Doctor Who has been many television shows over the years, but for many people the show reached its perfect formula in the mid-1960s, with stories about a handful of people trying to withstand an army of Cybermen. Or Ice Warriors. Or Yeti. Neil Gaiman is one of those people, and he's created a perfect tribute to that era of Who.
Earlier this season, we already had the Ice Warrior-centric "Cold War," which was a nearly spot-on rendition of the "base under siege" story from Patrick Troughton's (sadly mostly junked) second season. And now, Gaiman does for the Cybermen more or less what Mark Gatiss did for the Ice Warriors, with "Nightmare in Silver." The Doctor and his companions, plus a handful of bedraggled humans, are forced to fight for their lives in a terrible amusement park in space, holed up in Natty Longshoe's ComicalCastle.
The Doctor is sort of the ultimate quirky non-conformist, improvising and inventing things to get him out of each scrape he gets into, so pitting him against a faceless threat that can't be reasoned with is always a good thing. Doctor Who has often been at its best when the Doctor is having a battle of wits against a scary foe, trying to keep the monsters out and find some hidden weakness in the apparently invulnerable foe.
It's been a rough time for the Cybermen. They were reinvented as the products of an alternate early-21st century Earth (and thus lower tech than the Mondas versions), then pitted against the Daleks and basically shredded. Then they had their entire space fleet blown up, purely to make Rory look more badass at their expense. And then they were defeated by a father's love for his son.
So this episode has a lot of heavy lifting to do, to bring the Cybermen back. Their shells get a slight redesign this time around, but more than anything Neil Gaiman gives them a whole new legend.
This was the Cybermen's version of "Dalek"
Way back in 2005, when the new series had to reintroduce the Daleks, writer Rob Shearman did it with a story that rebuilt their whole legend — a single Dalek was dangerous enough to destroy cities, just on its own. And the Daleks had been in a massive, terrible war with the Time Lords, which was the reason the Doctor was so traumatized and weird.
This episode attempts to do much the same thing for the Cybermen — we're told over and over that if you find even a single Cyberman on a planet, you must blow up the planet immediately. The Cybermen are that dangerous. And defeating the Cybermen in the great Cyber-war required destroying an entire galaxy full of countless sentients, just to stop their relentless advance and adaptation.
All of the stuff we hear about the Cybermen's terrible legacy, and how much more badass they've become after countless upgrades, is pretty great — and meanwhile, we get to see a single Cyberman lay waste to an (admittedly incompetent) platoon of soldiers, doing crazy shit like removing its head or hand, and surviving the humans' direct assaults.
And meanwhile, the Cybermen have gotten sneakier again — instead of the big and often somewhat cuddly Cybermats, they now have tiny Cybermites, which are like silverfish, scurrying around and watching everything, so they can assimilate it. (Gaiman told us on a conference call the other day that when the Doctor is assimilated, he wanted the stuff on the Doctor's face to look like an assortment of Cybermites, all stuck together.)
The stuff about making the Cybermen powerful and terrifying again is the best part of the episode, with its very deliberate nods to stories like "The Moonbase," "Tomb of the Cybermen" and "Earthshock." Gaiman isn't just making the Cybermen hard to kill or less clompy than the previous versions — he's creating a whole new backstory for them, with the Cyber-wars and the galaxy that had to be destroyed, and it works amazingly well — especially when filtered through the character of Porridge. (More on him in a bit.)
So now we know what an evil Eleventh Doctor would be like
Meanwhile, the other part of the episode involves a battle for control over the Eleventh Doctor. Depending on your point of view, Gaiman is either bringing the Cybermen back to their roots or making them more like the Borg in this episode — a lot of what was cool about the Borg was really just features of the Cybermen, taken to their logical extreme — and thus we get a "Locutus of Borg" storyline with the Doctor as Picard.
