In the Doctor Who episode “Nightmare in Silver” (written by best-selling author Neil Gaiman), Hedgewick’s World of Wonders, which once the greatest theme park in the galaxy, is now merely the dilapidated home to a shabby showman, a chess playing dwarf and a dysfunctional army platoon. So, when one of the Doctor’s (Matt Smith) oldest foes, the Cybermen, return, it’s up to Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) to not only help save the day, but also help rescue the Doctor.
During this recent interview to promote his most recent Doctor Who episode (his last one was “The Doctor’s Wife”), Neil Gaiman talked about how the different elements of the story all came together, why he decided the Cybermen needed to evolve, creating the cybermites, where he would draw the line with cybernetic augmentation, how he views the TARDIS, that he would love to create a monster for the Doctor Who universe, that he prefers to be given parameters to write within, what he enjoyed most about Patrick Troughton’s era as the Doctor, and how much Doctor Who has influenced his life and his writing. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
Question: “Nightmare in Silver” has a lot of great elements to it. How did the different elements come together? Had you always wanted to play with the Cybermen, and when did the idea of the Doctor versus Doctor come in?
NEIL GAIMAN: Well, the entire episode began with an email from Stephen Moffat. There was a sequence of emails. The first one said, “Would you like to write another Doctor Who episode, following up on ‘The Doctor’s Wife’?” And I wrote back saying that I really didn’t have time, my life was just completely mental and that I was sorry. And then, he wrote back and said, “If you could find time somehow, I’d really like it if you made the Cybermen scary again.” And that one got to me. When I was a kid, I was a huge Patrick Troughton fan. Patrick Troughton was my Doctor. I remember “The Moonbase,” the second outing of the Cybermen. I didn’t see the first one, but I saw the second one. I was terrified of them. I was much more scared of them, in a way, than the Daleks because they were quiet and they slipped in and out of rooms. It was very off-putting. So, I started thinking, “Well, actually, I love the design of the clanky clanky, Steampunk Cybermen. I know their time is coming up, so wouldn’t it be fun to actually see if I can make them more scary.”
I originally proposed actually doing it in a fairground, like something in the 1950’s because I thought that would be really fun. I just loved the idea of doing it on an English beach with millions of Cybermen coming up out of the sea and crunching over the pebbles. But, I was told that that was not going to work, budget wise. The idea of the Doctor playing chess was there, from the very beginning. The idea of a chess playing machine with somebody hiding inside it was there, from the very beginning. And I knew that I wanted a conversation between the Cyber Planet and the Doctor.
The key thing, while everything else was going on and Clara was keeping everybody alive, was the chess game. But, it wasn’t until I was actually writing it – I was probably 15 or 20 pages into the script – that I suddenly thought, “Actually, Matt [Smith] is a good enough actor that I could have him do both sides of the chess game, and that would be fun.” So, instead of sitting there, playing a rather talkative Cyberman, which was my original plan, he played himself. The minute I thought of that, everything else opened up. I got to do all of this ridiculously fun stuff. I got to have too much fun, and I got to watch Matt have too much fun while he was shooting it. And I got to watch Matt get very, very sweary because it hadn’t occurred to me that I was asking him to remember twice as many lines as a normal episode of Doctor Who. I’d see the dailies when they’d come through and watch poor Matt negotiate his way through playing at least two characters, one of whom then does impersonations of two other characters. It was a delight.
GAIMAN: I just figured that my phone doesn’t look anything like what it looked like five years ago, and that didn’t look anything like what it looked like 10 years ago. My computer looks nothing like it looked like, 15 years ago. I thought, “Cybermen talk about upgrading, so let’s watch them upgrade.” What would an upgraded Cyberman do? I thought one of the things it would do is move pretty fast. I loved the idea of a Cyberman that was essentially so dangerous that, if you find one on your planet, you blow up the planet. Planets are expendable, but a Cyberman, if you can’t destroy it immediately, is not. It’s going to be very, very hard to destroy. It’s incredibly dangerous. I don’t know. If I ever get back and do another Cyberman story, I would probably do something much more about what it’s like to deal with a Cyberman, what the new Cybermen are like, and why you blow them up. But for this, we only had 42 minutes. Huge chunks of what I wrote didn’t actually get shot, or if they got shot, didn’t make it onto screen, just ‘cause there was so much we had to do and so little time.
