Monday, 29 September 2014

Nightmare in Silver written by Neil Gaiman and directed by Stephen Woolfenden

This story in a nutshell: The Cybermen are back…

Nutty Professor: One of Gaiman’s advertising promises for his episode was that he wanted to have written a part for Matt Smith that would secure him an BAFTA next year which shows a real confidence in both the lead actor and his own writing. Unfortunately on this occasion neither are quite up to scratch. Gaiman writes a battle of wills between the Doctor and the Cyberplanner that should have tested the Time Lord to his psychological limits (he can’t really do that anyway because Simon Nye pulled that one off in Amy’s Choice when the Doctor butted heads with a far more formidable opponent) but instead what we get is a schizophrenic evaluation of his character which seems to suggest that the Doctor is actually some horribly sexist old letch. In Steven Moffat’s world, maybe, but not mine (there was an interesting note in The Writer’s Tale where RTD notes that Moffat cannot help but write his characters as sexual beings, which might be another reason why he feels a little out of character on occasion during this era). ‘Squeezed into a skirt that’s just a little to tight…ummm.’ Worse, Matt Smith doesn’t seem to be quite up to the task of pulling this acting feat off and the scenes of the two ‘Doctors’ arguing get tedious very quickly but pollutes practically the entire episode. What worried me initially was that I preferred the darker, more menacing Cyberplanner Doctor than the usual goofball that we are travelling the universe with of late. I like my Doctor to have a touch of darkness to him but of late he seems to be channelling Mr Magorium from the Wonder Emporium; all flapping arms, silly tricks and magical twirls of the sonic screwdriver and very little substance. But before long the menacing Doctor starts channelling Angie, all petulance and tantrums. Ban Matt Smith from ever playing his predecessors again, it’s abysmal. The Doctor re-iterates that Clara is a mystery at the end of this episode. Gee, thanks for that, like we haven’t had a reminder in every single installment this year. Get on with resolving it already!

Closed Book: It’s getting beyond a joke with Clara now, and I’m saying that with the hindsight of having watched The Name of the Doctor last Saturday and having born witness to the twist behind her mystery that singularly failed to explain the reason that she has had so little personality and character to this point (I’ll leave the explanation of the actual twist until I get around to reviewing that installment). Who is Clara Oswald? Well it is clear that this version of her character is a shallow vacuous non-entity who is pretty much whatever the writers want her to be on a weekly basis. It really hit home in Nightmare of Silver that the writers are actually as clueless about her identity as we are and are just making it up as they go along. The way that she suddenly turns into some kind of military commander who can handle open warfare with the Cybermen is just taking the piss. There is no sense that this kind of responsibility (the sort of which she would never have experienced before) bothers her or makes her doubt herself, nope she takes to the stage like General Custer and barks orders like she has been doing this all of her life. It wouldn’t matter quite so much if there was some humour to all this, that she got some things wrong. Imagine Donna in this role? She would be hopeless and trip up every five minutes but it would be funny and it would be believable. She’d probably pull through in the end but through luck rather than through judgement. Clara is a little too perfect in my eyes, in a way that makes her blend into the scenery rather than standing out because she is a real person reacting to insane circumstances. If what Neil Gaiman says is true and Clara was originally supposed to the Victorian version from The Snowmen originally then I could imagine this working out much more convincingly (there was something very cheeky and cocksure about that version of Clara from the off) and it would have given a decent reason for the children to be involved in the action. Instead because Moffat’s masterplan insisted on a contemporary Clara to be the Doctor’s assistant (honestly I think that is season 7b’s worst decision) we had to suffer that retarded scene at the end of The Crimson Horror where Angie and Artie blackmail their way into the TARDIS and their hideous involvement in this installment instead (I don’t remember much about the two children in The Snowmen, but I don’t remember them irritating me in the way that these two manage). If I were Clara I would have quit nannying this pair years ago. Bizarrely Clara seems to have no compunction about shooting ordinary looking people with her giant gun. I really thought the twist we were heading towards was that she wasn’t human because at times she barely acts like one. Faced with the prospect of an entire army of Cybermen, Clara barely breaks a sweat. I fail to comprehend how she could cope so straightforwardly with this situation or have any experience of combat on this scale. She simply doesn’t react like an average Joe on the street, which is what she is supposed to be. Going through the whole business of Clara discovering she is the impossible girl again (except handled nowhere near as effectively – in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS she was properly scared at the Doctor’s insinuations, here she just looks a little bored) is treading familiar ground. If they hadn’t reset the events of Journey it wouldn’t have to be awkwardly inserted into a story where it is completely irrelevant. Plus she seems to have conveniently forgotten at the end of the tale and wonders off to her old life with no questions. This arc has just been bizarre, polluting stories with unnecessary information, lacking any significant development, forcing the Doctor and his assistant into a perpetual dance of mystery which ultimately proves to be meaningless and leaving a massive hole where Clara’s personality should be. Not Moffat’s finest hour. Porridge’s marriage proposal isn’t funny or touching or backed up by any great interaction in the episode (she gives him a cup of soup but that’s hardly Romeo & Juliet) – it’s just another bizarre anomaly in an episode full of them.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’ve been eliminating yourself from history. You know you could be reconstructed from the hole you’ve left?’

