“Target audience will hate it.”
“Who's the target audience?”
“People with eyes.”
TV So yes, that was rubbish. This exchange between Ben Affleck’s CIA operative and John Goodman’s fantasy film make-up man when asking about the quality of the work in the film Argo has been making me giggle for days partly because of the delivery but mostly because of how it satirically comments on the nature of some fantasy filmmaking and the assumption that people who like fantasy lack discernibility genes. Inevitably, as Neil Gaiman’s Nightmare in Steel unfolded, that quote wandered into my brain, not unlike the Cyber-Planner, and lodged itself there. Because wow, that was wow, and I don’t mean wow as in The Doctor’s Wife, I mean wow, how the hell did that happen?
The previewer’s word of mouth has admittedly not been good. Radio Times is especially scathing in this week’s ish, but friends “in the industry” had intimated things and so I’m willing to open up the potential, and just the potential mind, that I was watching it expecting a fail and it’s also true I did notice a few good things which will at least make it rewatchable. It was not episodes two to four of The Space Museum. It was not Time-Flight. It was not Timelash. It was not most of the first two series of Torchwood. It was not Torchwood’s Miracle Day. But as an example of the series taking its various elements and becoming the show that we fans spend more time than we should complaining that it’s not, it was just about perfectly crafted.
The kids! Oh damn, no, please no. It’s not fair to criticise child actors, so I won’t, but having only vaguely been set up in The Bells of St John and last week’s epilogue, we’re led to believe in between that the Doctor’s not only agreed to carry them in the TARDIS but taken them to this planet. But rather than amazed by the fact they’ve just been in a box which is bigger on the inside and gone through time and space, they’re bored and moody. You know that show in Twelve Monkey’s when Bruce Willis’s younger version is amazed at the concept of an airport all boggle eyed. See also Jurassic Park. Not bored. Boredom leads to an entirely lack of empathy. Imagine if the kids from The Sarah Janes Adventures had offered this reaction.
Having entirely not bothered to make them sympathetic figures in any kind of meaningful way, they’re then given the narrative agency of a third companion, inevitably becoming someone captured for the Doctor to save. But unlike a Jackie Tyler, they’re not especially funny because they’re being written as the kinds of kids who appear in these kinds of roles in this kind of drama so they’re literally just there to be saved and trespass and do all of tedious things that third wheel companions often do. Arguably, this is meant to contrast with Clara perhaps, who as we’ve discussed is in essence the “perfect companion” but I’m as bored with this paragraph as they are with being on an alien planet so I’ll move on.
The Cybermen! Oh Cyberman. Nightmare in Steel (and my brain really wants to put an indefinite article in front of that title) is supposed to be the big reboot for these monsters, the upgrade from the Cybus Industries models that have populated the series since series two. The upgrade seems to be to Borgify them even further, with Cybermites which act like the wiring that enters the body in Star Trek: First Contact, a Cyber-Planner who instantly co-opts an existing body and borrows its knowledge ala Locutus and who mass in great armies around castles. Sorry, that's Orcs, but my point is that in upgrading the Cybermen, Gaiman’s ironically drained even more of their individuality.
I had hoped that we might have had some kind of definitive suggestion that we were watching the original Mondasian Cybermen but instead we were given some new back-story reminiscent of the old Big Finish audio spin-off with its massive space battle and empire except the old Big Finish audio spin-off recognised their roots. Instead, the only Cyberperson allowed a modicum of individuality or character is still the Controller/Planner, which is arguably to some extent also true in the past but at least most of them were capable of philosophically speaking up for themselves when required and with something other than, “Installing upgrade” or some such.
But it’s a measure of a script overflowing with too many ideas, that it’s one notionally interesting thought, Cyberman as The Silver Turk, is dispensed with relatively quickly, so it’s lucky that an Eighth Doctor audio, The Silver Turk exists to do something with it instead. But everything about these models feels derivative, with the detachable hands all but doing the job of the absent Cybermats and a 180 head turn beat which is almost an exact repeat of a similar Dalek manoeuvre from Dalek. The design is grand, but doesn’t work at all well as part of the static, pin like CGI hoards hoards ring the castle later in the episode. Is just having one of them turning to the camera, clenching a fist and saying “Excellent” too much to ask for?
The script! As I’ve intimated this is a script in which the writer has had several dozen ideas and decided to cram them all in leaving them mostly underdeveloped, handing ammunition to those fans who believe that the forty-five minute episode doesn’t work. In this case, I’d agree, it doesn’t. But there’s enough mileage in the idea of an abandoned whimsical theme park with its creepy attendant alone to fill forty-five minutes yet here it simply to becomes a backdrop for the travails of a punishment platoon (did we actually hear what crimes they’d apparently committed?) (if we did it was pretty much thrown away), who’re then backgrounded in favour of the Doctor’s Gollum-like battle for control of his own brain.
Sometimes the story idea pile-up, some might say shopping list, can work. It was the engine that powered plenty of the RTD era (werewolves, kung fu monks and Queen Victoria?), but more often than not they seemed to integrate better than this. The Doctor’s All of Me moments could and should have been at the centre of a tense, otherwise low key episode, perhaps even a two or three hander, one which would have made more of his brilliant lapses into impressions of his earlier incarnations, existential discussions about the nature of time and of Clara, something in the region of The Girl Who Waited. Instead, it’s at the nucleus of another rather tedious Lord of the Rings knock-off. Oh, wow, I really hated this, didn’t I?
