Monday, May 13, 2013

Doctor Who: Nightmare in Silver

Regular readers of my scribblings will be aware that I am a massive fan of the Cybermen. Always have been. For me, the background and ethos of them is far more interesting than that of the Daleks, and they have tended (until the new series unfortunately) to be well handled in the context of the series. I love the sixties stories, and even 'Revenge of the Cybermen' is good if you can overlook the fact that the logical creatures would not understand the concept of 'revenge'.

It wasn't until 'Silly Nemesis' (which I insist on calling the 25th anniversary story 'Silver Nemesis') that it all went a bit wrong for them, with a script that just wasn't up to par, and then in the new series, they reinvented them as robots, not even from Earth, but from a parallel dimension ... and now with this latest story they're back again.  Of course, 'Nightmare in Silver' is written by Neil Gaiman - who is a friend and a writer I greatly respect - and he is also a self-confessed fan of the creatures. I wonder then where it all went wrong.

I suspect it is something to do with the scripting and rewriting process, that some ideas get jettisoned and some end up half-formed and half-baked, the overall result being something of an echo of what the author intended. And here we have an echo indeed, a hint of what could have been a much better story ... and indeed, the opening seems to have been lifted from a Big Finish drama called The Silver Turk, written by Marc Platt. Poor Marc must be fuming at the gills. First they take his Big Finish adventure Spare Parts and use it as the basis for 'Age of Steel'/'Rise of the Cybermen'. Now they take his idea of a Cyberman being part of an automated chess-playing machine, and he gets no credit or involvement. You can see my review of the audio here - - overall I found it disappointing, but the conceptual use of the Cybermen in it is good. Why can't Marc be asked to write for the show himself rather than just borrow his ideas?

The Doctor, along with Clara and two annoying kids - Artie and Angie - arrive at a place called Hedgewick's World - a fantastic amusement planet, and the Doctor has a gold ticket to the park. But it's closed and dead. So why didn't he arrive when it was operational? There's no suggestion at the moment that the Doctor can't control the TARDIS, so this seems a little strange. But for a dead world, there's a lot of people there! There's an army platoon run by Tamzin Outhwaite off of Red Cap, the vampire cop from Being Human as Webley, the owner of a waxworks sideshow, and the wonderful Warwick Davis off of Idiot Abroad and Life's Too Short as a character called Porridge!

So why are they all here? Not sure on that one. Webley shows off his exhibit to the Doctor and friends, and reveals an empty Cyberman shell which plays chess, controlled by Porridge sitting underneath ... so given that the place is deserted, how long has he been sitting there? And what do any of these people eat or drink or otherwise do all day? It's all very puzzling.

But there is something else there too: lots of little silver insect things, which are marvellous indeed. I love the idea of this: small little cybermites as the Doctor christens them, with audio and video capabilities, and something is watching them all.

Apparently Webley has three Cybermen in his collection, and these all look to be more like the Cybus-men from the parallel dimension. A shame they couldn't have been a mishmash of older costumes though. But then, unexpectedly, Webley is grabbed by his chess-playing shell (how? It's a shell!) and the cybermites get into him and part-convert him into a Cyberman. I'm not sure why the process stopped or why it didn't continue as the episode went on, but he stays like this for the rest of the time.

So now, the Doctor puts the kids to bed in the waxworks place and goes off to explore. So this is an alien planet, and he knows something's going on, but he leaves them there! Why not put them to bed in the TARDIS? Much safer ... Or just take them home.

Anyway, everyone eventually ends up at the barracks with the Soldiers, including the very annoying Angie, and suddenly there's a Cyberman there. It moves fast, like in The Matrix, and grabs Angie and is off!  Nothing can stop these new Cybermen, and for some reason they now sound like the Judoon. But this element is never used again, instead the Cybermen stomp around slowly for the remainder of the story. Maybe they forgot about this 'upgrade'.

Everyone thought the Cybermen were extinct, but now there is a live one on the planet. Sounds like they therefore need to blow the planet up with a handy implosion device the Army have. But the Doctor doesn't want the planet blown up just yet. He puts Clara in charge while he heads off to investigate. Clara therefore decides that the most defensible area is Netty Longshoe's Comical Castle, so they all head off there.

The Doctor finds a cybermite, hooks into a local transmit signal and transmits himself to Cyber-HQ, which does look very impressive. But where the heck is it? Hidden somewhere on the planet I guess, and looking very nicely like the Tombs in 'Tomb of the Cybermen' from the sixties.

The two kids (now in a Cyber-coma) and Webley are there, and Webley is speaking on behalf of the CyberPlanner - they need the children to use to build a new planner as their brains are better for this. But now they have the Doctor, they don't need the kids. He goes on to explain that the Cyberiad brought damaged Cyber-units to the park, to repair using any organics they could harvest, and now they want to create a new Planner. He throws some cybermites at the Doctor, and he is transformed into Locutus of Borg ... sorry, wrong series.

This is where it starts to all go wrong really ... the Doctor and the Planner set up dual conversations where both seem too like the Doctor for it to be convincing. Why isn't the Planner cold and unemotional ... instead he leaps around like the Doctor, using all his language and words and actions ... while the Doctor - in his own head at least - seems cold and collected. All very strange.

Now we see more Cybermen, and they start to kill/convert the soldiers. The army has one gun (with about 12 blasts left) a few hand pulsars (which will disable a Cyberman if you apply them to the back of their heads, assuming you can get close enough) and a bomb to implode the planet. Meanwhile the Doctor decides to play chess with the Planner, the winner getting the Doctor's brain. Except that the Doctor knows that earlier Cybermen Operating Systems had weaknesses due to cleaning fluid and gold, and the present OS still has elements of the earlier versions ... and so he slaps the gold ticket he has on his face and stops the Planner controlling him.

