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.
I know a number of teenagers, and you can take them to the end of the universe and back, and all they will care about is tweeting it out to their friends. It’s just the new way of the world.
As for the cybermen, I think that their purpose was to show how terrifying the cybermites would be, and how it can even take over the Doctor. That, and they were ABSOLUTELY TERRIFYING! The speedy one that kidnaps the girl made me shiver; the one in the water that circuited out, then came back and said “upgrading” terrified me. If nothing else, this was the very first episode of the NuHu that made me actually feel that the Cybermen were any sort of real threat/danger. Before this episode, they had, as you justly stated, a “tendency to stomp around exceedingly noisily everywhere, never failing to alert their enemies to their presence.” I never found them exceptionally frightening, even with their constant upgrading of people. In this episode, they were a threat that was so severe, planets had to be destroyed to get rid of them. Also, before, you had to wander away from the gen-pop to go off and find them to get upgraded (for the most part) – think of the episode when Martha (pre-Martha days) went upstairs to play patty-cake with her boyfriend and they both got upgraded with blue-tooth ear-buds. In this episode, you can sit, mind your own business, and something the size of a housefly could turn you into a cyberman. That’s terrifying. After all, how many times in your life were you just sitting, minding your own business, and a house-fly zipped by? Imagine if that could erase you and turn you into a Cyberman!
IMHO, this is one of the rare times that a NuHu villain was legitimately terrifying (for me). People who’ve followed it for a lot longer than me told me that people hide behind their couches at the sight of a Dalek (I don’t… they’re just mass-murdering trashcans with plungers for arms — and now they’re Skittle Colored which makes them even LESS frightening); and John Barrowman had said in an interview that the killer store-front dummies terrified him as a child and he would hid under his mother’s coat when they passed them in a store window. I have never been able to find a NuHu villain quite so terrifying for me. The simplicity of the changes that Gaiman made to an old foe managed to make them “the same old cybermen”, but somehow, EXTREMELY terrifying to an adult (me). The Weeping Angels terrify DH, the upgraded Cybermen terrify me.
I will also add, that despite my feelings on the subject, DH has previously stated that he felt the same way about the upgraded Cybermen as you — sort of “meh” until it took over Matt Smith… but to me, they were terrifying WITHOUT taking over The Doctor, although that didn’t make them any less terrifying (it just made it more terrifying). That villain made me gasp, hide my eyes, giggle at my silliness, and then gasp and hide my eyes again. It was a pleasure to watch that episode, and it made me tingle. It was magic for me. For me, it had all of the elements “The Doctor’s Wife” lacked: a legitimate, and frightening enemy that The Doctor had to defeat. “The Doctor’s Wife” is one of my favorite episodes as well, and that had plenty that this one lacked: in-depth character studies of my favorite characters. I think both episodes excel at what they’re supposed to, go a little light on what they’re supposed to, and together, show the brilliance of an author who’s constrained by the requirements of a one hour show.
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I’ll have to watch it again to see what you’re getting at… I found Gaiman’s new Cybermen to be impressive, formidable, threatening, yes, but not really terrifying per se. They’re not quite there yet, for me.
I think there are a lot of conceptual problems with the Cybermen in New Who which go deeper than their danger level or design, and which updates like the ones introduced in this episode can’t really go very far in the way of rectifying. The Cybermen in general haven’t been very good since the 1960s, which is why I’m hoping Peter Capaldi gets his wish and we’ll get an episode featuring the original “Mondasian” Cybermen, the ones like those in The Tenth Planet.
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“I found Gaiman’s new Cybermen to be impressive, formidable, threatening, yes, but not really terrifying per se. They’re not quite there yet, for me.” I understand. Most of the NuHu villains are just that for me. There’s only been a few, such as the Vasta Neradu (sp?) that really did the trick for me. I’m not easily freaked out. At all. But Gaiman’s updated Cybermen were formidable and threatening, and for a show that hasn’t had that very often, I find it to be thrilling and enjoyable. I also have to admit that terrifying was perhaps a slight overstatement. It is more…. I’m not sure how to explain. It’s not the actual monster (such as the Cybermen or the shadows) that terrify me…. it’s more my brain taking what it sees, and imagining a step or two further, and THAT’S terrifying. A Cyberman that can’t be shut down — it can’t be electrocuted, it’s unstoppable, you can’t protect yourself from them, and it requires the annihilation of entire planets to even begin to protect yourself from them…. that’s terrifying. Let me put it another way, using specifically what was in that episode that made them terrifying. This is where my imagination goes:
A house-fly is buzzing around your house, you barely take note of it. Eventually it lands on you, and before you can even brush it off of your arm, it embeds itself in you and takes over your mind and body — turning you into a hive-minded organism. Eventually, that hive-mind will convince you (without any real convincing required) to be upgraded into a giant metal humanoid, hell-bent on destroying entire worlds. At this point, you really are upgraded: you’re faster, formidable, and practically indestructible. You WILL destroy the enemy at all costs, unless you are destroyed — and not just you, but EVERYONE like you.
