Well, just as I was beginning to doubt that Doctor Who could make yet another Cybermen armageddon-finale work, showrunner/writer Chris Chibnall and director Jamie Magnus Stone pull it off, delivering a penultimate 12th season finale that offers a solid new story, as well as the promise of wrapping up certain mysteries left for this season, including that of “the timeless child.”
Ascension of the Cybermen.
The story incongruously opens in rural, 20th century Ireland, when a bicycling local named Patrick (Branwell Donaghey) encounters an abandoned baby in the road. He takes the wee one home to his wife Meg (Orla O’Rourke), and the two of them petition for adoption. Throughout the episode, we cut to the baby growing up to become a healthy, ginger-haired (a possible clue?) young man named Brendan (Evan McCabe). Brendon eventually becomes a policeman and is seemingly shot to death by a suspect, as he falls from a cliff… only to awaken with the wind knocked out of him (!). The young lad with the Moses/Superman origin story becomes a local hero afterward. More on Brendan’s fate later…
We then cut to the far future which has the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) tracing the Lone Cyberman Ashad’s signal to a bombed out, ravaged human colony far out in space, which is now the home of only seven people. The Doctor brings her fam up to speed by announcing that this is the future of the human race, following a disastrous war with the Cybermen, which has decimated most of both races (not unlike the Time War between Time Lords and the Daleks).
The Doctor’s party are met by the understandably distrustful survivors; among them are a middle-aged de facto leader named Ravio (Julie Graham), an ill-fated older man named Feekat (Steve Toussaint), a defeatist young man named Yedlarmi (Alex Austin), who loses a kid brother shortly after we meet him, a scrappy teenaged boy named Ethan (Matt Carver) and a young woman named Bescat (Rhiannon Clements).
The TARDIS fam have brought some hastily assembled equipment which they set up with the locals’ help in a desperate attempt to repel a pending Cyberman attack on the colony. Cyberdrones (flying Cybermen heads, operating independently) strafe the human camp, destroying the countermeasures, and paving the way for the arrival of ‘the Lone Cyberman’ Ashad (Patrick O’Shane) and his Cybermen troops, who kill Feekat… but not before he buys enough time for Yaz, Graham, Ravio, Yedlarmi and Bescat escape from the devastated planet in a ‘gravraft’ (an escape pod-like craft).
The Doctor then uses a grenade to kill a few Cybermen, as she, Ryan and Ethan make their own escape in a Cyberman shuttlecraft. Once aboard, the Doctor hot-wires its warp drive with the aid of Ethan, an orphan of war who’s unexpectedly resourceful.
Once in space, the jury-rigged Gravraft commandeered by Graham and Yaz’s group runs into trouble; an overtaxed engine, a run-down life-support system and a pessimistic Yedlarmi. Graham, along with Ravio, quickly becomes the group’s morale officer. The group begins to hear thumping noises along the outer hull, which Yaz confirms to be bits of Cyberman bodies, strewn across a vast area of space. Casualties of the Cyber-war.
Graham sees a chance to flee for safety as they spot a large intact spaceship. Channeling what’s left of their life-support and power into a final surge of thrust, the group emergency-lands their craft inside of the massive ship’s docking bay. The survivors hope that the ship can take them to a mysterious world known as Ko Sharmus, which is rumored to hold a gateway which leads out of their war-ravaged galaxy.
Once aboard, they realize the ship has breathable (albeit cold) air…optimist Graham saves the day. The colony survivors ID the ship as a Cyberman carrier vessel…which begs the question; what was it carrying? That question is soon answered, when Graham, who finds kinship with Ravio (and possible romance?) scours the interior of the massive ship and discovers thousands of dormant Cyberman warriors.
Aboard the Doctor’s stolen Cyber-shuttle, also on course for Ko Sharmus, she receives a holographic taunt from Cyberman Ashad, who promises that he will catch up to her and the survivors. The Doctor tries to get under Ashad’s skin with mention of his own self-loathing (since he was once human), which he acknowledges but dismisses. Cyber-Ashad insists that the “Cyberium” he received in the previous episode (“The Haunting of Villa Diodati”) has filled him with a new purpose; the rebirth of the Cyberman race from the ashes of defeat.
Soon, the warp-driven Cyber-shuttle sends an emergency call to Ko Sharmus, as the shuttle arrives at the coordinates for a hot landing. Surprisingly, Ko Sharmus turns out to be a kindly, bearded old man (Ian McElhinney) who is the sole human survivor on his world; awaiting other survivors whom he can help escape out of the galaxy through “the boundary.” The Doctor admires his shoreline sanctuary-abode, and asks if she, Ryan and Ethan can see this ‘boundary.’ Walking up to the waterline, Ko Sharmus tells the Doctor to approach the water and it will open…and it does, opening a massive spacetime portal (not too unlike TOS Star Trek’s “Guardian of Forever”).
