We've long waited for a more personal look into the life of the Doctor and his adventures. And oh, did things ever get personal tonight during writer Neil Gaiman's return to Doctor Who, "Nightmare in Silver." The penultimate chapter in series (oops, sorry Americans: season) 7 found our fair Doctor battling one of his oldest enemies: the Cybermen. Seemingly extinct for thousands of years at this point in time and space, the oft-hokey baddie went ahead and upgraded itself for 2013 — causing a turn for the terrifying at Hedgewick's World of Wonders, the now-defunct theme park planet home that once was the most terrific place in time and space. The biggest and the best there ever was: so what happened?
The Recap Itself
Well: the Cybermen have been reborn and they're hardly the bad guy we remember (that's a good thing). The Doctor arrived at Hedgewick's with Clara, Artie, and Angie (her two wards from the first episode, "The Bells of Saint John") in tow, only to discover that the planet theme park is now closed by Imperial Order from the Emperor of the human race that we later learn to be actor Warwick Davis, a.k.a. Porridge.
Davis' work as the Emperor stands alone, to me, as one of the best guest stars the show has seen this season, and his parallels with the Doctor and his scenes with Clara were some of the best moments of emotional expositing we've encountered. From his mourning of the Tiburion Galaxy ("I feel like a monster sometimes. Because instead of mourning a million trillion dead people, I just feel for the bloke who had th push the button.") to the secrets he kept to protect his people, the parallels between the Emperor and the Doctor were great. The Emperor — just like the Doctor — abandoned his home planet to protect the human race. Lonely monsters indeed.
We also met the weirdly Willy Wonka-esque Webly, who has his own ship of Wonders burrowed into the ground, complete with wax work (like the phrase "human wax works" was seen on alley signs in "The Crimson Horror"?) statues of some of the most infamous creatures the universe has ever seen. And if that wasn't enough to give you a serious case of the heeby-geebies, surely the next bit would.
How about a game, friends? Better yet: how about a game of chess with a Cyberman! Eek. Seems a simple enough task, but sure did turn high stakes rather quickly. Chess seems to be a bit of repetitive storytelling, as it was this very game that he used to manipulate the man that worked for The Silence in "The Wedding of River Song." (Live chess to be exact. Man's name was Gantok.) But yet, the game of chess goes from simple to deadly after a group of Cybermites (one of a seeming unending and constantly evolving set of upgrades the clunky baddies made to become truly terrifying) have attached themselves to the Doctor to be upgraded into the system, and therefore fully integrated to what are — according to a plaque on the wall — "The Great Enemy." But if the enemy is so Great, why didn't they use that crazy-fast-run-walk-speedy-thingy all the time? Certainly to unwit the Doctor, you must outrun him. And nothing is scarier than the thought of someone who could ever outrun the Doctor.
Turns out the Cybermen were alive the whole time, merely in wait — but waiting for what? Waiting for children, or a savior of a kind? But if it was just anyone they wanted — why not use Webly or the Emperor or one of the members of the Imperial Guard? Because these Cybermen, I think, were waiting for either the Doctor or his companions. (Because who else can defeat the Doctor but the Doctor himself, eh?)
Now it seems, the Doctor is fighting against time at both ends — stuck yet again in the middle of two warring sides.
Clara is put in charge of the guard and they head off to the "comical castle," which is just a lovely way for Gaiman to inject a bit of humor into the episode's seemingly perma-zingy dialogue. Gaiman was at his best when characters were communicating with one another. Except of course, when he was at his greatest — which was when he was writing for the Doctor and this Cyber-Planner alterna-Doctor.
Here, for me, is where the episode really sung and Gaiman's strengths were most effective: Matt Smith playing two sides of himself. I know I'm prone to a bit of hyperbole here and there (and everywhere), but seriously: Matt's Doctor/Cyber-Planner/Mr. Clever (which, "clever" !!!!) moments were a tightrope act of balance and performance that he pulled off with a level of deft and precision that I thoroughly enjoyed. Honestly, it's such a delight to see the Doctor's wits used against him and Smith pulls it off with a startling intelligence. Playing those different aspects of the Doctor's personality against one another is where Smith's talents as an actor shine the brightest, I think. My Doctor might always been Ten, but Eleven really has won me over this season. His performances are always far more dynamic that many fans give them credit for because it's hard to see just how nuanced they are until all the pieces have been set. When people go back for a second look at this season, they'll like it a lot more than they do now.
