“Nightmare In Silver” is the second episode Neil Gaiman wrote for Doctor Who, after “The Doctor’s Wife” in Series 6. Series 7 rather infamously had a troubled, chaotic production, where the crew of the show had to deal with another split season, major cast changes, preparation for the 50th anniversary special that was right around the corner, and numerous last-minute rewrites that had to be done for the scripts in Series 7B, due to executive meddling. “Nightmare In Silver” was one of the episodes that was hurt the most by the production woes, and a lot of the ideas that you see in this episode had to be trimmed down and condensed from their original form to fit a 45-minute runtime (since there were no two-parters in Series 7). Neil Gaiman had previously had a lot of trouble with “The Doctor’s Wife” as well, before he asked Steven Moffat to help him with that script, so he’s no stranger to these sort of complications: working with a different and more demanding medium of fiction than usual.
Still, even if the transition from script to screen was a difficult one, “Nightmare In Silver” is a very unique episode of Doctor Who with a lot of creative concepts in it: like the punishment platoon, a gang of rejects that wind up becoming world-saving heroes; an emperor hiding among commoners, running away from the responsibilities of his throne; Cybermen haunting a theme park in the future, looking to exploit young minds; and two of the greatest minds in the galaxy fighting for control over the single body they’re sharing. “Nightmare In Silver” brings back the dark fairy tale aesthetic of the Eleventh Doctor’s era that’s been a lot less prominent in Series 7, and I’m quite happy to see it make a return. “Nightmare In Silver” is also the Eleventh Doctor’s last normal adventure in his tenure. The next three episodes are all going to be very lore-heavy, with a lot of status quo changes, as we prepare to say goodbye to our current leading man.
The Doctor has been friends with Clara Oswald for a while now, and “Nightmare In Silver” has a pretty noteworthy development when it comes to how their friendship is progressing. This episode is the first time the Doctor agrees to use time travel to do Clara a favor, and it won’t be the last time either, since it becomes a pretty common occurrence for the pair by Series 8. In “Nightmare In Silver”, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) decides to take Clara’s two young wards, Artie and Angie Maitland, to Hedgewick’s World – an abandoned theme park in the future – for a nice day of fun. In theory, it should be a nice, safe destination for a one-off trip in the TARDIS, that still has plenty of wonder to it.
However, before the day is done, the Doctor starts to suspect there’s something terribly wrong with the place and that the Cybermen are active in the area, so he decides to stick around longer than he planned to to investigate. Unfortunately, the Doctor’s hunch proves to be correct, and the kids are kidnapped right out from under his nose. The Doctor rushes off to save them and comes to the unfortunate discovery that the Cybermen have been upgrading themselves, and he’s now compatible with their technology, so they try to make him join their ranks. They only partially succeed in converting him, so two minds wind up sharing the same head. Something I’ve always found strange about this episode is that for a Cyberman, the Cyberplanner is awfully emotional and he gets worked up very easily, without any explanation given as to why this is the case (though presumably it’s because he’s trying to convert a time lord instead of a human and struggling with it). He honestly seems more like an evil version of Matt Smith’s Doctor than an emotionless cyborg.
Matt Smith is once again given the opportunity to play a double role in this episode (after he had previously done so in “The Rebel Flesh” last season). The Doctor develops a split personality where he constantly flips between his usual, talkative self and the hostile alien technology that’s trying to possess him. The two madmen fight for total control over his brain, pitting the razor sharp, world-changing intelligence of one of Gallifrey’s brightest time lords against a whole army of Cybermen. Once the two entities reach an impasse, they decide to settle things with a high stakes game of chess – which is really more for show than anything else.
The Doctor knows full well the Cyberplanner can’t be trusted, so he’s simply stalling for time until he and Clara can work out a way to stop the Cybermen. Basically, the Doctor and the Cyberplanner are two generals locked in a battle of wits and wills, while their makeshift soldiers partake in all the physical fighting. The Doctor is a skilled liar and he can usually bluff his way out of many tight spots, but he’s working at a disadvantage in this episode: the Cyberplanner can read his thoughts, which makes formulating a strategy rather difficult. And of course, the Cyberplanner can be quite deceptive himself. Using his control over the Doctor’s body, it’s not uncommon for the Cyberman to speak through him and pretend to be him, so he can sabotage Clara and the others from the inside. Thankfully, even when he’s stripped of his usual tricks, the Doctor is still sharp as a tack: he still manages to take advantage of a weak spot the Cyberplanner has by using his arrogance and his obsession with cold, hard logic to manipulate him into a trap. Once the Cybermen have been defeated, the Doctor makes good on his promise to bring the kids home safe, and all is well again for the Doctor and Clara – for now.
