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The Extended Silver Nemesis

Review by Graham Howard

[Silver Nemesis]

I would genuinely liked to have written nice things about Silver Nemesis. Not only does it feature my favourite 'monsters' in Doctor Who, the Cybermen, it also serves as the series' 25th year anniversary tale. In addition Silver Nemesis holds the distinction of being the story New Zealanders got to see ahead of the rest of the world (episodes 2-3 at least). I had hoped the addition of nearly twelve minutes of extra footage might help to ameliorate some of the faults with the story as I saw them back 1988. Unfortunately this was not to be the case, and looking over my review of the story back then these faults are not only still there, if anything seem worse and they tend to grate even more than they did in 1988. The Cybermen deserved better, the programme deserved better, certainly for an anniversary story.

What went wrong? The two words which probably best sum up Silver Nemesis to me are 'vacuous' and 'shallow'. It is a triumph of style over substance, of stagy set pieces over good drama. A mildly entertaining romp perhaps, if viewed in an undemanding way, but overall lacking in any depth. A story searching for its raison d'etre amidst an uncompelling and disjointed narrative. On the positive side I suppose the additional scenes did give the story a more rounded feel, and did manage to tie up a few of the loose ends, although there are several left unresolved. (However, I am at a loss to explain one new scene in episode three where Karl (De Flores right hand man) appears to casually knock/push over a Cyberman, thereby allowing him and De Flores to escape!) For the most part the new scenes did improve things, but frankly did nothing to redress the more fundamental problems with the story.

One of the most annoying things about this Silver Nemesis is that it seems cluttered, an aspect which also annoyed me in 1988. We have De Flores and his Nazis, Lady Peinforte and Richard, the Cybermen and the Doctor and Ace, all after the Nemesis statue. Maybe a combination of two or three of these could have almost worked but when lumped together the plot, such that there is, seems messy. While fewer characters could have helped, I think the real problem is actually a lack of plot. Without more work being done on the plot, reducing the number of characters would probably have just resulted in more padding. Essentially, the Nazis, Lady Peinforte and the Cybermen want to acquire control of the Nemesis statue because it has great destructive power, which they want to utilize for their own ends. The Doctor wants to stop them gaining control of the statue. That is basically it. There is little of what could be called serious plot development - for the most part we simply have different combinations of the above protagonists in a series of situations where they attempt to bring this about. The requirement that in order to gain control of the Nemesis the bow and arrow (forged from the same material as the statue) must also be possessed is little more than a plot device whereby writer Kevin Clarke can spin out their activities over the three episodes.

A simple plot premise does not necessarily present an insurmountable problem. The central plots of a number of Doctor Who stories could probably be summed up very succinctly. But in such stories plotlines still tend to unfold, situations flow from the narrative, characters develop. In Silver Nemesis events tend to just 'happen'. Ace suddenly becomes 'really, really scared' for about twenty seconds. Lady Peinforte loses what remains of her sanity over the course of a scene. A good example, and one which brings me onto the subject of the Cybermen, is at the end of episode one when the Cybermen land their spaceship. There is no build up in the plot, there is no reason for them or anyone else to suddenly appear. The point of the Cyber controlled snipers is so obscure that their presence raises more questions than answers - as such they are best ignored. The arrival of the Cybermen - not helped by the overly glitzy way that the scene is shot - is therefore lacking in any plot derived impact. [1] If their arrival was able to engender any reaction in the viewer it would need to have been as a response to the impressiveness of the Cybermens' visual appearance in conjunction with expectations based on the viewers' familiarity of the Cybermen through earlier encounters. The visual factor is important in helping to generate excitement, suspense, etc. in the viewer but it should not be the only thing. The weakness of the Cybermens' sudden arrival and the incongruity of their continued presence in the story could have been easily overlooked had they managed to display even a modicum of their predecessor's menace. Or if they had been able to inject a little tension or put some meat on an otherwise threadbare plot. But as it turned out Silver Nemesis is about as much a Cyber story as was The Five Doctors. There is simply no point in them being in the story. One could almost believe Clarke's preposterous suggestion that they were put into the Silver Anniversary special because they happened to be silver! Apparently in 'early drafts' of Silver Nemesis the Cybermen wanted the validium so they could use it to create the ultimate Cyberman. [2] Such an idea, preferably minus De Flores and/or Lady Peinforte, could have created a vastly more interesting plot premise than that which eventuated.

To cap it all off, the portrayal of the Cybermen in this story is pitiful. For all their bluster they are plainly emotional, laughably incompetent and naive, absurdly vulnerable creatures who can't shoot straight. They are consequently devoid of any of the qualities which previously made them such credible foes. Why is it that 1980s writers seem incapable of writing a good Cyber story? Barring Earthshock (which is by no means flawless) their stories exhibit a complete lack of understanding as to what made the Cybermen such powerful adversaries in early stories. Nor is there any appreciation of how the Cybermen ought to be presented for best dramatic effect. It is a mystery to me that the Cybermen continue to be thought of as the second most popular Doctor Who monster when, again barring Earthshock, their treatment by writers has been so abysmal over the 80s. Silver Nemesis may not quite plumb the depths of Attack of the Cybermen, in terms of its presentation of the Cybermen, but in my view it's not too far off.

