It is fairly disappointing to me to say that despite my enthusiasm for “Nightmare in Silver,” the second Doctor Who episode to be written by Neil Gaiman, I was only moderately impressed.
Maybe it’s the name that’s to blame. When you attach someone known for interesting and evocative storytelling to a television show, but then require them to work within the confines of a pre-established storyline for the program’s overarching story, there are bound to be limitations.
For what it’s worth, Gaiman did a really good job reincorporating the Cybermen (a classic Doctor Who villain that has popped up multiple times in recent seasons of the series) in a way that has not been done before. The episode serves to suggest that they existed as their own separate race on some distant planet, that though they had been wiped out, there was still a risk of them returning. And that they are parasitic creatures trying to latch onto life forms (including, this time, The Doctor) also came into play and created a feasible story world that was both weird and enticing at the same time.
However, there was something that just didn’t quite click in the episode. I blame this again on the fact that much of the time The Doctor and Clara were functioning as separate entities, with Clara taking control over the team of ragtag soldiers and The Doctor turning into a split personality half Time Lord half Cyberplanner and playing chess against himself.
When watching Doctor Who, it’s often the relationship between The Doctor and the companion that really drives the story forward and puts some heart into it. We often characterize the show by how well the two characters got along depending on their incarnations. It’s why so many people are fans of the 10th and Rose, the 10th and Donna or the 11th and Amy. There was something between these pairings that was fascinating and beautiful and real.
There were a few positives to this episode, however. Firstly, little twists in the story – i.e. the use of chess game between Artie (one of the children whom Clara plays nanny to) and a Cybermen, mirrored with the Doctor playing chess at the end against the Cyber-version of himself – brought some energy to the story. Gaiman also threw in a few particularly clever quotes for the Doctor (for example, the final moment when he’s alone in the TARDIS and he describes Clara: “Impossible girl. Mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that’s just a little bit too tight.”).
The real success of this episode, though, was Matt Smith’s dual-personality as he battled himself in a game of chess (which was apparently invented by the Time Lords, go figure). His ability to jump back and forth between them, completely re-defining his character with the metaphorical flick of a switch, was inspiring. After a bunch of back and forth rumors about Smith leaving the role of the Doctor, I certainly hope that the speculation isn’t true because to lose him in the role is to lose a really well-constructed character with equal parts rage and silliness, detachment and heart.
“Nightmare in Silver” may not have been the best episode of Doctor Who ever. Perhaps not even the best episode this season. But it was a fine precursor to the last episode of the season, an interesting insight into some characters we knew and were excited to see again and a lovely reintroduction to the one person we know and continue to love: The Doctor.