How Steven Moffat got Neil Gaiman to make the Cybermen scary again

Doctor Who - Nightmare In Silver

If you watched the preview of this week's Doctor Who episode, “Nightmare In Silver,” you know that one of the Doctor's most notorious villains, the Cybermen, are back. The other notable thing about the episode is that it's been written by writer/screenwriter Neil Gaiman. But the busy Gaiman first turned down a chance to write his second episode for Doctor Who, after penning “The Doctor's Wife.”

Showrunner and executive producer Steven Moffat emailed Gaiman about doing an episode, and Gaiman wrote back that he "really didn’t have time, and life was just completely mental, and I was sorry. And then [he wrote back] saying, 'You know, if I could find time somehow, he’d really like it if I made the Cybermen scary again. And that one got to me, because when I was a kid, I was a huge Patrick Troughton fan. Patrick Troughton was my Doctor,” said Gaiman during a press call.

“And I remember 'The Moonbase,' the second outing, I think it was, of the Cybermen. I didn’t see the first one, but the second one, 'The Moonbase,' I saw, 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 and they slipped in and out of rooms, and it was very offputting,” he said.

“So I started thinking, well actually, I loved the design of the clanky, clanky steampunk Cybermen, but I know that their time is coming up and wouldn’t it be fun to actually see if I can make them more scary,” said Gaiman.

“After that, I think I originally proposed doing it 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, and crunching over the pebbles,” he said.

While that presented some problems budget-wise, the episode ended up featuring Hedgewick’s World of Wonders, which was once the greatest theme park in the galaxy, only to be turned into the dilapidated home of a shabby showman, a chess-playing dwarf and a dysfunctional army platoon. When the Doctor, Clara, Artie and Angie arrive, the last thing they expect is the re-emergence of one of the Doctor’s oldest foes, the Cybermen.

“I got to do all this ridiculously fun stuff and have too much fun,” he said. One fun part was upgrading the Cybermen.

“I just figure my phone doesn’t look anything like what it looked like five years ago, and that didn’t look anything like it looked 10 ten years ago. My computer looks nothing like it looked like 15 years ago. And I thought, well, Cybermen, you know, they talk about upgrading. Let’s watch them upgrade. What would an upgraded Cyberman do? I thought, 'Oh, one of the things it would do is move pretty fast,'” said Gaiman.

The American Gods' writer admitted that he loved the idea of the Cybermen being so dangerous because they are hard to destroy, and that even finding one Cyberman could have devastating results for a planet.

“If I ever get back and do another Cyberman story, I would probably do something much more about what it’s like to deal with a Cyberman, what these new Cybermen are like. ... But for this, we only had 42 minutes. And huge chunks of what I wrote didn’t actually get, shot or if it got shot, didn’t make it on the screen, just because there was so much we had to do and so little time,” he said.

What he did was make lists of “all the things that I wanted, and some of the things made it in and some of them didn’t. I wanted the Cybermen to be much more silent than they actually are, and the only noise we would ever hear from them was the point where they pump their chests and stuff like that. But I got so many of the things that I wanted, and really, I’m starting to feel like, okay, somebody else can now come along and take these Cybermen. We have a new costume. We have a new look. We have something much, much, much more dangerous, and the point where one of these things shows up again, I think people will be a lot more worried than they are currently about the old sort of Cybermen,” said Gaiman.

Beyond upgraded Cybermen, "one of the things that I loved about doing this [episode] was creating the Cybermites."

The subject matter of the human race's increasing reliance on mechanical element is something he's comtemplated deeply. “I can absolutely imagine myself with a huge number of artificial bits. As long as I sound like me, I don’t think I’d mind. I’m ridiculously open-minded about this stuff. I kind of like the idea of downloading my entire consciousness into a computer and then invading every network in the world and then slowly taking ... oh, I shouldn't have said that, should I? Scrap that. Pretend I never said anything. Definitely nothing about taking over the world by downloading my consciousness into every computer in the world,” joked Gaiman.

Beyond tackling making the TARDIS as a full-blown character in “The Doctor's Wife,” delving into one of his favorite cybervillains, and perhaps downloading his consciousness into every computer in the world, Gaiman wouldn't mind doing another Doctor Who episode in the future, time permitting.

“I’d love to create a monster. It’d have to be one that’s interesting enough or fun enough to come back written by somebody else or turn up completely reinvented or whatever. I’d love to do that, a feeling that you’d actually left something behind,” he said.

“I love that Terry Nation left us the Daleks. And I love that Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis left us the Cybermen. In my head, I love that the Great Intelligence has come back, but I miss the Yeti. I would love huge, shambling, robotic Yeti, just because I loved them when I was a kid,” said Gaiman.

“So, yes, I’d love to do that. That would be wonderful. The trouble with everything these days for me is time. There is only one me. There’re a ridiculous number of demands on my time. There’re so many things I’m trying to do, and it’s so much more when I’m going to get time to do this, if I get time, I think they’ll have me back. They seem to like me at Doctor Who, and I know I definitely like them.”

In fact, Gaiman couldn't imagine his life without Doctor Who.

“In terms of how Doctor Who and the mythos of Doctor Who has influenced my writing … I can’t actually ever get to meet Neil Gaiman, who, at the age of 3, wasn’t watching Doctor Who, at the age of 4 wasn’t imagining how things can 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 on Victoria Station. And taking it home and studying it and learning all about Daleks and discovering that Daleks couldn’t see the color red and then writing about the red Daleks and whether they were invisible to their friends and the discovery that measles was a Dalek disease. And not lots of people know, but I learned because I read it in the Dalek World anthology,” he said.

Doctor Who was the first mythology that I learned before ever I ran into Greek or Roman or Egyptian mythologies. I knew that TARDIS stood for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. And I knew that the TARDIS had a food machine that made things that looked like Mars Bars but tasted like bacon and eggs. This was all part of what I knew as a kid. I have, still have, the battered copy of David Whitaker’s Doctor Who and the Daleks that I had as a kid, with terrible illustrations,” said Gaiman.

“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 that I will keep going back as long as they’ll have me and as long as I can find the time,” he said.

Here's a look at “Nightmare In Silver”:

Doctor Who airs on Saturday nights at 8 p.m. on BBC America.

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