Doctor Who: 12-09 “Ascension of the Cybermen” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
I wonder how newer fans are taking all of Chris Chibnall’s second series revelations. Following the friendly soft reboot of Series 11, this series has thrown us a beloved character returning, a brand-new Doctor, two of the Doctors’ greatest foes- oh, and the promise of earth-shattering Deep Lore. Our ninth episode of Series 12, Ascension of the Cybermen, had considerably more intent to deal with than whether or not Toothy Tim would be returning- and while not comparable to some of our previous finale setups in their ability to stun, manages to be an intriguing and light on its feet space yarn, that’s a far cry from Series 11’s damp squib finale- for now.
In deep contrast to last week’s chamber piece, our new Lone Cyberman baddie Ashad monologues set-up for an epic space-faring tale- transitioning into the titles with a marvellous flourish through a frosted Cyber-head. There’s an immediate tonal shift to jaunty, rural maybe-old-Ireland though- and a baby left abandoned. Adopted by Patrick (Branwell Donaghey) and Meg (Orla O’Rourke), somehow, someway, baby Brendan’s fate may be intrinsically linked to the far future struggles of The Doctor and friends- as they battle our Cyber-friends, and race to the mythical haven of Ko Sharmus.
This subversion of expectation of ordinary life- juxtaposed with relentless action elsewhere- is a typical Moffat narrative trick switch. Here, it’s a surprisingly heartfelt and engrossing subplot, even if not always conjoining well with the breathless future segments (though the first cut between with “I’ll call The Doctor” is charming). Brendan (Evan McCabe, in most scenes) is a complete left-field mystery of possibilities- he’s got an adventurous nature similar to The Doctor, wants “to make a difference” (though strange if he is the Doc, and in the police- given the show’s usually wariness of authority and power). He’s also seemingly invulnerable- waking from sure-death as Jack does.
The people around him are equally mysterious- there’s a fear in Patrick and police mentor Michael’s (Andrew Macklin) eyes after Brendan’s fall. However, in the climax, they take Brendan to a room filled with Chameleon Arch, fob watch-esque iconography (though erasing memories, rather than returning). If they’re involved, did they discover something to make them ageless- or is Brendan ageing at an accelerated rate? Why is Brendan’s discovery played so straight, if they are malevolent? Brendan’s life has a timeless quality to it, so the natural conclusion would be he’s the Timeless Child- though maybe he isn’t the only one. Is this all in the service of Time Lord origins?
Parallel to Brendan’s incredibly Irish incident, the Cyber War is a sugar-rush adventure, despite recurring well-established irritants- why so much stilted dialogue, to explain intense situations? After such success last week, it’s a shame that the side characters have such forced, forgettable connections, even despite hints at a romance between Graham and Julie Graham’s Ravio. They barely play past basic traits, functionally explaining the struggle- though some of them instigate an interesting antagonistic situation, blaming the gang for their plan not working. Young prodigy Ethan (Matt Carver, who does get a nice moment fixing the ship) and Bescot (Rhiannon Clements) are particularly underserved- I thought reluctant leader Feekat (Steve Toussaint) would’ve stuck around longer too. Chibnall’s weakness with memorable names (Fuskle?!) returns with a vengeance here.
The Cyber action scenes are budget-pushing, even if the story is mostly a get from A-to-B plot. Our hero’s initial arrival features nudges at the Cyberman weakness greatest hits, with their 80s retro-futuristic devices getting exposition across. The Cyber-drone attack is amusingly campy and very Star Wars feeling, and even the story itself- plucky rebels fighting an oppressive, burgeoning Empire- is distilled Wars. The life-raft has an appealingly battered design, and ship lift-offs and flying throughout are creative.
Fittingly for a Star Wars-like story, Ascension of the Cybermen is about hope versus fear and hopelessness. Team TARDIS arrives and care from the word go, Ko Sharmus (Ian McElhinney) has lost all hope- which is restored by Thirteen. War is key thematically, with characters born into wartime horrors- scattered victims of different occupations forced into resourcefulness, one even scared into silence- it’s quite brutal for Who. There’s a slight thematic resonance to the refugee crisis, with dispossessed humanity seeking shelter from persecution- even if not meaningfully engaging with challenging aspects, such as settlement and integration (what if there are antagonistic or abrasive elements there, or they’re turned away?)
