Wednesday 26 February 2020

Reviews in Space & Time: Doctor Who 12x09 - Ascension of the Cybermen

Doctor Who 12x09 - Ascension of the Cybermen

The end is almost upon us, and in the finale of Doctor Who series 12 the 13th Doctor must once again battle against an enemy that's taken so much from her in the past - the Cybermen. Following on from the surprise appearance of the lone Cyberman in The Haunting of Villa Diodati, the race towards the end continues in Ascension of the Cybermen - written by show runner Chris Chibnall and directed by Jamie Magnus Stone. Interestingly Ascension is also the fourth two-part finale in modern Doctor Who to feature the Cybermen, following on from Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, Death in Heaven/Dark Water and of course World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls. But despite now having more finale appearances than even the Daleks, many have said that the Cybermen lost their lustre a long time ago. Could this be the episode that finally brings it back?

Ashad and the CybermenThe Doctor vs Ashad

In 20th century Ireland, a boy named Brendan is adopted and grows up to become a police officer. When he's shot and falls off a cliff in the line of duty, he miraculously survives and continues to live to until his retirement takes a sinister turn.

In the far off future, both humanity and the Cybermen are on the brink of extinction. The Doctor faces off against Ashad once more, but in the process is separated from Graham and Yaz. As they investigate a dormant Cybercarrier with a band of survivors, the Doctor and Ryan join with another survivor to travel to Ko Sharmus - a place where they'll finally be safe from the Cybermen. With Ashad growing closer to his goal of rebuilding the Cyber Empire, the Doctor receives an unexpected surprise from beyond the Boundary.

EthanYaz and Graham take charge

The Cyber Wars have been a part of Doctor Who lore for decades, but outside the odd mention here and there in the likes of Revenge of the Cybermen or Silver Nemesis they’ve never been properly imagined on screen. That means it’s the perfect playing field for Ascension of the Cybermen not only depict a Cyber battlefield the scale of which has never been seen before, but also give them a whole new look. Unlike the Daleks who’ve remained roughly the same throughout their time on Doctor Who, the Cybermen have thrived on a constantly changing appearance - for better or for worse. The new series hasn’t been especially kind to them, with much of the prosthetic body horror lost in favour of stomping, more robot-like approach. In terms of story they’ve also spent most of their time as a backdrop to another threat, either playing second fiddle to the Master/Missy or being completely overwhelmed by a handful of Daleks. Put simply, the Cybermen have needed a big break for some time now. World Enough and Time managed to claw some of that horror back, but nostalgia can only carry them so far.

We join the episode at the very end of the Cyber Wars, and we don’t need to see legions of Cybermen concerting everything in sight to see the destruction they’ve caused. Humanity is on the very brink of destruction, and the few that are left are far more concerned with surviving than they are with fighting back. Even when the Doctor brings the slightest bit of hope, a swarm of Cyber Drones is enough to quickly snatch that away. So while Ascension may technically be about the “rebirth” of the Cybermen, it’s just as concerned about cementing their legacy. A sensible approach, given the episode’s status as part one of a two part finale means it’s main priorities are set up and very little else.

At the centre of this great rebirth is Ashad - the partly-converted Cyberman that’s already made a name for himself by acting completely the opposite way a Cyberman normally would. Ascension still offers little clues as to just who he is or how he came to be this way, but with the Cyberium in hand he’s more deranged than ever - a cyborg with a god complex that acts with everything the Cybermen are against. The only thing more fascinating than how he came to be this way is just how he’s managed to put himself in a position of power over the few Cybermen that still remain. It’s a far more interesting take on a Cyber-progenitor than John Lumic’s poor Davros-pastiche, and while frequent use would inevitably diminish both him and the Cybermen in general here it gives the story both mystery and more personal stakes.