But there’s no excuse either for how undernourished most of these characters are (though to be fair, that’s been an element of this whole series to some extent, especially Cold War). In The Doctor’s Wife, the characters of Auntie and Uncle were simplistic because they were fulfilling a narrative function, whereas Porridge is supposed to be a dimensional character we sympathise with, almost everything about him is carried by Warwick Davies’s charm and as Patrick Mulkern notes at the Radio Times, nothing about his character makes much sense. As president of the galaxy, just why is he hiding out in the torso of a defunct Cyberman on this dead planet? The tedium of power? Oh purlease.
Actually you should probably go read Mulkern’s review. It just about captures everything and it’ll save me repeating him. He’s right about Tamzin Outhwaite too. Once touted as a potential companion by Tom Baker for himself back in the day, here she’s called upon to play the poor cousinof Iain Glenn’s Octavian from The Time of the Angels or General Cobb from The Doctor’s Daughter (a comparison not helped by the barracks quite obviously being filmed in Newbridge Memorial Hall which was main backdrop to that episode). Perhaps given one of the more offhand major supporting character deaths in recent years, this was also an example of the series wasting some good casting and acting on an underwritten character. See also Jason “Webley” Watkins.
Reading back through all of that, because the process of writing this is making me depressed and I want to stop soon, it is possible that I’m damning it for being Doctor Who. Many of the same criticisms could be levelled at most of the Cybermen’s appearances in the 60s and Gaiman could be to some extent presenting his homage to all of that, albeit with much more whimsical tastes (the design of the Planner's prosthesis is reminiscent of the sculptural version from The Invasion). The problem is we’ve also had over three decades of evolution, upgrades, if you like, in-between, and it’s surprising to be handed something this unsophisticated in a lot of ways in the eleventies. Some should have handed him a copy of Nick Brigg’s Sword of Orion during the writing process to give him some indication of how to make the Cybermen really scary.
Nevertheless, despite all of this, it’s only fair for me to suggest a couple of positives. Matt really does work his socks off in the episode creating two distinct personalities (in contrast to The Almost People were his work was much subtler playing versions of the same). He’s not helped by the direction and editing though. Like I said, a big moment, like his impressions of the earlier incarnations should have been clearer. When he offering us his Eccleston, I thought initially he was taking the piss out of Clara. Plus the visit to the interior of his brain really disappointed (despite the appearance of many of the publicity shots from the classic series page with the wrong logo on the BBC website), mostly because it resorted, as the show so often does now, to CGI, when lighting effects can often be just as effective if not moreso.
Oh, that paragraph ended up being two thirds of criticism. Oh, um, I know Jenna-Louise. Jenna-Louise was excellent, wasn’t she, somehow managing to convince us that she could take charge of an army with little or no preparation and without the apparently nervousness of early Rose in taking charge. You could argue that it’s inconsistent with the person walking around in Cold War, but we don’t actually know how long she’s been travelling with the Doctor (especially as with Amy and Rory earlier in the season they're not having consecutive adventures – she goes home at the end). But it could also be part of the notion of her being this impossible girl. The perfect companion able to do what he tells her to, capable of anything he tells her to.
Weirdly, all things considered, Nightmare in Silver had some of the best scenes we've had between these characters, him trying to keep his obsession with her strictly "professional", she apparently not really understanding what he's about or sure why she's travelling with him. Perhaps the audience might have warmed to her if they'd been allowed to spend more time together rather than being constantly separated; it's certainly true that all of the best scenes in this run have been when they've been together, but rather like the Turlough problem, there's only so long that they can be in scenes together before the Pink Elephant delegate in the Third Intergalactic Peace Conference becomes too obvious to ignore.
One week to go then. Who is Clara? I’ve seen theories as wild and wacky as “She’s the Doctor.” “She’s the Master.” “She’s the offspring of the Doctor and River.” I’m still on the side of her being some kind of perfect companion figure created for reasons unknown, by persons unknown and scattered across time and space like Scaroth or Bad Wolf, ready to be scooped up by the Doctor, who’ll find her intriguing. Her decision-making abilities and general nouse are far superior to most of the Doctor’s companions and even to him in some ways and at key points in the series. But we’ve no real sense of the interior of the character. She rarely talks about herself, how she feels. She’s almost robotic. Dalek agent?
Now, there’s always the possibility, possibly that when I rewatch A Nightmare in Silver, I’ll like it a whole lot more. People whose opinion I trust have said they thought it was an excellent piece of work and they really enjoyed it which at this point means I’m in the rare state of being on the other side of the argument for a change. After slamming Planet of the Ood mercilessly on the night of broadcast, I warmed to its charms later if only because of Catherine Tate’s performance rather than the pointless chase scene. But at this point, just as Neil Cross was capable of Hide and then The Rings of Arkadin (as I’ve taken to calling it because it’s easier), Neil Gaiman is capable of The Doctor’s Wife and then Nightmare in Silver. Oh dear.