Doctor Who XXXIII(7)B.7: Nightmare in Silver
Strong performances and a sound structure made this week’s Doctor Who, Nightmare in Silver, memorably tense but also frustratingly short. Characters and ideas again didn’t quite get enough room to breathe, and there were problems with visualisation and with the production’s more general interpretation of the concepts.
The greatest disjuncture is between the programme’s realisation of Hedgewick’s World and the place the dialogue suggests. As Matt Hills and others have said, the moon doesn’t look like the moon, but a stage set. Old Doctor Who could be adept at this running down of settings and costumes, but the opening of Nightmare in Silver depends on the characters thinking they are on a moonbase and the audience being able to share a little in the illusion. Later, there doesn’t seem to be anything comical about the comical castle – as if the right questions have not been asked about the balance between script and location.
While the plot mechanics were solid enough, character development was erratic. Just as we started to get to know Captain Alice Ferry, she was killed; Tamsin Outhwaite had had little to get her dramatic teeth into and little to give a sense of a person until the small scene where she confirms the earlier hint that she knows who Porridge is. Warwick Davis is quietly authoritative throughout. That being so, the dialogue and performances of some of the troops was endearing, particularly the luckless Missy (Zahra Ahmadi).
Developing the Cybermen is difficult and the whole business of upgradings and prosthetics owed much to Star Trek‘s Borg, as the script acknowledges when the Doctor suggests ‘hive’ as a collective noun for the Cybermen. The redesigned Cybermen and their new capabilities were here secondary to the Doctor’s fight for control of his own mind and body, a development which fulfils the important role of giving an established lead actor something new to do with a part which he has played for several years. The Cyberplanner’s running critique of the Doctor’s weaknesses has echoes of the Dream Lord of Amy’s Choice, though to a different end – this is not the voice of destructive self-loathing, but the voice of wild new potentials. It did take me a little while to realise why the Cyberplanner referred to the Cybermen as “boys and girls,” further evidence perhaps for Matt Hills’s theory that earlier drafts made much more of the Cybermen’s need for children’s capacity for play.
The child performers don’t appear to be the favourites of the critics, but they did well with underdeveloped roles and stifled dramatic potential. Like the Doctor, they seemed curiously unharmed by the Cybergrafts, which were able to remove themselves without apparent scarring or brain injury. Presumably, despite the talk of “upgrading” in speech and on the Cybermite’s eye view, the children were from a early stage intended primarily as lures for the Doctor. There is an alternative universe where the children are lost, and Clara is unable to face returning to the Maitland family home, but it is probably not one where Doctor Who can be shown early on a spring evening.
Nightmare in Silver derived tension from the relentless advance of the Cybermen and the threat of lost identity, much more than it did from the suggestion of planetary destruction. There was a glib but vague analogy between the Cyberiad and the Empire, with Porridge as escaped prisoner, a Cyberplanner gone rogue. Yet again, an episode suggests blockbuster less in what it achieves than in what it wants to be, but can’t attain through the constraints of time and budget. Where once we had a Doctor Who which excelled at impressing within its financial limitations, now we have a Doctor Who which too frequently screams out for more time and more money.