One of the strange things of writing criticism is that it’s easier and possibly more fun to review an episode with flaws than one without. Emphasis on “more fun”. So I hope that Mark Gatiss will take this as the compliment it is that it has taken me a week to comment on his Doctor Who episode, The Crimson Horror, and I hope that Neil Gaiman won’t be too insulted to hear me rubbing my hands and cracking my knuckles.
Earlier, I speculated whether Mark Gatiss’ main problem with writing for Doctor Who is that he really, really needed an extra episode to flesh out all of his good ideas. Notice how much he has been able to do using Sherlock’s longer running time. Victory of the Daleks would have been much better if more time had been spent drawing out the mystery and suspense of the Daleks’ actions, culminating in a cliffhanger that cues (all together now) Spitfires! In! Spaaaace!. Similarly Cold War proves that it’s difficult to do Das Boot in 42 minutes.
The Crimson Horror, however, is just about perfect, possibly because Gatiss has been inspired to write a story which features Diana Rigg and her daughter working together for the first time professionally. He delivers a tight script that hits all the right notes quickly and in character. The two actresses clearly have fun, Mark Gatiss has fun, and so do the audience. And the line of dialogue he gives the Doctor (“Yes, I’m the Doctor, you’re nuts, and I’m gonna stop you.”) is as accurate a summation of most of the show’s canon as anybody could possibly write within 140 characters.
As for Neil Gaiman, it’s fair to say that his contribution, Nightmare in Silver, was possibly the most anticipated episode of this part of the season, what with the out-of-the-park home run he scored with The Doctor’s Wife. Unfortunately, this one didn’t go as well. And here’s where it gets fun for me. As the armchair quarterback ready to replay the game on Monday morning, I can say that some of the elements in this story could have been reworked to improve things. True, it’s easy to write in hindsight, but what would a critic’s lot be if this wasn’t open to us?
A more spoilery review appears after the break.
Ironically, the thing that may have undercut Nightmare in Silver are the elements which link it most closely to The Crimson Horror. At the end of Crimson Horror, Clara comes home to find that her trips back in time have not gone unnoticed. The kids in Clara’s care, showing more savvy than many other family members on the show, have done a lot of research, and set about immediately blackmailing her for a trip on board the Doctor’s time machine.
It’s a fun moment, and I eagerly looked forward to seeing the Doctor’s reaction to Clara looking at him sheepishly and saying, “they followed me aboard. Can we keep them?” I was looking forward to their sense of wonder.
So, Angie’s stereotypically teenage cynicism to seeing the TARDIS, its time travelling abilities, and the biggest amusement park in the universe, drove me right up the wall. You blackmailed your way onto the TARDIS, Angie. How dare you — how dare you! — not show respect to the Doctor for what the ship can do. You take that attitude, Clara would have been right to tell the Doctor to march the TARDIS right back to London and toss Angie into her room.
I do not fault actress Eve de Leon Allen for this. This is a stylistic choice that Gaiman made, and it undercut a lot of the promise the final scene in The Crimson Horror set up. And Gaiman seems to have great difficulty incorporating Angie and Artie into the narrative. Early in the story, handling the baggage that they represent results in several incidents of idiot plotting. Let me count the ways:
The Doctor senses something amiss about the abandoned pleasure planet (because, really, what else can you expect from an amusement park that has clearly been abandoned in haste) and refuses to leave until he sees what’s what. That’s fine and good if it’s just him and Clara, but Erin and I both said, “Um… Doctor? The kids?!” I was astounded that Clara didn’t throw a fit over this. The Doctor has as much as admitted that something is not right — that There is Danger Here (tm). The kids are in her care, ergo they are under threat. The responsible thing would be to send them home and return. True, the TARDIS might make this difficult, but here’s an idea: LOCK THEM IN THE BLOODY TARDIS!!
Note that this probably would not result in them actually being safer, but it would show that the Doctor and Clara aren’t complete dunderheads and are willing to take at least some steps to secure their safety.
In order to investigate what is amiss about the abandoned pleasure planet, the Doctor and Clara shove Angie and Artie into a room in a wax museum containing at least three deactivated Cybermen and tell them to go to bed. One, this makes the kids seem a lot younger than they look. Two, how the hell do you expect them to sleep on a strange planet with all of the scary waxworks about (Kassius Carey Johnson as Artie does a very good job of illustrating this) and, three…
The Doctor notices that something is amiss, and he’s seen three de-activated Cybermen in the room he’s put the children in, and he doesn’t immediately draw the connection? Every single fan is already several steps ahead of the Doctor. They’re not in a patient mood, and they’re watching the Doctor and Clara act like complete dunces while there are Cybermen about and kids under threat. This would merit a call from Child Protection Services, for goodness sake!
