In every series of Doctor Who, there comes a time when an old enemy must be revisited. Though the second half of Series 7 would seem to have fulfilled this requirement with “Cold War,” the episode focused on the Ice Warrior Skaldak, it was decided that Neil Gaiman‘s episode would be about the classic Cybermen. This had me worried for several reasons. In almost every episode of New Who that has featured these baddies, their stories have been near carbon copies of one another. They have been characterized by a lack of imagination in terms of plotting, and little to no evolution of the Cybermen themselves. Which is why “Nightmare in Silver“ was, hands down, the best Cyberman episode that we have had in a long, long time (as well as one of the best episodes of Who overall).
Neil Gaiman has said that the Cybermen had always been one of the scariest Who villains of his childhood. For this episode, he was tasked with restoring them to their former creepy glory, and succeeded admirably. These new Cybermen have lost the clanking, steampunk nature inherent in their previous iterations, and have become creatures of evolution. Reminiscent of the quickly-evolving tech industry of today, they adapt almost instantaneously to new weapons and obstacles and send out updates to every single soldier with the “patch.”
The episode takes place on a theme park planet called Hedgewick’s World of Wonders that was destroyed while humans battled Cybermen thousands of years prior. The Cybermen were vanquished, at the cost of the galaxy that they had inhabited. The entire galaxy that the Cybermen took over was obliterated. Scientific improbability aside, this is a new reaction to the Cyber threat – the futuristic version of total war. It shows ruthlessness – and a certain selflessness – present in the future human race that we have not seen often in Who.
The Doctor takes Clara, as well as Angie and Artie – the two children for whom Clara is nanny – to the theme park, not expecting the devastation they find. A few soldiers remain on the planet to guard against a potential resurgence of their old foe. They also encounter a chess master with dwarfism named Porridge (played by Warwick Davis), who operates a seemingly defunct Cyberman to frighten people. The group readies to leave, but the Doctor decides last-minute to investigate the strange metal bugs infesting the place. These turn out to be Cybermites – tinier versions of the classic Cybermats – and partially convert Angie and Artie into walking coma patients, to be used to build more Cybermen later. And then the ‘mites find the Doctor.
This is when Matt Smith shines as an actor. He is partially converted into the leader of the Cybermen, or the Cyberplanner, because of his extraordinary mind. However, the Doctor is strong, and a battle for supremacy over his body and brain ensues. The marvelous interior of the Doctor’s consciousness – where Doctor and Cyberplanner threaten and snarl at each other – is split between golden Gallifreyan lettering (on the Doctor’s side) and electric blue energy (on the Cyberplanner’s side). Finally, the two agree to play a game of chess for control over the Doctor’s body. Throughout this scene, Smith switches back and forth between Doctor and Cyberplanner (who has christened himself Mr. Clever), a seemingly endless dance of two incredibly intelligent foes. The two are simultaneously polar opposites and completely indistinguishable from one another, which was a frightening choice on Smith’s part and only emphasized his incredible acting prowess.
Mr. Clever is temporarily incapacitated when the Doctor slaps a golden ticket onto the circuitry on his face, because apparently the Cybermen still haven’t fixed that annoying weakness to gold and cleaning fluids. Meanwhile, Clara has taken charge of the soldiers – who turn out to be a nearly incompetent punishment platoon – as Cybermen reawaken from beneath the surface of the world. She and her motley army station themselves in a castle surrounded by a moat, and take stock of their resources: one gigantic anti-Cyber gun; five hand pulsers which, when placed on the back of a Cyberman’s head, render them inert; and a bomb that has the capacity to blow up the planet. The Doctor joins Clara shortly with Angie and Artie in tow (still comatose yet able to walk). Clara ties him to a chair so that he can finish his chess game with Mr. Clever, then goes off to muster her troops.
I absolutely loved the gigantic horde of Cybermen that assaults the castle. The Cybermen are much more terrifying as a huge, inescapable mass. The battle takes a very fast, very sharp turn for the worse, and the only woman who can activate the planet-destroying bomb is killed. Nonetheless, the tiny group of people left take on three million extraordinarily powerful metal men and manage to hold their own for a short amount of time. Of course, there comes the inevitable moment when their weapons fail them, and Clara, Porridge, and the last three soldiers left alive are pressed up against a wall as the Cybermen close in, death stomping towards them with the inevitability of a nightmare…and then the Doctor tells Mr. Clever that he knows how to win the chess game in three moves, despite appearing to be losing. The Cyberplanner, puzzled at this declaration, accesses the processing power of the three million Cybermen in order to solve the conundrum. In doing so he completely incapacitates them. This allows Clara and the others to escape.
The Doctor destroys Mr. Clever using a hand pulser pressed to his face, but the three million Cybermen are back on the march. And then Porridge reveals himself to be the lost Emperor Nimrod Kendrick Cord Longstaff XLI, ruler of known space. He is able to activate the bomb while teleporting every surviving human, along with the TARDIS, to a spaceship far enough away for them to safely watch as the planet implodes upon itself.
And that was the only part of the episode that disappointed me. This ending was just a little too Wizard of Oz. With a click of the heels, our protagonists were out of harm’s way, and the problem had disappeared with almost no effort. In the end, the Cybermen were not defeated through a clever plan or a noble sacrifice. Yes, the fact that the Emperor destroyed the planet meant that he couldn’t shirk his duties any longer, and had to go back to ruling a universe. Poor him. Once safely back in his spaceship, he proposes to Clara – somewhat out-of-the-blue – but she declines graciously.
So, in summary: I thought that Nightmare in Silver was an exceedingly well-written episode delivered by master of the craft Neil Gaiman that had some of the best pacing we have seen in an episode of this season, as well as creativity of plot and setting that dazzled. The Cybermen were scary once more, and Matt Smith had an incredible opportunity to prove himself as the brilliant actor that he is. Clara showed her mettle yet again as she took charge of her situation as commander without batting an eyelid, Warwick Davis was wonderful as the endearing Porridge, and did I mention that Matt Smith’s acting was absolutely fantastic? Many expected Nightmare in Silver to be a sophomore slump after the success of The Doctor’s Wife, but the two were so different that the comparison is difficult to make. (The Doctor’s Wife will forever remain my favorite episode of all time, but Nightmare in Silver is a close contender for second place.) While the ending could have been more satisfying and Angie and Artie’s roles seemed like an afterthought, the episode was an overall success, and I enjoyed it tremendously.