This story in a nutshell: The Cybermen are back…
- 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.
- 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