The Cybermen are similar to the Borg from Star Trek. Was this an attempt to reclaim the crown of cybernetic menace from the Borg, by taking back some of those elements?
GAIMAN: One of my great embarrassed admissions – and I have very few – is that, while I have seen every episode of the original Star Trek many times, and could quote you the entirety of “The Trouble with Tribbles” with my eyes closed, Star Trek: The Next Generation happened during a period where I was moving from the U.K. to the U.S. For a big wedge of that time, I had no access to television because we were too far out in the country, so I missed it. It happened in the background and I didn’t actually ever get to watch it. I started catching up with television again with Babylon 5, mostly because I was asked to write an episode. So, I missed the Borg and only knew about them, way in the background. I suspect this is more a case of a certain amount of parallel evolution. But, I would love to reclaim the cybernetic menace crown.
Also, one of the things I loved about doing this was creating the cybermites. I remembered, as a child, hearing that the Cybermen were actually based on silverfish. I remember looking at these little silverfish, that looked kind of metallic, and thought, “These things are weird. Maybe they’re metal. Maybe they’re tiny robots.” So, the idea of creating a whole bunch of cybermites, and then having them colonize your face and your brain, was fun. In my original conception of the Cyber Doctor, the thing that covers his face was very obviously made up of frozen cybermites, but that wasn’t actually the way the designers went. They went with something slightly more Borg-like.
GAIMAN: The Cybermen started with Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis looking at things that were happening, in terms of trends in the ‘60s. You were getting heart transplants and people were getting things augmented. They did that wonderful, classic science fictional thing of, “If this continues, where does it take us? How many pieces can you replace in a person and still have them be a person?” Would I wear Google glass? Almost definitely not because they look very, very silly. I was at the TED talks last month and watched that nice Mr. Brin from Google get up there wearing his Google glasses and explain why being able to check your email while talking to people was the best thing in the whole world, and I was not convinced. I think trying to learn how to be present while you’re present is a really good thing to do. I was talking to a friend yesterday who mentioned that, when she’d had knee surgery, they basically replaced her entire knee with something artificial, and that seemed terribly sensible to me. I can absolutely imagine myself with a huge number of artificial bits. As long as I felt like me, I don’t think I’d mind. I’m ridiculously open-minded about that stuff. I quite like the idea of downloading my entire consciousness into a computer, and then invading every network in the world and slowly taking over. Oh, shit! I shouldn’t have said that, should I? Scrap that! Pretend I never said anything about taking over the world by downloading my consciousness into every computer in the world.
How do you view the TARDIS?
GAIMAN: I grew up definitely considering the TARDIS a character in Doctor Who, and the only really constant, not just companion, but character. In some ways, it’s more consistently there than even the Doctor. The TARDIS doesn’t really change the way it looks. It’s still this wonderful blue box that was bigger on the inside, even if the inside has changed a little. From a very early episode, called “The Edge of Destruction,” it was obvious that the TARDIS was sentient. I used to love the way that the Doctor would talk to the TARDIS and call her “old girl,” and things like that. So, when I wrote “The Doctor’s Wife,” I didn’t think that I was doing anything particularly odd or out of canon, or anything like that, in giving the TARDIS a personality. In truth, what I did was remind people that the TARDIS is a living entity, if they’d forgotten. I love the idea of a TARDIS that doesn’t particularly like a Companion, just in the same way that there were Companions that the TARDIS really likes, for reasons never adequately explained. If she doesn’t like Clara, that’s something that may or may not ever get explained, but I like that. I like the fact that the TARDIS is a character.
You’ve gotten to do a TARDIS episode and now a Cybermen episode. Is there any area of Doctor Who mythos that you’d love to get your hands on?
GAIMAN: I’d love to create a monster, and have it be one that’s interesting enough or fun enough to come back, written by somebody else, or turn up completely reinvented. I’d love to do that and have the feeling that you’d actually left something behind. I think that’s hard. I love that Terry Nation left us the Daleks, and I love that Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis left us the Cybermen. In my head, I love that the great intelligence has come back, but I miss the Yeti. I would love to have huge shambling robotic Yeti, just because I loved them when I was a kid. So, I would love to do that. That would be wonderful. The trouble with everything, these days, for me, is time. There is only one me. There are a ridiculous number of demands on my time. There are so many things I’m trying to do. It’s so much more about when I’m going to get time to do it, if I get time. I think they’ll have me back. They seem to like me at Doctor Who, and I know that I definitely like them.
