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Posts Tagged ‘Nightmare in Silver’

So, in the last week I’ve come to the conclusion that if I’m only really going to be impressed by one or two episodes of Doctor Who every year, that’s better than nothing – even if it is about the same average as in the mid-80s, and a definite decline from the situation five years ago. And, when one of those really not bad episodes comes along, the thing to do is to make the most of it.

I had unusually high expectations for Nightmare in Silver, simply because it was written by Neil Gaiman – I’m not what you’d call a massive Gaiman fan, but I like nearly everything of his that I’ve encountered and he did write The Doctor’s Wife, my favourite Matt Smith episode so far. Set against this, of course, there was always the possibility of Difficult Second Episode syndrome and the fact that – judging from the behind-the-scenes promo material – Gaiman was invited back partly with a view to making the Cybermen less rubbish, a task which has defeated virtually every writer in the history of the series (I’m no great fan of Eric Saward’s writing but he could justifiably have ‘Wrote a story where the Cybermen were genuinely impressive’ put on his gravestone).

It's only in silhouette that you really appreciate the value of the handles.

It’s only in silhouette that you really appreciate the value of the handles.

So, how did it all turn out? Well, there was the sense (usual, these days) of a story being squashed down to fit a 45 minute time slot, the same typical sense of jolly superficiality, even when the story was going into some quite dark places. On the whole though, I enjoyed it at least as much as any of the other episodes this season – wasn’t mad about Tamsin Outhwaite’s prominently-lipsticked near-cameo, and the quality of the child acting wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen, but I liked Warwick Davis very much. I got the sense that there was the seed of quite a dark story about redemption and guilt buried here somewhere, but it seemed to get lost in the running around and shouting that a 45-minute story apparently requires these days. Not quite so sure about Matt Smith’s performance as (spoiler incoming) the Cyberplanner – I know it’s Matt Smith, and the makers of the series seem to think that a sort of manic camp is the best way his talents can be exploited, but would a Cyberplanner really call itself Mr Clever and say things like ‘toodle-oo’? If they’d put in a line about the Cyber-implants mimicking the Doctor’s own personality, I’d have bought into that much more happily.

So, there’s my opinion – an above-standard episode by current standards, which translates objectively to mean ‘decent enough’. Critical faculties duly exercised, let’s dig into the geeky stuff, starting with – when’s this episode meant to be set?

Well, we’re repeatedly told it’s a thousand years since the last Cyber War, and what looks very much like a Human-led Empire is the dominant space power. I’m favourably disposed towards David Banks’ theory that there was a Cyber War in which humans weren’t involved, happening round about the 22nd century (it’s the one referred to on-screen in Revenge of the Cybermen, which must happen prior to 2526 as it’s discussed as a historical event in Earthshock – for some reason, this is one of those fairly straightforward pieces of continuity which some people bend over backwards to explain away), but it’s strongly implied there’s going to be another one round about 2527, following the events of Earthshock itself – Banks suggests that Attack of the Cybermen is set during the final stages of this war, which he dates as concluding in 2530.

This would therefore give the earliest possible date for Nightmare in Silver as around 3500AD – however, there is that Human Empire to take into account. The Earth Empire seen in Frontier in Space, and so on, is shown to have been in decline by the 30th century, and nearly every chronology agrees that the second half of the fourth millennium is the era of the Galactic Federation. On the face of it, then, it seems fairly unlikely that the Cyber War mentioned in Nightmare in Silver is one previously referred to in the TV series.

There’s also the issue of the Cybermen we see in the story, too: this is the same model shown to be operating in the early sixth millennium in A Good Man Goes To War (there’s an article to be written on how much store we should set by the varying appearances of recurring Doctor Who monsters, but let’s take this at face value for now) – which, incidentally, suggests the Cybermen of that period are at a peak of military power beyond anything seen elsewhere in the series. These same Cybermen appear decrepit and obsolete in Nightmare in Silver, suggesting the story takes place in an even more distant future.

This suggests the empire we see in this story could be the Third Great and Bountiful Human Empire (the First Empire appears to have existed from the 25th to the 30th centuries, the Second round about the 42nd), for which we have never received an on-screen date – there’s plenty of room, given the Fourth Empire doesn’t appear for nearly 200,000 years. The implication that this is an intergalactic empire, and the existence not just of planet-busting but galaxy-destroying weapons, suggests a date in the very distant future is not unreasonable.

And yet even here the Cybermen are still around and perceived as a deadly menace: not bad for a race who once lost in a fair fight with UNIT. It’s tempting to construct a narrative in which virtually every previous appearance by the Cybermen (certainly all the ones set between 1979 and the 26th century) portrays the very early and rather fragile beginnings of the Cyber Race, with Nightmare in Silver (and, if you like, A Good Man Goes To War) our first glimpses of them as a mature and established power (in the circumstances I’m hesitant to use the word ‘culture’). That’s what I draw from the references to the Cyberiad and the high level of technological sophistication depicted here (just the sort of evocative little touches you’d expect from a writer of Gaiman’s ability), anyway. (Could’ve done without the bullet-time Cyberman, though.)

It certainly leaves a lot of unanswered questions and room for manoeuver in further stories featuring these Cyberiad-Cybermen, which is very nearly mission accomplished all by itself in terms of revamping the race: previously, the Cybermen were usually generic robots-in-all-but-name who were not very good at infiltrating remote outposts – the Cybermen’s Big Thing, the concept of conversion, is more often used as colour for a story than its absolute core. Are these Cybermen interesting enough to justify being brought back for any reason other than the fact that they’re an iconic big name bad guy? I would certainly give them the benefit of the doubt.

Unfortunately, Neil Gaiman seems to have smacked into the usual problem modern writers encounter when trying to make the Cybermen less rubbish – you’ve got an impersonal, cybernetic culture which in many ways has more of the characteristics of a sentient plague, where the individual members are drones and the worst thing they can do to you is to destroy your sense of self. You can give the Cybermen new tricks and tinker with the styling all you like (and I think the new-model Cybermen are an improvement) but on paper the Cyberiad is arguably more like the Borg Collective than ever before. I’m not the first person to say that in many ways Star Trek actually ‘did’ the Cybermen better than Doctor Who, but it’s still true, and this is a headache I don’t really see going away. Still, for possibly the first time ever the Cybermen look like they could actually give the Borg a good showing should it come to a fight, and this in itself suggests that Nightmare in Silver achieved at least some of its ambitions.

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