CyberdronesThe new Cyberwarrior

And visually the new Cybermen look incredible. The ridiculously silly Cyber Drones can easily be overlooked in the wake of these new Cyber Warriors, which mix the iconic look from the 1968 classic The Invasion with the sleek modern aesthetic brought about in Nightmare in Silver. While the end of the episode suggests they’ll still have that same mechanical walking sound that’s been imbedding into the modern Cybermen, it’s a powerful design that does a much better job of capturing that vacant, emotionless stare. The 2005 versions haven’t been completely forgotten though, which Ashad bringing along a pair (once again without the Cybus Industries logo) as his personal bodyguards. It’s a little odd that Cybermen would have three different classes running around at the same time when part of their point is to remove individuality, but when there’s also been Cyber Leaders and Cyber Controllers running around in the past it’s not completely unprecedented either.

Moving away from the monsters, the Doctor and fam definitely face their toughest challenges yet in this episode. The Doctor is very much at the end of her tether now, and quick to snap at her companions when they point out that her plans have come crashing down around her. It’s also a little disconcerting that after separating from Graham and Yaz her first thought upon stealing a Cyber Cruiser isn’t to go and find them (surely the human’s makeshift spaceship would be easy to track?), but at least it gives the pair a chance to go out and do something on their own. One of series 12’s biggest flaws has been its insistence on splitting the cast up and then subsequently not doing anything interesting with the companions, but at least in situations like this we get to see how they’ve grown to take charge of situations without the Doctor’s guidance. Ryan may have fallen into the background, but Graham and Yaz had some great moments.

It’s a shame that compared to this, the supporting cast were exactly that - support. While the actors all have strong performances none of them were especially memorable, and really only served to remind the audience that there was more at stake than just the Doctor and her companions. It’s even harder to see how they’ll be any more important in the finale either. Perhaps there’ll be more to the mysterious Ko Sharmus since that right now that portal is little more than a convenient McGuffin, but the rest are just potential cyber-fodder.

What?The life and times of Brendan

There’s one element to this story that remains a total mystery though, and that’s the curious case of Brendan. The story of his life and (assumed) grisly reset remains completely detached from the rest of the episode, told in a series of interspersed flashbacks akin to the ones in something like Arrow (Chibnall did once compare the show to the DC CWverse after all). At times it did feel like it was taking away from the main story, but with all the weird turns it took it’s almost impossible to work out just how it’ll eventually connect back. Is he somehow related to Ashad, or is this the much anticipated “Timeless Child” we’ve been hearing so much about? His miraculous revival had definite shades of Jack Harkness about it, but the twist about those closest to him not ageing and him having to “start over” felt more Gallifreyan, and with the Doctor herself clearly having memory trouble it’s hard not to start drawing lines. A piece of storytelling that had nothing to do with anything else, and therein lie the biggest mysteries.

It looks as though we’ll find out soon enough though, because next episode we’re heading to Gallifrey! And surprising no one, the Master is also in tow. Credits listing “Barack Stemis” as “Fakeout” already spoiled the surprise for many (Barack Stemis = Master is Back), but Sacha Dhawan’s surprise return at the end of the episode still sent ripples through what was already a jam-packed episode. The Cybermen and the matter of the Timeless Children are both heavy enough to warrant their own episodes, but now there’s the question of how much they’ll affect each other as well. Despite their massive empire unlike the Daleks the Cybermen have steered relatively clear of the Time Lords en masse, but obviously the Cyberium has plans. There’s a lot of get through in this finale and it’s going be very difficult to wrap everything up succinctly.

Beyond the PortalThe Master is back

Despite being an episode that's almost entirely set up for the big finale, Ascension of the Cybermen proves to be another strong episode that attempts to claw back some of the menace the once powerful Cybermen have lost over the years. On top of their visual reinvigoration Ashad continues to be an interesting play on the idea with plenty left to be explored, while the rest of the cast are on top form as the episode presents questions upon questions. Though the notion of a series finale that features both the Cybermen and the Master feels creatively bankrupt at this point, maybe third time's the charm and Chibnall will pull both them and all the other lingering mysteries in The Timeless Children. Either way, supposedly nothing will ever be the same again...

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