Moffat’s earliest Who memory is of watching Patrick Troughton and wondering where the real Doctor, William Hartnell, had gone. …The Doctor Who of the 1960s cemented Moffat’s idea of perfect televisual fear. “It was terrifying,” he says. “It wasn’t the camp or sweet or nice thing it became for a while afterwards. It wasn’t improving or good for you, it just wanted to scare the crap out of you. It was the bad boy of children’s television.”
There is something in this snippet of an interview with The Guardian’s Andrew Harrison, which tells us something about showrunner Steven Moffat’s ambitions for Nightmare in Silver, and perhaps for Doctor Who more generally. There is in him, I think, an ongoing urge to recapture that perfect televisual fear referenced above.
One of the stories the young Moff watched and loved was The Tomb of the Cybermen. He has spoken and written about his admiration for it time and again. It clearly made an impression on him, because the Cybermen are a recurring feature of Doctor Who under his watch. He’s included the Cybermen in every season of Doctor Who that he’s produced except Series 9 (and even then one makes a cameo appearance in Face the Raven).
Reading between the lines, I don’t think he felt, as Series 7 loomed, that he had yet done them justice, and recaptured that terrified sensation he remembered as kid. When he was briefing Neil Gaiman about writing his sophomore episode of Doctor Who, he instructed, maybe even pleaded with him, to “make the Cybermen scary again”. He might have just as well said, ‘give me the feels like when I was 7 years old’.
Gaiman knew exactly what he meant. Not for nothing does this episode start on a replica of Earth’s moon, as this interview on Collider.com indicates.
“When I was a kid, I was a huge Patrick Troughton fan … I remember The Moonbase, the second outing of the Cybermen. … I was terrified of them. I was much more scared of them, in a way, than the Daleks because they were quiet and they slipped in and out of rooms. It was very off-putting.
Gaiman tries a number of tricks to bring the scares back. The first is the incongruous setting of Hedgewick’s World, a children’s fun park gone to seed. This is a planet on which the fun and games of childhood have become corrupted and threatening. It’s a world filled with the stuff of bad dreams: waxwork museums, broken amusement rides and dormant Cybermen waiting to spring to life. So far, this isn’t so different from a Troughton-esque world of shadows and perils, like a long forgotten tomb or an underground railway tunnel.
Gaiman’s next gambit though takes us away from the Cybermen of the 60s. He innovates the Cybermen, giving them new and deadly features. This includes the ability to move at super speed making them inherently different from those models which lumbered into the Moonbase. Gaiman’s versions also are able to detach hands and heads from their bodies with deadly effect. Their 60s cousins could never do this, but it does call to mind that in their original conception, the Cybermen were a worried reaction to the replacement of body parts with technology.
The Cybermats of Tomb and The Wheel in Space had been made over in the previous season’s Closing Time, as piranha like toys. Here, Gaiman reimagines them as Cybermites, miniature insects which infest buildings and crawl through people’s clothes. It’s a successful reinvention, one that plays on a common phobia more potently than the old C-mats did. The Cybermen themselves had also had a sleek new refit, but they were always changing their look in the old series so that has less of a feeling of innovation, and more of tradition reasserting itself.
Then there’s the inclusion of children Artie (Kassius Carey Johnson) and Angie (Eve de Leon Allen) into this world of danger and mayhem. As we’ve noted before, children are a hallmark of Moffat’s Who and we’re often invited to see the Doctor and the wickedness he combats through their eyes. Rarely though, are they subjected to physical attack or seriously endangered. Here though, both children are partly cybernised, technology grafted onto their heads. Those kids watching Moonbase and Tomb are sucked through the television and into Doctor Who in Nightmare in Silver.
Finally there’s the infiltration of the Doctor (Troughtony Matt Smith) by the Cyberiad. Humans taken over by Cybermen are familiar from all four Troughton Cybertales, and many others throughout Whostory, but we’ve never seen them infect the Doctor. The result is a twisted version of the Doctor, sitting within this twisted vision of an amusement park. The Doctor’s internal mental battle with Mr Clever might be the detail, but the broad brush strokes to keep the kids behind the sofa, is an evil version of daffy old Matt Smith, roaring in anger and delighting in carnage.
So that’s how Gaiman answered Moffat’s challenge, by throwing everything he had at it. Question is, was the Moff satisfied?
Well, I don’t think so. In a recent DWM, Moffat admitted to himself and us that he’d been trying to remake Tomb every year of his showrunnership. If the attempts were The Pandorica Opens, Closing Time and then Nightmare in Silver, surely if he felt one had been successful in recapturing that perfect televisual fear, there would be no need for him to finally write his own fully fledged Cyberantic Dark Water/Death in Heaven?
That last one had Cybermen emerging from Tomb like cubicles, people infected by Cyber poisoned liquid ala The Moonbase and marching down St Paul’s Catherdral’s steps like The Invasion. It had Cybermen flying about the place, converting the dead and digging themselves out of graves. If this didn’t make the Cybermen scary, what on Telos is going to satisfy Moffat’s desire to match that Tomby magic?
We may yet find out. That bad boy of the bad boy of children’s television has one more season to go.
LINK TO Father’s Day: children in danger.
NEXT TIME: It’s always the innocent bystander who suffers eventually. We travel to a Colony in Space.