Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Hedgewick And The Angry Whovian


Nightmare in Silver was once going to be called The Last Cyberman...promises, promises.  Billed as a triumphant return of one of the most iconic (if befuddling) Doctor Who monsters (befuddling in how often they've been made to look ridiculous...Doomsday Parts 1 & 2 and Closing Time being prime examples), Nightmare in Silver had a lot going for it in terms of ideas.  In terms of execution, Nightmare in Silver is another absolute disaster in a season/series of absolute disasters.  Nightmare in Silver leaves me thoroughly puzzled as to how both my fellow critics and fellow Whovians (particularly NuWhovians who appear to never really question anything and are easily pleased) can continue to insist stories like Nightmare in Silver are actually good, or watchable, or anywhere near as brilliant as other Cybermen stories like Tomb of the Cybermen.    Nightmare in Silver will go down in history as being one of the few Doctor Who stories that quite lives up to its was a nightmare to watch.

In the previous episode, Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) was blackmailed by the children in her care, Angie (Eva De Leon Allen) and Artie (Kassius Carey Johnson) to take them on a ride in the time-travelling machine or they were going to tell Daddy.  I suppose The Doctor (Matt Smith) gave in, because he whisks them away to Walt Disney World, they have a great time riding Space Mountain (an experience that frightens the Doctor more than the Daleks), they have their picture taken with Goofy (or as we know him, The Last Time Lord), and the Doctor now declares, "Mouse Ears are cool". 

No, of COURSE this isn't what happens.  That'd be a boring episode and it would also defy one of the hallmarks of NuWho:  it would apply logic to a story.  As would be the case whenever the Doctor aims for something good or fun,  he ends up someplace hideous.  In this case, when he takes Clara and the children to Hedgewick's World of Wonder, the Greatest Show (Case) in the Galaxy, it is a dilapidated, run-down, abandoned wreck.  The kids are unimpressed, and the Doctor is hopping up and down about it because he has a Golden Ticket. 

I'm not kidding...he jumps up and down screaming about his Golden Ticket.

Webley (Jason Watkins), someone who at least is somewhat dressed like Willy Wonka, invites them to shelter from an army group patrolling the place.  He shows them his prize piece of magic: a Cyberman who can play chess.  As the Cybermen have been defeated at the end of the Cyber Wars, this one is just a machine.  Artie plays chess with it and loses, but we soon know why: the thing has a brain, in the form of Porridge (Warwick Davies), a midget in pilot uniform.  While Clara and the kids, after a bit of fun, are ready to go, the Doctor opts not to, seeing these little creatures similar to Cybermats but smaller (Cybermites, anyone)?

Well, we find that the Cybermen in Webley's collection aren't as dead as he thought.  Despite the Doctor's warning Angie wanders off and finds the military unit, who in turn are surprised to discover both that there is a midget running around the joint and a Cyberman!  In a shocking turn of events the Cyberman moves at super-speed and grabs Angie (about one of the few good things the Cybermen have done in their long history).  The Doctor now pledges to save Angie (and later on, Artie, who has also been Cyber-ized).  Clara has been put in charge of the military unit, who now have to take orders from her since they all believe the Doctor (thanks to his psychic paper) is a representative of the missing Emperor.

The Doctor finds the kids and Webley (who has been almost converted to a Borg...I mean, Cyberman) and also finds that they have plans for the Doctor.  With a little powder the Cyber-Planner now infects the Doctor's mind, but the Doctor resists him.  In short, both are living inside his own head except for one small bit of it.  Whoever takes this part will have a majority of the mind and thus rule, so the Doctor challenges the Cyber-Planner (who at least once wishes to be called 'Mr. Clever') to a chess match for ultimate control.

Meanwhile, Clara and the Captain (Tamzin Outhwaite) move to a defensive position at the amusement park's medieval castle.  The Captain wants to detonate a bomb that will implode the planet, but the Doctor gave strict instructions NOT to blow up the planet.  As she is about to do so anyway, a Cyberman manages to knock her off.  Now the Doctor manages to escape (even though he still has Mr. Clever inside him) and make it to the castle to continue the chess game, in turns taunting and teasing Clara about how the Doctor has been pursuing 'the Impossible Girl'.  The Cybermen continue to grow ("They're walking from their tombs," we are informed by Mr. Clever) and begin a siege of the castle.