Unfortunately the other characters did little to lift the story. De Flores and his neo-Nazis were about as cardboard as the worst versions of their war comic counterparts. Yet apart from a few mumblings about the Fourth Reich and the Fuehrer there is very little to identify them with Nazism at all. They were simply the stock bad guys, put under the banner of Nazism by Clarke for, I suspect, cheap emotional effect.

Lady Peinforte was possibly the weakest character of all. Played with great gusto by Fiona Walker, to the point of overacting, the most overriding impression I had was that she wasn't really taking the part seriously (perhaps little wonder given the script). Lady Peinforte claimed to be evil but this was not really evident in the portrayal: eccentric, yes; insane in a mostly harmless sort of way, maybe. In fact the character seemed designed more for humorous relief than as a serious villain. And as for 17th Century magic potions which are able to act as a catalyst to time travel, such an idea is difficult to accept even in the Doctor Who universe.

I confess I've never found Sylvester McCoy's Doctor to be thoroughly convincing, especially when called upon to display emotions such as anger/fury or indignation, or when called upon to appear commanding. Silver Nemesis contains a number of such unconvincing, verging on embarrassing, moments. Yet overall, perhaps because I was subconsciously looking for something to like in this story, I did quite enjoy McCoy's portrayal. Though I suspect a fair part of this was due to the fact that Sophie Aldred and McCoy work so well together, such that you can almost forgive some of the deficiencies.

What about the darker, more mysterious Doctor introduced in season 25 and highlighted in this story? Best ignored really. Well I'd like to ignore this aspect, but I guess that's become more difficult in light of other stories in seasons 25-26 and now in the New Adventures. Viewed in isolation the comments in this story are so vague and obscure ignoring them might be possible. Comments linking the Doctor to Omega and Rassilon are so ridiculous, so at variance with established Who-lore they could be put down to the Doctor either having apparently recently developed an over-exaggerated sense of his own self importance, or that he is simply teasing, as he perhaps used to occasionally do when retelling anecdotes of meetings with famous figures in Earth's history. Inferences by Lady Peinforte that the Doctor is 'more' than a Time-Lord could be discounted as the ranting of a madwoman. But if Andrew Cartmel or Kevin Clarke is to be taken seriously (and the stories of Season 25 and 26 suggest this is the intention) then the character of the Doctor becomes a figure fundamentally different from that of the first 24 seasons. As just one example, it could be argued that this new 'darker' Doctor has a lower regard for life than was the norm previously, perhaps inevitable if the Doctor is now some semi-omnipotent galactic chess player. In Silver Nemesis I found this to be most apparent in the way the Doctor dealt with the Nemesis statue. The Doctor stated that validium was a form of living metal. In addition the statue gave every indication of being sentient. It was not inherently evil or destructive, yet the Doctor was effectively using its destructive power to do his dirty work (and it is suggested he has used it for such purposes in the past). Yet the Doctor treated it quite contemptuously, and what is more appeared to still have a hold over it which enabled him to deny the statue the 'freedom' it desired. Hopefully I'm missing something in my interpretation of these scenes, because this did not seem to be the Doctor I knew. The fact that the Doctor's personality can change significantly when he regenerates is indisputable. But I don't feel a relatively recent regeneration can explain away some of the features of the Doctor's new personality, and certainly not the associated implications of the Doctor's role in universal affairs. And even if Silver Nemesis had been a fantastic story I would still not be convinced such changes were either warranted or beneficial.

In light of the hard work of the many people involved in the production of this story, as demonstrated in the documentary, I would like to think that with a decent script Silver Nemesis could have been more than halfway good, even if the script editing had remained rather dodgy and the direction mostly uninspiring. It is amazing that Cartmel and John Nathan-Turner would enlist Kevin Clarke to write an anniversary tale for a show which, by his own admission he had only ever seen twice before (his father didn't used to let him watch it!), and who had 'never read any science fiction.' [3] Doctor Who's format can successfully encompass many different styles of story. And Season 25 and 26 contain some enjoyable stories. But in my opinion, by almost any standard, Silver Nemesis is, simply not good Who.

[1] I'm loathe to read too much into ratings as an indicator of a programme's quality, but I think the fact that nearly a million fewer Britons tuned into Part Two to an extent supports the point I am making here.
[2] DWB 65: Season 25 retrospective by Craig Hinton
[3] Celestial Toyroom Dec. 1988: 'Exercising the Imagination', interview with Kevin Clarke

This item appeared in TSV 35 (September 1993).

Index nodes: Silver Nemesis