And here's where the episode makes an interesting, somewhat counter-intuitive choice: instead of having the Evil Cyber-Doctor (the Cyber-planner, or "Mr. Clever") act like a Cyberman, or some kind of emotionless, logical version of the Doctor, the story makes Mr. Clever act... pretty much the same way the Doctor always does. Just more evil.
The main difference between Matt Smith's performance as the Doctor and his turn as Mr. Clever is that Mr. Clever is slightly more over-the-top, somewhat more manipulative, and maybe a bit more like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. (With the shouting "boys and girls" and "they're heeeeeeeeere" sort of reminiscent of "Here's Johnny!")
Why is Mr. Clever more or less just a nastier version of the Eleventh Doctor? I can think of a couple of reasons:
1) The show is trying to show us that an evil Doctor is not that much different than the regular Doctor, at this point. The Doctor is already a cold, manipulative, sarcastic fucker, who views his regular companion more as a scientific curiosity than as a person. So when you take away the Doctor's human emotions and scruples, you get... the Doctor.
2) The Doctor is such a superior life form that when the Cybermen try to assimilate him, they wind up becoming more Doctor than Cyberman. There's some evidence for this, particularly in the stuff that Mr. Clever says about this new brain having amazing processing power. Of course, this version of the Cybermen likes to turn children into Cyber-planners, so maybe there's something about the Cyber-planner that requires that extra amount of creativity as well.
I'm still not sure how much I like the whole "Doctor vs. Mr. Clever" subplot — for one thing, it involves a lot of Matt Smith shouting at himself, and even though I still love Matt Smith's Doctor, his shouty moments are my least favorite aspect of his performance.
For another, I'm not sure if this storyline really gets at what makes the Cybermen cool — in "Cold War," a few episodes back, Mark Gatiss worked really hard to respect the core of the Ice Warriors as characters (their honor, their warrior code, etc.). But the core of the Cybermen is that they value logic above all other things. The entire plot of "Tomb of the Cybermen" involves the Cybermen trying to find the most logical humans to turn into Cybermen. But here, suddenly, the Cybermen want children to be their new "Cyber-planners," and turning into a dancing, singing "Mr. Clever" is seen as an improvement. The Cybermen's focus on logic was always one of the main things that was chilling about them — they used to be humans, but they threw that away to become interested only in cold utilitarianism.
So I'm not sure why the Cybermen would want children, or why they would welcome becoming as theatrical and outwardly emotional as Mr. Clever. It feels like sort of like adding the Borg Queen to the Borg — it makes the Cybermen more relatable, but at the cost of some of their core identity.
Warwick Davis steals the episode
But meanwhile, back to the stuff that absolutely, unquestionably works in this episode: Warwick Davis is amazing as Porridge, the Galactic Emperor. Porridge is working for Mr. Webley, as the secret heart of his "chess-playing robot," and we quickly learn that there's more to him than meets the eye — he's a master chess-player, for one thing, and for another he seems to have genuine feelings about the "poor bastard" who had to blow up a galaxy to stop the Cybermen.
And he shoulders a lot of the burden of explaining the new backstory of the Cybermen, who were "technologically upgraded warriors. We couldn't win. Sometimes we fought to a draw but then they'd upgrade themselves, fix the weaknesses and destroy us. It's hard to fight an enemy that uses your armies as spare parts."
The episode telegraphs pretty early on that this is the missing emperor, on the run because he couldn't live with the responsibility (and the guilt) any longer — but the reveal still carries some weight because of Davis' grim humor and resignation. There's just something about the wry sardonic humor that Davis brings to lines like, "Let's go spend the night at Natty Longshoe's ComicalCastle."
And honestly, Clara makes the biggest mistake of her life, not marrying Porridge. Not only is he an emperor, but he's totally a sweetie, and you know Clara is probably doomed if she sticks with the Doctor.
