Friday, May 17, 2013

Phantom Who: Nightmare In Silver, Indeed

Hrmph. I’m not sure where I am right now and I don’t know if I can separate my love of Doctor Who from my critical mind. I do know for certain that the reservations I have about the current direction of the show are genuine and not the byproduct of a jealous nerd’s possessiveness of a previously niche franchise that continues to grow in momentum and popularity. A small part of those reservations might, however, arise from concern that the creators’ attempts to appeal to the masses might alienate long time fans such as myself. That is certainly something that has happened time and again with other franchises.
And then there’s stuff that I just plain don’t like, which is an entirely different issue.
           As I write this I am trying to decide what I think about Matt Smith’s performance as the Cyber Planner this past Saturday night in Neil Gaiman’s second episode of Doctor Who. My initial reaction – and the one I am still feeling – was to hate it. To clarify; I don’t hate Smith’s performance itself. It was a lot of fun to watch and he handled the dual roles quite well. Seeing a manic, evil Matt Smith was delightful. My issue was with the representation of a Cyberman as an emotional, manic character.
That doesn’t jibe with what I know of the Cybermen.
Now, I am not the ultimate receptacle of Doctor Who knowledge. There might be things that I have missed over the years or perfectly good explanations for what happened in the episode. But to the best of my knowledge, Cybermen are emotionless cyborgs that have removed all vestiges of humanity from their person. They don’t get angry, they don’t get happy, they don’t get excited. Those things have all been stamped out by their programming. That’s the horror and the tragedy of their species. To the point where this one time the Doctor showed them that and they all killed themselves.
Side Note: Yes, there are instances of Cybermen displaying anger or frustration. And in The Next Doctor that lady Cyber Controller shows some emotion. The former happened mostly in the mid 80s and I attribute those instances to John Nathan Turner. The latter bothered me at the time, but wasn’t as noticeable as what we got last Saturday.
That’s not what we saw in Nightmare In Silver (which is a terrible title; the first I heard – The Last Cyberman – was much better). When the Doctor was infected by the Cybermites (a creepy new version of the Cybermats), the previously dormant Cyber Planner got a look at his wonderful Time Lord brain and saw the opportunity to revive its race with an all-new advantage. It attempted to take over the Doctor’s mind but was only partially successful. Rather than represent the resulting battle as Matt Smith alternating between the emotionally charged and devious Doctor and the cold and calculating Cyber Planner, we saw a battle between the emotionally charged and devious Doctor and the even more emotionally charged and manic Cyber Planner. And it just didn’t work for me. The portrayal of the Cyber Planner rang false throughout the entire episode, spoiling what would have otherwise been an exciting tale featuring the return of my favorite Doctor Who villains in a form that was far superior to the Cybus versions (I didn’t like them – they looked like cartoons).
If somebody can explain to me why we got a Cyberman that was full of volatile emotions and scenery-chewing glee I would love to hear it. I don’t want to not like Nightmare In Silver. There was a whole lot to love about it:
  • Warwick Davis was fantastic. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him in a non-gimmicky role where he actually got to act. And he was very good. He created a compelling character with a real dramatic depth.
  • The new Cybermen are pretty awesome. Yeah, they look like they were designed by Stark Industries. But at least they don’t resemble Mega Man. They look like a natural evolution of what we saw in Silver Nemesis. And the expanded ability to manipulate disembodied parts was super creepy. So was the super-speed. My issues with the speed were that it looked doofy and that they gave it away too soon. The first thing we saw was the Cyberman blurring up to face the soldiers. It shouldn’t have sped up until it got within range. It would have been a much more impactful surprise that way.
  • The idea of the Amusement Park planet was excellent and about as well-executed as I assume the budget would allow. I also liked that the story was basically a play on the old “built on an Indian burial ground” thing. But with Cybermen.
  • Clara had stuff to do. Also, whatever her story is was very much in the background.
  • The Punishment Platoon were solid, but I wish we could have gotten a little more character development.
  • The Golden Ticket was a great plot device in every way that it was used.
So for the most part the episode was good things, with the portrayal of the Cyber Planner being the one flaw I could not overlook.
There were a few nitpicky things that wouldn’t have bothered me as much if it weren’t for the glaring wrongness of the above problem:
  • The kids were just awful and pointless. They were everything that is bad about children in media – snotty, annoying, helpless, and victims.
  • I feel that they could have been a bit less insulting with Warwick Davis’ throne at the end. Really? A footstool?
I went into this episode wanting very badly to like it. As I said above, the Cybermen are my favorite of the Doctor’s foes. And I have yet to meet a Neil Gaiman story I don’t like. Plus, I just don’t want to not like anything that is Doctor Who. I am very predisposed towards the franchise, to the point where I excuse an awful lot of things that would bother me in other media. “Because Doctor Who” is something I coined for this very reason.
And that brings me to the things that I have been giving an awful lot of thought to lately – since I have been the co-host of Earth Station Who, do I feel a greater need to be as objective as I can about the franchise and as a result am more willing to recognize flaws? Or am I perhaps experiencing a combination of fatigue and nerd jealousy? Or maybe, just maybe, there have been several noticeably sub-par episodes over the past couple of years and I genuinely don’t like the New Series habit of basing entire seasons of narrative around what the current companion had for breakfast?
That last one definitely hits the mark. I am way tired of the companion-oriented stories. Enough with that. The companions are there as characters the audience can relate to. There’s nothing wrong with developing their characters beyond just being a pretty face or a broad pair of shoulders, but it is absolutely ridiculous the way that the last several seasons have been based entirely around the companions. I’m over it. I had some hope that Clara would be different, but from her very first appearance it became clear that she was well on her way to being even worse than River Song in that respect. While her story has mostly been a secondary concern for the last several episodes; it is still ongoing and seems to be the focus of the entire second half of Series Seven.
At the same time, I haven’t developed some sort of all-encompassing loathing or mistrust of showrunner Stephen Moffat. He’s given me a lot more good than bad and his love of Doctor Who shows through in every episode. Just because he’s made a few choices that I do not agree with doesn’t mean he has ruined the franchise. I am taking the man at his word that there is a grand plan and that it is good. I think we’ll have a fair idea of his intentions and degree of success after tomorrow’s episode, and know for sure at the end of November.
I remain cautiously optimistic.
If you want to hear more about the current state of Doctor Who, be sure and check out the last few (or all of the ) episodes of Earth Station Who:


