Move aside Fenric, this is an episode structured around a game of chess on a scale both grand and intimate. Humanity versus the automata; literally, metaphorically, whimsically. For as The Doctor, Clara, and her wards Artie and Angie – children clearly playing hooky from a stage school somewhere – arrive at an abandoned theme park occupied by a garrison of Redshirts, we find Humanity has been playing a great game of galactic chess; sacrificing planets like pawns in an effort to reach checkmate.
Their opponent? The Cybermen. And they’ve upped their game.
Running on a new operating system more iniquitous than Windows Vista, the Cybermen have a change of voice, walk, catchphrase, and come packed with apps for evil. Unlike the great cavern of mythology added to the TARDIS last year, Gaiman’s software patch to Cyber-lore leaves them feeling distanced from their previous incarnations. They’ve evolved to the point of Borg-like separation from their Mondasian ancestors; they’re almost too slick, and for some fans it’ll be an upgrade too far.
That feeling is compounded by their Cyber-Controller, who isn’t the villain you’d expect, and nor does it behave with the cool detachment demanded of its pawns. Gaiman imbued great life and character into a machine in ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, yet the scene-chewing it creates here doesn’t sit quite right, even if it does have cause to bring out an interesting performance.
Yet ‘Nightmare’ tries to pack so much in that everyone else feels like a piece to be moved. Part of a mechanical plot progression rather than characters we can connect with emotionally.
Being Human‘s Jason Watkins – who you can never have too much of in any show – is criminally underused as the budget Wonka, Webley; lost in the Cyber War games. And as Cybermen and soldiers pick one another off, and strategies are drawn up across the board, it’s like we’re watching live chess: a slick 21st century update of The Turk on our tellies.
But here’s the thing about The Turk: it wasn’t really a robot. It was a man-powered hoax. An entertaining trick that was ultimately disappointing for not being as astounding as its viewers were expecting. ‘Nightmare’ will be (perhaps unfairly) judged in a similar way, by the twin hopes of what a Cybermen story should be, and the high-quality fans demand from a Gaiman-written episode.
In both categories of judgement it comes up lacking. Have hope though. Both Neil Gaiman and the Cybermen are incredibly smart and crafty. No doubt at least one of them is already plotting a rematch with The Doctor…
Airs at 7pm on Saturday 11 May on BBC One.
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