At the end of “The Crimson Horror“, Artie and Angie Maitland decided to blackmail their nanny over her secret pastime – going on time-traveling adventures with the Doctor – so now Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) has decided to keep them quiet by taking them with her on a trip into the future. It goes without saying that these pre-teens are in Clara’s care, and beyond that she’s known the Maitland siblings for years as friends of her family, so naturally, she’s very protective of them. When the Doctor decides they’ll all stay longer at Hedgewick’s World to investigate something bewildering, she’s very wary of the Doc potentially putting the kids in danger; and when that actually does happen, her claws come out as a super nanny very quickly. She makes it very clear that there will be hell to pay if the kids get injured or wind up dead because of his morbid curiosity.
There’s a platoon of soldiers stationed at Hedgewick’s World, who know quite a bit about the Cybermen, so in theory they would make for good allies, but they’re all inexperienced. They’re outnumbered and outgunned, and they’re fighting a losing battle against an army that never gets tired and never stops coming. They’re completely lost at the moment, and they need a leader. Porridge won’t step up to guide them, so Clara does. The Doctor needs some time to find the children and think of a way to stop the Cybermen, so he puts Clara in charge of everything in his absence, trusting her to think of a way to slow the metal invaders down. As you would imagine, Clara feels right at home calling the shots, since she always likes to feel like she’s in control during an emergency, but she’s still dealing with quite a bit of pressure as a civilian thrust right in the middle of a military operation.
It’s a pretty well-documented occurrence in Doctor Who that the Doctor’s friends gradually start to become more like soldiers the more they learn to adapt to his orders and start picking up his slack on missions: Martha’s character arc across Series 3 and 4 is an excellent example of that happening. In “Nightmare In Silver”, that process officially starts to kick in for Clara, when she has to pick up a weapon and fight for her life for the first time. Clara’s transformation into a more strategically-minded individual is highlighted a lot more in Series 8, once she starts dating Danny Pink and starts trying to emulate the Doctor’s behavior more often.
The challenge she’s faced with in “Nightmare In Silver” is a real test of her character, early on in her tenure. The last time one of the Doctor’s plans had a lot riding on her in “Cold War“, it didn’t go very well and she took her failure pretty hard, so this is a second chance for her to show what she’s made of. Throughout the hour, Clara has to keep everyone calm and keep everything under control, even if she wants to panic herself; she has to play to everyone’s strengths; she has to be adaptable and make hasty decisions (especially since the Cybermen can counter anything she throws at them); and she has to deal with insubordination in the ranks from the solders’ former captain constantly trying to undermine her authority. By now, Clara has learned a lot from the Doctor, including how to improvise – how to use any advantage she can find over a foe – and her growth during Series 7B is finally starting to pay off. Jenna Coleman landed her gig as Clara Oswald because she was a fast talker, because she could easily keep up with Matt Smith, and that skill is put on full display in this episode when Clara has to make a lot of snap decisions for the group, with or without the Doctor’s input.
“Nightmare In Silver” is populated with a lot of side characters, starting with Artie and Angie Maitland, the two mischievous kids that Clara often watches. Their personalities are basically pre-teen stereotypes. Artie is a bookish, nerdy kid who’s good at chess and is very knowledgeable about things that most people don’t really care about. His older sister, Angie, is a moody teenager who downplays everything she feels, because she thinks she’s too cool for emotions. Angie spends a lot of time sulking about her teen angst, but she does have her share of hidden depths: after all, she catches on to Porridge’s big secret long before anyone else does. After them, there’s Mr. Webbley, the unfortunate owner of Hedgewick’s World who isn’t long for the world once this story is properly underway. He’s an eccentric, worldly man who decided to buy a theme park because he loves children. Unbeknownst to him, the Cybermen set up shop in his property, because they want to weaponize the minds of visiting children for their own gain.
