A Doctor Who episode written by Neil Gaiman. It was bound to be creepy and delightful. Right?
Perhaps I was predisposed to not enjoy this episode. The cybermen always strike me as pretty non-threatening. But Neil Gaiman was the writer. I'm not the greatest fan of his books, but his stories make for amazing, enchanting, creepy movies, and his last episode of Doctor Who was compelling and frightening and gorgeous and original.
The first ten minutes seemed to meet all of those expectations. Abandoned space theme park, junk shop of wonders, a hollowed out cyberman that wins at chess by magic, or perhaps just because there's someone hiding inside. And there were hints of that weird Neil Gaiman-ness throughout the episode, like staging the battle against the cybermen in a theme park fantasy castle. But once the episode stepped away from "Neil Gaiman has fun and sets the scene" and instead became about the plot to stop the cybermen, it started to feel a bit generic. A bit, well, dull.
Not that it's easy to pinpoint any particular "problems" with the episode. In terms of the things I usually criticize the show for, it was fantastic. Both male and female secondary characters, Clara getting the chance to take charge and be awesome, an easy Bechdel pass... it's all great! But the episode seemed to lack heart.
Porridge/the Emperor was a fantastic one-off character, and the highlight of the episode. But he had a lot more emotional depth than anybody else. The kids seemed far too underwhelmed by their chance to travel through time and space, and watching it, you kind of had to wonder why they were even there, since they did very little, spent most of the episode comatose, and got dropped off again straight afterwards. Assumedly, their role should have been mostly emotional, showing us something about Clara and her relationship to the kids she won't leave behind, but she barely spoke to them, and although she had some moments defending them, she also had lots of moments where she didn't seem too concerned about their plight. And why didn't anyone think of taking the kids home or dropping them safely in the TARDIS when things started to look a little suspect?
Meanwhile, Clara once again came close to finding out that the Doctor hasn't exactly been honest about who she is or why he's travelling with her... and once again, it's all forgotten by the end of the episode. But why, we have to wonder. She seems very forceful in her desire to find out why she is "the impossible girl," even when things are tense and their lives at are stake. She agrees to wait for answers, considering the circumstances, but at the end of the episode, it all seems forgotten. She stays in the TARDIS to chat to the Doctor after the kids leave, but she doesn't ask him about it, or even reference it.
These emotional inconsistencies would be more understandable if the episode had a consuming plot, but it didn't work for me. Perhaps the pacing was off, perhaps I'm simply not threatened enough by the cybermen, or perhaps I just don't find someone sitting in a chair and playing chess against themselves to be an exciting final battle. In the end, it just didn't hold together.
That's not to say that it was a bad episode. It was perfectly adequate, with splashes of brilliance and a chance for Clara to shine. But for Neil Gaiman's great return, I expected more.
And Clara's skirts aren't "too tight," Doctor. Pretty sure they're not tight at all.