ELIMINATE ALL WEAKNESS
Award-winning writer Neil Gaiman talks candidly about his ambition to upgrade the Cybermen in his 2013 story Nightmare in Silver.
[Published in The Essential Doctor Who #1 Cybermen (Panini UK, March 2014), pp.104-7. Posted here by kind persmission of Doctor Who Magazine editor Tom Spilsbury.]
In June 2013 the current affairs programme Newsnight spoke to Neil Gaiman about his new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and his two episodes of Doctor Who.
“I was incredibly happy,” he said of his first one, The Doctor's Wife. “I got 95, 96, 97 per cent of what I wanted. The new one...” But before he gave his verdict on Nightmare in Silver, the interviewer changed the subject.
Gaiman laughs at that now. “Yes, they missed a scoop,” he says. What score would he give his second episode? “I don't think I'm going to answer. Truthfully, a lot of the things I wanted didn't really happen, just because of the way things were shot, or because of time and the nature of the beast.”
His brief from showrunner Steven Moffat was to make the Cybermen scary. Where did he begin? “I made a mental list of things that troubled me watching The Moonbase  as a kid. The fact that they were kind of stealthy. I wanted the new Cybermen to be really silent, to lose the whole clompy-clompy thing.”
Did he not like the previous version of the Cybermen, introduced in the 2006 story Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel? “I enormously enjoyed the kind of steampunk design thing, and that you could hear them coming from a long way away. But there's something really nice about Cybermen just flitting in and being deadly.”
Another idea was to make the Cybermen more ant-like in their behaviour, acting as a group instead of as individuals. “For example,” says Gaiman, “when they cross the electrified moat, I originally had them dying, more coming and dying, and then more coming, marching over the bodies. The moat has 1,000 dead Cybermen in it, and 100,000 marching over them.”
Other ideas were thrown into the mix. “Steven Moffat's thing was having Cybermen that could upgrade on the fly: you throw things at them, they think about it and upgrade. I wanted them silent and I wanted their faces to look more human – two dots and a line, like the original ones.”
The script for Nightmare in Silver included a description of the Cybermen that was open to interpretation:
The new model CYBERMAN is standing in an open doorway. Gleaming. Silver. Absolutely immobile.
How involved was Gaiman in the new design? “Oh, quite a lot. Me and [Moffat's co-executive producer] Caroline Skinner got to work on the faces. They sent us some designs and we didn't like them. Long emails were written explaining what made the old Cybermen scary.”
In those emails, Gaiman cited The Uncanny Valley – a 1970 article written by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. The idea is that the more a robot looks or acts like a real human, the more disturbing we find it. “And that's what I got,” says Gaiman. “The body wasn't quite what I expected – it was more Iron Man – but I was very pleased with the face.”
Today, The Uncanny Valley is a benchmark for those working in fields such as robotics, 3D animation and reconstructive surgery. When the Cybermen were first created in 1966, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis were also inspired by developments in medical science.
“Heart transplants were just about to start,” says Gaiman. “People thought it was threatening and weird that you could have pacemakers or artificial limbs. When you've replaced all the bits, what are you left with? That was a real, good 1960s problem to use in a story.”
Don't we still find it problematic today? “Yeah – and I used it in The Doctor's Wife. But 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...'”
Gaiman was keen to use the latest technological advances in his story. “I looked at what's worrying and weird in contemporary computers. A lot of it is the web: all these devices talk to each other. My phone is a little computer that talks to every other computer out there. The 1960s Cybermen were about replacing human beings part by part until you get things that aren't quite human any more. But the scariest thing now is that they're all in touch. They're plugged into the web and we're not. That was something I tried to do with the Cyberplanner,” he continues. “I loved the idea of Cybermen using the Doctor's brain – all the things they could find there and drain from it – to communicate.”
That meant Matt Smith playing two roles – the Doctor, and a partially cybernetic version of the Doctor. “Some people have said, 'But the Cyber Doctor is so emotional'”, says Gaiman. “They wanted Matt to have played the Cyberplanner much more like Spock from Star Trek. But no, it's like riding round in a borrowed car – the Cyberplanner is in there digging about, seeing what works. I liked the idea of bringing up a bit of Doctors Nine and Ten as part of that. It's a mechanical consciousness using what's in the Doctor's head to communicate with the Doctor.” And trying to rile him so that he makes mistakes? “Absolutely. It uses what it finds against him.”
There are similarities between Nightmare in Silver and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Both are about revisiting something strange and scary seen in childhood – the old Cybermen in the episode, a man's suicide in the novel – and exploring them from an adult perspective
Gaiman agrees. “They were being written at the same time and I had the same stuff going through my head. I started the Victorian version of Nightmare in Silver, then wrote The Ocean at the End of the Lane, then went back to the next draft of the script.”
The Victorian version of Nightmare in Silver...? “Oh yeah,” he nods. “Originally, the companion in that script was Beryl, a Victorian governess in charge of two Victorian 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.'”
How did that change affect Angie and Artie's roles in the final draft? “They definitely had less import and impact than in the original script. I would have loved to keep the early scenes, with the Doctor explaining that rule number one is no kids, and Clara still getting her way. Lots of people have said, 'Why would he take kids in the TARDIS?' The answer was in the script, but got cut. Or they say, 'Why do they bed down in Webley's rooms and not in the TARDIS?' But that was in the script, too.”
It's not just Artie and Angie. “A Cyberman passes Missy [a member of the punishment platoon], then drops its arm which doubles back and kills her. There were reasons for that in an earlier draft: an arm getting thrown over an electrified fence and one going through a narrow space that a full Cyberman couldn't. It got cut.
"It's what happens," he says, laughing. "There's lots I'm happy with. We now have quieter, slicker Cybermen. And Steven had a wooden Cyberman in The Time of the Doctor – that's awesome!”
Would he like to write for the Cybermen again? “Next time, I'd love to create a new monster, and do what they did with the Autons in [the 1970 story] Spearhead from Space. I don't think I've ever passed a shop window with plastic dummies in it without wondering just a little if the hands were going to come down and start shooting. That's part of the fun of Doctor Who – creating situations that make people see something they've always known with new eyes. And then write upset letters to the Radio Times. Yeah, next time I'll write a really scary one...”
“My favourite little scene didn't get shot," says Gaiman, referring to the web-connected nature of the new Cybermen. "Right at the end, a little Cybermite has survived, its light flashing as it beams information. There was a draft where we follow the beam to Cyberman headquarters, somewhere far off in space, where all sorts of different models of Cybermen essentially sit round a table, going, 'Okay, now we know what the Doctor is.' The one at the head of the table would have been a Tenth Planet, cloth-faced Cyberman.”
The script also asked for a 1960s Cyberman to be included in Webley's display of Cyber relics at the start. “I figured that would be relatively easy to do,” says Gaiman. “I thought they'd get one from a Doctor Who exhibition. As it was, we just did a couple of the more recent ones.”