Doctor Who‘s “Nightmare in Silver”: An Underrated Episode That Changed My Life is a guest article written by Lee Roberts.
“Science is a way of talking about the universe in words that bind it to a common reality.
Magic is a method of talking to the universe in words that it cannot ignore.
The two are rarely compatible” – Neil Gaiman, The Books of Magic
2021 marks the eight-year anniversary of a Doctor Who episode that, among many fans of the show, lives in infamy, but for me is a story that changed my life. So it goes without saying that I think it deserves a second chance. When I was asked to write a piece about how and why this episode changed my life, I was a little hesitant to say yes. Not because of the subject matter, but because I feel like I’ve told this story to death. It’s not Breaking News to my friends that “Nightmare in Silver”—and Mr. Clever in particular—has had a huge impact on me and the lives of those closest to me. However, it was a challenge to try to tell this story again, for a new audience.
Now, if you had told me back in 2013 that in 2021 I’d be a different gender, with a different name, new appearance, new habits, mannerisms and identity, I would have probably laughed in your face. OK let’s be real, I definitely would have laughed in your face. If you had followed that up with, “all due to one Doctor Who episode,” I would have smiled and backed away slowly. But it’s all true: I regenerated, as it were, and was launched into fandom.
Eight years ago, my spouse and I were sitting in bed and continuing our watch of Matt Smith’s run on Doctor Who. I had already fallen in love with the 11th Doctor through various GIFs and memes. His goofiness, ability to speak Horse, love of adventure and sweets, combined with his dark side had already won me over.
We’ve always been huge fans of Neil Gaiman. I remember when CJ and I first started dating, we would have nightly conversations about American Gods. We were both very excited to see that he had written for Doctor Who. Looking back, I remember a friend telling me that I would love Neil’s episode, and of course I know NOW that she meant “The Doctor’s Wife,” but every time I see her in person I smirk as she shakes her head. As much as I love “Nightmare in Silver,” I know that I am in the minority. Watching it for the first time, I thought that somehow people just must have missed this one. Because how could you not love it?
Written by Neil. Dead amusement park. Warwick Davis. Little silver bugs. Cybermen. Cool chess game. And the single greatest villain ever. I mean, come on.
Yet here we are. With me, tapping away at my keyboard, one of seven cats on my shoulder, sipping cinnamon tea, trying to articulate what this has all meant, and you, scrolling through, possibly scratching your head in bewilderment.
On the surface, “Nightmare in Silver” is very much a typical Doctor Who episode. The Doctor finds something cool—in this case Hedgewick’s World—proceeds to endanger those around him (namely Clara and the kids) and then acts surprised when all hell breaks loose. In this episode, all hell breaking loose includes an army of Cybermen and a game of chess with an upgraded version of himself, which he can’t actually win without cheating. Doctor saves the day, barely. Doctor drops off companion safe and sound. Until next time, of course.
There are dozens of reviews and episode breakdowns for this episode, so I won’t bore you with a play by play outside of my AH-HA moments that were sparks of inspiration and insanity.
Picture it: Salem, 2013.
The TARDIS lands on what appears to be a moon, except it’s not. It’s a spacey zoomer ride. That alone was enough to grab my attention. I have a thing for amusement parks in general but also stories that feature them like Something Wicked This Comes or The Night Circus.
So, watching the show with my spouse went something like this:
Me, sitting in bed, “Ooooh, kinda like Space Mountain!”
And my beleaguered spouse responding, “Just watch the show.”
It’s not the moon, (we need to have a little chat about Doctor Who Clue labeling it the moon) but a planet called Hedgewick’s World, which was the greatest amusement park in the galaxy at one point. The colors, costumes, backgrounds. All of it screams fantastical and wondrous. Very Gaiman-esque from the start.
“EEEEE giant amusement park in space!”
The Doctor, Clara and the Maitland children meet Webley, a former park worker down on his luck and stranded, when the military suddenly arrives. The Doctor is quick to pull out his psychic paper and his golden ticket for free ice cream.
“Aaaargh, now I want ice cream”
Cue title sequence.