The platoon can't hold them off much longer as more and more Cybermen come around, but then once Angie and Artie are released thanks to the Doctor outwitting Mr. Clever in chess, we get a 'twist': Porridge IS The Emperor!  The Emperor Porridge then sets the bomb, whisks them away with a few magic words to his floating ship, and blows up the planet.   Clara declines the Emperor's marriage proposal (much to Angie's irritation) and once they are all back all appears to be well...

If anything, Neil Gaiman's screenplay clearly makes references to other Cybermen stories (particularly Tomb of the Cybermen: the emergence of the Cybermen and the actual use of "walking from their tombs" makes it clear he is reminding us of the classic Second Doctor story).  Gaiman also deliberately (and sometimes not) reminds us of other Doctor Who stories.  At certain points in his Death (Chess) Match, Smith calls out "Fantastic" and "Allons-y", the catchphrases of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors.  I even think I caught Smith giving a "Hmm" in the style of the First Doctor.

Also, I noticed elements from other stories in Nightmare in Silver.  At one point a Cyberman was able to unleash just his hand on an unsuspecting soldier, which brought to mind the Fourth Doctor story The Hand of Fear.  When the Doctor and 'Mr. Clever' were together and challenged each other to a Death (Chess) Match, it brought to mind another Fourth Doctor story, The Brain of MorbiusThe Tomb of the Cybermen allusions have already been mentioned, and in perhaps the oddest Who reference, the whole 'alien has taken control of my body' bit could have easily come from the Ninth's New Earth (just substitute The Lady Cassandra for Mr. Clever and Chip for Webley).

Of course, there are other references I could mention which I don't think were intended.  As I watched the Doctor and Mr. Clever switch places in their minds (usually by Smith changing his position: one side for the Doctor, the other for Mr. Clever), I could not help think of two films where someone took over another person's body or mind.  One was the Steve Martin film All of Me, where the dead Lilly Tomlin was trapped inside Martin, and the other was Innerspace (where Dennis Quaid has been miniaturized and injected into Martin Short with comic results).  In fact, the similarities to me at least were so clear I expected the Doctor to jump up and shout the Short line, "I'm POSSESSED!"    

I can't be certain, but I don't think I was suppose to picture two somewhat obscure 80s comedies while watching an episode that promised to make the Cybermen scary again...

And here is one of the terrible things within Nightmare in Silver...Matt Smith, or rather Stephen Woolfenden's inability to control his penchant to slip into farce.  There were times when Smith was actually good and menacing as Mr. Clever, but whenever he gave in to making Mr. Clever or the Doctor into an idiot it looks demented.  I can't take the 'villain' or 'threat' seriously if he jumps up on a table and decides to call himself 'Mr. Clever'.  That is something the ELEVENTH Doctor would do, not the Cyber-Planner.  The Cyber-Planner could have been a serious threat, but the decision that he was going to perhaps be infected with the Doctor's goofy delivery and habit of slipping into idiot mode was deadly.

Now, one of the biggest problems with Nightmare in Silver is that no matter how hard everyone tries, one cannot escape this episode without wondering when did Doctor Who decide to rip-off Star Trek.  As much as they may deny it, it is impossible to look on the half-Cyber-Planner/half-Doctor without thinking of the Borg (in particular, Star Trek Voyager's de-assimilated 7 of 9).  It is shocking that either no one noticed this or they did and thought no one else would mention it.  It is even more bizarre since the Cybermen came before the Borg and more likely the latter was inspired by the former.  However, if a Trekker/Trekkie would see Nightmare in Silver they'd call it plagiarism.  Sadly, they would have a point...not a case, but a point.

It isn't just the decision to turn the Doctor into Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek First Contact and it's prequel, Star Trek: The Next Generation's The Best of Both Worlds.  It's so many other things. 

Even the most ebullient reviews for Nightmare in Silver have been tempered in their comments on the two youngsters, and for good reason.  Allen and Johnson were simply awful as Angie and Artie (sounds like a comedy duo).  We've seen bad child acting before, but never a pair so stiff and emotionless that made one want their characters to die.  Allen in particular came off as both blank and annoying, a dumb and easily bored know-it-all who becomes more obnoxious every time she speaks. At one point, she yells to the Cyberman who carried her off, "Put me down.  I hate you."  I was howling with laughter at this bratty little girl talking smack to a Cyberman (and giving a bad line reading to boot). 

Near the end of Nightmare in Silver, she asks why don't they just ask the Emperor to set the bomb, then points to Porridge.  "Am I the only one paying attention to anything around here?" she snidely remarks, pointing out how the coin and the wax figure of the Emperor all look like Porridge.

