Doctor Who series 7: Nightmare In Silver review

Neil Gaiman's second Doctor Who story brings in the Cybermen. Here's our spoiler-filled take on Nightmare In Silver...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

Nightmare In Silver

We wonder if, having got to the end of Nightmare In Silver, that there’s a core of Doctor Who fans who categorise the episode as ‘not the one we expected’. We’d probably put ourselves in that camp too to an extent. We’re not quite sure what we thought we were going to get when it was revealed that Neil Gaiman was reinventing the Cybermen. But Nightmare In Silver feels a little different, which is mainly a positive thing here.

The whole episode, after all, was bathed in sci-fi. The setting of a futuristic theme park – Hedgewick’s World Of Wonders here (which, by the map, looked like it would be an ace day out) – with exhibits going wrong certainly helped the late Michael Crichton on more than one occasion. Meanwhile, the legacy of Doctor Who, and the Cybermen in particular, is a clear reference point for the latest take on the silver soldiers (with even a drop of Willy Wonka added in). In reworking the Cybermen that John Lumic (okay, Trigger) put his own spin on in 2006, Gaiman has dipped right back to their earlier days. Back to the last point, arguably, when the Cybermen were still able to get under your skin (hello, Tomb Of The Cybermen!).

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So let’s deal with the Cybermen first. For such an iconic Doctor Who monster, they’ve always struck us as one of the least scary in recent times, if nonetheless good fun to watch (nobody hid behind the sofa at the end of The Next Doctor, after all). In fact, the most creepy we can recall them being, without digging right back into the deep throes of Who, was in the form of a single cyber arm back in The Pandorica Opens.

Gaiman doesn’t really increase the fright factor per se – although there are some nice creepy moments with a single Cyberman, which means we’re inevitably reaching for a slight Dalek comparison – but he does make the Cybermen a more effective threat. They’re faster, a bit more brutal, and not averse to a good software patch. At one stage, impressive director Stephen Woolfenden puts together an excellent sequence demonstrating this, really effectively weaving in speed and slow motion.

As well as a visual spruce up, Gaiman’s script is keen to upgrade the Cybermen in other ways. You can’t help but feel the influence of the Borg from Star Trek in here, too (although some have long argued that the Borg were derived to some degree from Cybermen anyway). A Cyberman who adapts and upgrades to specific threats might feel familiar, but it certainly works in terms of making them feel less beatable. And, more to the point, like a desperate act is needed to ultimately defeat them.

The cybermites help here too, which, nostalgia aside, seem a lot more useful than the cybermats of old. The highlight, though, might just be a Cyberman taking off his head to gain a tactical advantage. A brilliant touch, albeit one not likely to be to the liking of Who traditionalists. The head swivel might just come in useful on the dance floor, mind.

But Nightmare In Silver has a lot more in the tank than just Cybermen, and for all the light touches, it’s bookended by darkness. It picks up from last week’s cliffhanger, with Clara’s two young charges jumping aboard the TARDIS for a grand day out. If you were fearing young companions here, then said worries were soon smoothed over. Artie and Angie proved to be a component of the story (not least harking back to the Daleks’ realisation that children have untapped ingenuity, as seen in Remembrance Of The Daleks), rather than the driving force of it.

They certainly didn’t feel in the foreground once they’d had their ‘upgrades’, and given the Doctor and Clara something to fight for (save for rumbling Porridge). And youngsters Eve de Leon Allen and Kassius Carey Johnson emerge with credit.

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The bit that didn’t work quite as well for us though was the extended chess game between Matt Smith and Borg Matt Smith. We’re paid up fans, warts and all, of Superman III (yep, really), and the idea of a character basically wrestling with himself and his thoughts is an effective one. But here, it’s an awful, awful lot to ask of any actor in such a short space of time, even of the calibre of Matt Smith, and it didn’t quite work for us.

Look at the Bond reboot, Casino Royale. The centrepiece of that movie is a surprisingly patient, and relatively quiet, game of cards, in the midst of a major action movie that otherwise has no shortage of pace. There’s space to establish tension, unknowns and a sense of danger. Because Gaiman is cramming so much into Nightmare In Silver, the consequence is that the game of chess feels rushed, and Matt Smith is having to zoom through a trip into his mind (with welcome pictures of his predecessors), whilst conveying two different characters, in effect. It feels like it needed more space, and to an extent to fully work, that means it’s sheer ambition that just slightly tempers the episode. It’s no bad thing to be criticised for, but we guess it’s still a criticism.

What really did work was the casting of Warwick Davis. His performance for the most part here is wonderfully understated, and it means that even if you guessed the twist for his character coming some way out, it didn’t really matter. His was a haunting, satisfying and utterly believable character, who you couldn’t help but buy into. He paints pictures of darkness right near the start of the episode, migrating from a chess computer to a man weighed down by the necessities of battle. Not every character in this one gets fully fleshed out as much as we’d like, but Porridge is excellent, and we hope his contract allows for a return in the future.

What’s perhaps most surprising of all about Nightmare In Silver though is just how brutal the ending is. It might not feel that way when you first watch it, but on later consideration, it’s a massively drastic measure that’s needed to beat the Cybermen. The days of Ace with her catapult are long gone.

Early in the episode, there’s horror at the thought of basically destroying a galaxy to wipe out the Cybermen (cue Porridge’s haunting and prescient speech about it’s not all those that died he feels for, but the person who had to press the button). Furthermore, when the idea of imploding the planet is first mooted by Tamzin Outhwaite’s Captain, it’s clearly marked as a no-go.

But these Cybermen are no ordinary foes anymore, and feel far removed from the ones so easily battered by the Daleks in Doomsday. We’re not quite at the Genesis Of The Daleks level here, where Tom Baker’s Doctor basically has the chance to make sure his even-more infamous foes had never existed. But it’s not too far away: an entire planet is sacrificed. The needs of the many proving clearly more important than the few.

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That’s dark storytelling, and Gaiman deserves enormous credit for the way he tackles it, and the fact that he doesn’t swerve a difficult decision. At teatime-ish on a Saturday, too. As a consequence,  the most steel on demonstration in Nightmare In Silver wasn’t Cyber technology. It was the Doctor, and Warwick Davis’ Emperor.

A real carnival of an episode this, then. By the nature of who wrote it, some comparisons with The Doctor’s Wife are inevitable, but Nightmare In Silver is a very different beast. It’s not as strong perhaps, but then The Doctor’s Wife already feels like a bit of a modern classic. And Nightmare In Silver doesleaves plenty in the mind to think about.

Surprisingly, given that it’s the series finale next week, Nightmare In Silver didn’t really feel like it was leading up to something bigger, with the mystery of Clara, of example, firmly taking a backseat. Instead, it felt like an episode with very few ongoing series threads to it at all, in truth. Granted, the Doctor’s obsession with Clara is reinforced, but little is added to it. It’s going to be a busy 45 minutes next week.

That said, this is still a very good episode, and it’s worth having a second watch to pick up some of the lovely nods to Who past that have been fused in. That should help pass the time too as we head to The Name Of The Doctor, which promises – on the surface at least – to answer a question not many people appear to be asking. We suspect Mr Moffat might just have something up his sleeve there, though.

If he can tap up Mr Gaiman for another episode too, that’d be appreciated…

See also: where does Nightmare In Silver fit amongst Neil Gaiman’s work?

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