Thursday, June 9, 2011

Silver Nemesis

09/10/10 “Silver Nemesis”
Have you never wondered—where he came from? Who he is? –Lady Peinforte

It may surprise you to note that I have never seen this story before, though I must have caught bits and pieces of it on an old, taped-off-PBS VHS as the concept rings true but I couldn’t really remember a single scene. For some reason, I had always gotten the impression that people regarded it as a little bit of fan wank gone awry, with the same kind of amused cynicism which most people seem to regard “Battlefield.” I don’t know if that’s actually the case, but I really don’t care. I like both of these stories very much. As writer Kevin Clarke said, you don’t often have the opportunity to view a story where Nazis, Windsor Castle, 17th century time travelers, jazz concerts, and the Cybermen all come together. It might, in fact, prove as less than the sum of its parts, but in my opinion, the level of cohesion is good, and the whole thing comes off quite charmingly.

The Doctor and Ace take a long time to actually show up. Jamie has just speculated to me that “Silver Nemesis” might be the Vast Toffee’s favorite story, for a number of reasons we’ll highlight as we go along, but the way it deals with parallel time streams 350 years apart brings to mind, at least superficially, stories like “Girl in the Fireplace” and “The Big Bang.” For example, it opens in “South America on November 22nd 1988.” Tossed unceremoniously into a Neo-Nazi villa, complete with Wagner playing on stereo, portraits of Hitler, and a variety of Nazi props obviously left over from Raiders of the Lost Ark, we are pretty well beaten over the head with the characteristics of our first villain, De Flores. Nevertheless, when De Flores decides he has nothing better to do than shoot a macaw with a high-powered crossbow, we move seamlessly into “Windsor, 1638,” where Lady Peinforte is also rather needlessly using a bow to shoot some pigeons. Though this is handled a bit gauchely, the idea is fun. We already know much—and yet always too little—about our second villain. Peinforte’s dungeon/alchemist’s chamber gives Ace the willies later, and its murky atmosphere is great. I kind of think the makers of Les Visiteurs (which we’ll get to in a moment) had it in mind, as did “The Eternity Trap” episodes of Sarah Jane Adventures.

Lady Peinforte and her servant Richard are perfectly dressed for 1638, and while the humorous tone at points stretched credulity, I could tell that the writer’s fondness for the 17th century had guaranteed a fairly high proportion at authenticity. Among Milady’s arsenal in her witch’s chamber were poison-tipped arrows and a silver-tipped one; she also had a mathematician sitting in their doing sums à la William Hartnell. He’s been calculating the “decaying” orbit of a giant custard-filled donut in space (or, if you prefer, Jamie’s version was a “flying turd”) whose trajectory will return it to Earth at the exact point from where it originated, the field outside in Windsor. Though at the time I thought, “hold on, that’s not possible,” the whole thing did explain itself. It’s interesting, though not that surprising when you think about it, that a similar fascination with comets was central to the story in “The Visitation”; however, the hapless squire and his family were killed by the visiting Tereleptils from their “comet” while Peinforte is eagerly awaiting the (future) arrival of hers.

Meanwhile, back (?) in 1988, on the 25th anniversary of Doctor Who, the Doctor and Ace are sitting in suspicious sunshine listening to Courtney Pine play saxophone outdoors. Ace is reading the Daily Mirror and humorously misses the news story calculating the forthcoming return of the Nemesis comet. The Doctor, who is apparently God according to Kevin Clarke, likes jazz, though he asks Ace why she’s not embarrassed to be getting Pine’s autograph on her cassette tape. Their enjoyment of the day is ruined when the Doctor’s “alarm” goes off, reminding him to do something he’s forgotten. On the way back to the TARDIS, Ace and the Doctor are shot at by what we assume are Cyber-converted human slaves, but are never really given full explanation. They fall amazingly in synch into the river, foiling the Cyber-slaves long enough for the two to swim to the bank where, rather surprisingly, they resume their unhurried investigation into what they’re supposed to be preventing.

Milady has gotten from the unlucky mathematician the formula she needed, as well as the blood required for the time travel “potion” to work. Richard, who we understand to have been a jack-of-all-trades tough guy before Milady employed him, is scared to death at the prospect of time travel. “Have the courage of your convictions!” shouts the unflappable Peinforte in the face of the traveling “aura” that will take them to 1988. This all seems to presage Les Visiteurs, where Jean Reno’s knight has to go back in time to stop himself from shooting his father-in-law-to-be. He has to visit a wizard in order to drink a potion to reach c. 1990, and he drags his bumbling serf along with him. Arriving intact, Milady and Richard land in the restaurant surviving on the floorplan of her old dungeon, and the bolshy sorceress breaks a window with a chair in order to pursue the landing Nemesis comet.