Worse, the kids don’t really do anything. Artie and Angie quickly get kidnapped and set up for conversion to Cybermen. Except that the Cybermen do a complete pivot when they realize they have much better pickings in converting the Doctor. Fair enough: when the Cybermen do make their move and try to draw the Doctor into their clutches, I immediately sat up. If I had popcorn handy, I would have started snarfing it. It’s the scenes of Matt Smith fighting himself in the cyber-conversion process that makes Nightmare in Silver a potentially great episode. But it has too much to overcome: idiot plotting to get us this far, and time wasted with superfluous characters that could have been spent expanding the scenes of the Doctor fighting himself.
The kids really don’t need to be there. Clara doesn’t need them to have skin in this game. And time could also have been spent expanding the other undeveloped element in this story: the presence of Porridge, the Emperor of Humanity (played by Warwick Davis). The fact that he reveals himself at the end to be the leading figure of the human resistance against the Cybermen and, oh incidentally, the only other person who can activate the Great Big Bomb (tm) that can end the Cyber threat, means that he’s a big Deus Ex Machina element, and that’s a problem right up there with the idiot plotting that got us into this episode.
Here’s a suggestion: combine the Emperor, Angie and Artie’s roles into one. Make the Emperor into an actual child who is fleeing his or her crushing responsibilities. The fact that the Emperor finally choses to reveal that he had the ability to destroy the Cybermen the whole time would be mitigated by the fact that, as a child, he’d been abducted by the Cybermen and was thus in stand-by mode until the Doctor made the move of sacrificing his queen in a deal to release the children. In one fell swoop, you wipe out some of the flaws and you integrate this element into an important and powerful moment in the story when the Doctor appears to sacrifice the game in order to save one of the pawns — revealing, in fact, that it’s the pawns that save the game.
So, you see, the potential is there. And, of course, we know that Matt Smith could make it work, because he puts on a virtuoso performance. It’s clear that the idea of the Cyber Race and the last of the Time Lords fighting things out in the Doctor’s brain is the central concept that most interests Gaiman here. It’s fresh and new, and it puts the Cybermen in an interesting light. It hints at a possibly scarier version of Cybermen — a race with the emotional bearings of the Doctor. Indeed, let’s combine the Doctor’s desire to go around fixing the universe, twist that around the Cybermen’s abilities to adapt and upgrade everything, set that spinning and see if that doesn’t keep you up at night.
Unfortunately, the idea needs the support of the rest of the episode, and it’s not there. Mark Gatiss weaves all his elements together in The Crimson Horror and there’s nothing wasted. Every character has a part to play (even if it is only to notify the Paternoster Row Trio of the problem, and faint three times), and the result is all the more satisfying for it. Simply put, I can’t go in to Mark Gatiss story and say what could be combined or added or taken away to improve things. The fact that I can do that with Nightmare in Silver isn’t to the episode’s credit.
Arguably, Nightmare in Silver had the potential to be a stronger episode than The Crimson Horror, but it squandered it by not looking after the little details. So even though Gaiman’s episode hits higher highs, the end result is more frustrating and ultimately, unsatisfying.
So, kudos to Mark Gatiss: you beat Gaiman on this one. Indeed, you beat most of the field.
- The chess-playing Cyberman is a cool idea, but he defeats Artie ridiculously easily. The Doctor calls it “Fool’s Mate” which is an actual chess term describing an actual set of moves. You can learn more about it here. The relevant quote: “Fool’s Mate received its name because it can only occur if White plays extraordinarily weakly (i.e., foolishly). Even among rank beginners, the mate almost never occurs in practice.” So, Artie belongs to a chess club at school, does he? Why do I get the impression that the other members bully him whenever he shows up to play? Again, Gaiman’s characterization of the kids is extraordinarily inconsistent. Are they savvy teenagers able to handle cellphones, or whiny little kids? Are they geeks who play chess or not? To be fair to Gaiman, he’s working from afar, and their creator, Steven Moffat, may not have been too clear himself on who these two people really are.