This is one of the few stories in 21st Century Doctor Who around which there is no fan consensus. It’s not many stories that divide fan opinion like Nightmare in Silver, given it’s such an eclectic story with as much that provokes as enthralls. A lot of the opprobrium this episode attracts concerns how underdeveloped and cobbled-together the script feels. I have some sympathy with that view, especially given that this script was written by the great Neil Gaiman, whose previous effort, The Doctor’s Wife, was such a stunning success. It’s a Cyberman attack on a random planet, an attack that (entirely predictably), the Doctor and his friends see off with ease. That’s it. “Underwhelming” is perhaps the right word. I mean, it’s always nice to see the Cybermen again, but, given we see them so much, it’s not enough to write another indistinguishable “The Doctor vs the Cybermen” story. It’s not enough to deploy the Cybermen (or the Daleks) as Doctor Who’s fallback placeholder villains for any run-of-the-mill monster story.
That said, while I acknowledge the narrative shortcomings of this script, it didn’t fail to entertain me. Neil Gaiman may have his off days in terms of story ideas, but one thing that can’t be said about his writing is that it’s boring. Even an undistinguished script like this is brought to life by Gaiman’s ever-reliable pen. Some of this has to do with the characters, who were involving and well-developed, especially Porridge, played by Warwick Davis, but more to do with the new-look Cybermen. Seemingly a distant future fusion of the Mondasian Cybermen and the parallel universe Cybus Industries Cybermen, these Cybermen are more threatening than we’ve ever seen them. I was stunned watching the supercharged Cyberman zoom its way through a rabble of soldiers and kidnap young Angie. That feature has at least rectified the somewhat comical fault of New Who’s Cybermen, which is their tendency to stomp around exceedingly noisily everywhere, never failing to alert their enemies to their presence. Also, the new conversion technique (via Cybermite) is a great development; much more efficient and clean than messy full-body conversions. These new Cybermen’s ability to upgrade so quickly to overcome weaknesses also added to their threat, but I can’t help entertaining the suggestion that the Cybermen become too overpowered when they’re practically invincible, when it takes the destruction of a whole planet to defeat them.
But let’s be honest, if this episode, about a Cyberman attack, had no distinguishing features other than the new-and-improved Cybermen (and their, frankly awesome, new Cybermites), it would be a pretty average and forgettable episode. But one thing this episode unarguably has going for it is the acting masterclass by Matt Smith, playing the split-personality Doctor, possessed by the “Cyberiad”. Those sequences really were utterly sublime, and, in my opinion, redeem this whole episode. In particular, the scene where the Doctor is first taken over by “Mr Clever”, who flails around the room excitably, exulting in his new Time Lord mind and body, was mesmerising viewing, Matt Smith pulling off some truly remarkable acting in that instance, the sinister “Mr Clever” persona jarring disturbingly with the familiar features and voice of the Doctor. The whole sequence of scenes portraying the Doctor’s split personality were captivating, a really impressive display of acting from Matt Smith. It really is worth watching this episode just for those scenes.
Some final thoughts. I hate to end on a negative note, especially after I’ve just enunciated with gusto why I think this episode is worth watching after all, but unfortunately negative points are all I’ve got left. I wasn’t very taken with the way Clara was portrayed in this episode. Modern Who companions are all extraordinary people — the Doctor has said before that he only takes the best — but there can be a tendency to turn them into unrealistic Mary-Sues. That, I think, was the case here, as not only was Clara not in the least flustered by being given command of a platoon of soldiers at war against the Cybermen, but she even led the military defence fairly competently. Imagine Rose, or Martha, or Donna, or … well, maybe not Amy (but Amy’s special), and you can see what I’m getting at. Remember the scared, fumbling Clara confronting Skaldak in Cold War? Something strange has happened to the writing of her character between then and now, and I’m not sure it’s for the best. Secondly, funny as Angie and Artie were, they weren’t the most realistic of characters either. The average teenager, when taken to an alien planet in the distant future, doesn’t pout over the lack of 3G. I mean, really now.