There’s also a punishment platoon of soldiers stationed in the area, in the middle of nowhere, to get them out of everyone else’s way because they were so incompetent at their jobs – making them the plucky, young underdogs of this episode who are pitted against the far mightier Cybermen. They’re initially led Alice Ferrin, who has no respect for Clara because she knows even less about leading an army than she does, and she doesn’t think very highly of an emperor who abandoned his post either. She’s fanatically prepared to kamikaze herself and everyone else for the glorious cause of eliminating the Cybermen, because a massive loss of life is considered to be acceptable collateral damage in the future. Thankfully, one of the Cybermen kills her before she has a chance to betray everyone else.
The last notable human character would be Porridge (Warwick Davis), who’s steadily revealed to be a member of the galaxy’s imperial family. Porridge is an emperor in hiding, who’s running away from the responsibilities of the throne. Being the ruler of an entire galaxy is incredibly restricting: ever since he was a boy, he’s never had real freedom, and he’s had to make hard choices, sacrificing lives for the greater good of the galaxy. It’s implied that he might have even had to blow up an entire galaxy in the past to stop the Cybermen, and had to live with that on his conscience afterwards. So naturally, he’s in no hurry to go back to his old post. Porridge is a warm, personable, courageous person, but he also has a selfish steak: he could have ended the crisis with the Cybermen a lot sooner than he did, but he didn’t want to blow his cover until he absolutely had to.
A few people manage to catch on to him before anyone else, including Alice. As someone who served under his family in the past, she both respects him and resents him, viewing him as a weak leader who refuses to do what needs to be done (i.e. condemning them all to death on a suicide mission). Over the course of the hour, Porridge develops a crush on Clara, because she is quite a remarkable woman, and he eventually proposes to her. But she has to return to her own time, and she doesn’t want to marry someone she just met, so she gently turns him down, and while he’s disappointed by her answer, he takes it well. I always like to see side-characters in this show become smitten with the companions, like William Shakespeare’s infatuation with Martha or Vincent Van Gogh’s crush on Amy, because why should the Doctor have all the fun turning the heads of strangers they encounter? These sorts of things are always cute to see. Besides, the true ship that’s being teased in this episode is the Doctor and Clara, which is given a few more nudges on both ends.
“Nightmare In Silver” is set pretty far in humanity’s future, after the great Cyber wars that raged across the galaxy. Entire worlds were destroyed during that period to stop the Cybermen from spreading, and now they’re supposedly extinct. The Doctor doesn’t buy that for a minute, and for good reason. Really, they’re just lying in wait, building their strength back up with fresh meat again. “Nightmare In Silver” revamps the Cybermen for the Moffat era and gives them a fresh new look, for the first time since “The Age Of Steel” in Series 2. The Cybermen in that two-parter had very bulky, industrial designs that made them quite intimidating, while the Cybermen in this episode are a lot more sleek and streamlined: they’ve clearly been built for speed.
When he sat down to write this episode, Neil Gaiman gave himself the challenge of making the Cybermen scarier than they were before, and he certainly succeeded in doing that. They have super speed and super strength, they’re computer geniuses, they can upgrade themselves in the middle of a battle to remove their old weaknesses, and they’re practically an unstoppable army that will never stop coming – since their numbers always grow with every human causality, like a plague of metallic zombies. “Nightmare In Silver” is probably the Cybermen’s most impressive showing since “The Next Doctor“, compared to the small cameos they had in “The Pandorica Opens” and “A Good Man Goes To War“, and their portrayal in “Closing Time“, where they were so weak that they were easily defeated by the power of love (and the power of James Corden). At the end of the day, the Cybermen are supposedly destroyed en masse with a planet-shattering bomb, but Neil Gaiman includes a last minute tease that they’re still out there, and it’s only a matter of time before they make their comeback again like they always do.
“Nightmare In Silver” is directed by Stephen Woolfenden, who does a fantastic job of giving this story a lively amount of energy by choosing his shots carefully. I’m particularly impressed by how well the show’s editors handle the two main storylines unfolding. Each passing scene advances the Doctor and Clara’s dilemmas, little by little, and as we get closer and closer to the climax, with the stakes rising on both sides, the cuts start to grow tighter and tighter and much more frenetic. When you combine the rising action with Murray Gold’s strident score, the climax is a lot of fun to watch. Like “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS“, “Nightmare In Silver” has a very bold and striking color scheme where blue and purple lighting seem to be constantly contrasted with each other, especially inside Hedgewick’s World and the Cyberman’s ship.