But let's get back to the story. Hedgewick's World of Wonder was simply a trap designed to capture children to use to make more Cybermen. Children's brains are far more malleable and therefore, easily upgraded. Children are the future, as they say. (Teach them well and let them lead the waaaaay!) Infinite potential, which in turn means they're so much more than just a bunch of spare parts for repairs. Apparently, the next model of Cybermen "will be undefeatable."
Undefeatable, likely due to the Doctor's mind. And in his mind we learn so much and yet so little — only what the Doctor wants Mr. Clever here to see.
Like the moments of regeneration. Which: Hello! We need to talk about this. The giant explosion between Ten and Eleven is a bit of a game-changer, is it not? Because it gives us an alternate we never thought of: what if something happened between Ten and Eleven. And what was that "thing"? What does it mean? Was there once a missing Doctor there? Is he sealed within the Time War? Is Eleven actually not the Eleventh Doctor, but the Twelfth? The moment didn't give us much, visually. But here's what we saw in that "explosion":
It looked like the wisps of regeneration, but with a green light in the right-hand corner. Is that a planet? The one from Ahkaten? Or, is that when Oswin Oswald erased him from history, in turn creating a paradox (where there are two Doctors living two different realities of time (with him and without him)? I wonder if [POTENTIALLY SPOILERY STUFF AHEAD] this weird blip in time is what ties John Hurt's upcoming guest role in the 50th into the storyline. [POTENTIALLY SPOILERY STUFF DONE] All the other Doctor renegerations flowed fluidly from one to the next up until that point: why was it so disruptive when Ten rengerated into Eleven? (Or is this all just because Ten was feelin' bratty and not ready to let go at the end there?)
The Doctor used his threat of insta-regeneration to successfully keep Mr. Clever from fully integrating the Doctor's brain into the main Cyber hub. "After me, who knows what'll pop out," the Doctor threatened. There's .223% of the Doctor's brain up for grabs, and whoever controls this controls the whole Doctor. What is that .223%? Is that the mental Clara block? Is there a battle between the two Doctors to control Clara, or is that .223% the "sliver of ice" that Emma Grayling mentioned during "Hide"? Regardless, it's apparently nothing a wee game of chess can't solve.
So we all know that the Doctor's been eliminating himself from history (thanks to the help of good ole Oswin Oswald), but did he not consider the fact that doing so could cause one seriously epic paradox? All the good he'd done just, what, vanished without consequence? Please. The repercussions are bound to be insane. Because as Mr. Clever told us: "You know you could be reconstructed by the hole you've left." Like... out of spare parts? ("We didn't have the parts." - a line from one of those clocks from "The Girl in the Fireplace." AGAIN, I know! I'm obsessed.) Perhaps this is why the Doctor's companions are all being chased after: through their eyes and minds the Doctor can be reconstructed and used as a weapon.
Still, the Doctor has a golden ticket, and utilized that gold to interfere with the Cyber-interface, giving him slightly greater (albeit temporary) control over the flip and flop between Mr. Clever and himself. And in those moments, the Doctor is able to leverage a side of him we rarely ever see him use: his emotions. Emotions are seen as the enemy, and losing the game of chess was an act of emotion that landed the Doctor in a position of control again (also thanks to Porridge's expertly-timed entrance into the fold with the cybertech-killing hand-thingy). Oh also also Time Lords invented chess. What a bunch of clever folks!
They're not the only clever ones, though: turns out Angie figured out pretty early on that Porridge was in fact the long-missing Emperor of the human race. Upon defeating Mr. Clever and all of the Cybermen, we were transported to a ship that looked a heck of a lot like the place where Rose Tyler and Nine saw the world explode. And here, again, we see the world explode.
The Emperor finishes out the episode with a monologue about how people will keep a close eye on him now that he's been found. A post he calls the loneliest in the universe: being the emperor. A job, Clara insisted, didn't have to mean he was lonely. Naturally, the Emperor has fallen a bit for Clara (haven't we all in a way?) and offers her a proper marriage proposal: Clara, Queen of the Universe! One small hitch: Clara does not want to rule a thousand galaxies. Lucky for the Emperor though, because if he's still looking, it's a title Angie seems quite keen to tackle: "When someone asks you to be Queen of the Universe, you say yes. You watch. One day: I'll be Queen of the Universe." Ooh snap, could Angie be Liz Ten from the early days of Amy and Eleven ("The Beast Below")? I think I'd like that, really.
