Silver Nemesis is not a popular story, and I can understand why. The problems are obvious, with three different sets of enemies who all fall short in some way, and are largely kept separate from the Doctor and Ace, who spend most of the story wandering around chatting. The Cybermen are back, but their vulnerability to gold is taken to ridiculous levels. It’s hard to take them seriously when they can be killed by a child’s catapult and a coin. But I still love this story, perhaps against my better judgement, because Silver Nemesis was the one that got me back watching Doctor Who again when I was a child.
I mentioned when I wrote about The Caves of Androzani and The Twin Dilemma that the combination of those two wretched stories left me unwilling to watch any more Doctor Who, so I was not one of the viewers who returned for the next series. A few years later, I happened to switch on Doctor Who again out of curiosity, and saw those amazing, scary silver creatures. The Cybermen drew me back into the world of Doctor Who. I still get a little frisson of excitement when I see those most silvery of silver Cybermen. Wow, those guys are shiny. So that was the perspective of a child, but as an adult I still find plenty to enjoy here.
I think it was in the documentary that was included on the VHS release that the reasoning behind Silver Nemesis first became apparent, and it goes something along the lines of this: it’s Doctor Who’s silver anniversary, the Cybermen are silver, so why not? That line of thinking comes in for a lot of criticism, but I’m not sure how it is inherently worse than the line of thinking behind all the other anniversary specials, which goes like this: it’s an anniversary, so let’s have some old Doctors back, because… why not?
At least this is an anniversary story that does something different, and is much more forward looking, despite the inclusion of the Cybermen. We are on a story arc that will conclude with The Curse of Fenric, so there are elements to this that make more sense later in context, such as the chess set and how Lady Peinforte travels through time. This is the McCoy era displaying some of the skills that will become the norm in the 21st Century. I am less keen on the hints about the Doctor’s dark secret. He is already a brilliant character. He doesn’t need to be made into some kind of a god (which was basically the plan). But I do love how that gets subverted. Peinforte keeps mentioning it, but when it comes to the crunch nobody really cares, apart from a bit of mild curiosity from Ace.
To take the three sets of enemies in turn, we’ve already talked a bit about the Cybermen, and there’s not a lot more to say about them other than they are disappointingly functioning as generic monsters now, and not very effective ones other than that. Just about all they have going for them is their imposing appearance, which was sufficient to get me interested in them and a bit scared as a child, but for the long-term fans it’s a waste of an opportunity.
The Neo-Nazis are my least favourite of the groups of baddies. The McCoy era repeatedly does Nazi-ish enemies. There are two clear examples in the previous series, and I suppose the Daleks count as always this series as well. But it turns out that Nazis thematically are a lot more interesting than actual Nazis in Doctor Who. Having said that, they do work reasonably well in terms of the Nazis on a quest for a powerful mythical object that they plan to misuse, which has an Indiana Jones vibe to it.
The best of the lot is Lady Peinforte and Richard. Longterm readers of the blog might have guessed I would say that, because I have harped on quite a bit about how Doctor Who is much more fantasy than sci-fi, or at least the kind of sci-fi that is simply magic with a veil of technobabble to hide it. Peinforte is at least Doctor Who being honest about what it is. At this stage (although the plot thread will be picked up in Fenric), she is able to travel through time without the aid of any technology, simply because she can. In order words, she’s a witch. Richard is there really to add a bit of humour as the comedy sidekick, baffled by everything he sees in his future, and despite Dolores Gray showing up just because she’s Dolores Grey and Doctor Who could get her, Richard’s interaction with her is a lot of fun. If a story has to have padding in it, that’s the kind of padding I can’t complain about. And Richard is the one character that stops this from being a straightforward kill-all-the-baddies story. He is nominally one of the villains, but he has qualities that the others do not possess. He is the one who saves the Doctor from the Cyberleader, but remains loyal to “his lady”, never abandoning her despite her obvious madness.
CYBERLEADER: She is mad.
RICHARD: Speak not of my lady so.
I lot of fans consider Silver Nemesis to be the low point of the McCoy era. I can’t agree with that, but even if we do accept it as the worst of the McCoy stories that says something important. Compare it to the low points of other eras and it’s clear to see how much of an improvement in standards Doctor Who was experiencing at this point in its history. This was the 25th Anniversary story, and it will be the 50th before we get another with Doctor Who a regular part of the television landscape again. Based on the quality of this, and the McCoy era as a whole, that was an unjust fate. RP
The view from across the pond:
Who is the Doctor? This was the question that spawned the 25th anniversary special, Silver Nemesis. Written by Kevin Clarke and under the creative control of Andrew Cartmel, this silver anniversary story would feature the Doctor’s old adversary, the Cybermen. You know, because they’re silver. And why not? The Daleks are so integrated into every other aspect of the series, it’s nice to see Cybermen getting a chance to play in the big league. They know the Doctor well enough that they recognize him even without having met this incarnation before, and it’s not the first time they’ve done that either. The same can’t be said for the Daleks. Those suction cup loving baddies roll right past the Doctor after he’s regenerated and are none the wiser. Cybermen are a bit scary in that regard – why don’t they assume it’s another Time Lord? Because they’re dangerous enough to make it as the enemies for the 25th anniversary special, that’s why! They know their adversary!
