From DWM #461.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away a sci fi movie franchise was launched that would come to prey upon Doctor Who. Evolution, we know, moulds survivors into the shape of their predators, and so in the face of invidious comparisons, our show gradually developed the facilities to do what Star Wars could: Big spaceships puttering overhead, huge rooms populated with alien creatures, a more profound sense of its own mythology.
But what Doctor Who never did – not really – was to become a full on space opera. Perhaps it came close during the Jon Pertwee years with the Peladon stories or Frontier in Space. But there was nothing grand, it all still felt pleasingly parochial. The series’ approach has always been straightforward – almost a rationalist look at the universe where A is fighting B because of C. Not for us the romantic, supposedly profound but self-obsessed forays into the culture of some fictional race. And – praise Verity! – no gafflebag alien names with a look-at-me apostrophe in the middle. These are just a few of the reasons Doctor Who ultimately beats Star Wars. And, indeed, Star Trek.
You can probably tell where I’m going with this.
Nightmare in Silver by Neil Gaiman feels as though it’s beamed us up out of the Doctor’s cosmos and into that other reality. It’s a vaguely militarised place, where people wear boiler suits, unless they’re loveable eccentrics. They, of course, favour Carnaby Street clobber. Either way, they all talk incessant politics. “Welcome, Proconsul,” says Tamzin Outhwaite’s lipsticky punishment platoon Captain as the Doctor flashes his psychic paper. “Is there any news of the Emperor?” Uh oh, it’s another sci fi Romanesque civilisation. The weird thing is, although that implies a good few ounces of thought have gone into formulating a backstory – there’s probably a senate somewhere, and maybe, like, a promagistrate – it translates into a weird kind of emptiness on screen. Perhaps it’s because while all of that’s taken place in the background, there’s nothing much going on front of house. But at the front is where Doctor Who really lives, in the decisions the characters are making right now. The story’s later twist that Porridge (TV rule #37: Beware characters with novelty names) is actually the emperor slumming it by disguising himself as David Rappaport from Time Bandits, failed to move me because it’s entirely arbitrary. Yes, the clues were there – indeed the waxwork one was rather clever – and Warwick Davis is very good in the role. But it’s a win at no cost. We don’t really know the guy, and the realm over which he rules has never felt especially present. All one can do is shrug. You know, good for him, but umm…
It’s maybe a style thing. While I took to Gaiman’s prior effort, 2011’s The Doctor’s Wife, which was also laced with a storybook sense of reality, I was bristling from Webley’s opening “‘Scuse I.” For me, this kind of thing has the connotation of that unpleasantly nerdy olde worlde lingo middle-aged men trot out. Middle-aged men who use “salutations” instead of “hello”. Oh dear. Turns out I don’t like anyone here.
Perversely, though, another element of the fictional history did appeal. Gaiman’s riffing on Revenge of the Cybermen! In that story and this, the idea that the Cybermen are near-mythic figures from the past – the spectres of huge, costly wars – plays very well, lengthening the monsters’ shadow. Somehow the metal men seem more dangerous when they’re beaten. It’s that apprehension they’ll find some unpleasant and sneaky way to return. The image of the derelict Cyberman being turned into a chess-playing machine smartly prefigures that. We just know they’re preparing to make their move.
It’s the first of a few clever upgrades visited upon the show’s second-best baddies. The next is the introduction of the Cybermites, which are terrifically scary. Taking the form of the silverfish that first inspired their bigger Cybermat brothers, it’s the fact they’re so very tiny that renders them horrific. For anyone, like me, who’s ever blearily scrubbed their teeth while wondering where on earth that bug just emerged from between the floor tiles, the mites are unstoppable. When they scurried out of the dead Cyberman’s face, I had chills.
The tinies, in turn, usher in the bad boys’ new look. And it’s a success. The obvious note is how sleek this next generation seem. They make the flared cuffs and ankles of their predecessor appear rather glam rock by comparison. The simplification of the facial design is a further improvement. Not since the 1960s have the Cybermen looked so disconcertingly blank.