Meanwhile, the other big guest stars in the episode are the children, Artie and Angie, who... sigh. Artie mostly works, with his glee at being on the spacey zoomer and his strait-laced reading of lines like "I think outer space is actually very interesting." And it's nice to see children traveling in the TARDIS again, maybe for the first time in the new series.
Meanwhile, Angie's disdain for the Doctor, the TARDIS and all of this "new planet" stuff is a bit overplayed, and makes her seem like a bit of a weirdo — wouldn't she be at least a little bit blown away to be on a distant planet in the future? A wee bit? The episode tries to make her seem awesome by doing the thing Doctor Who always does with the companions these days — Angie notices something everybody else missed, and thus figures out that Porridge is the Emperor — but she's still kind of a weird parody of a sulky teenager. I sort of get that her mother died and she's still in shock about it, but we don't actually get any of that from the episode.
Clara, meanwhile, gets to be totally badass — the Doctor randomly puts her in command of the platoon, so they won't blow up the planet, and she gets to spread her wings a bit, coming up with a plan for getting to a defensible location, and figuring out how best to use their limited number of weapons against the Cyber-army. And dealing with the Doctor's split personality, including Mr. Clever's weird attempts to get inside her head and disarm her by flirting with her. Her slapping the Doctor never stops being funny, too.
The Cybermen's ultimate weakness
In the end, the key to defeating the Cybermen in this episode is sort of a mishmash of old-school "confusing a computer" stuff and some of the Borg's greatest hits.
The Doctor gets the best of "Mr. Clever" early in the episode by putting his golden ticket on his own face, because there's still a vulnerability to gold buried somewhere deep in the Cybermen's code. (Which, huh — originally, gold hurt the Cybermen because it was a non-corrosive metal that blocked their "breathing apparatus." Why would it be in their code? But okay.)
His ultimate victory, meanwhile, comes down to some classic "saying something impossible so the computer will freeze up" stuff. Just like the Prisoner asking the computer "Why" or Jon Pertwee feeding B.O.S.S. the Liar's Paradox. The Doctor is five moves away from losing his chess game against Mr. Clever, but he claims he's going to win within three moves. This freaks out Mr. Clever so much that he puts all of his processing power — including the brains of the entire Cyber-army — into figuring out how.
In a way, this is like Locutus putting the Borg to sleep. The Cybermen are so tied up dealing with this impossible scenario, they all shut down. Which leads to an interesting point — why would the Cybermen be so heavily networked? Sure, being able to access all the processing power of every Cyberman has an obvious advantage, in case you need to do some really complex math, but it also has a very obvious downside. The Cybermen have eliminated weaknesses like gold and "cleaning fluid" (actually, it was nail-polish remover, which is even funnier), but they've introduced a much worse weakness along the way.
A networked system is ultimately vulnerable — you take down one machine, you can take down the whole lot. Even the feeble humans on Battlestar Galactica understood this, which is why it was against regulations to have anything networked. But the Cybermen have gone the other way — there was no indication that any previous version of the Cybermen were linked mentally or connected to some kind of Cyber-internet (like the mindspace where the Doctor and Mr. Clever can stand side by side.) The Cybermen always had to convey information by standing around and talking to each other, in big expository scenes. They even watched television together.
So why would the Cybermen become so heavily networked that if you confuse them enough the whole lot shut down? I guess because this is part of the new "adaptive" version — they are totally unstoppable because they can adapt to anything, but this comes with a huge downside: in order to learn quickly and upgrade themselves, they have to be linked together. So in a way, overcoming your past weaknesses involves creating a new, even worse weakness.
In the end, the planet gets imploded and there's apparently nothing left of the Cybermen — except for one stray Cybermite, floating in space. Which the Emperor and his people completely fail to spot. This episode does a great job of laying the groundwork for a brand new Cybermen saga, in which they have a new legend to replace their tarnished old one. Whenever the new Cybermen come back, let's hope Porridge is back as well — he's sort of like their Ninth Doctor, and we need to see more of him facing his Cyber-demons.