Doctor Who: Nightmare in Silver
(1 episode, s07e12, 2013)
Planet’s closed. Moose out front should have told you.
The TARDIS lands on Hedgewick’s World of Wonders, which looks suspiciously like Earth’s moon. Clara, Angie, and Artie are unimpressed, but the mystery of a man waiting for a ride and the appearance of armed troops adds a little interest. The Doctor poses as the Imperial Consul (courtesy of the psychic paper) before the group follows the mystery man, Impresario Webley, into the depths of the abandoned amusement park.
It is there that the group meets a Cyberman.
Webley claims that it is no threat – the living Cybermen were apparently destroyed a thousand years before – and only exists to play chess for fun. Artie offers a sandwich as the entry fee to play the Cyberman but ends up losing in no time. The Doctor investigates below the table and finds a man named Porridge, the brain behind the machine.
Webley shows off the rest of his Cyberman collection. He also shows them a wax figure of Emperor Ludens Nimrod Kendrick Cord Longstaff XLI, Defender of Humanity and Imperator of Known Space. The group returns to the mock lunar surface for a bit of fun with an anti-gravity ride, after which Clara wants to take the kids home but the Doctor decides to investigate the area. Clara and the Doctor put the kids down for a nap and start poking around.
Meanwhile, Webley resets his chessboard and finds out that his dead Cyberman is far from inert. In fact, the area is swarming with Cybermites, which also infest the kids’ mobile phones. It’s really hard to kill off the Cybermen.
Clara walks with Porridge and learns about the Cybermen. He tells her of the Tiberian spiral galaxy, which had to be destroyed to eliminate the entire race. Porridge comments that he feels like a monster since, instead of mourning a billion trillion deaths, he feels sorry for the person who had to press the button.
Clara realizes that Angie has wandered off, and she has indeed, ending up in the barracks. The captain has a little talk with her while Artie is abducted by a Cyberman. The Cybermen attack the barracks as Clara and the Doctor arrive, showing off skills we haven’t seen before as it takes Angie. The silver menace seems to have leveled up recently.
The captain tells the Doctor that she’s commanding a punishment platoon, exiled to this place to prevent them from getting into trouble. The Doctor promotes Clara to platoon commander and goes in search of the kids. Clara begins rallying the platoon to find a defensible position, which ends up being Natty Longshoe’s Comical Castle.
The Doctor searches for the kids, leaving a message with one of the Cybermites that they are under his protection. He uses the device to transmat to the kids where he finds a partially converted Webley who honors him as the savior of the Cybermen. Webley uses Cybermites to infect the Doctor, who then becomes the new Cyber-Planner.
Or, rather, Mr. Clever. Ugh.
Inside the Doctor’s mind, the Time Lord competes with Mr. Clever as the new Cyber-Planner begins strengthening the collective Cyberiad. The Doctor threatens to regenerate and burn out the cyber components, but the Cyber-Planner declares a stalemate. Each entity controls 49.881% of the brain, leaving 0.238% unclaimed. They decide to play a winner-take-all game of chess to determine who will control it all.
Meanwhile, the Cybermen begin their assault on the platoon, starting with a guard named Missy. Clara takes stock of the army’s inventory, noting that they have only one firearm and a device to destroy the planet which only the captain can arm with her voice. Clara orders that the device will not be used under any circumstances.
As the Doctor and Mr. Clever play their one-man game, the Cyber-Planner notes that the Doctor has been erasing himself from history. The Doctor replies with his knowledge that cleaning fluid and gold can scramble the Cyberman coding, and uses his admission ticket to the park to do so. The Doctor takes temporary control and collects the chessboard, leaving with the kids and Webley.
Back at the castle, the captain and Porridge discuss a small secret. Clara interrupts with the question of why they would blow up an entire planet to eliminate a single Cyberman. The captain decides to arm the planetary bomb but is stopped by a Cyberman. Clara goes on the offensive and mobilizes the platoon with hand pulses and their single firearm.
The assault has limited success since the Cybermen have their Cybermites acting as spies.
The Doctor and his associates arrive at the castle where he briefs Clara on his situation. He also notes that the Cyber-Planner is working on a patch for the gold weakness. He sets up the chessboard again before Mr. Clever returns. While the Cyber-Planner jousts with Clara, the Doctor passes notes to her, working around the pathways that the Cyberiad is assimilating.
Clara has her troops electrify the moat and raise the drawbridge as Mr. Clever awakens the legion of Cybermen hiding beneath the planet’s surface. When called to the Doctor’s side, she’s skeptical that she’s talking to the Time Lord. It snatches the remote trigger for the planet-bomb and shatters it as the Cybermen arrive.