“Why didn’t anyone tell us that Neil wrote a second episode? What the actual…”
The Doctor decides to stay to search for funny insects, leaving the children behind but warning them, “Don’t wander off.”
At the time, I was still working as a tour guide in Salem, so I got excited, “Oh I’m saying that to my next tour group! You there. In the graveyard, yeah don’t wander off!”
A tiny, rather adorable metal bug scurries across the screen and into poor Webley.
“What is THAT? Oh My God, they are so cute! What are they? Oh my god, I want to pet it.”
“I swear if I have to pause this more time…”
After a brief scene with a shiny new Cyberman, the Doctor wanders off to continue his search for funny insects. He eventually finds the newly converted Webley who tosses four cute cybermites at the Doctor. They burrow into the Doctor, creating a silver filigree of cybernetics.
“EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE WHAT IS THAT?”
Poke, poke, poke
“OMG stop hitting me, you’re scaring the cats.”
After twirling about and taunting the Doctor, the Cyber-Planner exclaims “I could call myself…Mr. Clever.”
“THAT is who I’m gonna be.”
“How are you going to make that?’
“I don’t know, but I am.”
That was my moment of revelation.
Even people who do not like this episode can usually agree that Matt’s performance here was astonishing. The subtle changes when he goes from Doctor to Cyber-planner were mind boggling. The scene where the Doctor pulls off the gold foil and suddenly Clever is in charge had me glued to the screen. You could see the changes right down to the sparkle in his eyes. (Worth noting that Jenna Coleman’s reactions and expressions while all this was happening were also top notch.) I read somewhere that Neil was confident about Matt being able to pull this off, which he certainly did.
When I first saw the Doctor get converted into Mr. Clever, I lost my damn mind. I really couldn’t tell you why. Still. EIGHT YEARS LATER. I don’t know what clicked. I have tried to analyze it, figure it out. The other day, someone on Instagram asked me what I liked about Clever, and I realized that I couldn’t pinpoint it. How does a character that is on screen for only nine minutes translate into eight years of cosplay, conlife, and identity? I don’t know. But I HAD to be him. Watching his smirks, his flirty outbursts, how manipulative he was. Or maybe it was the line about being affected by gold and cleaning fluids (two things that I’m allergic to). I knew instantly that he was my cosplay, my character.
Maybe it’s because I knew I couldn’t act, and to me, cosplay is about the performance, so I knew I had to pick someone close to my own personality, or at the very least something that I could pull off. Or maybe it’s just because I love everything to do with robots and cybernetics. Who knows? But that was pretty much the moment that my entire life got turned up to 11.
Before cosplay and conlife, going out and socializing was hard, it was almost non-existent, and it was harrowing. Especially getting dressed. More often than not, if we had plans, it became an ordeal that usually ended in tears or self-harm. I’ve always had issues with my appearance. Deciding to be a character whose main focus was a facial appliance was daunting at best.
The specifics on how I created the costume itself, despite all of my allergies, is a whole other chapter of its own. Research into non-latex or silicone-based materials went on for months. Rashes and skin irritations that lasted for days. Eventually I figured out how to make my own ingredients from scratch, and through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, it was made, and I was ready to attend my first con, Arisia, which was held in January 2014.
At Arisia, a group called Boston Whovians were having a photoshoot that I tried to avoid. Photos? Oh, hell no! Photos and, worse, video, have always caused me to have panic attacks, or hysterical outbursts. I have fallen off horses after blacking out when I thought someone was recording me. I avoid self-checkout lanes if they have cameras. You can imagine how absolutely freaked out I was when I was hurled into this photoshoot like a type 40 TARDIS crashing to Earth.
I stood at the bottom of an escalator and watched the procession of Whovians go by.
‘I’m going to just stand in the shadows and hope no one sees me.”
Note to self: when you decide to hide in the shadows, make sure you aren’t wearing a blinking facial prosthetic. I suddenly heard what I think was, “Mr. Clever, you better get your ass to this photoshoot,” from the best-looking River Song cosplayer I’ve ever seen, Cat Smith, who quickly became a good friend. I remember looking around for advice and a friend saying, “Someone who very well could BE River Song just screamed the word shoot. I would follow her if I were you.”