A lot of location shooting for this episode was done inside Castell Coch in South Wales, which ironically gives us an futuristic story set inside an old school historical landmark. “Nightmare In Silver” sports some really beautiful CGI shots from the Mill that give Hedgewick’s World a convincing amount of depth and scale as a location, along with the cutaways to the Cybermen’s ship and the scenes inside the Doctor’s head of him and Mr. Clever talking to each other, though the long shots of the Cybermen walking together in unison aren’t always as solid. Murray Gold’s score combines plenty of harsh brass and funky electronic beats with the soft, gentle touch of woodwind instruments like the oboe, creating new variations of his iconic Cybermen theme like “Upgrade In Progress“, “The Dream Of Cyberia” and “Cyber Army” (he also brings back “March Of The Cybermen” from Series 4). “The Emperor’s Wife” is one of the most beautiful variations on “The Mad Man With A Box” that he’s written so far, and it helps to make the emotional climax of this episode quite sweet.
As the last ‘normal’ episode of Series 7, “Nightmare In Silver” is certainly a fun outing from Neil Gaiman that gives Matt Smith a lot of interesting things to do as the Doctor, gives Clara Oswald a sizable chunk of character development before the season finale arrives, and gives the Cybermen their best showing as villains in several seasons.
* “Careful now. An empty shell, and yet it moves. How?” “Magic” Bless, Angie. She gave a dull answer to a dull question.
* “Don’t wander off! Now, I’m not just saying don’t wander off, I mean it. Otherwise you’ll wander off and the next thing you know, somebody’s going to have to start rescuing somebody”.
* ” I feel like a monster sometimes” “Why?” “Because instead of mourning a billion trillion dead people, I just feel sorry for the poor blighter who had to press the button and blow it all up”.
* “She always has to turn up and spoil everything! I wasn’t doing anything. Why can’t you just leave me alone?!” Angie, honey, have you forgotten that you literally blackmailed Clara into taking you on this trip? If you’ve already gotten sick of her already, you pretty much have yourself to thank for that.
* “Put me down! I hate you!” I don’t think the Cyberman really cares, Angie.
* “Natty Longshoe’s Comical Castle” “A real castle? With a drawbridge and a moat?” “Yes, but comical”.
* “We needed children, but the children had stopped coming. You brought us children. Hail to you, the Doctor, savior of the Cybermen!”
* “I trust the Doctor” “You think he knows what he’s doing?” “I’m not sure I’d go that far”.
* “So much raw data. Time Lords. There’s information on the Time Lords in here. Oh, this is just dreamy!”
* “If he wins, I give up my mind and he gets access to all my memories, along with knowledge of time travel. But, if I win, he’ll break his promises to get out of my head and then kill us all anyway” “That’s not reassuring!” “No, it isn’t”.
* “Which one of you said that?” “Me. Cyberplanner. Mr. Clever. Now, if you don’t mind, I have a chess game to finish, and you have to die, pointlessly and very far from home. Toodle-loo“.
* “Brilliant. Pass it here” “No” “Why not?” “In case you’re not you right now. Or even if you are, just in case”.
* “He got what he wanted. He destroyed the trigger. My move” “What do you mean, he got what he wanted?” “He means: good news, boys and girls. THEY’RE HERE!!!”
* “One gun, five hand-pulsers and a planet smashing bomb that doesn’t work any more” “Why not?” “Broken trigger unit” “But you signed for that!” Such is the way of war.
* “I’ve learned so much from you, Doctor. It’s been an education. But now, it’s time for the endgame!”
* “Emotions, Doctor, all for two human children you barely know. And it was a pointless sacrifice anyway. So, Doctor, do you think the children’s death will affect your relationship with Ms. Clara?”
* “THAT’S CHEATING!!!” “Nah, just taking advantage of the local resources”.
* “Do you think I’m pretty?” “No. You’re too short and bossy, and your nose is all funny” Savage, Doctor.
* “But that’s stupid! You could be queen of the universe. How can you say no to that? When someone asks you if you want to be queen of the universe, you say yes. You watch. One day, I’ll be queen of the universe” Angie’s a girl with a big ambitions. Good for her.
* “Impossible girl. A mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that’s just a little bit too tight…” Thanks for the cringe, Doctor Who. I can buy that the Doctor has a crush on Clara, but that does not sound like Doctor dialogue, Neil Gaiman.