Neil Gaiman reinvents the fearsome Cybermen and gets Doctor Who back on track
Last week, I was very down on the current season of Doctor Who, and I wondered if the wounds ran so deep that a decent comeback for the season was impossible. There were only two episodes left and the main supporting character (Clara) was still an unknown. Her lack of character progression was holding the show back.
However, legendary science fiction and fantasy writer Neil Gaiman penned this episode, and his only previous work on the series is one of my favorite episodes, “The Doctor's Wife.” The episode also featured Warwick Davis, and Willow makes everything better.
The duo didn't disappoint. “Nightmare in Silver” is the best episode of the season so far, and Gaiman hit some important notes that I'm hoping will strengthen the show in the long run.
A resurgent Clara
I was pretty clear about my disdain for Clara Oswin Oswald in my previous Doctor Who piece, but this was her strongest episode yet. In previous episodes her character felt hollow, and she lacked any sort of influence over the scenes she was in. A character with no agency is boring.
Gaiman made the decision to separate Clara and the Doctor in this episode to allow Clara more time to grow on her own. It was a great success, and she felt more natural and respectable in this episode than in any other. Gaiman even made her feel believable in her role as a deputized leader of a planetary defense force, an impressive feat considering Clara's Earthly occupation as a childcare professional.
Her decisions and actions flowed naturally from her personality. When she bosses around a group of soldiers, it felt believable, stemming from her tendency to follow strict orders from the Doctor. The Doctor told her to keep these grunts in check and so that is precisely what she does.
She never loses the few qualities I've always liked about her in the process. Gaiman adds to her usual repertoire of humor and faithfulness with wonderful new qualities like intelligence, bravery, and cleverness. Where before she was standing behind the Doctor asking what she should do, here she was commanding a platoon to set-up an Alamo-style defense against an army of Cybermen.
“Nightmare in Silver” was still just a one-off like every other episode this season, but it's a masterful one-off.
Hail Gaiman, savior of the Cybermen
Gaiman's chief triumph is the return of the Cybermen, both literally and figuratively. The Cybermen have been one of the chief villains of the modern incarnation of the series, but they've been beaten so many times that they were starting to look like chumps. How many times can the toughest guy in the room get beat up before people stop believing he's the toughest guy in the room? The Cybermen were taken down by Mickey's alternate universe guerrilla group, whooped by the Daleks, and even blown up by a father's love for his son. Not so intimidating anymore.
This episode essentially reboots Cyberman lore, and reforges them as an incredibly intimidating fighting force. They're remade into a bogeyman so fearsome that it's best just to implode the entire planet the second you find one. In the new tale of their origin, we're told that an entire galaxy had to be destroyed in order to stop their inevitable advance.
Gaiman and show runner Steven Moffat were reportedly attempting to confront the Cybermen's increasing wimpification, and they've done a phenomenal job. It's a standalone episode, so of course the Doctor wins the day, but without giving too much away: the Cybermen are never actually defeated in the strictest sense. They are now fast, fearsome, intelligent, and a much more well-rounded antagonist.
Gaiman's achievements with the plot of this episode are so strong that it's easy to forget about Warwick Davis as the lovable grunt worker Porridge. In any other episode he would have stolen the show, but Gaiman used him sparingly. It was a good choice.
I'm finally excited about Doctor Who again. After a fairly long drought this episode has me charged up for the season finale next week. I'm still not sold on Clara, but I hope future episodes follow Gaiman's example. The final episode, “The Name of the Doctor” is the big payoff. We've been told for the last eight episodes that the true identities of both Clara and the Doctor are shocking and interesting, and I hope they're able to make good on that promise.