I was torn about this episode long before I even watched it. On the one hand, I adore Neil Gaiman. This is the guy who wrote Neverwhere and American Gods, and had even written a really great episode of Who already (“The Doctor’s Wife”). On the other hand, from last week’s epilogue and preview, I saw that two young children would be companions in this story. The sneak peek seemed to indicate that the personalities and acting talent of the children would leave many fans wishing they hadn’t complained so much about Matthew Waterhouse or those twins from Colin Baker’s first episode. Given I felt pulled in both ways, I dove into the episode being as open-minded as possible. Let me now make it clear: I no longer feel torn.
I am usually critical about the overreliance on Daleks or Cybermen in Doctor Who stories, as they are often a crutch for lazy writers who can’t manage to come up with more original stories or villains, and several times (in both old and new series) it has been disastrous. The Moffat era hasn’t been as reliant on using the same monsters repeatedly, so I was actually looking forward to a Cyberman story–especially as it was written by Neil Gaiman. This could have been spectacular, but it wasn’t. As with many stories where writers for this series fail, this story tried to do too much, and–as a result–ended up doing nothing at all except irritate viewers. It tried to bring young children on board: fail. It tried to showcase serious acting chops for Smith: fail. It tried to pay homage to the previous series (especially Sylvester McCoy): fail. And it was so busy failing at all of these things that it failed at what should have been the main goal: to write a good Cyberman story.
Why oh why were children this young coming along for a ride in the TARDIS? I expressed potential dismay at the end of the previous episode’s review because of this, but reserved judgment because I thought there might be some sort of explanation for it. Alas, there wasn’t. There wasn’t even a hint of a backstory explaining why these children would have been able to extort a trip in the TARDIS out of the Doctor and Clara. So they found some photos of her on the internet. So what? Why are they on board for what the Doctor should know after hundreds of years could be potentially very dangerous travel?
“But it’s a children’s show!” many will say. “The younger fans want to see someone their age aboard.” Yes, I’m aware of this. But it’s always been primarily a children and family show, and children younger than older teens have always been avoided as companions–with good reason. The suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy good drama becomes impossible when you create a situation where you know nothing bad can happen. The show would never allow anything violent or deadly to happen to young children the way it would with adults (It isn’t Torchwood, for Pete’s sake), so there is no danger and no suspense. Furthermore, the children in this episode were just petulant and annoying. They distracted from the story and the drama, and hearkened back (and not in a good way) to those plot conveniences of the original series where the only purpose for a companion at times seemed to be getting into trouble from which the Doctor had to rescue them. There was even a moment of dialogue where the Doctor alludes to exactly that. The writers could have left out the children completely, beefed up the rest of the story, and the outcome would have been infinitely better.
I usually brag to Star Trek fans (though I like that franchise too) that Doctor Who came first by three years, and many concepts introduced in the Trek franchise had already been done by Who. The Borg are just reboots of the Cybermen more than 20 years later, after all. That being said, though, I feel a tad embarrassed for what’s been done with the Cyberman by the rebooted series. Failing to take pride in the fact that the Cybermen originated long before the Borg, the new series has created a tagline (“You will be upgraded!”) that is a blatant rip-off of “You will be assimilated!” And if that wasn’t cringeworthy and embarrassing enough, Gaiman writes a script here that completely rips off “Best of Both Worlds” as well, with the Doctor becoming a Cybmerman just as Picard became a Borg.
Really, Mr. Gaiman? That’s all you could come up with? Jesus Christ.
“But Matt Smith did a fantastic acting job here!” the hardcore fans will insist. But no, he didn’t. Keep in mind I like Smith and he’s my favorite among the new series Doctors, but this was not a chance for him to shine. The dialogues inside his head with the Cyberman version of himself weren’t even original either, as it seemed to lift straight from the Tegan/Mara scenes in “Kinda” from 30 years ago. And jerking yourself back and forth and changing the timbre of your voice slightly to alert the viewer of the feuding personalities is an acting technique right out of the competitve high school drama competition handbook. It wasn’t anything special. Smith didn’t shine here, and Coleman was basically rendered useless given how much time was given to the brats who came along for the ride for no reason. Hence, none of the acting was really all that special. The guest actors completely blended in with the scenery given everything going on, and had no opportunity to shine either.
I appreciated the nod to the 7th Doctor with the chess game, but that seemed to be wasted as well. We spend more time watching the jerky back and forth “acting” while Smith changes characters than we do enmeshed in a game of chess. As with the unnecessary inclusion of the children in a prior scene, the dialogue even points to the shortcomings in the plot, as Matt even makes it clear that the Cyber half of himself is going to break the promise and kill them all if he loses anyway. So why does it matter? The viewer is left wondering the same thing, with no real answer.
Don’t get me started on the flirty “How does the Doctor really feel about Clara?” garbage. I guess we’re going here again. Yippee. How original.
The abandoned amusement park and the banished soldiers could have been interesting. The update for the Cybermen could have been frightening. Neil Gaiman certainly had potential to be amazing. Alas, nothing came together here. It was a big mess. And I thought it couldn’t get any worse than “Rings of Akhaten”…