When a popular franchise is rebooted various protagonists are redeveloped and redesigned. Sometimes to a greater or lesser success. This is particularly noticeable where monsters, in series’ like Doctor Who are concerned. If the spirit of the original is lost then no amount of new special effects can save them.
Until Nightmare in Silver this had been true of the new Cybermen. Each successive outing appeared to weaken them further, with their lacklustre appearance in Closing Time a little bit of a nadir. However, they are back, reinvigorated under the pen of Neil Gaiman and have been completely upgraded.
A species dedicated to improving itself and capable of redeveloping itself has now been given a new lease of life where each individual is a threat in itself. The latest upgrade brings real threat with it and drags the Cybermen back up to the top where they belong.
The question is, with so much attention paid to the improvement of the villains, does the story keep up? Fortunately the answer is yes. Mr. Gaiman has created an action packed, fast paced narrative not only introducing the newly upgraded Cybermen but also a futuristic Earth empire with all its politics and nuance.
Set in an abandoned theme park planet the Doctor inadvertently brings innocent young charges to a location he believes to be safe and fun. Once inside the twisted ‘fun house’ danger arrives from all sides, including the sad yet sinister impresario Webley, an Empire punishment patrol lead by the excellent Tamzin Outhwaite, the Cybermen themselves and the Cyber-Planner hiding within the Doctor’s mind. While everyone else gets involved in more physical and practical confrontation the Doctor and the Cyber-Planner go head to head in a dangerous, high stakes game of chess. The cuts between inside the Doctor’s mind and out on the battlements of a literal castle give the story variety and variation in pace. In both ‘battlezones’ the stakes are raised and raised again until a last minute twist brings victory inside and outside.
The Doctor’s cheating endgame does not come out of the blue with many years’ exploration of the character revealing of what he is capable. While there is enough foreshadowing of Porridge’s real identity to satisfy all but the most picky viewer. The story is neatly rounded off without requiring a MacGuffin or a ‘Deus ex Machina’ in a wonderfully full 45 minutes.
Matt Smith is at his best, relishing both his roles and obviously enjoying every second; Tamzin Outhwaite’s performance where she deliberately waivers between doing her duty, following her orders and keeping a secret is beautifully underplayed, and Warwick Davies is outstanding as the mysterious Porridge. The entire episode is a lovely blend of classic and modern Who bringing something for all viewers, young and old, and leaves the series nicely set for the season finale.