|Figure Who Even Knows: Matt Smith’s Doctor Who faces down|
himself with a facial prosthesis in front of a menacing green screen
This is an excerpt from a future chapter of The Last War in Albion, the precise placement of which remains ambiguous. Think of it as our “The Yesterday Gambit.”
Previously in The Last War in Albion: At the same time that Gaiman was working on The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he was also writing his second Doctor Who story, Nightmare in Silver, where he brought back the Cybermen, the very same monsters that featured in Black Legacy, Alan Moore’s first professional publication as a writer, and that Grant Morrison had employed in his early-career Doctor Who Magazine work…
“Dreams!! Visions!! We are Cybermen, Medic… we do not run from shadows!” – Alan Moore, “Black Legacy”
Gaiman had considerably more affection for Doctor Who than either Morrison or Moore (who was known to suggest that all of the actors to play the part after William Hartnell made Doctor Who seem like a pedophile). And so it is not, in this case, his mentor’s take that he turned to, but rather his own memories of the Cybermen from childhood. Indeed, they were the series’ iconic monsters for the period when The Ocean at the End of the Lane is set, due to some curiosities with the rights to the show’s usual iconic foe, the Daleks, which meant that Doctor Who couldn’t use them for several years. Gaiman’s seventh birthday fell on November 10th, 1967, two months into Patrick Troughton’s second season as Doctor Who, a season that both opened and closed with a Cyberman story, and the book’s main action takes place during the season’s penultimate story.
Indeed, this is much of why Gaiman returned to the program to do a second episode, as there was little reason for him to otherwise. The BBC’s pay was, by his standards, meager, especially for the amount of time The Doctor’s Wife took. But that script had been one of the highlights of his career over the previous few years, winning him a Hugo Award and considerable acclaim. He’d had, for that story, a rare thing in one’s career – an editor who was as skilled a writer as he was, and the collaboration had sparked him to heights that his late career work had not consistently attained. But most of all, Moffat dared him to “make the Cybermen scary again,” and he couldn’t resist it.
Unfortunately, perhaps because Gaiman had time for fewer drafts, perhaps because Moffat was too occupied with other projects to edit as extensively, Nightmare in Silver harkens back to mediocrities like 1602 and Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader in which Gaiman offers a fairly hollow riff on pop culture nostalgia. Where The Doctor’s Wife had been progressively refined at Moffat’s urging to give more weight to its most interesting idea – Doctor Who being able to communicate verbally with his Tardis – Nightmare in Silver never settles down on one particularly interesting idea about the Cybermen. It is instead a series of visual set pieces: Cybermen moving with Wachowski/Snyder-stylized superspeed, or a rusting shell of a Cyberman used as the outer shell of a chess-playing mechanical Turk. It throws in several homages to Troughton-era Cybermen stories: a section of bouncing around on a stylized lunar landscape serves as an obvious homage to Troughton’s fourth story, The Moonbase, while a scene of the Cybermen bursting form “tombs” is a visual quotation of The Tomb of the Cybermen, which aired two months prior to the start of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. But as an episode of Doctor Who, it is a flatter and far weaker thing than The Doctor’s Wife.
Nevertheless, it serves as a sort of secret cousin to The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Indeed, Gaiman admits that “they were being written at the same time and I had the same stuff going on,” with the first and second drafts of the script being written on either side of the novel. This connection is not necessarily immediately obvious based on the transmitted episode, which differed significantly from Gaiman’s original ideas. Gaiman has admitted that while “I got 95, 96, 97 per cent of what I wanted” when writing The Doctor’s Wife, when it came to Nightmare in Silver, “a lot of the things I wanted didn’t really happen.” Some of these were simply budgetary issues – his proposal for a scene in which a host of Cybermen are killed via an electrified moat was intended to be massive in scale, with “1,000 dead cybermen in [the moat] and 100,000 marching over them,” an ambition that was unsurprisingly scaled back in the face of the realities of Doctor Who’s infamously small budgets. Gaiman had also called for the Cybermen to be completely silent, recalling how he found the 1960s Cybermen much scarier than the Daleks “because they were quiet, and they slipped in and out of rooms,” only to have this detail scrapped in favor of them being metallic stompers in the vein of what Gaiman described as the “clanky clanky steampunk Cybermen” that the series had been using since 2006.
Gaiman also notes that he wrote “long emails… explaining what made the old Cybermen scary,” in which he talked about how the Cybermen had drifted away from their original concept as designed in 1966 (one year before The Ocean at the End of the Lane) by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. As Gaiman explains, when they created the Cybermen, “heart transplants were just about to start… people thought it was threatening and weird that you could have pacemakers or artificial limbs.” For Gaiman, this was closely related to the slightly later concept of the uncanny valley, a term first coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, which talked about the way in which increasing the realism of a mechanical representation of humanity makes it more and more disturbing. But the redesigned Cybermen of Nightmare in Silver were relatively far from this – Gaiman notes that he was “very pleased with the face” on the new models, but that “the body wasn’t quite what I expected – it was more Iron Man.”
But perhaps the most revealing change is one of setting. Gaiman’s original script called for the Cybermen to attack an English seaside fairground, which is to say, to have them attack a place not unlike Portsmouth. Indeed, the iconography initially described, of Cybermen stepping out onto a pebble-strewn beach, sounds not entirely unlike the Cybermen invading Mr. Punch. As with his moat full of a thousand Cybermen corpses with a hundred thousand more marching atop them, however, this proved outside the reach of the BBC budget, and so the action was moved to a dilapidated space amusement park, an attempt at the same Victoriana in space aesthetic that had worked so well in The Doctor’s Wife.
