Neil Gaiman on Returning to Doctor Who & Taking on the Cybermen

The Cybermen return in tonight’s Doctor Who, “Nightmare in Silver”, which also marks the return of the one and only Neil Gaiman, who penned this episode. In a press call with Gaiman earlier this week, he discussed what brought him back for another go at The Doctor, this new breed of Cybermen, and the influence that the Whoniverse has been in his life and writing.

When first asked to write another episode of Doctor Who, Gaiman politely declined Steven Moffat’s request. Moffat was eventually able to persuade Gaiman by asking him to be the person to make the Cybermen scary again. Gaiman shared, “When I was a kid, I was a huge Patrick Troughton fan. Patrick Troughton was my doctor, and I remember ‘The Moonbase’, the second outing of the Cybermen, and I was terrified of them. I was much more scared of them in a way than I was of the Daleks because they were sort of quiet, they slipped in and out of rooms, and it was very off-putting.”

When he started planning this episode, he had some changes in mind for the Cybermen. “I started thinking that I actually loved the design of the clanky clanky steampunk Cybermen, but I knew that their time was coming up and wouldn’t it be fun to actually see if I could make them more scary. After that, I think I originally proposed setting [the episode] in a fairground, like something in the 1950s because I knew that would be really fun. I just loved the idea of doing it on an English beach with Cybermen coming up out of the sea, millions of them crunching over the pebbles, [but I was] told that it was not going to work budget-wise.”

He added, “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. I knew that I wanted a conversation between the Cyberplanet and The Doctor. While everything else was going on and Clara was keeping everybody alive, there was going to be a 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 that actually, Matt 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 was going to play himself, and the moment I thought that, everything just opened up.”

According to Gaiman, Matt Smith got “sweary” while he was shooting this episode because he had twice as many lines to remember than in a typical episode. “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 sort of does impersonations of two other characters, and it was a delight.”

When asked about these fast Cybermen versus their slower, clunky predecessors, he replied, “I figured that my phone doesn’t look anything like it did five years ago, and my computer looks nothing like it did 15 years ago, and I thought, Cybermen talk about upgrading, let’s watch them upgrade. What would an upgraded Cyberman do? One of the things it would do is move pretty fast. I love the idea of a Cyberman that essentially was 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. If I ever get back and do another Cybermen story, I would probably do something much more about what it’s like to deal with a Cyberman, what these new Cybermen are like, [and] why you’d blow them up.”

Now that Gaiman has written a TARDIS episode and a Cybermen episode, if he has another opportunity, what would he like to tackle? His reply: “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.”

Gaiman has been a fan of Doctor Who since he was a child, and when asked what influence Doctor Who has been on his writing overall, there wasn’t a simple answer. “In terms of how Doctor Who and the mythos of Doctor Who has influenced my writing, I think it’s impossible for me to say because … I can’t actually ever get to meet a Neil Gaiman who at the age of 3 wasn’t watching Doctor Who. at the age of 4 wasn’t imagining how things could be bigger on the inside. At the age of 5 wasn’t buying a copy – or persuading his father to buy a copy – of ‘The Dalek World’ annual. Taking it home and studying it, learning all about Daleks and discovering that Daleks couldn’t see the colour red and then worrying about the red Daleks and whether they were invisible to their friends. Discovering that measles was a Dalek disease. Doctor Who was the first mythology that I learned, before I ever ran into Greek or Roman or Egyptian mythologies, I knew that TARDIS stood for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. This was all part of what I knew as a kid. I do know 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 I’ll keep going back as long as they’ll have me and as long as I can find the time.”

“Nightmare in Silver” airs tonight at 8/7c on BBC America and at 8ET/PT on Space in Canada.

Photo Courtesy of BBC America

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