The Good:
  • My favourite moment in this entire story and the only moment that made me sit up and pay attention was the Cyberman that snapped into action and grabbed Webley’s hands and deployed the insidious little Cyber-insects. These sleek little electronic bugs, like slivers of quicksilver, that slip through the ear and attack the brain are the finest innovation in a story that plunders all of it’s best ideas from other stories.

The Bad:

  • Children can be a fantastic asset to stories. Go and read The Famous Five or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or the Harry Potter books or anything written by Roald Dhal…they all feature children in pivotal roles who take us on colourful, imaginative and exciting adventures. The main different between the protagonists in those novels and Angie and Artie (I physically shake when writing their names they are just so abominable) is that they are likable, believable children and if you watch the TV/movie translations of those stories you will notice that they have been cast with that in mind. The only reason for Angie and Artie (but especially Angie) to be as obnoxious as they are that I can think of is that it was a deliberate move. I have never met children in my life who are quite as stubborn and insufferable as this. They are taken to one of the most exciting places imaginable (a theme park in space) and instead of revelling in wonder of what has been opened up to them they slouch about, whinging about how bored they are and getting into mischief. Why we are expected to care about the fate of such abhorrent juveniles puzzles me – as soon as they were kidnapped by the Cybermen I actually punched the air with joy. I hoped that the next scene would feature them as converted, emotionless drones because that was infinitely preferable to another round of ‘Put me down! I hate you!’  which has become Simon’s default quote to define everything that has gone with Doctor Who in this mini season. Choice dialogue includes: ‘Your stupid box can’t even get us to the right place!’‘Magic!’ (said with disdain, of course), ‘It was okay…’ (says Angie of being able to space walk…man this girl is hard to please), ‘How long do we have to stay here?’‘I hate the future, it’s stupid! There’s not even any phone service!’ , ‘I don’t think Clara would like that…’ ‘She’s not our mum!’‘I’m bored!’ , Clara, she’s not my sister, she’s stupid…’ , ‘One day, I’ll be Queen of the universe…’ Think about the children in The Sarah Jane Adventures (Maria, Clyde, Rani and Luke), they were all engaging, well acted, credible characters. I would have thought that during the Moffat’s era (given that he has children himself) that the younger characters would be more engagingly written than during RTDs time (who doesn’t have children) but that has simply not been the case at all. The former seems to edge towards children simply being children where’s Davies seems to work from the starting point that they are young adults. The difference is extraordinary.
  • It might be the most lackadaisical pre-titles sequence since The Doctor’s Daughter and for similar reasons – it feels like the Doctor, Clara and the barely explained children turn up and every element of the plot suddenly comes at them at once. Enter Webley stage left, enter the army stage right and head through a door and there is a Cyberman playing chess. There is no attempt to generate tension or to seed a mystery, it’s an awkward attempt to throw everything at you at once so Gaiman can get on with telling the story. It’s just weird.
  • The idea of setting a Doctor Who story in an abandoned theme park that has decayed is marvellous – like the Bernice Summerfield audio The Grel Escape it should capture a sense of something fun and childish having turned sour. It should have a faded dreams atmosphere all of its own. There are a few faintly unconvincing CGI shots of the park that try and suggest the scale of the planet but I feel as though they could have gone a lot further in driving home the feeling of a candy coated location that has gone off.
  • Let me get this straight, an Emperor of a thousand galaxies (try and get your head around the sheer size of that for a moment and consider how that could have even come about) has decided to take a vacation on a deserted theme park playing chess inside a gutted out Cyberman suit. Erm, why exactly? If it was supposed to be a place to hide away from his responsibilities I can imagine fifty better destinations off the top of my head. He should have tried out the Argolis Leisure Hive, for one.