  1. So, for someone who has never made it through an entire episode of Dr. Who; you're telling me this is the best time to jump on board and bring all my friends with me?

  2. Valid points, all. I really enjoyed this episode for all the reasons you mentioned, and a few more. Here's my thing with the CyberPlanner.

    One from a purely logistical point of view, I guess, is that a straight up Borg-zombie Doctor would be very boring to watch. It worked for Picard - it was absolutely chilling. And let's face it; with this episode Gaiman went straight up for the Borg, right down the the nifty face decorations. An ice-cold logical CyberPlanner probably could have worked with David Tennant; in fact, with a lot of the Matt Smith episodes I couldn't help but wonder how Tennant would have played it, given the same concepts. In this case, I'm sure Gaiman would have approached it very differently, and I probably would have liked the result better.

    But you have to figure, this is Eleven's head that the CyberPlanner is in. It's frenetic, chaotic, and the one thing it's not is cold or angsty (see above re: Tennant). Also remember, in the episode with Craig and the Cybermen, strong emotions can break the grip of the cyber-programming altogether, so one could argue that amping up the emotion level was part of what made the Doctor able to resist it. There was some emotional manipulation going on that seemed completely outside the scope of cyber-thinking, but if the goal was to break down the Doctor's will....?

    I don't know. I may be overjustifying to defend an episode I really enjoyed. I totally get where you're coming from, I just was able to justify it in my own mind. :-)

    1. This is another totally valid rationalization of the portrayal. Award-Winning Bobby Nash had a good one, as well. And I like both of them and wish very much that I could accept them. But I just don't agree with the decision. I didn't want a Borg, I wanted something cold and sinister. Something we hadn't seen out of Matt smith before that would have actually contrasted his normal state rather than just making it look like he got ahold of some really amazing blow. But I think it's awesome there are those of you out there that are cool with it.