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Doctor Who Recap: Upgrade Is Progress

Neil Gaiman has, over the course of his career, become a brand name unto himself — one that may even match Doctor Who in terms of fan devotion and popularity. Bringing these two “brands” together leads to well-deserved shrieks of delight and an almost stomach-churning sense of anticipation, for if a slick fantasist like Gaiman cannot do Doctor Who justice, then who can?

“In terms of how Doctor Who and the mythos of Doctor Who has influenced my writing, I think it’s impossible for me to say because I have no idea, there’s no control out there. I can’t actually ever get to meet Neil Gaiman who, at the age of 3, wasn’t watching Doctor Who, at the age of 4 wasn’t imagining how things can be bigger on the inside, at the age of 5, wasn’t buying a copy or persuading his father to buy a copy of the Dalek World annual on Victoria Station. And taking it home and studying it and learning all about Daleks, and discovering that Daleks couldn’t see the color red, and then writing about the red Daleks and whether they were invisible to their friends, and discovering that measles was a Dalek disease. And not lots of people know, but I learned that because I read it in the Dalek World Anthology.” — Gaiman

Know upfront that I’m not a Gaiman disciple, but have partaken in some of his work over the years, have particular affinity toward his ’96 BBC miniseries Neverwhere, and appreciated, but wasn’t bowled over by his previous Who contribution, “The Doctor’s Wife” (the production didn’t quite live up to his script and its ideas, but then the same has been said of Neverwhere). Nothing of the sort plagues “Nightmare in Silver,” which I’m utterly, madly delighted about. This tale of broken people (and ex-people) coming back to life is the unquestionable highlight of the season so far, though both “Asylum of the Daleks” and “Cold War” still rate pretty high. Who’d have guessed the peaks of season seven would be the stories featuring all the classic villains? If nothing else, it demonstrates why Doctor Who deserves such a fervent, passionate celebration of its 50 years — because the conceptual promises of the series’ earliest seasons can still be taken to conclusions that are as exciting to viewers today as they were to the viewers of the sixties and seventies.

Earlier this week, I participated in a conference call with Gaiman (from which all the quotes in this recap came), and he managed to win me over further. One could listen to him talk about his love for Doctor Who, and the influence it’s had on him as a person and a writer, for hours. He speaks of the show like a mysterious harbinger of creativity, which captivated him at an impressionable age and never let go. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone associated with the new series speak of Doctor Who with the sort of reverential attitudes Gaiman does. He is unafraid to blissfully wave his fan freak flag proud and high. We are lucky to have him working on this show in much the same way he appears to feel lucky to be a part of it.

“And I remember ‘The Moonbase,’ the second outing I think it was of the Cybermen. I didn’t see the first one [‘The Tenth Planet’], but the second one, ‘Moonbase,’ I saw … and I was terrified of them. I was much more scared of them in a way than I was of the Daleks, because they were sort of quiet, and they slipped in and out of rooms and it was very off-putting. I loved the design of the clanky, clanky steampunk Cybermen but, I know that their time is coming up and wouldn’t it be fun to actually see if I can make them more scary.” — Gaiman

Gaiman more than remembers “The Moonbase” – it must have been pivotal Doctor Who for him, because “Nightmare in Silver” is littered with bits and pieces of it, appropriately upgraded for modern audiences. The opening moments acknowledge the previous serial by presenting a squee-inducing recreation of that classic serial’s cheesy, low-fi moon set — eerily effective in grainy black and white back in ’67, but in hi-def and in color works nicely as an amusement park mockup. Later, the anti-gravity “ride” is a riff on when the Doctor and Co. arrived on the moon in that serial, and even the way the Cybermen upgrade the humans goes back to some stuff “The Moonbase” did, but the series never really tackled again.