  • The whole sequence with the Cyberman playing chess was clearly supposed to jar by putting the metallic nasty in an unconventional situation but it doesn’t come off as directed. The Doctor is trying to discover the trick behind the magic rather than letting Artie simply enjoy himself.
  • Listen up current production team because if I have to say it again I may have to switch my allegiances to Warehouse 13 or some other tripe – stop wasting your terrific guest cast on forgettable, underwritten roles! Jason Watkins is a superb actor that I have seen in a wide variety of equally good roles on British television and film. Doctor Who gets hold of him and what do they do? Turn him into a Cyberman, gut him of his ability to emote and write him out halfway through the episode. Unthinkable. Warwick Davis is also a favourite of mine but he provides little more than wallpaper in his poorly written part. The dialogue that he was given after planet exploded made me want to vomit, talk about trying to drive the sentiment home.
  • Where is the Emperor? So asks Tamzin Outhwaite’s Captain. The only other character we meet is Porridge. Ooh, I wonder who the Emperor is then?
  • I think the problem is the lack of time (although in reaction to that I can think of loads of examples where this isn’t the case) but this is another instance in season 7b where the guest characters seem to be entire devoid of personality or presence beyond their general character spec. The Captain is butch and shouty, the Emperor is kindly, Brains is socially awkward and geeky, Angie is a stomp-your-feet-and-have-a-paddy kid, Clara is the standard Doctor Who companion…they are walking ciphers, with no substantial personality to grasp hold of and no sense that they exist outside of this adventure.
  • As far as I am concerned Gaiman has completely failed to understand the core strength behind the idea of the Cybermen. It’s not their super strength or ability to move at the speed of light (why people have been so excited about Cybermen running is beyond me…they are much more effective as a marching presence; relentless, unstoppable and not taking their time because they know they can take you down) or their ability to take over your mind (the Cybermen are taking inspiration from the Mara now?). It’s the body horror that has always been the most chilling aspect, taking hold of a human being and threatening to turn them into machines. And it’s one that the show has been desperate to shy away from ever since the creatures were first invented, with rare occasions such as Tomb of the Cybermen and Attack of the Cybermen where they really drive the concept home vividly. Sticking a light on the side of Artie’s head isn’t enough, if they wanted to really grind in the idea of conversion then both children should have been lost, metal embedded in their faces. Instead it feels like a wave of the sonic screwdriver will be a quick cure all. I’m not keen on the redesign either, they look a little too sleek, almost feminine and they still look like they are laughing off the greatest joke they’ve ever heard. Next time forget the tricks like autonomous hands and heads that swivel and instead capture the real fear of having your identity stolen and your heart replaced by a block of technological ice.
  • I think the scene that summed up my current disdain for the show better than any was that of the military types, Clara and Porridge under attack from the Cybermen. You’ve got a badly executed location, a badly thought out threat coming to seize badly written characters that it is impossible to give a damn about. There doesn’t feel as if there has been any great thought has been put into any of this. Instead of clenching my butt with fear that the Cybermen were coming I was groaning at the reveal that there were twelvety million of them (what is the obsession with huge numbers?), instead being thrilled at this taking place in a fairground attraction I was baffled at how such a location could be so awkwardly translated on screen (filming at a castle feels so mundane when this should have been set in a much weirder, imaginative and dilapidated location) and instead of hiding behind my pillow at the thought of losing these characters to the enemy I was encouraging them to be converted because it might make them a little more interesting. I couldn’t have been more indifferent.
