme park was a perfect place for them to hide and collect those parts. They liked children's brains because they had so much potential, but upon discovering The Doctor's infinitely more clever brain, they burrowed into his head. He fought as hard as he could, and we were treated to the first of several Gollum-like scenes that featured The Doctor fighting with himself. The Doctor and the Cyber-planner in his head (a.k.a. Mr. Clever) made a wager on a game of chess. If The Doctor won, the children would be freed, The Doctor would be freed, and nobody would die. If the Cyber-planner won, the Cybermen would get The Doctor's brain.
Back at Natty Longshoes Comical Castle, Clara found that the platoon only had one gun, five hand pulsars that could deactivate a Cyberman if used on the back of its head, and one bomb that would implode the planet. The platoon seemed desperate to go ahead and blow everything up, but Clara was dead set against it. She has really come into her own as a strong, confident character. She's not questioning what to do when The Doctor isn't present, she's running a platoon, bossing people around, charming the pants off of everyone in sight, and making tactical decisions. It feels like a natural evolution that matches her feisty nature.
During the chess game between The Doctor and Mr. Clever, we learned a few things—we learned that The Doctor has been thinking about Clara a lot. We learned that The Doctor is still basically erased from every database in the known universes. And we learned that the Cybermen could be weakened by gold and cleaning fluid. With that, The Doctor temporarily scrambled Mr. Clever by jamming his golden ticket to the theme park onto the circuitry that has been molded onto his face.
This gave him enough time to find Clara and explain what was going on ("A good news, bad news, good news again situation"); then he asked Clara to tie him up before the Cybermen made a patch to fix make themselves resistant to gold. This is when Matt Smith truly shone in this episode. It's one thing to do a scene with yourself as two different characters; at this point he was playing both himself and Mr. Clever the Cyber-planner in scenes with Clara. Mr. Clever was a bit more sly, a bit meaner, a bit sexier than The Doctor, and it's a credit to Smith's acting skills that the differences between the two were startling. The who's who gave us the inevitable scene where The Doctor confessed his romantic feelings for Clara (and yes, I was swooning even though I saw it coming a mile away), only to have Clara slap Mr. Clever/The Doctor and insist that the real Doctor would rather die than admit his feelings. After several switchovers between the two characters (and slaps from Clara), Mr. Clever nastily drawled, "I have a chess game to finish. And you have to die pointlessly, and very far from home. Toodaloo." There were more Cybermen on the way, and a lot of them.
The platoon and Clara were desperately trying to hold off the advancing Cybermen. I find that they're most creepy when there are a lot of them and they're marching in unison, and this episode provided that in spades. Watching the Cybermen move lightning fast, shoot lasers, and steadily clomp their way across the moat to get to the platoon got my heart racing. Luckily, The Doctor's insistence that he could end the chess game in three moves stumped Mr. Clever, and he shut down all Cybermen mid-attack in order to focus on the puzzle at hand. The three moves involved the sonic screwdriver and a pulsar, natch, and then everyone was safe... but no one was really safe until the Cybermen were destroyed.
In (unfortunately) classic Doctor Who "click your heels together" miracle-style, it was revealed that Porridge was actually the Emperor, hiding away from his role in destroying the galaxy during the Cyber Wars. He was able to activate the bomb to implode the planet, and he was also able to rescue everyone and teleport them to a safe location. When the TARDIS didn't come with, I thought "Aha, that'll be something!" But no, the TARDIS was teleported to the safe house as well. Everyone was safe. Clara fended off a quick marriage proposal from Emperor Porridge (watched with some interest by The Doctor), and the hour ended with The Doctor once again wondering about his "mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that's just a little too tight." Whaaaa? Did The Doctor just make a sexual comment about Clara?
Other than presenting a cool story about the Cybermen and letting Matt Smith show off some acting chops, the main goal of "Nightmare in Silver" seemed to be to further convince me that The Doctor is in love with Clara. I'm not complaining, I like a good Cybermen story, and I love a good love story—especially when it involves a time-traveling alien and a human. Yes, the crisis was magically solved in the last five minutes, but it happens so often with Doctor Who that I'm starting to not judge it as harshly as I used to, which is a bit of a bad sign. It's become routine that an interesting and complex story will be presented, then completely fixed with little to no fanfare. I still yearn for the days of two-parter episodes, when we had time to watch things build up, be terrifying, and then get solved, but this is the Who we've got.
Next week's episode is the Series 7 finale, and it'll bring back Madame Vastra, Strax, and Jenny, plus River Mothereffing Song!!! It will be wonderful to see her again, even if she's being set up for heartbreak when she discovers that her husband has a new girlfriend...
– Such attitude on that Angie! Good gracious! I wanted to ground her for most of the episode!
– The theme park setting looked gorgeous but seemed somewhat disused after the first five minutes of the episode.
– Funniest exchange of the episode:
Platoon: Natty Longshoes Comical Castle.
Clara: Real castle? Drawbridge? Moat?
Platoon: Yes. But comical.
Clara: We'll go there.
– Second funniest exchange:
Clara: I trust the Doctor.
Platoon: You think he knows what he's doing.
Clara: I'm not sure I'd go that far.
Clara's chops in the comedy timing department are really coming along!
– Oh no, Mr. Clever did NOT just say Allons-y, did he?!
– The Doctor's answer when asked ii Clara is pretty was, "No, you're too short and bossy and your nose is all funny," which didn't even slightly sound convincing. He might be able to play two characters trapped in one body, but no one can pretend that woman is not stunning.
What did you think of "Nightmare in Silver"?