It seems as though every time the Cybermen return in the new series, the production team trumpet versions of “This time they really will be scary!” (The greatest modern Cyber-moment remains the lone, broken Cyberman, and his disembodied arm, that the Doctor and Amy encountered in “The Pandorica Opens.”) So Gaiman (at the request of Moffat) wanted to make the Cybermen scary again. That’s a tall order for modern audiences. Who actually watches Doctor Who from “behind the sofa” these days? I don’t wish to gauge a scare factor that may or may not be at play here, but without a doubt, Gaiman’s tweaks add up to a Cyber collective (here renamed the Cyberiad) far more threatening than anything the new series has previously showcased, and threatening may be more of a triumph than scary, because it can really affect the narrative, and how we invest in the story.

“My phone doesn’t look anything like what it looked like five years ago, and that didn’t look anything like it looked like ten years ago. My computer looks nothing like it looked like 15 years ago. And I thought, well, Cybermen talk about upgrading. Let’s watch them upgrade. What would an upgraded Cyberman do? I thought one of the things it would do is move pretty fast.” — Gaiman

The Cybermen clank has been honed, they move at lightning fast speeds, and can appear behind victims when they least expect it. Their dialogue is kept to a minimum, yet their vocal stylings have been toyed with, leaving them sounding even more blankly digital than in recent years. Body parts can be detached and used for stealth attacks. In one scene, a Cyberhand has a mind of its own like Thing from The Addams Family. In another, a Cybermen ingeniously removes his own head so that it can be used as a decoy (about fell out of my chair on that one). The Cybermats have become Cybermites — the one Cyber-development that’ll no doubt give a viewer or two the cold shivers. They’re creepy in appearance (Gaiman based them on silverfish), and have the power to instantly begin the conversion process all on their own. I’m not sure the Cybermats were ever this effective, at all, in the history of the show, and the Cybermen are surely at their very best as far the new series goes. Mad props!

“I can absolutely imagine myself with a huge number of artificial bits. As long as I sound like me, I don’t think I’d mind. I’m ridiculously open-minded about this stuff. I kind of like the idea of downloading my entire consciousness into a computer and then invading every network in the world and then slowly taking — oh, I should’ve had said that, should I? Scrap that. Pretend I never said anything, definitely nothing about taking over the world by downloading my consciousness into every computer in the world.” — Gaiman

Clearly Matt Smith got one hell of an acting workout in “Nightmare in Silver,” effectively playing two characters for the bulk of the story. He chews up Gaiman’s script and spits it back out. When the Cyberplanner jumped up on the table gloating, I was prepared to not buy it, but once that was over with, Smith settled down and found comfort in a sneering, manipulative creation that worked swimmingly. His threat to regenerate was an interesting proposition. It’d be easy to say there’s a bit too much comedy what with Clara smacking him around and all, if not for the fact that nearly every comedic moment in the episode feels pretty earned — particularly amusing was the seductive bit between Clara and the Cyberplanner, and the awkward denials between her and the Doctor that followed.

When we travel inside the Doctor’s head (a gobsmacking series of sequences), his obsession with Clara is revealed to be nearly all-encompassing, via a giant portrait slideshow of her smack in the center of his mind. It finally hit me while watching this scene: Moffat’s aim all along has been to frustrate and drive the viewer mad, right along with the Doctor — to take us out of our companion comfort zone. He wants us to feel unsafe and unsure about Clara. And you need look no further than all the comment sections for the previous recaps here at Vulture to see how annoyed and pissed so many people have been at the lack of character development for Clara. Of course, there had better be quite the payoff next week, in order to justify the experiment …

“I’d love to create a monster, really like to create a monster. It’d have to be one that’s interesting enough or fun enough to come back written by somebody else, or turn up completely reinvented or whatever. I’d love to do that, a feeling that you’d actually left something behind. I love that Terry Nation left us the Daleks. And I love that Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis left us the Cybermen. In my head, I love that the Great Intelligence has come back, but I miss the Yeti. I would love huge, shambling, robotic Yeti just because I loved him when I was a kid. So, yes, I’d love to do that.” — Gaiman