Soon, Cyber-Ashad’s forces rendezvous with the massive Cyber-carrier vessel and immediately board it, trapping Graham, Yaz, Ravio and the others in the vessel’s control room. Cyber-Ashad quickly revives his armies of dormant Cyberman and begin to storm the control deck, threatening to break though the heavy door…
Seeing into the boundary’s portal, the Doctor sees a familiar image…the sight of her devastated home planet Gallifrey. Ko Sharmus tellingly states, “I’ve never seen it look like this before” (is this implying that he is a Time Lord as well? Possibly the ‘timeless child’… possibly another incarnation of adult Brendan?). Just as the Doctor is taking in the image of the destroyed Gallifreyan citadel, the Master (Sacha Dhawan) jumps out from the portal onto the shoreline. The Master, who had confessed to destroying Gallifrey due to his anger over his peoples’ “lies,” promises the stunned Doctor that it’s about to get a lot worse…
Meanwhile, in 20th century Ireland, a white-haired sixty-something Brendon is retiring from the police force after a long and distinguished career. As he walks outside the precinct for (presumably) the last time, he is met by his adoptive father Patrick, and his former police captain Michael (Andrew Macklin), both of whom are (curiously) only a little older than when we last last saw them decades earlier. The elder Brendon seems reluctant to protest as the two men take him by the arm to a back room of the precinct and hook him up to a device which they promise will drain all memories of his lifetime of service…
Summing It Up.
After last week’s atmospheric “The Haunting of Villa Diodate”, the tone of “Ascension of the Cybermen” is a straight-up post apocalypse story, with a side order of Superman origin story on the side. It’s a lot to unpack, and (as usual) writer Chris Chibnall has packed about two or three characters too many into the mix, though it still works well enough.
Chibnall could’ve easily trimmed a few of the survivors from the story (Feecat, Bescat) and it might’ve flowed a bit smoother. Just saying. One of Chibnall’s issues as a writer is his tendency to overstuff his episodes with lots of extraneous characters who don’t serve vital (or any) story points…often at the expense of series’ regulars, like Ryan or Yaz. In this episode, Bescat is nothing more than an extra face who gets a couple lines. We also have the ill-fated Feekat, or Yedlarmi’s equally ill-fated mute brother. To quote 1984’s “Amadeus” (and meaning it this time), “Too many notes.”
While I enjoyed Patrick O’Shane’s dripping-with-evil performance, the notion of giving a ‘human face’ to the enemy also robs the Cybermen of some of their coldness and mystery… a similar issue that happened when we met the “Borg queen” in “Star Trek: First Contact” (1996). For me, the Cybermen were always most frightening when we never saw behind the mask… it was enough just knowing that they were once human beings who’d been robbed of their humanity.
That said, I was nevertheless pleased that this particular Cyberman story wasn’t an obvious retread of other Cyberman apocalypses. We’ve seen several Cyberman apocalypses since the series was resurrected in 2005 (and a few more, for older Whovians like myself…). If this story bears any familiarity to previous Doctor Who lore, it’d be the Time War arc, which saw a similar decimation of both the Time Lords and the Daleks. Substitute humans for Time Lords, and the similarities between the two arcs are even more apparent. All the same, “Ascension of the Cybermen” is a solid and distinctive entry in the Cyberman story canon, with enough newer elements to avoid being too derivative of the Time War storyline.
In getting those nits out of the way because I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like this episode, because I did; very much so, in fact. However, it still bears some of the unevenness that has largely defined the Chris Chibnall era with a few memorable exceptions (“Fugitive From the Judoon” being one of them).
Mysteries Wrapped in Enigmas.
Since next week’s episode is already titled “The Timeless Children”, it’s safe to assume that the ginger-haired Brendon is one of those timeless children…possibly a pre-William Hartnell version of the Doctor himself? Jo Martin also returns as the Ruth-Doctor, memorably essayed in “Fugitive of the Judoon” (still my favorite of this year’s offerings). Could both of these characters be earlier ‘forgotten’ versions of the Doctor, that “Timeless Child” of whom the Master is so resentful?
Since Ruth has a police box TARDIS, I’m assuming she’s from a time just after Hartnell and before Pertwee (or possibly a parallel timeline), as there is a bit of wiggle room for stories set between the Second Doctor’s exit in “The War Games” and the Third Doctor’s introduction in “Spearhead From Space”, when the amnesiac Doctor arrives for his exile on Earth.
There is also the Tom Baker-era episode “Brain of Morbius”, which showed us multiple Doctors existing before William Hartnell… this has always been dismissed in the greater continuity of the show. Perhaps “The Timeless Children” is where we will not only learn that the Doctor has been the Timeless Child all along, but that he/she was born with an infinite number of lifetimes instead of the traditional thirteen. Maybe when Matt Smith regenerated into Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, it was merely unlocking a genetic secret that the Doctor has had all along but had forgotten (or one that had been erased from his memory?). Maybe all of those ‘children’ are but variations of the one timeless child…The Doctor herself.
And with Brendon being so distinctly redheaded, it would also mean we’ve finally seen the fulfillment of an age-long wish of the Doctor… to be a ginger. Too bad she can’t remember it… or can she? With “The Timeless Children”, we will (hopefully) find out if this line of speculation is valid or not.
Till next week…