I was blown away with the amount of people at this meet up and was not expecting so many people to come running up to me asking for photos and calling me “delicious.” (Yes, that happened.) I posed for one particular photo for my friend Lynn and that is the pic that ended up going viral. Not long after Arisia, it ended up on Geek Universe, The Nerdist, a few other geek sites, and got retweeted by BBCA. That was shocking for me, and I was not 100% sure how I felt about seeing myself all over the place. But that is how it began. I figured at that moment, that I could either run from this, or embrace it.
My head felt it was going to explode from anxiety, and I told myself right then and there that I wouldn’t wear this again. Eight years later however, I’m still cosplaying as Mr. Clever, with a cybermite tattoo, a cosplay blog, and a TikTok account that includes a video with the Mayor of Salem.
But how? How do you go from pushing something away with every fiber of your being to full on embracing it?
I have mentioned in past articles that I never really wanted to cosplay. Dressing up, pretending to be someone else, make up, photos, videos, all the things that go with it were very foreign to me, and not appealing.
One of the first major changes that I made when making this cosplay was cutting and dyeing my hair. Sounds simple enough. Hair grows back. I had no idea at the time that this was the first step to realizing and accepting that I was non-binary. The strange comfort I got from having a more gender-neutral appearance was already making itself apparent. Seeing myself didn’t send me into fits of crying, triggering my ED.
I purchased a binder to make the clothes fit better and to avoid people thinking this was a crossplay, I wore this costume so many times a month, the binder became second nature and I became much more comfortable with it on under regular clothes. Fast forward to 2020, and now I have had top surgery, fully out as a non-binary, trans masc individual. I am the happiest and most comfortable in my own skin than I have ever been, and I honestly don’t think that would have happened without this.
I’d be lying if I said it has been all sunshine and rainbows. There have been many pitfalls along the way, but that is a conversation for another time. The good far outweighs the bad.
The amount of people over the years that have gone back to rewatch “Nightmare in Silver” and subsequently enjoyed it the second time around, because of me, fills me with a great sense of pride and joy. The amount of times I get tagged in a post that is NiS related, or the times when someone that doesn’t watch Doctor Who recognizes actual Mr. Clever because of me makes it all worth it. Even when friends message me that BBC is having a DW marathon and they are up to NiS puts a smile on my face.
When I think about all the changes that have occurred, one of the most mind boggling is the lifelong friends that I have made along the way. We actually purchased a bigger vehicle so that we could fit as many people as we could into it when we travel to cons. Or when we play Pokemon Go. Conlife made me realize that it wasn’t only my life affected by this, but the lives of so many people around me. Strangers became friends, friends met and fell in love, some started new business ventures through our network, others came out, finally feeling safe to do so.
It changed me, made me face fears head on, and tackle personal issues that up until now felt undefeatable.
It has become less of a cosplay and more of a persona at this point. A beacon of little flashing blue lights bouncing around the con floor that symbolizes a fun, safe space for all.
A path is built by placing one stone at a time. How does one single character manage to be that stone, to set in motion a series of little events that lead to life altering decisions for so many people. And it all had to line up so perfectly. If I had already known what cosplay WAS, I don’t think I would have tried this. If I had already known what photoshoots were, and meet ups and cons, and had FB pages, and had friends that were Whovians—I think I would have been too freaked out to try to cosplay. I know for sure that if had known that people would have taken my photo and put it on the internet, I would have never even tried this. If I wasn’t allergic to so many things, would I have even found the mixture of ingredients to make the perfect working Cyber-planner piece? Who knows. One stone at a time, and the path was laid.
And what a path it has been.
Lee Roberts, They/He, is an artist, blogger, horse trainer and self-proclaimed “Crazy Cat Dude” from Salem, Ma. They live with their spouse, seven cats, and various foster animals. When they are not cosplaying, they can be found playing video games, sculpting model horses or watching Supernatural. For more fun and adventure, you can check them out on: linktr.ee/mrclever