Ace and the Doctor materialize in a basement collection, I began to ponder where they had arrived. Was it the British Museum? Gabriel Chase? In fact, I’m still not sure, though in their wanderings they are attempting to find a silver bow, which we know already is in the possession of the Nazis, who are on their way to the site of the Nemesis landing. The Doctor characterizes the collection as “presents,” and it’s certainly a motley bunch of items with stories behind them all, I’d wager. It’s at this moment that the Doctor dons a fez and carries a mop (briefly), which many people will have already realized was being sent up when the Eleventh Doctor did the same thing in “The Big Bang.” (Ace is no fez-hater, though, and goes around wearing it for much of the scene.) Influenced by the Nemesis’ aura, the electricity is drained in the basement; I for one wouldn’t want to get stranded there with no lights! The Nemesis lands in a silly fashion but with a great explosion.

The Nazis are closing just as the Doctor takes a somewhat perplexed Ace back in time in the TARDIS to 1638, shortly after Milady and Richard left (we know this because the mathematician’s body is still there). There’s some cool “period” music from Keff McCullough (overall, the music is all ‘80s bombast) as the Doctor examines the alchemist’s den and observes, “This [chess] game is going rather badly.” He tells Ace that the Nemesis is living metal which he sent off from Windsor in 1638 himself. He alludes to Peinforte’s evil, her time travel accomplished by “black magic mostly.” The living metal had landed and Peinforte had made a statue in her own image as well as constructing a bow and arrow out of the metal. Once they get back to 1988 they find themselves in Windsor Castle, have a near-miss with the Queen and her corgis—to be honest, I found this and the other scenes of rather slapstick humor quite funny, really—and then are unable to convince her government to lend a hand. (Though he does manage to re-ally himself with UNIT in “Battlefield.”) (There’s a cut scene here of an untelevised adventure when the Doctor and Ace find a portrait of Ace in 18th century clothes—presumably 1788 when the bow went missing?)

The Windsor police have made an effort to deal with the Nemesis but are gassed by its defenses; stuck out somewhere behind an abandoned gasworks (though actually in Greenwich), it proves a relatively secluded spot. The Doctor, Ace, Peinforte, Richard, De Flores and the Nazis converge on the Nemesis landing site, just as the Cybermen make an appearance. There are many choice moments for a cliffhanger, but this is the preferred one. Though made a good many years after Excalibur, the super-shiny Cybermen put me in mind of the glittering armor from that movie.

The Nazi/Cybermen shoot out continues in the time-honored tradition, with much firepower and explosions in a way that was established in “Remembrance of the Daleks.” I got the impression that Milady had met the Cybermen before because she was prepared with gold-tipped arrows that proved surprisingly effective, but perhaps she had been prepared by something the Doctor had told her or the Nemesis had said? In any case, she’s much better at protecting herself and Richard with coolness than the Nazis are, and she leaves them to it. (Not before shooting a gold-tipped arrow into the outer shell of the TARDIS, which Ace and the Doctor leave embedded for the time being.) The Doctor and Ace, caught up in the crossfire, have managed to pick up the bow from the Nazis; Peinforte and the Cybermen have registered this, but the Nazis haven’t and prefer to believe they have the upper hand, escaping with nearly 100% casualties. The Cybermen, left alone, move the Nemesis into the gasworks; Peinforte decides to look for her tomb in Windsor (er, I think). So everyone is going after what they don’t have in order to bring the three elements together and have their dominance over the universe, time, “past, present and the future.” Except the Doctor, who seems to have his own agenda. Peinforte has also recognized the Doctor and seems to know a lot more about him than anybody else. I assumed from the way she reacted that she had seen this incarnation earlier in 1638, but I suppose nowhere does it explicitly state that—I assumed it was a future Seventh Doctor who could have come back from a time after he and Ace had parted ways, but perhaps it makes more sense to assume it was a previous or future Doctor incarnation, possibly the Second since Peinforte mentions him being “little.” I’m not sure I buy that, though.