Aside from aesthetic tweaks, it’s also interesting how perceived flaws in the creatures’ representation have been addressed. Gone is the militaristic and clanky body language, which at times felt a little Dad’s Army. But to replace that? The Matrix-style slo-mo scenes work well, and speedy Cybermen is a fine concept. However when operating at what one can assume is their standard gait, their exaggerated, rigid movements seem akin to somebody power-walking. Not an especially intimidating archetype. Meanwhile, Gaiman’s story gets a little distracted in sorting out various Cyber scripting missteps of the past. We learn that “early versions” of the operating system were susceptible to attack from cleaning fluid or gold, and that patches have since been introduced to tackle that. The “de-lete!” catchphrase is gone, to be replaced by the similarly zeitgesty “upgrade in process” plus the accompanying invention that this lot have the facility to download new skills from the app store (I think that’s what the Cyberiad is). Handy. Literally as it’s revealed they can also remove bits of their own bodies. This might be a novelty too far – something great for a toy range, perhaps, but it physically diminishes the iconography of the Cybermen. Once men of metal, now men of Mattel.
Seeing them en masse, though, looks tremendous. Particularly the three-way split screen sequence, surely in homage to Earthshock. Although the Cybermen still haven’t really had a proper run-out since Doctor Who returned – they feel ancillary in this tale – this latest makeover does at least leave them in good shape and maybe, just maybe, next time they show up they’ll make a proper, David Banks-style fist of it.
Why do I say ancillary? Because the actual conflict in this story takes place through allegory; scenes of the Doctor playing chess against himself as he battles for control of his own brain. Poor Matt Smith. I imagine him at home in his Cardiff oubliette of an evening, disconsolately leafing through the reams of Doctor-on-Doctor dialogue and thinking, How on earth am I going to play this? It’s a real challenge, to make one man yakking feel televisual. As the normal and evil versions of the Time Lord, Matt does well, slightly camping it up when the script is flagging. But whatever fun there is here, it comes solely from his inventiveness. The chess motif is dull (there’s a reason why 1980s BBC1 holiday morning programme Play Chess was the tacit sign for kids everywhere to get dressed and go outdoors) and ultimately is proven meaningless, which is a shame when it was utilised so successfully before. The whole sequence thus feels like vanity on Gaiman’s behalf – a belief that his concept is intrinsically so fascinating the audience we’ll want to indulge in it. Even an old Doctors slideshow can’t pep it up.
What an odd episode this has been. Not only the strange refusal to let the Cybermen go to town, but also the arbitrary inclusion of John and Gillian’s 21st century counterparts, Artie and Angie. It’s difficult to work out why they’re here. Maybe it’s to provide an appropriate perspective on this slightly Toytown set-up. And Artie, at least, shows some good grace. “Thank you for having me,” he says. “It was very interesting.” It’s a rare thing, people in TV dramas taking the time to show some manners. He can come again. Angie, though? It’s a relief when she’s finally packed off home. Why have her so monstrously petulant, puncturing the magic? “Hello! I’m bored!” If she’d been part of Hartnell’s crew, a jolly good smacked bottom would have swiftly followed.
At least Clara’s had fun, really getting to show off that essential something that marks out a good Doctor Who companion. She expresses faith in the Time Lord and acts courageously as a lieutenant in his absence. Shame the Doctor then completely breaks character to check her out when she exits the TARDIS at the end. “A mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that’s just a little bit too… tight.” Really? That’s who you are nowadays?
As Porridge climbs astride his plinth-mounted commode and pilots his ship off into this oddly-fitted universe, you almost expect the screen to iris-out to the credits. But instead we find one remaining Cybermite sending a signal. Beep-beep-beep! Time to leave! Next week’s episode looks good, though!