The Doctor and Clara, accompanied by the Maitland children Angie and Artie, visit Hedgewick’s World of Wonders, the greatest theme park in the universe, only to find it derelict and watched over by a platoon of soldiers. Uncovering an all-too-familiar foe, the Doctor must battle to save his own mind and the lives of his companions as an army of awakened, improved Cybermen close in all around them.
Hail to you, the Doctor, saviour of the Cybermen.
Good news and bad news. First, the good news. In penning his second Who episode, Neil Gaiman succeeds in his aim of making the Cybermen properly scary once again, and Nightmare in Silver is a huge improvement over the metal monsters’ last appearance, the frankly risible Closing Time. The bad news is that it isn’t a patch on his debut effort, The Doctor’s Wife, with too many oddities and loose ends scattered among the many satisfying moments the episode did successfully create.
Let’s start with the revised Cybermen. The new design looks fantastic. The rebooted Cybus Industries models from Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel were clunky, leaden-footed and verging on portly, but the versions we see here have more rounded, human-like faces harking back to the original 1960s design and are positively ripped with a body design which owes much to Iron Man. They also appear to have evolved into something similar to Star Trek‘s Borg, grafting cybernetic implants onto victims’ faces and upgrading themselves to adapt and protect themselves against an enemy’s weapons. Heads and hands are detachable, and they appear to have overcome their almost comically slow movements by developing a super-speed mode – portrayed in the style of The Matrix‘s bullet-time – which, oddly, is used once but never again in the episode as we see the Cyber army return to their plodding ways.
The conceit of targeting first children and then the Doctor to provide the brain-power to create the best possible Cyber-planner is an intriguing one, and the scenes with Matt Smith playing against himself both externally and inside the Doctor’s head are well realised, providing him with an opportunity to flex his acting chops – an assignment he passes with flying colours.
Exactly why the Doctor and the Cyber-planner are conveniently both in control of not-quite-50% of the Time Lord’s brain is never really made clear, and the ensuing chess game feels more like a device of convenience than anything else, and one which brings the pacing of the episode to a grinding halt every time we return to it. Also, just as the Doctor is fully aware that the Cyber-planner will renege on his part of the bargain in the event of defeat, surely it is equally obvious that the Doctor will never allow himself to cede control of his brain and his memories? It’s a plot device which never feels real and serves only as an excuse for the story to foreshadow the topic of regeneration, show us the faces of all 11 Doctors and to remove the Doctor physically from the action, turning things over to Clara instead.
Speaking of which, Clara’s sudden development which sees her becoming an ice-cool general also feels a bit off. We know she’s clever and confident and we know she implicitly trusts the Doctor’s faith in her, but to suddenly leap into being as cool, commanding and strategically astute as she is here seems to come completely out of left-field.
The guest cast in the episode is also strong, lending some weight and credibility to a story which veers between genuine scares and light whimsy. Tamzin Outhwaite has been and gone almost before we know it, but front and centre is a charming turn by Warwick Davis (Life’s Too Short) as the dwarf emperor-in-hiding Porridge, a man who – like the Doctor – carries a heavy weight of responsibility for past actions in which he condemned billions to death in order to end a spiralling war.
And of course we’re now nicely set up for next week’s closing episode, with Clara now aware that the Doctor regards her as the ‘impossible girl’ or, as he himself puts it:
A mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that’s just a little bit too tight.
There is so much about Nightmare in Silver to love: Smith and Davis’ performances, the return of the Cybermen as a proper enemy, the juxtaposition of some seriously creepy scenes with many lighter moments, and the feeling that we’re properly in the middle of outer space. But irregular pacing, unexplained story loopholes and odd leaps in Clara’s characterisation meant I couldn’t quite love it the way I did The Doctor’s Wife. I suspect how viewers feel about the episode will depend on how willing they are to overlook its obvious flaws and just go along for the ride. I ended up stuck somewhere in between. Good stuff, but not legendary.
- Angie comments that Hedgewick’s looks like a moonbase, a clear nod to the 1967 Cyberman story The Moonbase.
- “We’ve got a golden ticket.” The Doctor brandishes his admission ticket to Hedgewick’s a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The ticket later comes in useful for temporarily derailing the Cyber-planner inside his head.
- The con of using the concealed Porridge as the real brain of the Cyber chess master mirrors The Turk, a supposed 18th century chess-playing machine which also relied on a concealed human.
- The Time Lords invented chess, apparently.
- “Fantastic!” and “Allons-y!”, the catchphrases of Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor and David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, make a brief return.
- The Cyber-planner-as-Doctor’s manic declaration of “They’re heeeere!” – a nod to The Shining, surely? (“Heeeere’s Johnny!”)
- The Doctor’s description of Clara as “a mystery wrapped in an enigma” is a reworking of Winston Churchill’s observation of Russia as being “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.