  • Wouldn’t it have been more effective if this had been a smaller squadron of Cybermen and they managed to take control. Giving them these kinds of numbers doesn’t make them an effective force, it means the fact that they lose is embarrassing. It feels like the worst excesses of the RTD era to wake up an entire army of upgraded Cybermen only to wipe them all out a heartbeat later. This could have been a new beginning for the creatures but instead it is as much of a shoulder shrugging reset as Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS was. It left me thinking – what was the point?
  • Shoving a bit of gold leaf against his face? Huh? How would that block a mental link?
  • This story features all three of my least favourite plot resolutions in SF because they are easy get-out-clauses rather than actually working out a satisfying and clever conclusion – the random technobabble that saves the day (the Doctor slams some bit of tech against his head and the Cyberplanner is kaput), the teleportation that gets people out of trouble at the last minute and the explosion that rids the heroes of having to deal with the problem. Actually if these quick fix solutions were available from the beginning doesn’t that make Porridge a bit of bastard for not getting everybody out before people started dying?
Result: The trouble with stating categorically that you are going  to ‘make the Cybermen scary again’ is that you better be damn sure of yourself because if you fail to live up to your promise this show has a fan base that will consume you quicker than a boa constructor can swallow a rabbit – fur and all! Poor Neil Gaiman, fresh from the undeniable success of The Doctor’s Wife (of which I am given to understand was primarily the work of Steven Moffat – although I have no proof to back up that claim) and faced with his difficult second album tries to throw everything at the wall in the vein hope that something will stick. Unfortunately it slides to the ground and winds up congealing on the floor in an unpleasant mess. It’s another story I was very much looking forward to watching – Gaiman and the Cybermen was a delicious idea in prospect – and I cannot really explain my disappointment as the story mundanely progressed from one plodding set piece to the next, taking in vacuous, motiveless characters, Cybermen who have been watching too many episodes of Power Rangers and Star Trek, hinging on irritating, unsound twists and wrapping up with three (count them – three!) lazy resolutions to bring the whole thing to ‘was it worth it?’ ending. I remember Simon and I wrestling for the remote throughout to pause and trash the implausible mess that was unfolding before us. Some people have targeted CBBC as a way of criticising this episode, as though it has been watered down for a younger audience. Let me tell you there is nothing wrong about writing for a younger audience and it in no way means you have to gut your writing of all the things that make a good story (a strong plot, interesting characters, imagination, fine dialogue) and even the weaker episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures had better story structure and ingenuity than Nightmare of Silver. I haven’t even spoken about the bizarre use of Clara (this week a military commander of some years service), the most irritating children this side of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but without the humour, the dreary repetitiveness of having Matt Smith argue with himself for half and hour that drags possibly his worst performance out of him and a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes the Cybermen scary. It’s one of those rare Doctor Who stories where nothing seems to be working, where the director and the writer seem to coming at the story from entirely different angles. This is the closest I have ever come to giving up on Doctor Who, almost abandoning all hope given the current standard of what the show is producing. It breaks my heart to be slaughtering my favourite show so unapologetically but in order to maintain any level of integrity on the blog I have to say it how I see it. I put off writing this one because I know I am starting to sound like one of those mad ranters on Gallifrey Base but I hope I have at least given my criticism some substance and explanation. Fortunately the week after had enough gold running through it (whilst still being weighed down with some problems) to whet my appetite for more but season eight has try much, much harder than this if the show is going to maintain its position as top dog in the schedules: 3/10