- Angie got a new phone as a "gift from the TARDIS." Interesting!
- "See you next Wednesday." Oh, wait, does Clara only go on adventures with the Doctor on Wednesdays? He says, "Well, A Wednesday," signifying that he never knows when he'll see her next, either.
- Upon making a slightly objectifying comment about Clara: "What are you?" the Doctor asks himself. And for once, I don't think he's talking about Clara.
Next week's episode is going to be a DOOZY:
Oh my — Clara born to save the Doctor, eh? Well I have long being saying her life was part of something bigger. And hoo boy, do I have some theories for you!
The Nerdy Stuff
Holy cats, you guys. OK — now let's talk about the good stuff: fun theory crazy shenanigan time. There's a lot of subversive stuff going on that has continued throughout this season: leaving the TARDIS far away from the center of the action, and there's just so much emphasis on whether or not the Doctor has a plan. For the past few episodes especially, it seems particularly pointed, the way they're constantly mentioning how The Doctor doesn't have a plan (when he usually always does. But as we know, rule one: The Doctor lies.), which in turn causes the humans in the stories to step up and solve the problems du jour. Sure, these companions have all been human thus far, but each one has been mentioned or referenced this season. Every single one: it's as if they're all connected.
Which in turn feels, to me, like an attempt on Steven Moffat's part to link the past, classic Doctor Who to its current, new-Who iteration. Allow me to explain what I mean.
We already know that experimentation has come up a few times. Again, I feel brought back to "The Girl in the Fireplace," a.k.a. Madame Du Pompadour a.k.a. Reinette. A name which is awfully close to The Rani (Reinette meaning "Little Queen" and The Rani meaning "Queen" as well). We never fully got an explanation as to whom The Rani is/was: could that be Clara? We've seen different aspects of the Rani's time throughout Matt Smith's version of the Doctor in "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" (the Rani's TARDIS was destroyed by a T-Rex), and even in Clara's two trips to the industrial revolution ("The Snowmen" and "The Crimson Horror"). Plus, the Rani's name was known in old Who as Ushas. And Ushas is a religious diety often spoken of in the plural ("the dawns"), sent to ward off evil. Could Clara be the sum of all parts (the companions), born to save the Doctor thanks to Rose? Ushas was often represented as a reddish cow: Clara's always wearing red and when the TARDIS showed her image in "Hide," she called it a cow. Could also explain why the TARDIS may not like Clara so much.
Also seems interesting to note the tie-in/coincidence that River Song's name was Mel/Melody Pond, and the Doctor's companion during the time he fought the Rani was Mel/Melanie Bush (Well, her family name was never revealed on-screen, but production notes refer to her as Melanie Bush). When you look at the two words "pond" and "bush," well: they're both the result of what happens when nature nutures itself (water being a key ingredient to life) And Melody Bush's involvement with the Doctor functioned quite a lot like how Melody Pond's has thus far (intersecting timelines that weren't linear). Could they be the same? And could Clara/The Rani be the same? Could John Hurt's character be the Valeyard? There also feels to be connections to the Meddling Monk from early classic Who. And we all know that monks are NOT cool!
Is all of this stuff with Matt Smith just the Doctor's way of rewriting time? And if Bad Wolf/Rose is involved, how does that connect? We know the Doctor's guru from Gallifrey back in his old, old days — in an episode titled "The Time Monster" from classic Who — pointed to a flower on a hill. Gallifrey was a red planet. What are the chances that it could've been a rose on that hill, you think? We've seen roses and red-hued things in every episode since Clara arrived.
What if Clara was the sum of all former companions built to be a super-companion by Rose/Bad Wolf in order to help the Doctor (I mean, she did see all that is and was) in his quest to do whatever it is that must ultimately be done in the 50th anniversary episode while simultaneously helping our Lonely Monster to remember who he is, what he does, and all that comes with that? After all, Nine gave up his life for Rose, and Rose always worried that she would lose the Doctor again (hence the intense love and attachment to Ten): sound familiar to Eleven's relationship with Clara, eh?
Perhaps Rose took on the energy of the Bad Wolf to mold him a perfect companion (Clara) and help him out when she couldn't be there: the perfect (too perfect?) foil. There's got to be something in here that relates to UNIT, though, as we have seen Clara wearing the UNIT pendant as a necklace before and we know they're coming back for the fiftieth. Maybe Clara will have to die senselessly and far from home as Mr. Clever here mentioned: but not yet.
