To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi: “That’s no moon…it’s an amusement park.” The penultimate episode of this season of Doctor Who – or “series of Doctor Who” if you’re British/pretentious/accurate – started with the TARDIS materializing in a familiar scene. The flag in the lunar surface. The distant earth. The Doctor emerged, along with Clara, and Clara’s Kids, the brother-and-sister team who are really really good at finding old pictures of very specific people on the internet. They weren’t on the moon at all, of course. They were in the biggest and greatest amusement park in the galaxy. And it was closed for business.
This became clear quickly when a man named Wembley in a Top Hat appeared out of a secret passageway and inquired whether the Doctor was a representative of Dave’s Discount Interstellar Removals. (Dave was six months late, apparently.) Wembley fled in the face of an Imperial Patrol, led by a serious-looking Captain with serious blonde hair. The amusement park was closed by Imperial Order; the Emperor of the Cosmos had gone missing. The Doctor flashed his bona fides, and the Captain greeted him: “Hello, Proconsul!”
The patrol took off, and Wembley brought the Doctor’s gang along to his tiny transport ship. This was Wembley’s World of Wonders, complete with waxwork imitations of all manner of creature. He even had a very special chess game, featuring a very special opponent…A CYBERMAN! SCREECH!
This is about when the title flashed onscreen – and, more importantly, when the writing credit flashed onscreen. “Nightmare in Terror” marked the return of Neil Gaiman, who previously scripted the TARDIS-anthropomorphizing mini-masterpiece “The Doctor’s Wife.” Gaiman is a genre legend, probably best-known for The Sandman, a supernatural comic book series about a mysterious beyond-godlike figure. The Sandman actually had a lot in common with Doctor Who: The series could shift on a dime between genres and between microcosmic personal stories and macrocosmic mythological tales.
“Nightmare in Terror” sought to strike that balance, and generally succeeded. Wembley’s Cyberman played Artie in chess and defeated him, despite apparently being an empty shell. The Doctor discovered the secret: There was a small man in the compartment beneath the Cyberman controlling him. This man’s name was Porridge; he was played by The Great Warwick Davis. (He was Willow and you weren’t.)
Wembley had Three Cybermen in his collection. Clara figured this was a good time to get the kids home, but the Doctor had noticed some funny insects, and was just starting to build up his Funny Insect Collection. The kids were put to sleep in the main room, under strict orders not to wander off. (Angie almost immediately wandered off.) Meanwhile, a few of those Funny Insects found poor Wembley and jumped straight into his brain. “Upgrade In Progress,” said the Funny Insects – as dark a phrase as you can imagine.
Porridge filled Clara in on some recent galactic history. The Cybermen had fought the human race to a standstill. “It’s hard to fight an enemy that uses your army as spare parts,” he noted. Porridge pointed up at a gigantic darkness in the sky. That used to be the Tiberian Spiral Galaxy, filled with a billion trillion people – they were all blown up, to kill the Cybermen. (ASIDE: Due to restrictions of budget and of time, Doctor Who rarely ever shows actual wars – instead, The Doctor constantly seems to be finding himself in civilizations recovering from great calamities, filled with characters attempting to overcome terrifying pasts. There’s something at once sad and remarkably humane about the frequency of this plotline: It seems to suggest, simultaneously, that mankind will forever be experiencing terrifying hardship, but also that mankind will survive that hardship and, despite a lifetime of raw emotional bruises, will keep on moving forward. END OF ASIDE.)
NEXT: Angie gets into trouble.