The Doctor takes Ace back to the site of the alchemist’s den, again for his own purposes it appears; the mathematician’s body has been moved and the chess pieces moved, by person or persons unknown (a different incarnation of the Doctor? The Doctor in the future? Fenric?). He reveals that the Nemesis is from Gallifrey from ancient times, a weapon that “should never have left, and as always with these things, they did.” The Doctor is able to remove a piece of incriminating calculations (presumably left by himself?) that was given to the mathematician to assist. Meanwhile, in downtown Windsor, Peinforte and Richard are turning heads as they travel by foot; for some reason, two “skinheads” decide that they’re “social workers”!?! Why they come to this conclusion is probably the biggest mystery of the entire story (and that’s saying something); there was no need for this; skinheads need no motivation for attacking people who they think they might be able to rob. There was a grim sort of satisfaction that Richard seemed to take in giving these two the comeuppance they deserved. However, I really had to wonder why they didn’t kill them. They may have enjoyed humiliating them by leaving them with their clothes burning on the ground as they were tied up in a tree, but . . . ?

The skinheads don’t prevent the two 17th-century adventurers from reaching their final destination, Milady’s tomb; first they take a detour to the lawn, where Richard is buried. This reminded me of the giant fake tomb in “Revelation of the Daleks” with the Sixth Doctor getting killed by his own effigy. I rather liked this whole section; “Richard, you are standing on your own grave.” It’s timey wimey freaky deaky! In any case, the Cybermen have moved the Nemesis to Peinforte’s tomb (exactly why?) anticipating that she would go there and reunite the arrow with the statue. This is exactly what she does; she goes around the tomb for awhile wondering where the statue can be since the arrow is glowing, which means its other component is nearby. Richard warily picks off Cybermen from below the tower, though they reason that they have a limited number of gold-tipped arrows and so retreat long enough for Peinforte to wake the Nemesis up. “Death is but a door” says the inscription around Peinforte’s magnificent tomb, something I think that sums up the Cartmel era quite well! Richard is frightened that there are no bones in the tomb. In any case, Richard allows the Cybermen to seize both arrow and effigy in order to save Milady’s life. “Return without the Nemesis? Never!”

Peinforte is rather touched at Richard’s selfless act—though she has been cold to him and treated him unkindly, he still saved her life. She, however, won’t return without the Nemesis and as he cannot without her help, he will “attend me in the next world as well as this.” They’ve got to get back to the gasworks, which the Cybermen are doing by dint of their ship; the 17th-century adventurers must walk. In any case, between jaunts back and forth to 1638, the Doctor and Ace have been jamming the signal to the Cyberfleet using the Courtney Pine jazz (a very funny scene where the Cybermen react with bewilderment to jazz). Watching the Cyber ship, guarded only by the Cyber-slaves, the Doctor asks Ace if she’s been secretly making Nitro-9 even though he’s told her not to. “I’m a good girl, I do what I’m told.” But, yes, she has, and she’s got it on her. “Excellent. Destroy that vehicle.” The Doctor lures away the Cyber-slaves and Ace blows stuff up. It’s rather effective!

De Flores approaches the Cybermen and says he will eliminate Peinforte from the action if they will give him part of the power of the Nemesis; both are planning on double-crossing each other. Cyber-human alliance ad naseum. The episode ends, however, when the Doctor and Ace realize that the Cyber-fleet has been disguising itself and that the entire Earth is surrounded.

Ace is mortified to see that the Cybermen kill the hapless Cyber-slaves for allowing the ship to be destroyed; the Doctor tries to make her feel better (?) by telling her that they are no longer human in the strictest sense anyway. They make one more journey back to the Peinforte tomb. The Doctor has noticed Ace’s hesitancy. “I’ve never bottled out of anything before, have I?” When the Doctor apologizes and tells her she can go back to the TARDIS where she’ll be safe, she scoffs at the idea and courageously continues on. She has lots of questions, though, which the Doctor only answers with more riddles. De Flores, captured by the Cybermen, scolds them for expecting the Doctor to come hand the bow over, which he does . . . sort of. “Illegal move, but check!” he shouts as he hands the bow briefly to the Nemesis, who, now awakened, will be forced to follow the bow. Lots of explosions ensue. Ace voices the question we all have: “What’s really going on?” They head back to the gasworks where the comet is and where the Doctor is luring the Nemesis.