The Cyber Lads themselves are serviced well, with fittingly terrible Stormtrooper aim. There are eerie visuals of dead carcasses floating through space, to their warrior ship’s deep smoky blues and harsh metal structures. Their futuristic redesign has classical touches and bulky 80s heads, later featuring intimidating uniformly iconic imagery reminiscent of The Invasion. Patrick O’Kane’s Ashad continues to be a domineering and sadistic presence, interestingly shot- the half-metallic, half-dark lighting in the camp too, as he cruelly mocks a human’s fate for being courageous- is chilling, enhanced with Segun Akinola’s score. Ashad was a confirmed willing recruit- fittingly for the war theme, he was used. As a simmering zealot, the Cyberium- though falling to the background (also, surely Ascension conveys this all as inevitable, rather than directly as Thirteen handing the Cyberium over?)- used a true believer to revive the ascension.
But Ashad’s obsessed with his twisted idea of purity, despite being far from that- he’s warping the Cybermen’s iconography, rebuilding an old empire in his image as an authoritarian leader. It’s a continuation of the Cybermen’s reinvention as an inevitable ideology, pure nationalist fanaticism- away from more familiar archetypes, yet still preying on the vulnerable. Ashad is compelling because of his stark difference- so much emotion inside what usually has none. He accepts Thirteen’s judgement, his despising of himself giving way to a greater purpose, understanding- he’s the antithesis of a “true” core systematic Cyberman, individual erased- prideful loathing and the worst parts of human emotion drive him. The Cybermen manipulated his conflicted humanity as an outcast, made him an example. Ashad makes another Cyberman scream- to convert others to his cause as a token, as he was? The words martyr and pariah are central throughout.
Jodie thrives again facing off with Ashad, getting her own cocky, assured “look me up” line. Thirteen’s more aggressively heroic, continuing last week’s threads- she admits her recklessness, shouts at her friends, frustrated with constant questions (oh, the irony!) She bristles against Feekat, tells Ravio that she doesn’t need her life story- the edge is there. Her panicked resourcefulness is clumsy though- while typically clever in thinking on her feet to act as bait, that fails- and her initial plan (more through the writing) is pretty daft- why didn’t they just get blind-sided by the Cyber-attack perhaps, rather than using incompetently planned defenses? Why park the TARDIS so far?
Pairing Graham with Yaz and Thirteen with Ryan was important, given they’re our least developed pairings. Yaz steps sternly and authoritatively into Thirteen’s role, confidently giving out the plan in one lovely moment. Yaz even seemed to intriguingly have a “last speech” when all seemed lost. She and Graham are proactive rabble-rousers on the life raft, Graham figuring out the docking bay situation and being very gung-ho. They’re persistent, and never give up, they tell us- using their past experiences to the full, though the stiff dialogue doesn’t often aid relaying that. They’re also rather lacking empathy sometimes with these war survivors- Graham constantly reminds the others they’re lucky to be alive. Ryan again feels frustratingly rather superfluous, his dialogue often ill-fitting. Yaz’s comment about her and Graham together being unstoppable would’ve been *terrifically* cute- if they had shared more than ten words. At least everyone enterprisingly pitches in getting people safe at the beginning, before things go south.
Ascension of the Cybermen is a bizarre jumble, returning Spyfall director Jamie Magnus Stone carrying across that two-parters barreling spectacle. It’s reminiscent of Utopia– the last of humanity desperately believing in the haven, an old kindly guardian, The Master popping up- even the flying heads. Ko Sharmus is very real though, unlike Utopia, in fact, a man- half-biblical Moses analogy (think of Brendan in his basket too…), half-hermit Luke Skywalker. I thought he may be a secret antagonist, unsure what to believe in his story. Even he talks down his supposedly noble purpose- another Who character with a waiting duty. The boundary itself is transcendent in appearance, continuing the refugee parable- with the leap of faith “preferable to the alternative”.
Climactically, out steps Sacha Dhawan in typically overly dramatic Master fashion- from the same purple-y Timeless Child flashback hue turning to ruined Gallifrey, that Ko Sharmus had never seen (did Thirteen trigger its proximity). It’s great to see him again- and hear his theme! Does he know how this is all going to play out? I have very little idea of what to expect, and that’s exponentially more exciting/terrifying than how last series ended- especially with the middle-eight finally returned to the credits here!
Ascension of the Cybermen is a strange beast. There’s a skill in working within a merging two-parter structure, with each story having its footing- but there’s often a lack of focus here and too much withheld, which doesn’t spell well for rewatching intrigue. To Chris Chibnall’s credit though, this is expansive and theory-worthy, while still marred by some of this era’s big problems- a largely wasted side cast and not always melding a consistent tone. It owes a debt to finales past- but the sheer gall and amount of ambition and intrigue on show here is exciting, particularly in Brendan’s subplot. The collective state of what-is-happening this will inspire in the fanbase makes this a worthy enough start, even if falling short of prior finale set-ups and not naturally melding together tonally and plot-wise just yet. So with a million things in the air for next week, deep breaths people…