Completing a game of chess is important to The Doctor. Really important. The last time he forgot to finish a game, an evil as old as time organized things so that no matter what The Doctor did, or where he fled, all roads in space and time would end at their game of chess. This resulted in the character of Ace (The Doctor’s best companion ever) being transported from her home to an ice planet, forced to serve frozen delicacies to rude aliens, only to escape with our favorite Time Lord, and going back to her past, to the time of her mother’s infancy, and confront where she came from. All of it was part of this was part of the ancient evil’s cosmic grudge. If you haven’t seen The Curse of Fenric, one of the last Classic Who stories, you really should. It’s one of the best stories Who has ever told.
Now that I think about it, there are a few similarities to Ace and Clara. Both have met The Doctor under suspicious circumstances, a mystery he quickly, and secretly, decides to solve. The Penultimate episodes of a series featured an important chess game. And both previous companions were redheads.
Chess figures prominently in the most recent Doctor Who episode, Nightmare in Silver. (See, my little diatribe about chess had a point) As Cyber technology tried to upgrade The Doctor and turn him into the Cyber Planner (a cool name), The Doctor helps to retain his mind by challenging it to a chess match. In a lot of ways it is the center piece of the episode. Sure there’s a few thousand Cybermen rising from beneath the dead amusement park world and storming the big fake castle. All of that is just show. The real struggle is happening inside The Doctor’s head.
This is Neil Gaiman’s follow-up to last season’s brilliant (a word that seems tailor made for that episode) The Doctor’s Wife. To say I was excited for this would be an insult. When I heard Neil would be returning and that he’d be bringing Warwick Davis and the Cybermen with him, I almost went into a nerd coma. One of my favorite writers working on my favorite villains, on my favorite show, with one of my favorite actors as the star. It sounded too good to be true.
And it sort of was.
Like The Crimson Horror this is a good Stuffisode, just tied together a little more neatly. There is a lot of good stuff here. The setting is awesome. The punishment platoon. A gold ticket that temporarily puts the cyber planner out of commission. The Doctor playing chess against himself. Warwick Davis. All of that was immensely entertaining. I wanted to see so much more of the theme park, and get to know the seemingly useless soldiers. I also felt that the Cybermen could have been a bit more menacing.
Mr. Gaiman had stated that Steven Moffat had charged him with “making the Cybermen scary again.” He followed that up by saying he became distracted with this mad romp of a story. This really comes off. The set up to everything is actually pretty creepy. Dead Cybermen chained up amidst bizarre carnival statues and architecture. Motionless. Blank. Then tiny cyber leeches crawl out from one and you know the gates of Cyber Hell have just been opened.
The second half of the episode turns into a stand and fight story against an army of Cybermen pretty quickly. Much like Hide earlier this season the shift in tone was a little jarring. Seeing a single Cyberman piecing himself back together, using stealth tactics, and starting to rebuild his race could have been really scary. The idea that they never stop. They will use every piece of every living thing it comes into contact with. Always repairing. Upgrading.
Instead we find out there’s an army of them in waiting to wake up. Something very similar happens in the Classic Who story Tomb of the Cybermen. There is a great moment when the giant beehive chamber containing slumbering Cybermen is destroyed as they tear their way through. Even today, given it’s cheesy look, the image sticks with you. These are big, relentlessly lethal, one time humans, and there are a LOT of them. That will always be scarier than Nazi Plunger tanks.
Despite my disappointment in the change of tone I still enjoyed the episode. For the most part. I wish a lot of the elements listed above were explored more, but at least they were there and were entertaining. The new look of the Cybermen were nothing really impressive. While I liked the smooth blankness of their faces, they looked a little plastic-ish. Matt Smith was great at acting opposite himself. Warwick was wonderful as a little guy with the weight of the universe on his shoulders.
Then there were the kids.
I’m not one of those people who hates child actors. I never understood those people. Even if a kid is a bad actor I’ll forgive a lot. These kids weren’t bad actors, quite the opposite, they were really really good at annoying me. I just didn’t care about them. They were there just to get the trouble ball rolling and raise the stakes. Whenever kids are in danger everything suddenly gets dire. I’ve witnessed people stop watching something just because there was even the slight possibility a child being harmed. I can see why. As adults many of us have the instinct to protect our children and make sure the species continues. But, I’m sorry, in a piece of fiction, a kid is a character, and if I don’t care about a character, I don’t care if they die.
Speaking of not caring.
I’ve read quite a few reactions to this episode that praised Clara for taking control. As if a companion taking control with her sassy attitude and witty quips is anything new in Current Who.
There has yet to be anything interesting about Clara. Other than this “mystery” The Doctor can’t figure out, there is nothing about her that sets her apart from any other companion. She’s feisty, flirty, and “mysterious.” How is that any different from Rose Tyler, Donna Noble, Amy Pond, or River Song? Rose and Amy and Donna started out flirting with anything and everything male. The mystery behind Amy was the basis for Season 5. Since her introduction the main draw of River Song was, Who is she and how does she know The Doctor?
The difference with those characters is that each one brought something fresh to the Doctor/Companion dynamic. Rose was the first to become a love interest. Donna was the first who was just a fun friend to have around. Amy was the start of a Tardis family. (Notice I didn’t mention Martha. I wrote about her at great length in a post dedicated to companions. She doesn’t really fit what I’m trying to convey here. Same with Rory). These are over simplifications of their characters. I’m just talking about how their presence changed the show, even to a small degree.
The only compelling thing about Clara is that there is something “impossible” about her. The Doctor can’t figure her out. And she has a natural instinct to look after kids. That came into play in The Rings of Akhaten (the best episode of ALL of season 7). It could have been a major element of Nightmare in Silver but is more or less glanced over. She adds nothing to the Doctor/Companion relationship.
What I’m saying is that if I can’t muster up enough interest in her in the moment, how can I care about the “who is she” mystery? Every episode since the Christmas Special has been about that question. My question is, “Who cares?” I have never once felt anything for the character. I never feel like she’s ever scared, or threatened, or even likable. She’s constantly smiling, or smirking, or throwing in some sass. Even when something is about to kill her. If they wanted to turn it into something where she just loves the adventure, that’s fine. But when a lethal Cyborg has your neck in his steel hand, please show some sign that you’re in danger! Now I don’t mean this to sound like I’m bashing Jenna-Louise Coleman. She seems like a fine actress. I just don’t think she has much to work with.
This entire season feels like filler, fluff to hold us over until Moffat can blow our minds with the answer. The Doctor keeps talking about how wonderful she is, but is she? Is she really? Or is Moffat simply trying to convince himself.
Wow. I set out to write a review for Nightmare in Silver, and became distracted by this rant about the companion.
Does that say more about me, or the episode?