|But… Bella! We sparkle way more than Edward!|
It’s November 23rd, 1988. Robin Beck remains at number one with “First Time,” a situation resolved two weeks later when Cliff Richard unseats her with “Mistletoe and Wine.” Phil Collins, Michael Jackson, Pet Shop Boys, Rick Astley, and Salt-N-Pepa also chart.
In real news, Benazir Bhutto is sworn in as Prime Minister of Pakistan. The number of HIV positive people in the UK is pegged by a government report at 50,000, and it’s estimated that by 1992 as many as 17,000 people may die of the disease. Health Minister Edwina Currie causes a massive crash in egg sales through a carelessly worded claim about salmonella. The last shipbuilding facilities around Sunderland close. And Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuts.
While on television, Doctor Who attempts to provide MST3K with material. Silver Nemesis is the weakest of the eleven Cartmel-shaped stories: a messy and smoldering wreck of ill-defined ideas and unconfident execution. But this fact is in and of itself interesting and worth expanding on, simply because it is in many ways the only artifact of its kind: a really bad McCoy story that has no excuses based on the idea that the era was still coming together and figuring out what it was doing. This was made in between The Greatest Show in the Galaxy and The Happiness Patrol. It has no excuses. And so it’s the one point where we can meaningfully ask: what does bad Sylvester McCoy mean?
It’s easy to mistake the Cartmel era as being good because of its ideas. This is because the Cartmel era does, in fact, have some really good ideas. In this regard Silver Nemesis is in grand company. At the heart of the story is the Nemesis statue. Although it more colloquially refers to a general case of an archenemy, in mythological terms Nemesis is a primal force of retribution – the thing that balances the scales in reaction to one’s hubris. Astronomically, it refers to the idea that the sun has a twin star that has collapsed into a dwarf star, lurking unseen in the Oort cloud and causing mass extinctions according to a pre-ordained twenty-six million year cycle.
The statue Nemesis, on the other hand, travels in a quarter-century cycle in its disasters, bringing instead of extinctions various historical calamities. As About Time points out, this is hopeless – there’s no twenty-five year cycle of historical tragedies to build out from here. But the nature of this cyclic disaster is tied here to the history of the program, both extending out of its imagined past (more ancient Time Lords secrets) and tied to its debut. (This is perhaps tempting fate – changing a twenty-six million year cycle to a twenty-five year cycle is almost too apt given what happens for the program’s twenty-sixth anniversary.)
Nemesis, in other words, stalks the program as its dark other. And hey, look who’s back to accompany her: the program’s dark mirror images of humanity. For all that the story gets flak for the supposed reasoning here (“It’s the silver anniversary of Doctor Who and the Cybermen are silver, so why not add them?”) they are actually the perfect monsters for this, their own qlippothic relationship with the Doctor paralleling the role of the Nemesis statue.
The other two villains reinforce this. Both drip with occult possibilities. De Flores is obviously a Nazi, bringing the old ideas of Nazi mythology and fascination with the occult to bear, while Lady Peinforte is an obsessed sorceress. Both of them represent suppressed early forms of the series’ early legacies. The dirty little secret of 1960s scientific utopianism was always that it relied heavily on the legacy of the Nazis. (As the famed line about why the Russians beat the US into space goes, “their German scientists were better than our German scientists”) And the Doctor has always been a figure that reaches back to a Victorian magical tradition that Peinforte is an ancestor of.
(There is something unsettling here – the Nemesis statue is at once feminine and, through its silver, Diannic. The Cybermen are likewise Diannic, and this is the most vulnerable to gold that we ever see them. The Doctor, in other words, is positioned as an Appolonian figure, with his catastrophic Nemesis, who brings chaos and ruin according to a cosmic cycle, cast as the Diannic female. The symbolism is, in other words, unsettlingly misogynistic.)
So two suppressed ghosts of the program’s ideology and a race of qlippothic nightmares go chasing after a statue called Nemesis that comes out of the program’s own erased history. This sounds like the setup for an epic. Indeed, on paper these ideas cohere even better than the ones behind Remembrance. So where does it go wrong?
The difference between great storytelling and pretty good storytelling is that great storytelling makes sure every aspect of the story is working towards the same purpose. What makes the Cartmel era great is that more often than not the script is written with this in mind, so that even when you take a hatchet to the explanatory scenes (which often happened due to the overruns in production) you get a taut, compelling piece of television. Good material is cut from numerous Cartmel-era stories, but what’s cut rarely makes a huge difference just because the stories have such aesthetic coherence in their structure that the unexplained things never feel jarring. Everything looks like it goes together, and so it does, in fact, all go together.