It is difficult to imagine that the change was particularly harmful to the story, but it nevertheless highlights what Gaiman was trying to invoke. While on one hand grappling with the nature and shape of his own childhood fear, he was on the other trying to reshape a classic bit of British popular culture from the same period into a form that would invoke the same fear it did in him for a new generation. Like The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Nightmare in Silver is an attempt to depict and recreate the fears and anxieties of his own childhood. In this regard, it’s telling that his original draft focused more on two supporting characters, children under the care of Doctor Who’s then-companion, Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald, but that revisions to Clara’s basic character that changed her from a Victorian governess to a contemporary twenty-something de-emphasized this. As Gaiman describes it, “originally the companion in that script was called Beryl. She was a Victorian governess in charge of two kids. Beryl was a Mary Poppins figure, so the idea was to have a kind of Mary Poppins adventure. When Steven changed that plan and Beryl became Clara, I said, ‘Hang on, I’ve started writing the Victorian one.’ He was like, ‘It’s fine, she looks after two kids anyway.” (It is worth pointing out that Mary Poppins was also featuring, more or less contemporaneously, in the final volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, which came out in June of 2012, while Gaiman was working on the script for Nightmare in Silver.) But although the two kids were still available, this change altered the emphasis of the story – Gaiman notes that they “had less import and impact than in the original script,” which in turn moved the script away from the childhood horror that was at the heart of its original appeal to Gaiman.
But there were other factors that caused trouble for Gaiman’s story. One is that, as Gaiman notes, the fears invoked by the Cybermen in the 1960s were culturally specific. Gaiman himself notes, regarding the original fear of artificial hearts, that the fear has largely faded, commenting that while he’d employed that body horror in The Doctor’s Wife, “last year I met a really nice model whose legs had been amputated. She’d become an athlete. She had carbon-fibre sprung legs designed to run with. She doesn’t wear high heels if she wants to look taller, she wears different legs. It’s not that we lose our humanity, it’s more, ‘We’re human, we can do this…’” Instead he tried to base the Cybermen’s terror on contemporary technology, saying that “the scariest thing now is that they’re all in touch. They’re plugged into the web and we’re not” – a fear echoed in the script with the idea of the Cyberiad, which seems to be a sort of Cybermen computing cloud. But this meant that Gaiman’s script was stuck trying to have it both ways, simultaneously trying to bring the specific fears the Cybermen evoked in 1967 and trying to base them in a technological milieu that didn’t exist then. The result is unsurprisingly muddy.
Gaiman’s script was also hampered by the borderline incompetent direction offered by Stephen Woolfenden. Woolfenden’s camerawork is neadlessly leaden, with sequences taking place inside Doctor Who’s mind as he tries to repel the Cybermen’s attempt to convert him being particularly drab. These sequences consist of Matt Smith acting opposite himself only with a small facial prosthesis, with sides of the conversation being portrayed by banal shot-reverse-shot cuts of Matt Smith, blatantly in front of a green screen. Smith turns in a spirited performance as a ranting Doctor Who villain, but the sequences hardly come off.
More broadly, however, Woolfenden seems to have simply failed to understand Gaiman’s script. Admittedly much of the personal childhood connection was eroded in development, and one can fairly question whether those aspects of the script would ever have been entirely effective on an audience that wasn’t Neil Gaiman, but Woolfenden’s direction does not appear to grasp that the script is fundamentally about a childhood view of the Cybermen, shooting them as a fairly generic robotic monster and seemingly believing that the most interesting things Gaiman adds to the concept are slow-motion and bits like a Cyberman quickly pivoting to shoot someone who was trying to sneak up behind it. It’s not just the ignoring of Gaiman’s direction that the Cybermen should be silent, but the fact that Woolfenden is directing an episode about an army of robots, while Gaiman is writing a story about the monster under the bed and spaces of childhood wonder turning rotten and terrifying. The image of Clara and a ragtag band of half-competent soldiers trying to weather a Cybermen siege from within Natty Longshoe’s Comical Castle should be a disturbing nightmare of a slumber party gone wrong – instead, despite the beautiful exchange in which Clara asks, “real castle? Drawbridge? Moat?” and gets the wry answer, “yes, but comical,” the entire thing is basically shot as space marines fighting Cybermen in a castle.
The result is arguably one of the worst missteps of Gaiman’s career – for all the acclaim that The Doctor’s Wife got (and it’s ironic that Gaiman announced his impending return to the program while accepting his Hugo Award for The Doctor’s Wife, saying that “only a fool or a madman would try again” following the success of his first effort), Nightmare in Silver quickly attained a reputation as a somewhat infamous turkey, coming in third from the bottom in a Doctor Who Magazine poll of 2013’s episodes. But nevertheless, beneath the surface of a mediocre television episode lies another story, lost to the depths of Lettie Hempstock’s ocean, that is in many ways the prototype of one of the absolute jewels of Gaiman’s later career. Indeed, it is not entirely unreasonable to suggest that The Ocean at the End of the Lane owes its conceptual existence to Gaiman’s engagement with Doctor Who as much as it does to his marriage to Amanda Palmer. [continued]