A digression for a few things.  First, sorry you little be-atch, we're YOU the one told not to wander off...and then you did what, exactly?  Second, it is wildly unfair to ask us to notice something we were never given a chance to see.  The audience never saw the coin in question and got a passing glance at the wax figure (which did not resemble Porridge in any way).  Therefore, how were WE suppose to solve the mystery if we're not given the clues?  Third, if it was so obvious, why didn't you mention the resemblance to Clara or Artie or the Doctor or Captain Alice Ferry?

Johnson as the eager little Artie does us no favors either.  He wasn't an obnoxious brat like his sister, but something just as bad: the 'delightful' little child.  He's suppose to be so enthusiastic and excited about everything, but his sense of wonder soon becomes one that marvels at an electric light.  In short, he comes off more stupid than curious.

As for the other guest stars, Davies did as well as he could with the material he was given.  He gave it his all to give Porridge a sense of regret and loneliness, and the parallels Nightmare in Silver attempted between Porridge and The Doctor, while obvious, were at least played well.  He did his best to make him setting off the bomb far more dramatic than it actually was (given he knew he was going to spirit them all away thanks to another Deus Ex Machina and another time the Doctor really didn't do all that much to stop the situation...what need to solve things yourself if you have the Emperor or River Song or Madame Vastra to bail you out?).

This however, is the first time Clara has a major part to play in the series (or at least the first time I remember her so doing).   She certainly is no longer the frightened girl we heard about in Hide.  This Clara is a brilliant tactician and shoot-'em-up kind of girl.   I rolled with this change in Clara's abilities (a nanny turned generalissima) and it was good to see Coleman behave like a tough and strong female (even if it comes as a stretch given what we've seen before).  I never knew whether Clara could actually do what she did or just 'acted' the part but it was better than we've seen before.

Smith as I stated earlier had some of his best moments of his entire tenure when he played the Cyber-Planner straight, adding menace and the darkness we've been hearing about for a long time.  However, even when he was the Cyber-Planner he still couldn't stop making the character look stupid.  How to reconcile a villain who calls himself 'Mr. Clever'?  As I also said earlier, when the Doctor hops up and down crying, "I've got my Golden Ticket!" you can't take your lead seriously.  Whenever he indicates the Cyber-Planner is taking over his body moments just look comical, and when he hides behind the chessboard when having to tell Clara the children have been Cybersized it takes away from the seriousness of the situation.

In terms of other matters, I do wish Murray Gold would just stop.  Just stop.  He thinks he has to drown every single moment with music and it just overruns everything, making it too obvious he's trying to over-score the scenes.  Sometimes, silence is golden...Gold...

Speaking of overrunning things, Gaiman's screenplay has much to answer.  In what is suppose to be a shocking moment (as shocking as when a Dalek elevated in the Seventh Doctor story Remembrance of the Daleks) the usually lumbering Cybermen can super-speed past everyone to grab a screaming Angie (to which all humanity is thankful for).  However, once this twist was finished, they all went back to being the slow-moving creatures we've all known and loved.  Why didn't the rest of the Cyber-Army, whom we figure were similarly 'upgraded' move just as fast?

Maybe because it would kill the plot...

Why didn't Porridge just order Captain Alice to not set the bomb? 
Why didn't Porridge just set the bomb earlier to stop the Cyber-Army and attempt to de-Borg the Doctor in space?
Why did Porridge allow Webley to keep the dead Cybermen around rather than just order them destroyed?
Why did Porridge even go along with working the Cyberman in an abandoned amusement park?
Why is ANYONE left on this abandoned planet (Porridge, Webley, the punishment platoon) if it was abandoned?
If the Cybermen need the children's imagination to upgrade (shades of School Reunion) why didn't they just work surreptitiously to keep bringing children to the World of Wonder and then release their army of the innocent?   

Nightmare in Silver is shocking...shocking in its overall bad acting (save Davies), in its inept and illogical story, in its rip-off of the Borg (who themselves are variations of the Cybermen), in its completely nutty lead character (Mr. Clever...seriously?) and in playing fast and loose with the information we're given (particularly when we're given a 'twist' that the audience would never have evidence to solve).  Nightmare in Silver is lazy and another example of how Doctor Who now has decided that 'anything goes', that it doesn't have to make any sense because the NuWho fans will accept everything without question. 

In summation, Nightmare in Silver is one of the worst Doctor Who episodes not only of this bad season, but perhaps of All Time.

The Doctor is Borg Again...


Next Story: The Name of The Doctor

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