Doctor Who Nightmare in Silver review: An almighty Cyber flop I’d never willingly sit through again

"Despite Matt Smith's gallant efforts, his scenes as the Cyber-Planner are a mess." It's safe to say Patrick Mulkern is not a fan of Neil Gaiman's latest episode...

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There’s duff and then there’s Cyberduff. Oh dear. I really had high hopes for Nightmare in Silver – especially as I’d sat opposite Neil Gaiman, the high-profile fantasy author, at BBC Broadcasting House a few months ago, listening while he set up the story, professed his intention to make the Cybermen scary again and claimed to have given Matt Smith some juicy material. All very persuasive.

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Gaiman was generous with his time and the full interview on RadioTimes.com makes for interesting reading. So I feel more than a little ungracious in having to say that Nightmare in Silver is an almighty Cyber flop, more wretched, perhaps, than Revenge of the Cybermen (an unloved early Tom Baker serial), Silver Nemesis, the execrable 25th anniversary story with Sylvester McCoy and The Next Doctor, that Christmas 2008 claptrap with David Tennant.

Gaiman’s previous effort, The Doctor’s Wife in 2011, began worryingly before building towards brilliance, but I’ve often wondered how much massage the script enjoyed before it reached the screen. With Nightmare in Silver, Gaiman admits he performed several rewrites, but this time it looks like the deadline arrived and someone at BBC Wales was obliged to say, “Time’s up! We’ve got to set this turkey free.”

The blame can’t be laid squarely at Neil Gaiman’s door, of course. Doctor Who is a team effort and thus a team success or team failure. This is a waste of everybody’s time. The weird thing is that it almost works. The story is certainly inventive. It’s hard to keep refreshing and developing the Cybermen after 47 years, but here they function as we’ve never seen before.

They’re faster – engaging a zoom mode. They can upgrade almost instantly to face new obstacles – although surely electrocution by water must have been deployed against them before. The voice is an improvement on the 2006 version, but the much-vaunted design tweaks, including soppy-looking spoon-faces, are minimal and not worth dwelling on.

The Cybermites – wriggly earwigs capable of reviving defunct Cybermen and getting humans onto the first rung of conversion – are also a neat idea, but where have they sprung from on this desolate world? And why now? There’s no explanation.

The Cyber Planner – a sort of higher brain, a disembodied controlling force – isn’t a new idea. It was established in 1968 and back then looked like an assemblage of junk that had been found lying around the visual effects workshop. It was also marginally more effective, and certainly more sinister, than its representation here: dodgy swirling backgrounds for the meeting of Time Lord and Cyber minds and prosthetics glued to Matt Smith’s face.

And here we reach the principal failing of the drama: the many scenes where the Cyber Planner-possessed Doctor flips between personas. Despite Matt Smith’s gallant efforts, they’re a mess. The dialogue should have been tightened. Less frenetic camerawork might have given the scenes focus, elicited a concentrated performance. Instead, the star of the show is left to flounder, to look like a big kid play-acting at being goody then baddy. It’s exposing – and uncomfortable to watch, for the wrong reason.

But nobody fares well. I’ve liked Jenna-Louise Coleman since the Christmas special, but here Clara seems closer to the cocky Oswin in Asylum of the Daleks. Her delivery is snappy and rarely sounds like natural speech. The two kids – sullen Angie and frightfully well-spoken Artie – are annoying. When they’re placed in danger, I don’t give tuppence what happens to them.

Worst affected is Tamzin Outhwaite as Alice Ferren, captain of the wishy-washy punishment platoon. After a lot of posturing and blather about duty, she is shot dead on the castle ramparts, but this potentially dramatic moment is so limply directed, you’re not even sure that it has happened. Her character is of such little consequence that her full name doesn’t appear in the credits (she’s billed as “Captain”). What a waste of a good actress. 

Warwick Davis is the only person teetering towards a decent characterisation, although he gets off to a bad start. Are we seriously supposed to swallow the conceit that Porridge has been sitting inside a defunct Cyberman, under a cloth, in a darkened alcove in Webley’s waxworks, just on the rare off-chance a visitor might drop by? Davis gives the likeable Porridge moments of charm, but when he’s revealed as an emperor in hiding, then starts flirting with the ladies, I want to hide myself.

Am I missing important points here but why is Porridge in hiding? Why do the platoon have a glove, weapons and bomb suitable for tackling Cybermen if the war took place a thousand years ago. This is like expecting today’s British Army to be primed to fend off the Normans. Rubbish! And why, when we’ve been warned several times to expect an implosion, do we witness an explosion?

The episode presents a procession of quirky but underfed characters engaged in un-dramatic incidents, underpinned by incessant burbling music that fails to lift one duff scene after another. The settings are especially tacky from the lunar landscape to the waxworks to the garishly illuminated Natty Longshoe’s Comical Castle. The whole enterprise starts to recall wackier episodes of 1960s US show Lost in Space. This is not a compliment. Porridge’s imperial spaceship looks like yet another meagrely tarted-up municipal hall in Cardiff.

Among 21st-century episodes, Nightmare in Silver now joins Fear Her, The Doctor’s Daughter, The Beast Below and The Curse of the Black Spot in the mercifully small gallery of duds that I would never willingly sit through again.

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If, like me, you twisted and groaned throughout Nightmare in Silver, fret not. Misfires interleaved with classics have been the Doctor Who tradition for 50 years, and next week’s season finale is… something very special, quite emotional and momentous!