Doctor Who, Neil Gaiman, and where Nightmare In Silver fits

Feature Louisa Mellor 11 May 2013 - 19:45

We trace Nightmare In Silver's similarities and overlaps with Neil Gaiman's previous work...

Warning: contains spoilers for Nightmare In Silver (our spoiler-filled review of the episode is here).

A singular joy of fandom, and a geeky one at that, is the administration. Not the tangible Post-It notes-and-whiteboards kind of admin, but the mental filing, cross-referencing and labelling involved when you follow and love someone’s work.

Imagine Joss Whedon brings out, say, a Shakespeare adaptation starring a clutch of recurring collaborators. Where do you file that? Under A for anomaly, W for Whedonverse, or – forgoing alphabetisation all together - cross-referenced between Stuff I Should Have Paid More Attention To In High School and Stuff I Paid All My Attention To In High School? Do you sort by theme, quality, popularity, or critical reception? Where, in the history of your relationship with this person’s work, does the new thing fit?

That’s what the next few hundred words are. An excuse to gambol about in the Goth meadow of Neil Gaiman’s past writing, and mull over where Nightmare In Silver, his second Doctor Who episode fits in. Where does it connect and overlap with what’s gone before? What Gaiman-stamps is it embossed with? Where shall we file away this new thing we’ve been given?

“I told you it was amazing. Well, it used to be”

Hedgewick’s World of Wonders, a formerly grand, now-disused and discarded amusement park is so Gaimanesque a location, it may as well stalk about wearing black not brushing its hair. It’s a slightly kitsch-y tourist attraction of the kind that still haunt the childhood memories of those of us who grew up in the seventies and eighties, in the land before swish simulators and European health and safety laws were rolled out. Blackgang Chine on the Isle of Wight is the source of my personal nightmares, but you’ll have your own, and no doubt so will Gaiman. There’s something eerie and uncanny about these places, which are usually populated by mascots with all the child-friendly warmth of Noseybonk and the kindly reassurance of The Groke from The Moomins.

Gaiman famously incorporated a real-life slightly kitsch-y tourist attraction into American Gods, his vast tale of centuries-old deities eclipsed by the modern day religions of celebrity, cash, and technology. Wisconsin’s ‘House on the Rock’ is home to all number of creepy Impresario Webley-like collections, and a repository for “pure American acquisitiveness” in the words of novelist Jane Smiley. It’s also home to the ‘world’s largest indoor carousel’, a surrealist dream space replete with hundreds of fantasy animals, chandeliers and angel mannequins (and possibly the portal to the mind of the All-Father depending on what you believe).

 

It’s not only the kitsch theme park side to Hedgewick’s and Webley’s World of Madness that seat them comfortably in Gaiman’s own weird, wonderful collection of settings, but the fact they’ve been discarded.

Like House, the TARDIS-eating sentient junkyard asteroid on which The Doctor’s Wife is set, Hedgewick’s is a place nobody goes any longer, a kingdom, like that of The Sandman’s Dream, fallen into disrepair. It’s all but abandoned, peopled only by a group of misfits either stranded there by accident or escaping from their real lives. Gaiman’s work takes place in the peripheral and liminal, in bubbles outside the universe (though nothing like that), inverted mirror-locations, places underneath, alongside, and hidden from the real world. Hedgewick’s is a vestige. To sum up: it’s more Gaiman than Gaiman.

“Get out of my head!”

Universe bubbles, junkyards and graveyards aside, there’s another location Gaiman’s stories flee to with some frequency: INT. Protagonist’s mind – Night. Nightmare in Silver’s ‘Mr Clever’ and the Doctor went to just such a hive/network to stage their mental battle, just as the outmoded deities of American Gods gathered in Odin’s brain space. Gaiman’s countless depictions of dream worlds in The Sandman or Anansi Boys are also variations on the all-inside-your-head theme.

The Doctor’s spell in the Dreamatorium with Evil Abed, sorry, the Cyber Planner in Nightmare in Silver shares similarities not only with the possession-by-ancient-God seen in Anansi Boys, but also Gaiman’s Who debut: The Doctor’s Wife. The device of one mind being forced into another, as ambitiously attempted by Matt Smith’s All of Me-meets-Gollum schizophrenia bit, is distantly reminiscent of Idris having the TARDIS matrix poured into her. Though like Webley’s chess-playing Cyberman, by the time the TARDIS met Idris she had already been deleted, leaving only an empty shell.

Emperor Ludins Nimrod Kendrick Cord Longstaff the 41st

If the locations of Nightmare in Silver fall in with Gaiman tradition, so too do the characters and their names. Rarely one to call a creation by anything so dull as an actual name, making ordinary nouns proper is part of Gaiman’s style. His fiction is populated by the likes of Door, Nobody, House, Dream, Shadow, and Wednesday, meaning that Porridge fits in a treat.

Porridge, the name of Warwick Davies’ character in the episode, is a clownish nickname hiding the noble lineage of Emperor Ludins Nimrod etc. etc. the 41st. That name, like the palimpsest monikers belonging to American Gods’ titular characters, brings history with it and harks back to a long dynasty. More importantly though, it’s also a punch line. Overlong and over-the-top, it pokes gentle fun at Imperial pomp, and brings to mind a key influence on Gaiman’s work: Douglas Adams. It’s a Zaphod Beeblebrox the Fourth kind of silliness.

