“Nightmare in Silver”
How you feel about “Nightmare in Silver” may depend on how you measure it. In a vacuum, I think this was an excellent if flawed episode – a vacuum removed both from any real tie-in to the season-long mystery and from comparisons to Neil Gaiman’s previous Doctor Who episode, “The Doctor’s Wife”.
Then again, we don’t exist in a vacuum. The reality is that it was probably going to be impossible for Gaiman to live up to that standard, “Wife” being one of the best episodes since the reboot and possibly in the show’s history. And he doesn’t try here – this is a much more traditional Who episode, an adventure yarn rather than a deep psychological exploration of the very heart of the series. And while “Wife” was an episode that felt like it could only have been penned by Gaiman, “Nightmare” feels much less personal. I won’t call it “generic” – episodes this entertaining can’t be written by just anybody – but there’s nothing distinctive to Gaiman about it, either.
One suspects it’s due to Gaiman’s stature as a writer that he was given freedom to more or less ignore the season-long drama surrounding Clara, and I think the episode is better for it. There’s the odd mention here and there, but less than any other episode this season. I feel less positive about the inclusion of Clara’s babysitting charges Angie and Artie. Artie is fine, though little involved in the episode, but Angie is a real pill – snotty, irritating and wholly a drag on the episode. Gaiman normally writes child characters beautifully, but those are his own creations, and these two were someone else’s. Maybe it matters. In any event I think the ep would have been better without their presence.
The guest stars are better, especially well-known Warwick Davis as Porridge, the little person posing at part of a sideshow that’s packing a mighty big secret. Even better is Matt Smith, who delivers possibly his strongest performance as The Doctor – Gaiman really knows how to write for Smith, whose whimsical nature seems perfectly suited to the writer’s voice. And it’s nice to see the Cybermen return, this time with quite a lot to do and rather scary in the process. They’ve even upgraded the Cybermats – the old crescent rolls are now “Cybermites” and considerably more nasty than their old butter-slathered ancestors.
The best moments of the episode, no doubt, are Smith portraying The Doctor’s battle with himself as part of his brain is taken over by the Cyberiad. Naturally they’re thrilled to have access to a mind like this – the old Cybermen we knew couldn’t even on-board anything but a human being. The chess match – both metaphorical and literal – showcases both Smith and Gaiman’s most distinctive work of the episode. Plot-wise, it’s perfectly fine but nothing special – but plot wasn’t the strength of “The Doctor’s Wife”, either.
It’s kind of a shame there was so much riding on this episode, because it’s a good one – but not good enough to life the season overall above the mediocre category. It and “Hide” are probably the only two episodes that stand out as really strong, and the chemistry between The Doctor and Clara has never really taken off. In fact I find myself rather hoping her stay on The TARDIS is a short one, though the developments that will shake the DW mythology to the core which Steven Moffat promises in next week’s season finale surely don’t include a departure for Clara.