And when you have scripts like that you get people eager to go the extra mile to deliver. Survival is a good case in point here – the amount of effort that went into the details on that story speaks to a production team that was trying like mad to get things to go well. Even John Nathan-Turner seems to be roused from his torpor in this era, pushing to get things to be good and getting the show back to the visual panache and consistency that characterized the Bidmead era. (And let’s pause and give Nathan-Turner for recognizing the promise implicit in a writer mad enough to dream of using Doctor Who to bring down the government – a joke that, under the surface, amounts to a belief that Doctor Who can aspire to more than just filling its timeslot and bringing in a requisite number of viewers. For all that he was trying to get off the program during these years, the truth is that Nathan-Turner appears to have been as reinvigorated as his program in these final three years)
Except that just never quite happens for Silver Nemesis. The ideas are all there, but the script doesn’t actually execute them, wandering off for comedy subplots instead. Peinforte’s threat to reveal the Doctor’s true nature is a hollow letdown as it turns out nobody cares. The neo-Nazis are mere canon fodder. The Cybermen are predictably stupid. Peinforte commits suicide by jumping into a statue. The Doctor’s manipulations are hollow. The statue gestures at ancient Gallifreyan secrets, but in the most insubstantial way possible, mostly constituting creating yet another Most Valuable Mineral in the Universe and this time giving it to the Time Lords.
The biggest problem is an excess of villains. Given that the people who defend this story insist on saying that it would be better liked than Remembrance of the Daleks had it come first, this is worth looking at in particular. Remembrance of the Daleks had two factions of Daleks and a human faction. One of the Dalek factions, however, lacked any mouthpiece character until the fourth episode, and the other Dalek faction was intermingled with the humans. So most of the action focused on characters around the Doctor. Here, though, most of the oxygen is taken up by characters who are opposing the Doctor and each other.
The result is that most of the action is happening away from the Doctor while he travels from place to place. Combined with the McCoy era’s tendency to focus on other characters figuring out what the Doctor is up to instead of the Doctor figuring out the plot and you have a story in which the Doctor borders on being spectacularly unnecessary prior to the climax. This can work, but it requires a rock solid supporting cast. Here we have a collection of programmatic archetypes. In general when your story hinges on David Banks’s Cyberleader to advance the drama you’re in deep trouble.
But even with the Doctor sidelined this story just doesn’t have time for three villains. Nazi occultists are interesting. Time-traveling sorceresses are interesting. Cybermen are interesting. But none of them have time to actually be interesting in this story, and so none of them get to contribute their weight to the storytelling. Lady Peinforte is particularly disappointing – a 17th century sorceress who knows the Doctors secrets and can travel in time, but whose motivation seems to amount to “she’s a bad guy.”
And so without a script that ties the ideas together we get the McCoy era’s version of The Time Monster – an interesting idea that everyone has just let their hair down and decided to goof around on. Suddenly Season 25’s fetishization of black culture, or, more accurately, the bits of black culture white people like looks tacky and forced. The manipulative and all-knowing Doctor becomes the cheap plot trick Remembrance of the Daleks was ultimately about trying to avoid. Ace becomes tedious and purposeless, reduced to chasing at the Doctor’s heels and begging for the plot to be explained, her only difference from past companions being the insertion of scenes where she blows shit up. And the Cybermen finally bottom out to punchline status.
But underneath this is still a pile of good ideas serving as Silver Nemesis’s own nemesis. And in this regard, for all the story’s flaws, it still demonstrates how things have improved from a few years ago. Even when the McCoy era goes utterly off the rails – and make no mistake, it does here, it’s at least clear what the show is trying to do. There aren’t dissonant elements fighting for attention here. There’s just, from script on, a flaccid and uninspired execution of the ideas. We’re not in Attack of the Cybermen or Arc of Infinity territory where one stares at the screen trying to figure out why anybody thought this was a good idea. We’re in, as I said, Time Monster territory. Or Planet of Evil territory. If we weren’t past the point in the blog where I felt like I had to spell out how something like Nemesis worked symbolically, I could spin out an entire entry like I did on those. But you don’t need me to spell out what Nemesis Silver Nemesis (Silver Nemesish?) would be like at this point.
At the end of the day, every era of the show has its turkeys. And you can tell a lot about an era by how it goes wrong. And this is the only point in the eleven stories Cartmel had anything meaningful to do with in which the show does go wrong. The lesson is twofold. First, it lets us understand the Cartmel era as far more than just some nifty and edgy ideas. Comparison to this story demonstrates just how much the other stories in the era – even the much derided Season 24 ones – get right in their execution. It’s not just technical matters – Chris Clough gets some very nice directorial moments in this. It’s the basic question of having all the parts of the story working towards one goal.
But second, a flawed piece like this gives a sense of how ambitious the series is. In a real and fundamental sense, it’s better to fail like this, with all the right elements of the story but without the wherewithal to use them, than to fail at stories that should never have been made. In this regard Silver Nemesis is much like Terminus – a story one wishes had been made. The next time the McCoy era has any sort of a misstep will be similar – an imperfect masterpiece. That’s how the show screws up now, and that’s how you know it’s gone through a real and proper renaissance.