By Aaron Sagers
Neil Gaiman doesn’t have time for “Doctor Who.” The first episode the acclaimed writer penned for the series, 2011’s “The Doctor’s Wife,” won Hugo and Bradbury awards and has become a fan favorite. But it also took Gaiman more than a year to complete, but showrunner Steven Moffat says that’s precisely what makes him perfect for the job.
“I’m looking for people too busy to do it but do it anyway,” said Moffat in a phone interview. He further joked the perfect “Who” scribe are “people who have been waiting all their life to have a shot at the TARDIS, and will screw up their career and family life for a couple of months to get it done.”
While the ramifications on his career and family are likely minimal for Gaiman, he acknowledges that the return to “Who” was a time demand, which is somewhat ironic for a show revolving around manipulating that very concept.
Yet Gaiman has returned to the season’s penultimate episode, a Cybermen spectactular titled “Nightmare in Silver,” which airs tomorrow at 8 p.m. EDT on BBC America.
Set on a creepy, dilapidated amusement park planet, the Doctor’s old foes return with some interesting upgrades. Not only are they now fast and can play chess, but they also manage to (literally) get inside the Time Lord’s head. In addition to Clara and her charges Angie and Artie, the episode features guest turns by a carnie show man (Jason Watkins from “Being Human” UK) and his accomplice (Warwick Davis).
In a phone conference, Gaiman said his involvement began with a sequence of emails from Moffat.
“The first one saying would I you like to write another ‘Doctor Who’ episode following ‘The Doctor’s Wife,’ and me writing back, saying I really didn’t have time and life was completely mental, and I was sorry.”
Then Moffat wrote back and said that if Gaiman did come on, he’d like the writer to make the Cybermen scary again.
“That one got to me,” said Gaiman. “Patrick Troughton was my Doctor and I remember ‘The Moonbase,’ the second outing with the Cybermen – I didn’t see the first one – and I was terrified of them.”
More than the Daleks, Gaiman said the Cybermen were scary because they were quiet and slipped around easily.
“I love the design of the clanky-clanky steampunk Cybermen, but I know their time is coming and wouldn’t it be fun to see if I could make them more scary?”
Part of his plan was to craft Cybermen that were “so dangerous that if you find one on your planet, you blow up the planet.”
As such, once he signed on, Gaiman proposed setting the story in a 1950s fairground, on an English beach, with Cybermen coming up out of the see with “millions of them, crunching over the pebbles,” but budgets prevented that. Also part of the writer’s early ideas was to have a scene with the Doctor playing chess and having a conversation with a Cyberman.
“It wasn’t until I was writing it that — I was 15 or 20 pages into the script — that I thought Matt [Smith] is a good enough actor that I can have him do both sides of a chess game,” he said. “Instead of playing a rather talkative Cyberman — my original plan — he’s going to be playing himself.”
“From that moment, everything sort of opened up, and suddenly there was a story and I got to do all this ridiculously fun stuff.”
Of course, by having Smith play himself, he also had twice as many lines in this episode than normal, so Gaiman said he saw the actor get “very sweary” as he played two (and sort of three) characters.
Another area that Gaiman was able to play with was the upgraded, faster Cybermen, who have a tweaked look. Of course, this might stir up a fast-vs.-slow Cyberman fan debate, a la zombies, but Gaiman said the choice made sense.
“My phone doesn’t look anything like what it looked liked five years ago, and that didn’t look like anything it looked like 10 years ago, and my computer looks nothing like it looked like 15 years ago,” he pointed out. “Cybermen talk about upgrading, let’s watch them upgrade, and what would an upgraded Cyberman do?”
These new Cybermen have a penchant partial cybernetic implants, in addition to complete conversions. If fans think that sounds a little too much like the Borg from “Star Trek,” Gaiman said it’s more of an issue of “parallel evolution.” He said he can quote “The Trouble with Tribbles” and knows his way around the original “Star Trek,” he counts it as a “great embarrassed admission” that he missed “The Next Generation” and the Borg.
However, he added he’d “love to reclaim the cybernetic menace crown” from the Borg. But the Cybermen he leaves Whovians with is one he said another writer can upgrade further, and make even more terrifying when they return.
As for his future contributions to “Doctor Who,” Gaiman said he’d like to create his own monster that would have the longevity to “come back written by somebody else or turn up completely reinvented.”
So even though Neil Gaiman worries about the demands on his time, he said the show has been so “hugely influential” on him. And he certainly doesn’t sound like someone who has given up on joining the Doctor for another adventure.
“I feel ridiculously comfortable in that universe,” he said. “And I will keep going back as long as they’ll have me, and as long as I can find the time.”