And was anyone else reminded of Alfie Owens and his dad Craig when they saw that one chubby imperial guard who claimed to have heard about the Cybermen since he was in his cradle? Craig Owens (remember him and Sophie?)'s son Stormageddon a.k.a. Alfie (weird/interesting when you think of all the kids names: Alfie, Artie, Angie) may very well be a coincidence, but I'm not 100% sure. The whole "power of three" thing, coupled with the fact that those three kids feel like they could possibly be part of River Song's team of archeologist helpers from "Silence in the Library" makes me think there's a bigger possibility here. The children borne of the Doctor's deeds and doings, taken care of by his wife, River Song, and watched over by their governess and nanny, Clara. Keys to a bigger puzzle. Of course it could just be a coincidence, but still worth nothing, I think.
This all feels like a set-up not to reveal the Doctor's actual name, but perhaps another title or destiny that he had that he wanted to change. Certainly a big enough way to change the scope of the series that both honors the past and looks ahead, doesn't it? Perhaps that's the reason for the dissonance fans feel between episodes. The Doctor had to fight all these battles in order to remember how to beat whatever this reconstruction of him is (I'm convinced this has something to do with John Hurt's character in the 50th), which is why he must run — but also, eventually, remember.
And this is where I think John Hurt's character comes into play: an amalgamation of all the Doctor's past renegerations through the eyes/souls/minds of his old companions, which is in turn utilized to reconstruct the Doctor into some sort of special being. But who could it be: The Valeyard? The Meddling Monk? The Master? The Celestial Toymaker? Perhap it was all put in motion when the Doctor put all of his past memories and lives into the dying star/Grandfather in the "Rings of Ahkaten"? Perhaps all of that was a trap to give it infinite life thanks to Clara's Most Important Leaf in Human History.
When it comes to the part of what's at play here: the idea of the Celestial Toymaker is, personally, most appealing to me. The connection to Blackpool (a town Clara mentions) may hint at this — she was lost in Blackpool before her mother found her as a girl — as it was the place where the Toymaker was banished to by the sixth Doctor: sealed within a forcefield made up of his own thoughts, trapped for seemingly ever. He had used mirrors to create clockwork duplicates to defeat the Doctor, but failed. Which: clocks. (Bespoke engineering? Apparently I'm seriously obsessed with "The Girl in the Fireplace," you guys.) It could also tie in to the Dream Lord because messing with a person's dream sounds like a sort of game and the Celestial Toymaker loved games.
Massive undertaking, no doubt, but would anyone really expect anything less of this series? I never understood why people were so against Moffat's run, and perhaps that's because I tend to believe that there's more at play with Moffat's idea for Doctor Who than can be seen until the full breadth of the story is realized. This half of the season feels serialized in a timey-wimey sort of way. It would also explain a lot of the holes fans feel have been popping up throughout Moffat's run.
I'm forever-convinced that Moffat's had this storyline in his head for years and years, and has been dropping hints of it in tiny ways since his first few appearances as a writer on this show. Perhaps this is his own way of tying up loose continuity ends while also including the mythical ole Cartmel Masterplan. Or maybe I just have way too much time on my hands, and/or give Moffat a bigger benefit of a doubt than I should. But I'm betting it's not the latter.
This episode may polarize fans because the successes and failures of it are squarely pegged in the place where "episodic" and "overarching thematic storyline" meet. Which means it's a struggle between old and new Who in a lot of ways: do you want big, flashy stories or episode-by-episode fun? It feels to me like this is an attempt to give us both, but until everything is revealed to the audience, it won't feel that way. And that's why when Gaiman's strengths were good, they were really good, but the parts that weren't (the fast-walking Cybermen only use that fast-walking bit sometimes even when it is highly effective) felt a bit lazy.
Next week's episode of Doctor Who is the finale. We're positively bubbling (OK, maybe more like gurgling) with thoughts and anticipation: the fields of Trenzalore! The fall of the eleventh! Doctor WHO? The return of River Song (Alex Kingston)! Will she be pre- or post- The Library? "The Name of the Doctor" may prove itself to be the most interesting and potentially infuriating episode in Who history, as it will likely be a lead-in to the 50th Anniversary spectacular taking place in November.
Check out the prequel for next week's finale, "She Said, He Said," written by showrunner Steven Moffat, below:
Let us know what you thought of "Nightmare in Silver" in the comments!
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