Compared to “The Doctor’s Wife” where you started from scratch with your own idea, you were given something specific to include in the story with “Nightmare in Silver.” Is it more difficult to write a story when you know there are things you have to include, or is it the same as writing from something that you just came up with on your own?
GAIMAN: It’s a wonderful thing, as a writer, to be given parameters and walls and barriers. If you’re a writer and somebody says, “You can write anything you like, as long as you like, about anything, at all,” as they sometimes do, I’m not very likely ever to write those stories. Whereas if somebody says to me, “We’d like a really good story about Shakespeare and cats,” I’m much more likely to go, “Well, how can you ask me about Shakespeare and cats? Oh, hang on, that would be great! What if Shakespeare’s cat wrote his plays?” Suddenly, you’re off on this weird, mad place and you’re making stuff. In the case of the Cybermen, it set up a list of things that I had to make sure where in my episode. I started making lists of all the things that I wanted, and some of them made it in and some of them didn’t. I wanted the Cybermen to be much more silent then they actually are, and the only noise we would ever hear from them was when they thumped their chests. But, I got so many of the things that I wanted. Somebody else can now come along and take these Cybermen. We have a new costume, we have a new look, and we have something much more dangerous. If one of these things shows up again, I think people will be a lot more worried than they are currently about the old Cybermen.
What did you enjoy most about Patrick Troughton’s era of Doctor Who and his interpretation of the character?
GAIMAN: It would be hard to actually answer that completely rationally because you’re talking about the Doctor who was the Doctor for me between the ages of six and nine. That Doctor was the Doctor for me. He was quirky, small, funny, slightly on the edge, and everybody always underestimated him because he seemed to be a little bit goofy, while the things that he went up against were huge and terrifying, but he would win somehow. But, there was always a cost, and he didn’t always win cleanly. There was a weird feeling that things were big and complicated, and that the Doctor didn’t really know it all. But, he was the Doctor that I would have wanted to go off in the TARDIS with. I wouldn’t have wanted to go off with William Hartnell. He scared me. And I wouldn’t really have wanted to go off with Jon Pertwee because I didn’t have a mini-skirt and I wasn’t old enough. I think you needed to be somebody who could be pretty and ride around in an old car next to him, in order to be a proper Companion for him. And by the time Tom Baker came along, I was just too old to fantasize about going off in the TARDIS with him. Although I think going off in the TARDIS with Tom Baker would be a wonderful thing. So, for me, it was always Patrick Troughton. He was the one I wanted to travel with, and I loved the feeling, back then, that events had consequences and that some of those consequences were going to be lethal.
How much influence has Doctor Who had on your writing?
GAIMAN: I think it’s impossible for me to say because I have no idea. There’s no control out there. I can’t actually ever get to meet the Neil Gaiman who, at the age of three, wasn’t watching Doctor Who, or at the age of four, wasn’t imagining how things could be bigger on the inside, or at the age of five, wasn’t buying a copy or persuading his father to buy a copy of the Dalek World annual and taking it home and studying it to learn all about Daleks, and discovering that Daleks couldn’t see the color red, and then worrying about the red Daleks and wondering if they were invisible to their friends. I discovered that measles were a Dalek disease, which was something not a lot of people know, but I learned it because I read it in the Dalek World anthology.
Doctor Who was the first mythology that I learned, before ever I ran into Greek or Roman or Egyptian mythologies. I knew that TARDIS stood for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. I knew that the TARDIS had a food machine that made things that looked like Mars bars, but tasted like bacon and eggs. It was all part of what I knew, as a kid. I still have the battered copy of David Whitaker’s Doctor Who and the Daleks, that I had as a kid, with terrible illustrations. So, I don’t know, but I do know that it’s been hugely influential on the shape of my head and how I see things. And I know that I feel ridiculously comfortable in that universe, and that I will keep going back, as long as they’ll have me and as long as I can find the time.
The Doctor Who episode “Nightmare in Silver” airs on BBC America on May 11th.