If this week’s “Doctor Who” felt faster, fizzier and more imaginative than the recent norm it’s because author Neil Gaiman (“Coraline,” “Neverwhere”) was back to ace his second stint writing for the show.
Gaiman’s “The Doctor’s Wife” — in which the TARDIS took human-like form and bantered with the Doctor — was a standout back in 2011. He follows that marvel with an only slightly less impressive installment re-imagining the Cybermen.
They’re one of the Doctor’s greatest foes, but we haven’t seen the Cybermen since “Closing Time,” the penultimate episode of Season 6. Now they’re back — and upgraded — for the penultimate episode of Season 7. In Gaiman’s script, the lumbering robo-warriors are lightning fast terrors reawakened from slumber by icky little Cyber-mites to wreak havoc in a rundown outer space amusement park. There’s nary a “You will be deleted” to be heard.
However, the true genius twist of “Nightmare in Silver” isn’t the revamped Cybermen (though they’re pretty darn cool, and the slo-mo attack sequence devised by director Stephen Woolfenden was a nice touch), but the Cyber-Doctor.
Now that the Cybermen can “upgrade” using “almost any living components,” the Doctor himself becomes a target. And it’s the Time Lord vs. Cyberman battle brewing inside his brain that makes this another standout “Who” for Gaiman, and another in what has been a phenomenal season for Matt Smith.
Whatever one thinks of the Ponds’ final episodes and Clara’s introductory installments, Smith has been on fire in Season 7 — seeing and exceeding every challenge the writers dream up for him. Gaiman gives Smith a whopper: playing opposite himself as both the Doctor and the Cyber-Doctor for entire scenes and effortlessly switching between not just those two personalities but also impressions of other characters for good measure.
It’s a performance tour de force made all the more thrilling by providing the audience a window inside the Doctor’s mind.
Gaiman gives us all that plus the delightful business of Clara stepping up as a natural fit in the role of military platoon commander and a lovely guest star turn from Warwick Davis as Porridge, secretly the Emperor of 1000 galaxies (a.k.a. the “loneliest job in the universe”).
If there’s a weak spot in the episode it’s that Clara’s charges — bratty Angie (Eve De Leon Allen) and curious Artie (Kassius Carey Johnson) — are mostly on hand so the Cybermen have someone to kidnap and the Doctor has someone to rescue. They’re barely defined beyond their single character traits — Angie whines about not being able to use her phone and vows to become Queen of the Universe; Artie politely thanks both Clara and the Doctor for their travels — which only underscores how underdeveloped Clara’s pre-TARDIS life remains.
At this point in recent companion stories we’d already met key friends and family of Rose, Martha, Donna and Amy. We’ve only seen Clara’s parents briefly and still don’t have much reason to care about Angie and Artie. It still feels like the mystery of the “impossible girl” is getting in the way of fleshing out her character, but maybe that all begins to change next week with the season finale.
– “I trust the Doctor.” “You think he knows what he’s doing?” “I’m not sure I’d got that far.”
– In what has become a weekly occurrence in this 50th anniversary year we get a reminder of the Doctor’s past: This time when the faces of every one of his past selves flash inside his mind.
– As long as Clara remains a mystery, it’s difficult to figure out exactly what to make of her relationship with the Doctor. Smith certainly has chemistry with Jenna-Louise Coleman and all the hints at romance point to the story heading that way — but the Doctor is more a Time Lord obsessed than a Time Lord in love at this point. The Cyber-Doctor obviously interpreted that obsession as affection when it tried to convince Clara it was the real Doctor. Perhaps we’ll have the definitive answer next week.