Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Idiot Box: Doctor Who 7x12 - “Nightmare In Silver” Review



I've been pretty harsh on Doctor Who lately, though not undeservedly so. This past season has easily been the worst of the new series, and while the last few episodes have seen a bit of an uptick in quality of late, that is only relative to just how bad the first two thirds of the season have been, and not representative of the kind of quality we were used to seeing before this year. The weird thing is, based on the reviews I've read at least, it seems like this slide into mediocrity has gone largely unnoticed or unacknowledged. That is, until now, with the latest Neil Gaiman penned Cybermen story Nightmare In Silver being met with the kind of mixed reaction that Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and A Town Called Mercy by all rights should have gotten, but strangely didn't.


The story leads off from the end of the last one as Clara's young charges are brought along on an adventure to an abandoned amusement park, where the group is forced to deal with a new and improved breed of Cybermen now capable of at least one or two tricks they've never been able to pull off before. Though I've never been a listener of the Big Finish Audio Plays, I knew enough from Wikipedia research to recognize that this story was at least loosely based on one of them, with a broken Cyberman in place of the Chess playing Turk. Though an interesting conceit, the visual was only slightly disappointing in that it seemed to kill a very tantalizing rumor I had heard about this episode, specifically that it would mark the return of the original Mondas Cybermen, which proves not to be the case. Supposedly Gaiman claimed in an interview that these new Cybermen were some amalgamation of the two races, but if that point was made explicit in the episode, I must have missed it.


These Cybermen are even more Borg-like in their ability to assimilate lifeforms into their ranks, which while a fun nod to the connection between the two fictional species and the question of who stole from who, takes something away from what made this Who villain creepy since the re-launch. Gone are the massive surgical devices that literally carve away a person's humanity, replaced by Cybermites that convert you from the inside in a flash. From what I've read this story was a very deliberate attempt to return the Cybermen to their former scary glory, but this makes the focus on a new form even more perplexing, as the sleek and streamlined appearance and the addition of quirky superpowers like enhanced speed seem to go in the opposite direction, making them more comic book-y than anything.


If there's one fact about this new incarnation that does make them more threatening, it is that now they have the capacity to convert non-humans into Cybermen, including as we see in the episode The Doctor himself. The schizophrenic psychic battle between the Doctor and the Cyberplanner is the heart of the episode and gives Matt Smith a much appreciated opportunity to chew the scenery even when mostly tied to a chair, alternating between his goofily confident normal self and the genuinely frightening evil new personality. That being said, naturally this is a trick that can really only be pulled off effectively the one time, so for all the fanfare of this new upgrade, we're pretty much back to the drawing board for the next Cyberman story.


Along for the ride is the always charming Warwick Davis as an exiled Chess master with a secret that you'll probably guess within the first ten minutes, if it even takes you that long. His character seems to exist purely to inject an artificial twist to the end, providing that novel thing that has to come to light that was in plain sight all along, which as I've mentioned many times in my reviews for this show used to be its strong suit, and now just seems forced and unearned in any given week. It is no less shallow here, but Davis is good in the role regardless and lends a soulful energy to the performance that was enough for me that I definitely wouldn't mind seeing him pop up again sometime soon.


From what I gather, much of the negative reaction to this episode stems from the fact that it isn't nearly as good as the previous Gaiman penned episode, The Doctor's Wife, which is absolutely true. Then again, the vast majority of Doctor Who episodes aren't as good as that one, and it seems a bit unfair to judge this one by that standard just because the same writer had a hand in both. Moffet has written some of the best episodes of this new series to date, but he also wrote The Angels Take Manhattan, which was absolutely terrible, and it appears as though many of the problems of this season are a direct result of his bad decisions overall. I choose to use the standard of wanting to watch a Doctor Who episode that didn't make me fall asleep or scream at my TV as so many this year have, and on that score, this one passed with flying colors. It's not great, but in a season as bad as this one has been, I'll take decent when I can get it. 
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