Peinforte and Richard are going there, too, but are walking, until they realize how to hitch a ride. I find this sequence quite funny, and again something that I think Les Visiteurs stole. Then comes on the scene the richly random character of the wealthy American bimbo of a certain age who looks like she walked out of Dallas. The conversation in her limo is quite hilarious. (Brings to mind the amusing but random Americans with their UFO detector in the woods in “Delta and the Bannermen.”) Back at the gasworks, the Doctor and Ace are battling off the Cybermen as the Doctor puts Nemesis (I almost wrote the Mesmerist!) in her comet/rocket. There is a very curious exchange of dialogue between them that opens the floodgates for all kinds of hocus pocus speculation, and mirrors the Doctor’s otherworldly mysticism as seen in “Remembrance.” “You will need me in the future,” she says. When he scoffs, she says, “You said that before.” “Enough.” “Will I have my freedom?” “You know when.” I haven’t til now mentioned the eerie quality of the Nemesis, a simulacra of a human being whose unearthly beauty even touches Ace’s sensibilities. The sort of super-polarized, inverted white of her design is really effective—“immaculate beauty covered in perfect evil” as Peinforte describes her. Brings to mind the world of the Mara in “Kinda.” (“We fade to grey . . .”)

When Milady and Richard arrive at last, Ace has really been bolting up and down stairs accomplishing great chase scenes with the Cybermen where she kills them by shooting gold coins into their chest units as they agonizingly die (without the shaving cream, though). I have read Chris Clough’s direction derided in this, but I’ve found it surprisingly effective and quite pacey. Being still possessed with the bow, the Doctor has destroyed Cybermen in the wake of the rocket and now faces handing it over to Peinforte or else the Cyberleader. It happens that Peinforte has the secret to the Doctor’s identity and much more—the statue told her. This has been her true bargaining chip throughout the whole story, though she has been (apparently) going slowly mad ever since (according to the Cybermen) her confrontation with her own tomb. The Doctor, however, gives the bow over to the Cyberleader. The Cybermen, apparently, are not interested in the secrets of Gallifrey so don’t really care about who the Doctor is. Peinforte, driven slightly over the edge by this, jumps into the tomb with her effigy and is sort of absorbed into it—hence why there were no bones in her tomb in the first place. “You had the right game, but the wrong pawn,” the Doctor says with some pathos.

The Cyberleader wants the Earth turned into the new Mondas, so he orders the Nemesis to . . . er, not blow up the Cyberfleet? What he wants it to do after that I’m not sure. The Doctor says the statue has heard and understand, but for some reason it willfully chooses not to do what it was ordered to and blows up the Cybermen anyway. The Cyberleader wants to kill the Doctor after this (naturally), but Richard prevents it by taking the arrow from the TARDIS and using it to kill the Cyberleader. Don’t shoot an arrow into the TARDIS if you’re not going to use it!

For all this, there’s a rather restrained ending as the Doctor and Ace return Richard to 1638 where he plays some music for them with his friend (?). Ace wants to know what Lady Peinefort was going to reveal, but the Doctor is, as ever, being pathologically vague.

The story was cram-packed with things that really almost flooded the three-part structure. Perhaps, as has been suggested, the Nazis really didn’t belong seeing as how they were featured in “Remembrance of the Daleks,” but their base in South America gave them enough of a different back story, in my opinion. I really liked Lady Peinfort and Richard. Richard and Mace from “The Visitation” should team up. If I had known about Richard beforehand I would have included him in my “I Shoulda Been a Companion” article in TTZ. There were so many questions unanswered about Milady. First of all, it was hinted that she was a witch, but in what sense? One of the people on the DVD documentary mentioned she was a “Devil worshipper,” but that was never made apparent and was usurped by the Destroyer character in “Battlefield.” All we seem to know about her, besides her uncharacteristic (for the early 17th century) iron will and limitless ambition to take over the universe, was that she had been well-educated (with “some Latin and a little Greek,” as Richard says), resisted marriage because it would confine her, is wealthy and powerful enough to have a statue erected in her likeness, regularly poisoned those who she didn’t like, and that she was an excellent archer. Her cynicism and lack of fear were deeply ingrained, much contrasted with Richard’s more plausible reactions to things like cars and pollution. So the question may not be so much, “Who is he?” but “Who is she?” The Doctor mentioned that he had the help of “some Roundheads” to get the Nemesis back from Peinforte, but obviously the English Civil War was some time away so I see a few possibilities. A) he misremembered; b) they were literal Roundheads, aka some kind of alien species with round heads; c) something to do with time brought Roundheads back in time to 1638—à la “The Awakening.” Peinforte is a definite anomaly, and her stating that the Nemesis told her about the Doctor’s true identity made me wonder if River Song will (or could be) somehow related. Did the Nemesis tell River who the Doctor was?

There are a lot of amusing and colorful touches in this as well, and the Doctor and Ace relationship is well-played. I quite enjoyed it.

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