Anonymous said...

Dead Maggie Stables passed away, so sad :'(

Anonymous said...

I mean dear

Anonymous said...

I know. It was terribly sad news.

David Pirtle said...

On paper this sounds like the most amazing thing since sliced bread. That it ended up being one of the revived show's least successful stories is something of an accomplishment.

Anonymous said...

Agree completely with your Cybermen point. I remember reading a YouTube comment once on an old Cyberman clip, moaning about the modern ones, and saying "how can Doctor Who screw up technological zombies so badly" And that's it really.

As far as I can remember, the only two places where the Cybermen were done really terrifyingly was the book Killing Ground by Steve Lyons (there's some genuinely horrible stuff in there) and in the Companion Chronicles audio The Blue Tooth (which has an indigenous way of cyber conversion which is utterly nasty). I think the trouble maybe is is that Doctor Who feels it can never go full body horror, as unlike the Virgin books and Big Finish (especially the Virgin books) it's meant to be a family show, and there's always this sense that total pure horror, the one needed to really show you how awful the Cybermen are, with faces cut up and wires sticking out of them, the twisted abomination of tortured flesh and wiring that must be under those masks, can never fully be shown over fears of being too strong for little ones. You mention Attack of the Cybermen. That was part of series that ended in cancellation, with some blaming the violence for that (rightly or wrongly), so maybe that's a big cultural memory in the heads of Doc Who to avoid going full Eric Saward. So the Cybermen end up being stuck in this kind of limbo of being like "ohooho! ohhoho! Watch out! The cybermen do stuff really bad! Really! I mean, we can't show you, but believe me, oh! If you could see under their masks, awful!" Although personally i'm not sure it'd be more horrifying than say the gasmask zomibe conversions in Empty Child/Doctor Dances, which were truly horrifying (or is metal more horrible for some reason? Who knows).

I think they also just suffer as monsters. It's impossible to get really, really interested in a thing that has no emotions. There's not a jot of dialogue you can do that is interesting. And often you can only make them interesting villains by breaking them (as in arguably they did in Earthshock, where they express all kinds of pride and hate and black comedy), or by introducing something not quite a fully Cyberman (like the annoying Cyber planner thing) that can produce dialogue as a way to avoid them doing it. Even the Daleks have pure hate. They can scream and rant and be jolly fun. But the Cybermen it's just pure monotone.

If Chris Chinball wants to use them, I think he's got to redesign them again. They've got to somehow find a way to make them as scary as they were in Moonbase/Tomb, and I really don't quite know how they did that.

As for Gaiman, I get the feeling he's just too big for Doctor Who. Go look at American Gods or his Sandman series, there's no way in hell you can do that in 45 mins. There just isn't enough scope for the man's imagination and creativity really. Maybe give him 3 episodes and he'd do it, but not in one. It'd be like getting Terry Gilliam to direct and episode. Too little money for vision (he overspends on his movies, got knows what he'd be like on telly) and not enough production. I remember seeing original design pictures for Uncle and Auntie in Doctor's Wife, and they were apparently rejected for being too gruesome, and I wouldn't surprise me if they were lots of re-writes and back and forth haggles to try and get Gaiman's vision over lots of issues into a neat box really.

Dreadful episode all round. Like almost everything in Season 7 part 2 (by the far the worst series of modern who, maybe ever. Almost nothing of worth) it appears to be big bold huge concepts that punch you in the face but have no plot at all and don't go anywhere (a problem with all of Moffat Who to be fair).