I’ve have said before; McCoy’s Doctor flipped between episodes that either really held your attention, or dropped it off at that pool while you went to watch the story. Luckily this was one that held my attention but it had less to do with the Cybermen than the other threat. Which one; there were three? Oh, good point. No, the neo-nazis were getting tired. McCoy’s era seemed to be plagued with Nazi’s in one form or another. Whether the Curse of Fenric (more on that in a minute), the Nazi-like Kiss fans of Delta and the Bannermen, Daleks in Remembrance, McCoy’s Doctor seemed on a mission to remove Nazis from the universe. So no, the threat that really interested me was Lady Peinforte and her dark mirror of the Doctor’s companion, Richard. Richard is an interesting parallel for the companion because he’s working with the bad guy who is very knowledgeable and can transcend the boundaries of time through magic. He is not actually a bad guy himself but is traveling with his own time traveler and learning from her. Similar to the Doctor’s science, Lady Peinforte uses magic exemplifying Clarke’s law perfectly. No, not the author of the episode, but Arthur C. Clarke, who said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The mirror is ever further illustrated in that the Doctor and Ace are a male and female respectively, while Peinforte and Richard are a female and male respectively. It’s a dark mirror in nearly every respect. The elder teaches the younger but one teaches science and is good, the other teaches magic and is bad. We see the Doctor hails from an advanced society while Lady Peinforte comes from a less enlightened time. It’s an interesting parallel.
Lady Peinforte’s magic is what brings her from 1638 to 1988 for the 25th anniversary but it is her knowledge of the Doctor that thrilled me as a kid. She knows about the “old time” and a “time of chaos”. She asks Ace “Have you never wondered where he came from?” This revelation, about to be shared, is incredible, especially when she threatens to tell the Cybermen! Then, to totally subvert expectation, the Doctor says she can tell them. What?! And am I mistaken or are the Doctor and the Cybermen on the same side. Until the Doctor pulls the same stunt he pulled on Davros just two stories earlier: he uses the very weapon the Cybermen are intent on getting their hands on, against them. Fool me once… The Doctor takes out two major threats to the universe one season before the show is canceled. That’s consideration!
But that weapon ties into a bigger universe. Gallifrey has the Hand of Omega for wiping out stars because, you know, one needs that kind of technology. And now they have living metal, called Validium, that can be programmed to wipe out entire fleets, and we can have conversations with it too. (Convenient when visiting art galleries!) Who would ever go up against these guys? But here’s the real kicker: what made the Cybermen even want it? They wanted the Earth for conversion as a new Mondas (which of course, further disrupts the Second Doctor’s timeline of Cyber-events) but what did they want the statue for? Let’s imagine:
Cyberleader: Excellent (clenches fist) we have found the statue. Prepare to go get it.
Cyber-underling: But why? When did we want a statue collection?
Cyberleader: It is not a question of aesthetics. We have see-through jaws for aesthetic purposes. Nice right? (Re-clenches fist for dramatic effect) We need the statues because a woman has traveled 350 years into the future to get it from a group of neo-nazis who also want it. And the Doctor is bound to turn up wanting it too. And it talks to them all so that’s a change. Logically, if Nazi’s and psychos from 1638 want it, we have to get it first!
Cyber-underling: how does this help us since our planet was destroyed two years ago?
Cyberleader: It doesn’t. But it’s got to help with something and if it doesn’t we can wait a few centuries at which point these jokers will have a moonbase we can raid and, failing that, maybe build a ship called Silver Carrier and head to a nearby starbase.
Cyber-underling: But that too is bound to go wrong. And why name it Silver anything? Isn’t that asking for trouble?
Cyberleader: Stop overthinking it. If that fails, then we’ll go to our rooms and take a nap! Must I think of everything? Now go convert something.
And let’s not ignore that Lady Peinforte travels here as an emissary of sorts to the demon-thing, Fenric. She is one of his “wolves”. There’s this underlying game of chess which popped up through the McCoy era which was fascinating and painted the Doctor as a dangerous enemy to those who opposed him. He was a schemer, a planner. And even the most dangerous of enemies could be manipulated by this darker Doctor; a fact I was very interested in back when this aired and I still feel had a great deal of potential. The potential is just slightly mined later in The Family of Blood when we discover just how dangerous the Doctor can be. But here’s a question: Fenric can manipulate time and uses his “wolves” as part of his army. We know of another wolf that the Doctor was affiliated with. Was “bad wolf” the naughty wolf that didn’t follow Fenric’s commands? Or was this wolf even more dangerous than Fenric?
Silver Nemesis is a fascinating story with a lot to pick apart and enjoy. It made for a great 25th anniversary story even if it had some repeated ideas from other episodes. The strongest was giving us just a small sliver of the Doctor’s past without ever really giving anything away. That was, to quote the Cybermen, Excellent! ML
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