It’s a terrifying concept. On so many levels. In one way, you are either the hive-minded killer which goes against your very core; on the other, you are the one forced to destroy an entire population to save yourself and your loved ones. Makes me shudder each time. Add into the equation that on previous occasions (and future ones) we have seen the humanity shine through on the Cybermen several times…. they just couldn’t erase people’s loyalties and love which made the individual Cyberman more human than metal-humanoid; in this episode, it was written in a way that led me to believe that particular error in upgrading was no longer possible. After the upgrade, there was no loyalty or love to help you, to make you fight for what’s right or what you believe in. You are no longer even remotely you — you are they… you are Cybermen. Does that make more sense to you?
Also, I will be honest, I have no idea what you mean by “Mondasian” — I am a NuHu convert who knows a little about the older Doctors based on the people I know that watch it and tell me the similarities or whatever. Such as when MS went through and collected the clothes from the hospital being a call-out to the way the previous Doctors would spend time getting dressed to create their new look. That was confirmed on the NuHu specials where they covered all the Doctors up-to and including MS.
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I just looked up the Tenth Planet…. and I have to say, that it sounds an awful lot like the Cybermen that Gaiman cooked-up. The difference is that they had a planet to live on… but it blew up in that particular episode. They were weakened by gold, they were trying to overtake a planet, and the only way to destroy them was by their planet being destroyed (which it did on it’s own since they used up it’s energy), and the other plan was to bomb them out of existence. So I’m not sure what your comparison means….?
I suppose I can see what you mean now. You’re right, when I think about it like that, it’s quite terrifying. But I’m a lot like you — I’m not easily scared by the monsters in Doctor Who, at least at this age. I can appreciate the fear factor injected into them, and I can appreciate the monsters because I know they’re *supposed* to be scary (and that they’ll at least scare the children), but I don’t really get terrified by them. The only time I’ve been genuinely, quaking-behind-the-sofa scared of Doctor Who was The Empty Child, and I was 10 at the time (although some of the scenes in that story are still pretty horrifying). Torchwood still has me writhing on occasion, though.
As for the Mondasian Cybermen and The Tenth Planet, any geek who’s watched the Classic Who stories (like me) will tell you that the Cybermen have been conceived differently since the 1960s to the extent that they’ve almost become a completely different monster. What you said is a case in point when you described a Cyberman as a “hive-minded killer”. That’s not what the Cybermen were supposed to be about. They weren’t killers. They were humanity, cybernetically augmented to the point of obscenity. They were humans, like us, but at the same time something very disturbingly not human. The Cybermen in The Tenth Planet were scary, but scary in a very different way to how the modern Cybermen are scary: they were scary precisely because they were recognisably human. Their objective wasn’t to kill, but to help; they genuinely believed they were doing you good by making you into one of them.
Doctor Who, unfortunately, very quickly strayed from this vision. By the 1970s the Cybermen had just devolved into generic killer robots; Daleks with legs. New Who has generally been better than most of Classic Who at portraying the Cybermen, but they still conform to the killer robot trope too much. They’ll say “You will become like us” before promptly evaporating you. I just find the original conception of the Cybermen, the dark mirror of humanity, as far more compellingly scary than GIANT MURDEROUS METAL MEN WHO CAN’T DIE.
“That’s not what the Cybermen were supposed to be about. They weren’t killers.” But that’s exactly what they did in the four episode arch in “The Tenth Planet”. They killed multiple people and attempted to overtake the world to save themselves and create others like them.
Also,as a kid, these monsters could be terrifying, and quite honestly, could potentially scar you for life. As an adult, the characters themselves are frightening and interesting, but I find it more interesting that you can sort of see a bastardization (please forgive my language) of things that really occurred in real like. In my eyes, the Daleks are akin to the Nazi’s. They want to exterminate everything that is different from them, despite any obvious benefit the other organism can give them. “EXTERMINATE!” They kill by the buckets for little reason than it suits their plans to make all living beings identical to them. The Cybermen, on the other hand, make me think of Communism: a hive mind, upgrading for the benefit of the Cybermen — a straight forward example of the masses working together to create a common goal, an general equality among the people. They can’t be bought, they can’t be changed — the only thing to destroy them is the bomb, which the Doctor tries very hard to stop (theoretically The Cuban Missile Crisis). There are other examples, but they are much more vague. When taken from that stand-point, all of the villains are representational of fear, and something that is political, but changed enough to be science fiction. It’s something I’ve felt for a while, but I’m not sure if I’m communicating effectively — it’s 2 AM here and I’m kind of exhausted.
I just want to let you know, I really do enjoy our conversations 🙂
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