The episode’s other names follow a similar pattern: Dave’s Discount Interstellar Removals, The Spacey Zoomer ride, and Nattie Longshoe’s Comical Castle all have hints of Adams and Terry Pratchett in their sense of humour.

Nightmare in Silver’s characters are typical of Gaiman because of their marginality. Like The Doctor’s Wife’s “patchwork people”, the Captain’s platoon is a misfit bunch. They’ve been sent to the edge of the universe as punishment for past transgressions, and ended up as a rag-tag, motley group not unlike Neverwhere’s Wizard of Oz-ish crew of Richard Mayhew, Door, Hunter, and the Marquis, or The Graveyard Book’s Bod, Scarlett, Silas and Miss Lupescu.

Traits are also shared between Nightmare in Silver’s characters and Gaiman’s previous creations. There are children who wander off – Coraline, Bod, and now Angie. There’s a character, Porridge, with a secret or double identity (we’ll avoid spoilers, but suffice to say, there are a ton of those in Gaiman’s writing), and then there’s Webley, the underused Jason Watkins, a sad out-of-time character in a frock coat and top hat, reminiscent of the lead in a story by Roald Dahl, which brings us to…

“This is like a moonbase or something”

Gaiman’s fiction never pretends to have sprung Athena-like, fully formed from its creator’s head, but acknowledges the many stories that have gone before it, sometimes explicitly, sometimes with allusion. Gaiman has retold fairy tales, borrowed existing characters from countless myths, and in the case of The Graveyard Book, taken another story – Kipling’s The Jungle Book - as structural and titular inspiration. If this was a big posh journal publication instead of an indulgent ramble about a single episode of Doctor Who, we’d be using the word ‘intertextuality’ about here.

Nightmare in Silver follows suit by referencing a number of stories, including early nods to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, not only with Webley’s Wonka-like get-up and the presence of the children, but also with the Doctor’s Golden Ticket, later used as a plot point.

Before that though, two words are spoken in Nightmare in Silver that tip a cap to another, much closer to home story. Upon landing at Hedgewick’s, Clara’s ward Angie remarks that the aforementioned Spacey Zoomer ride is “like a moonbase or something”, nodding to the 1967 Cybermen classic episode of precisely that name. Later on, mention of the Cyber tombs recalls The Tomb of the Cybermen, from the same year. More fun for classic Who fans were the regeneration portraits of Doctors past that flashed up inside Eleven’s head.

Also of note are the parallels to be drawn between the Emperor/Porridge and the character of the Doctor. Both are running from, and filled with guilt over their own planet-destroying genocidal war-winning act (one the obliteration of the Tiberian Spiral Galaxy, the other Gallifrey), both “feel like a monster sometimes”, and both have arguably “the loneliest job in the universe”.

“Anybody here play chess?”

On the subject of borrowing stuff from other sources, the central chess game in Nightmare In Silver no doubt rang a few bells. If you’re anything like me, those bells rang in the following order: Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey! No, wait, that Ingrid Bergman one! No, wait again, Ingmar Bergman! Then, remembering this article by the wonderful Aliya Whiteley mentioning a 1927 silent film called The Chess Player, in which “an inventor creates an automaton which conceals a Polish nobleman”, and thinking to myself, that Neil Gaiman, he’s quite the culture vulture isn’t he?

The specifics of chess aside, Gaiman’s stories are fond of basing a grave outcome on an act of whimsy. The Doctor and Mr Clever play chess for access to Time Lord memories, just as Shadow gambles his life on a game of checkers in American Gods.

“We all die in the end, does it matter how?”

Not for nothing was Gaiman’s original episode title the elegiac The Last Cyberman. Death, it’s fair to say, is not only a recurring character, but a preoccupation of Gaiman’s storytelling. Despite the Doctor’s insistence that “nobody dies” in Nightmare in Silver, the story is weighted by the deaths of “a billion, trillion dead people”, and the potential sacrifice of more, had that Imperial ship not swept in at the last moment to save the day.

We could go on, pointing out similarities and drawing parallels, but we’ve all probably homes to go to. Let’s finish off then, after tracing a few of the Gaiman traits in the latest Doctor Who, by flipping the coin, and hearing from the man himself how much Doctor Who has influenced him:

“I think it’s impossible for me to say because I have no idea. There’s no control out there. I can’t actually ever get to meet the Neil Gaiman who, at the age of three, wasn’t watching Doctor Who, or at the age of four, wasn’t imagining how things could be bigger on the inside, or at the age of five, wasn’t buying a copy or persuading his father to buy a copy of the Dalek World annual and taking it home and studying it to learn all about Daleks, and discovering that Daleks couldn’t see the colour red, and then worrying about the red Daleks and wondering if they were invisible to their friends.

Doctor Who was the first mythology that I learned, before ever I ran into Greek or Roman or Egyptian mythologies. I knew that TARDIS stood for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. I knew that the TARDIS had a food machine that made things that looked like Mars bars, but tasted like bacon and eggs. It was all part of what I knew, as a kid. I still have the battered copy of David Whitaker’s Doctor Who and the Daleks, that I had as a kid, with terrible illustrations. So, I don’t know, but I do know that it’s been hugely influential on the shape of my head and how I see things. And I know that I feel ridiculously comfortable in that universe, and that I will keep going back, as long as they’ll have me...”

Read more from that Nightmare in Silver interview at Collider.

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