I am legitimately one of those people that would read Neil Gaiman's shopping list if it were published in book form, so you'll pardon the lack of objectivity in this week's review. Gaiman returns us to the Cybermen, and not the Cybermen we've known thus far in the rebooted Doctor Who. These are the Mondasian Cybermen, the ones responsible for the death of the First Doctor, and who the Second Doctor used some of his most brutal methods to stop when he would encounter them.
If you go back and watch "Tomb of the Cybermen" or the surviving episodes of "The Moonbase" and "The Tenth Planet," you will of course see the utter ridiculousness of the '60s Cybermen. Their costumes look like they were made by someone's mother, and their voices are incomprehensible. That said, I've been rewatching all of the Second Doctor's run recently, and I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that the classic Cybermen were simply scarier than the ones from Pete's World.
And Neil Gaiman made them so, so much worse.
Flashback Last Week's Review: The Crimson Horror
We don't get a year to set our calendars by for the episode, but it has to be at least the 25th century since the Cybermen's final defeat is a thousand years in the past. The Doctor has brought along Clara's nanny charges, Angie (Eve de Leon Allen) and Artie (Kassius Carey Johnson), after they threaten to tell their dad they've discovered historical evidence that Clara has been traveling in time. The Doctor agrees to a single trip to the universe's greatest amusement park, because that sort of thing absolutely never, ever goes wrong for him.
Instead of Six Flags Over Alpha Centauri, they find a dilapidated and almost abandoned theme park. There's a wonderful flashback to "The Moonbase," as one of the few functioning attractions is a low-gravity jump generator that mirrors the opening of that story on a lunar reconstruction. You'll also hear a reference to the Moonbase's function as a weather control tower if you're careful.
An eccentric old man named Webley (Jason Watkins) operates a curiosity hall that features, among other things, a hollowed up Cyberman that can challenge people to chess. Turns out the abilities are actually controlled by a dwarf named Porridge (Warwick Davis) in reference to an automatic chess player in the 19th century called the Turk that was secretly operated by a little person crammed inside.
Interesting note: This isn't the first time The Silver Turk and the Cybermen have been linked together, as the Eighth Doctor fought them in an audio adventure.
Here's where it starts to get scary, which was Steven Moffat's explicit instructions to Gaiman. Make the Cybermen scary.Flashback A Look Back at "Tomb of the Cybermen"
It starts with Cybermats, or in this case Cybermites. The ridiculous remote-controlled rat-like contraptions the Cybermen use to scavenge parts have always been one of the dumber things about the mythos. Gaimain turns them into infesting maggot-like creatures that manage to overtake first Webley, then Angie and Artie for partial upgrading.
The second thing is that we see the Cybermen as they were at the end of a war that was only won by humanity eradicating an entire galaxy. The standard protocol at this time is that if a single Cyberman is found active anywhere in the universe, imploding the planet is the immediately used option. And you can see why.
The Pete's World Cybermen were always kind of stupid. The originals had cunning, they legitimately got better with every upgrade, and by now they have developed superhuman speed and the ability to attack with detached body parts, and, worst of all, they have set up shop in the brain of The Doctor.
It sounds like a terrible idea, but almost half of "Nightmare in Silver" is nothing more than Matt Smith talking to himself, trying to outwit the Cyberplanner that wants to use the knowledge and brain of a Time Lord to upgrade the universe in the image of the Cybermen.
Much of this takes place over a chess board that The Doctor has persuaded the Cyberplanner to use as a contest for control, and inside the actual mind of the Doctor. All those scenes in Spider-Man and The Lord of the Rings where we had someone arguing with himself, between good and evil? This is what they look like when they're actually done right.
Gaiman penned some fantastic dialogue, having The Doctor square off against an evil counterpart while also giving Clara a chance to do the same. It's just the interaction that Clara so desperately needs in her character, and what has been lacking so much in the season. We simply don't get to watch The Doctor go on and on as he should, and it's only when he is, in a way, the enemy that everyone gets room to breathe and get some stuff done.
Coleman transforms Clara very abruptly in this episode, taking command of a military garrison with a strange ease that hints more and more at the connection between her and Rose Tyler. She sports a very Rose-like coat throughout the episode, and her skirt appears to have rose patterns to continue the multitude of hints in the last seven episodes. She also wields a gun in a manner that reminds me of Rose in "The Stolen Earth." The mystery deepens, but just watching Clara have an adventure was worth it this week.
One final note: Warwick Davis turns in a performance that spellbinds as a galactic emperor hiding from office. It's easy to forget sometimes that Davis is actually a tremendous actor, and kudos to Doctor Who for allowing him a considerable platform to show it off.
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Wibbley Wobbly Writing: The transition of Clara into competent badass is just so...sudden. The only times she's ever shown herself this capable are in timelines where she's dead. Either that's a clue or just rather lazy characterization. I also find it difficult to believe that The Doctor doesn't exist in the memories of Cybermen who have lain dormant for thousands of years. This is, I believe, the first time a major recurring villain hasn't recognized The Doctor, and yet the Cyberplanner seems to know who the Time Lords are. Finally...the Cybermen apparently were waiting for children so they could have an exceptional mind to upgrade to planner, but settled on The Doctor instead after scanning his brain, and yet at no time decided it might be advantageous to take over the emperor of the freakin' galaxy.
Oh, and I just had a thought...what if Clara isn't a companion? What if she's all the companions?
The Cybermen are an iconic villain, but how do they stack up against The 5 Best New Doctor Who Monsters? As for Clara, it may be time to revisit the Top 10 Theories About the New Doctor Who Companion.