Thoughts on: Nightmare in Silver

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.

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: The Doctor’s Wife

On occasion, New Who throws up a truly remarkable story whose conceit is so inspired, but also so simple, that you find yourself dumbfounded as to why the episode has never been made before. The Doctor’s Wife is such a story. It’s astounding that it took 48 years for the Doctor to meet his TARDIS in human form. When the idea was finally put into execution, it delivered consummately. The idea was audacious and daring, oh yes. The episode could have been totally ruined if the idea wasn’t done brilliantly. But, here, the TARDIS (henceforth referred to as “Idris”) in human form was simply delightful to watch.

When we first see Idris (as the TARDIS) she seems completely doolally. I was reminded with some amusement that this is what the Doctor’s post-regenerative trauma is often like. And the TARDIS’s matrix being deposited in Idris’s body would be much like the sensation of regeneration: finding oneself suddenly and disconcertingly in a completely different body and mind. Even when Idris had calmed down, she was every bit as mad as the Doctor (if not more so), with the additional charming idiosyncrasy of having all of time and space coursing through her, leading her to enigmatically pronounce things ahead of when they were supposed to be said, and reply to questions that haven’t yet been asked. This conveyed humorously what I suppose the TARDIS, as a supposedly sentient entity, must be like: a being that defies the constraints imposed on us mere animals by time. Idris’s trouble with comprehending tenses also alluded amusingly to this. In any case, I love how Idris’s personality was portrayed: a kind of Helena Bonham-Carter style madness. Although I’m quite sceptical about the idea of a female Doctor, Idris’s portrayal is actually a lot like how I imagine the Doctor would be like if he were a Time Lady. And Suranne Jones’ portrayal of Idris was exceptional, of course.

It was also gratifying seeing the Doctor and the TARDIS interact, after all this time. This is the ultimate fangasm episode, and, thankfully, the interaction between the Doctor and Idris actually did work really well. I think Idris’s portrayal would have had a lot to do with it—the TARDIS had to be as mad as the Doctor, or it would have been like just another Doctor-Companion dynamic. And I think the Doctor and Idris had excellent, electrifying chemistry together. They were delightful to watch. At times they seemed like an old married couple: “You are not my mother!” said the Doctor. “And you are not my child!” retorted Idris. Which actually says a whole lot about the strength and depth of their relationship, as Amy pithily observed: it’s always him and her, after all the rest are gone. At other times they seemed flirty and excitable, marvelling at the novelty of being able to talk to one another. It was also a cheeky but compelling idea to suggest that it was the TARDIS who stole the Doctor, rather than the other way around. Now that we’ve seen them interacting together, it doesn’t seem that laughable a suggestion. Finally, their “goodbye” moment was utterly beautiful. Surely one of the show’s most memorable moments, even if only for the reason of what was actually happening in that moment: the Doctor and the TARDIS had such a brief, special time talking to one another, and now they have to say goodbye to each other. No, I’m not crying. There’s just something in my eye. Shut up.

If I was to criticise something about the way the Doctor and Idris’s interaction was portrayed in this episode, I would say there wasn’t enough of it. If one is going to write an episode about the Doctor and the TARDIS being able to talk to each other, then, for God’s sake, milk as much out of that idea as humanly possible. Never mind Amy and Rory being chased around the TARDIS, let’s see the Doctor and the (living) TARDIS bickering, bonding, laughing, kissing, and more. Of course, this episode needed a substantive plot, not just a clever conceit, and to that extent House’s “stealing” the TARDIS with Amy and Rory trapped inside worked well, but I think the sequences we got that showed the Doctor and Idris actually talking and interacting meaningfully were too brief and too few. I feel we didn’t explore the Doctor and TARDIS relationship as deeply as we could have (although, in fairness, what we did get was still excellent in that regard). This episode could therefore have worked better if it were slower, with less rushing about, less focus on the relatively less important plot, and more intimate one-on-one sequences between the Doctor and Idris.

After putting in a somewhat lacklustre performance in the previous episode, Matt Smith is back in exceptional form here. He displayed an impressive range here, from the Doctor’s giddy excitement at finding himself the recipient of a Time Lord communication cube (much appreciated nod to The War Games, by the way), to his frightening resentment at discovering he’d been tricked about the presence of non-existent Time Lords, to his plaintiveness and heartbreak at being forced to say farewell to Idris. There was an intimate moment when the Doctor affirms that he wants to find Time Lords here because he wants to be forgiven for what he did. We haven’t seen the sorrow over the fate of his people from Smith’s Doctor to the degree that we saw it from Eccleston’s and Tennant’s Doctors. I have the idea that he represses his sorrow, like he represses much else. But this moment provided an unusual glimpse of the degree to which the memory of the Time War still pains the Doctor deeply. His frightening mood swing when he realised there were no Time Lords on this rock and he’d been tricked by the ghosts of their voices also conveyed powerfully the Doctor’s intense feelings about his people.

Some final thoughts. Rory’s and Amy’s being chased around the intestines of the TARDIS was captivating viewing. I may be wrong, but I think this was the first time we’ve seen inside the TARDIS beyond the console room in the revived series. Although Karen and Arthur were basically just running down the same corridor over and over again (Classic-style), those scenes really conveyed a sense of the Byzantine insides of the TARDIS. Rory’s being aged to death in the TARDIS was quite grisly viewing, that last scenario in which Amy finds Rory a withered husk very shocking and confronting. The first time I saw that I was actually very disturbed; it might have been the reason why I developed an aversion to watching this episode for a while. In any case, though, I think this episode is, on the whole, superb. A classic, to be sure, although there was, perhaps regrettably, still potential untapped in this idea.

Rating: 9/10.