He may not have created a monster with “Nightmare in Silver” (unless the episode itself is a monster, as it raises the bar considerably), but he created an amazing yet believable world here — one that felt otherworldly and yet close to home. The designs of the amusement park captivate. Even in its dilapidated state, the joint impresses. The supporting cast is as good as it gets, and I was sad to part ways with them. The punishment platoon consisted of the most lovably quirky band of misfits, and the line “Don’t move! I’m in the Army!” is the funniest line of the whole season. Jason Watkins is as great an actor as any you’ll find in England (he was particularly effective in the UK version of Being Human), and he does great work here drawing us into the story, and then being the first human to upgrade. The kids (especially Angie) are snotty and unimpressed, and then Gaiman goes and Cyberfucks both of those little shitheads! It’s the sort of thing that used to happen to nasty kids in Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Masterstroke. Best use of children in Doctor Who since Mestor the Magnificent kidnapped those horrible twins and worked them to exhaustion back in ’84.

But the standout, of course, is Warwick Davis, who owns every single moment of his screen time, and nearly outclasses even the leads (both of whom are peaking here). Porridge/The Emperor stands on his own as a damaged character, but at the same time is the mirror image of the Doctor himself. All the parallels are there — the destruction of loved ones and this huge chunk of the galaxy for the greater good, and then going off to be in hiding runs parallel to much of the Doctor’s own life during and after the Time War. Doctor Who never gets nominated for Emmys — here’s their chance to finally rectify that: Warwick Davis for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series. The campaign begins here and now.

Doctor Who was the first mythology that I learned before ever I ran into Greek or Roman or Egyptian mythologies. I knew that TARDIS stood for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. And I knew that the TARDIS had a food machine that made things that looked like Mars bars but tasted like bacon and eggs. You know, this was all sort of part of what I knew as a kid. I still have the battered copy of David Whitaker’s Doctor Who and the Daleks that I had as a kid with terrible illustrations. So I don’t know. I do know it’s been hugely influential on the shape of my head and how I see things. And I know that I feel ridiculously comfortable in that universe and that I will keep going back as long as they’ll have me, and as long as I can find the time.” — Gaiman

Odd and Ends

  • “The Moonbase” is a four-part Doctor Who serial, of which Parts One and Three are missing. The extant episodes are currently available, alongside the audio for the missing episodes, in the DVD box set entitled “Lost in Time.” However, “The Moonbase” gets its own DVD release later this year, with brand new black and white animation created to accompany the audio of the missing episodes, thus creating a complete, viewable storyline.
  • The Doctor has often been compared to Willy Wonka (and vice versa), and here he has a Golden Ticket! And much like Wonka, the Doctor has a dark side, and the children in his care don’t always come first. He even appeared to relish putting them to bed in that creepy room with all the waxworks.
  • The gold in the ticket being used in his battle is the first time the element has been lethal to Cybermen in the new series. (For seventies and eighties Cybermen, gold was an Achilles Heel.)
  • The take-charge, level-headed Clara on display was a breath of fresh air, and reminded me much of the Claras we met before, in the past and future. This is the Clara we’ve wanted to see all season, and hopefully the Clara we’ll see much more of after next week’s big revelations.
  • The term Cyberiad may come from a series of short stories by Stanislaw Lem entitled “The Cyberiad.”
  • Finally, let’s close with something non-Doctor Who related. Everyone’s doing the Kickstarter thing these days it seems, which has generated a fair amount of controversy. So if this isn’t your thing, good enough, and I’m not trying to convince you otherwise. But if you are open to it, take a look at the proposal for David Gerrold’s “The Star Wolf,” spearheaded by “The Trouble with Tribbles” creator, along with David C. Fein, who’s made a name for himself producing fare like the Director’s Edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. If you love great, offbeat sci-fi (and surely you must, or you wouldn’t have made it this far into a Doctor Who recap), then you’ll recognize that this project is especially appealing in this day and age of nihilistic genre TV. Wouldn’t it just be awesome for a couple of unlikely Hollywood fringe insiders to make a splash with a project like this?
Photo: ADRIAN ROGERS/©BBC WORLDWIDE