The Cybermen wade into the moat, upgrading themselves to bypass the electrical shock, and storm the castle while the Doctor continues his match. Mr. Clever offers the children in exchange for his queen with the knowledge that he’ll beat the Doctor in five moves. The Doctor accepts, but the Cyberiad tries to betray him by ordering Webley to kill the kids. Luckily, Porridge arrives and disables Webley with a hand pulse.
The battle rages on and the humans are losing. The Doctor taunts Mr. Clever with a strategic trap, forcing the Cyber-Planner to spend more processing power on the chess game and less on the battle. The Cybermen freeze in place as the Doctor outlines his three-move plan to defeat the Cyber-Planner.
Move One: Turn on sonic screwdriver. Move Two: Activate pulse. Move Three: Apply pulse.
The Doctor slaps himself with a hand pulse and distributes the Cyber-Planner into the Cyberman army. Now free, he consults with Clara about the planetary bomb, and Angie suggests that they ask Porridge about the codes. After all, according to the coins and the statue, he is the Emperor.
Sure enough, Porridge is the leader. He debates activating the bomb, reluctantly doing so. Luckily, the bomb’s activation signals the Imperial Flagship which arrives and transmats everyone and the TARDIS to orbit. The assembled group watches as Hedgwick’s World of Wonders (and, presumably, all of the Cybermen) is destroyed.
Porridge remarks that he liked being normal, but offers Clara a marriage proposal in order to have company while he rules again. Clara replies that she doesn’t want to rule a thousand galaxies, to which Angie declares that she’d love the opportunity to be Queen of the Universe. The Emperor smiles and sends his visitors on their way.
The Doctor returns Clara and the children to their home, pondering Clara’s identity once again. Meanwhile, the Emperor ponders if any Cyberman technology remains. As he flies toward home, a single Cybermite floats through the cold of space.
While I give Neil Gaiman credit for trying something new with the Cybermen, this one falls flat.
Since The Tenth Planet, the Cybermen have been a simple silver horde devoid of emotion that march and destroy. Those Cybermen were the Mondasian models (which we haven’t seen since Silver Nemesis), and the revival era added the extra layer of assimilating people upon the introduction of the Cybus Cybermen in Rise of the Cybermen, which have been the standard until this effective reboot.
Here, we get a new vision of the menace with the Cyberiad, which draws the Cybermen that much closer to the Borg Collective of the Star Trek universe. It pretty much makes a third line of Cybermen, ignoring the Pete’s World parallel universe while conveniently sidestepping the Mondas origins with all new over-the-top superpowers like super-speed and the ability to convert different species.
It’s something unique to Doctor Who but it hews far too closely to the vastly overused Borg. The same holds true for the Cybermats evolving into the Cybermites, critters that easily parallel the nanoprobes used to assimilate pretty much anything in Star Trek.
Similarly, the return of the Cyber-Planner – last seen in The Invasion – is a great touch, as is the back-and-forth battle inside the Doctor’s mind, but the Collective-esque Cyberiad consciousness reduces this villain to a Doctor Who version of the Borg Queen. The story also takes away their gold weakness – another Borg parallel as the collective adapts – leaving guns as the only efficient way to destroy them. I liked the creative way of attacking the Cybermen with electrified moats and such, but in the end, our heroes were left with guns and bombs to end the threat.
It might be that the Borg were so overused (and effectively neutered) in the latter days of the Berman/Braga era of Star Trek, but the “Mr. Clever” appellation threw it over the top for me. Too much of the Steven Moffat era focuses on clever this and clever that and clever everything else, and this was putting a clever flag on the annoying mountaintop.
Steven freaking clever Moffat, man…
Now, this story wasn’t all terrible. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed Matt Smith’s back-and-forth acting battle. It adds another title to the list of times when the actor playing the current Doctor also played a different character in the same story. (The Chase, The Massacre, The Enemy of the World, The Android Invasion, Meglos, Arc of Infinity, The Caves of Androzani, Journey’s End, The Almost People, and The Wedding of River Song came before this one.)
I also was quite pleased with Clara taking a larger role with the Doctor’s blessing and trust, which was refreshing after a long run of not fully trusting his companion. It was a neat development to have one of the kids being observant enough to solve the puzzle, and marked one of the few times that children have traveled in the TARDIS. Finally, I loved seeing the Emperor hiding (taking a break?) among the ranks of a troubled army unit.
Warwick Davis is a fantastic actor – The Star Wars universe (canon and Legends at this point), Willow, the Harry Potter franchise, Merlin, and so on – and it was great to see someone other than the standard boring regal fare as a respected and adored emperor.
But the unnecessary evolution of the Cybermen into the Borg was a step too far for me.
Rating: 2/5 – “Mm? What’s that, my boy?”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.