What utter rubbish. If you're going to reuse an old monster, at least get your facts right. The cleaning fluid reference, I assume, is to the story 'The Moonbase' when the Doctor's companions use a mixture of solvents to soften and dissolve the plastic in the creatures' chest units, suffocating them - nothing to do with Operating Systems! And the reference to gold is to 'Revenge of the Cybermen' wherein powdered gold clogs and coats their breathing system - so again nothing to do with Operating Systems. The Doctor putting a gold ticket on his face would make no difference to the CyberPlanner whatsoever.

And the Cybermen are not robots! So why can they take their heads off? And why does choreographer Ailsa Berk make them all walk and move like robots? Someone should sit her down and explain exactly what they are - humanoid bodies encased in metal shells. This is the biggest issue here - the creatures look fabulous, but they move all wrong, and are stompy again when they should be silent (or maybe reintroduce the weird buzzing noise from 'The Wheel in Space' or something). Anyone watching this story and not knowing the history would come away thinking the Cybermen are robots ... in which case why do they need the humans? And when there is a CyberPlanner anyway, why do they need to build another? And why do they need the Doctor's permission to do that? Why all the internal and external dialogue and arguing about it? Why would the Planner consent to a deal with the Doctor? That's not logical. They would just take what they wanted.

Moreover we learn that there are three million Cybermen on the planet. Three million! That's an awful lot of humans that have gone missing then ... no wonder the Fairground went downhill. And these Cybermen can upgrade themselves against electrocution and against the big blasty gun thing - they are just like the Borg from Star Trek (to be fair, the Borg were based on the Cybermen in the first place, so this is just Doctor Who returning the favour!) 

So ... for reasons I missed, the CyberPlanner releases the two kids from their Cyber-coma, and the Doctor makes the whole Cyber-mind think about a chess problem, causing them all - all three million of them - to stop mid-attack. Eh? This is Douglas Adams territory here (cv the Heart of Gold computer being asked why Arthur likes tea). The Cybermen are not a hive mind. They have always operated independently from each other ... so what's all this about? It's reinvention for the sake of ...

In the middle of the confusion of three million Cybermen attacking half a dozen humans (Why did they bother to attack them at all? And why build three million Cybermen but no spaceship to take them off-planet? No wonder they need a new CyberPlanner!) the Doctor gets rid of the Planner in his head with a jolt of electricity, Porridge is revealed as the missing Emperor (don't ask), he primes the planet-imploding bomb, and they all transmit to his spaceship which is in orbit (again, don't ask - if it was so easy for the humans to escape all along ...)  The Doctor asks for the TARDIS to be transmatted too.

And the planet explodes. Note that it explodes. Not implodes like everyone told us it would. Obviously someone in effects didn't read the script closely enough.

We close with Porridge asking Clara to marry him ... and she answers in her curious stilted not-real, chirpy way from earlier stories: 'I. Don't. Want. To rule. One Thousand. Galaxies.'  Grief ... *shakes head*

So the Doctor returns the kids and Clara home, and pontificates on her skirt being tight (very un-Doctorly) before we see a bit of Cyber-flashing light on the planet's debris ... perhaps they're not all destroyed after all. *Cue too loud and intrusive dramatic music by Murray Gold*

Okay ... so I've gone on a bit there about how badly the Cybermen have been handled ... and it's only because I care, and it's a shame when the script would seem to need a further polish - or perhaps less interference from elsewhere - to really make it all work and be coherent.

There's a great story struggling to escape here ... The Doctor and Clara could arrive on the blasted holiday world, expecting it to be all active, but it's not. In the wreckage they could find Webley with his remnants, and among them a lone Cyberman. Clara could give it power by mistake, and it vanishes, going underground to a vast Cyber-storehouse where it activates the Planner, and the Cybermen start making plans to emerge and conquer once more. Other characters could be there too - maybe some partially converted people taken from when the Fairground was active - Or we could have the Army people arrive to explore (shades of 'Tomb of the Cybermen' or even the Clerics from the Angels/River Song story in the crashed spaceship - the Bysantium was it?)  There's any number of ways that a story and ideas can be spun so that they actually make sense, show plot development and character interest, and lead to the same end-game - having to destroy the planet to kill the Cybermen off.

We really don't need the two kids - they add nothing to the drama, and do nothing anyway. And the CyberPlanner is really badly handled. Even 'The Invasion' with its collection of flashing plastic cups and rotating clothes dryer device is better than this vague Doctor-talking-to-Doctor approach.

A CyberPlanner. Yesterday.
But all this is conjecture. Overall I did enjoy much about 'Nightmare in Silver', but it's too fast and flashy for it to really work for me as a story. The Cybermen are disappointing - and moreso after the hype that they would be scary again, and move silently and so on. They're just not. I'm afraid that for me, this wasn't a Nightmare at all ... more an entertaining diversion. Other plus points are Warwick Davis, who is simply superb! And Jason Watkins as Webley is also really good - until he becomes a Cyberpawn, when he stands around and doesn't do much.

I like the look of the Cybermen, and I even like the idea that they can upgrade to overcome things. I loved the Cybermites, and the idea that the Cyberman's hand could operate independently of the body ... but all these individual elements need a strong plot and script to bind them together. And that, unfortunately, was what the episode didn't have.


Anonymous said...

Isn't it one of the Vogans (Tyrum I think) who uses the line "the revenge of the Cybermen"? And even he may only have been using it figuratively. To the Cybermen, the destruction of Voga may be simply strategic, but to the Vogans it may seem like their revenge.

Mark said...

Worst episode ever. Utterly stank. How could this be Gaiman, the man who gave us The Doctor's Wife? Really didn't like the rather sadistically chauvinistic tone of the female characters being killed off.