Doctor Who: Season 12, Episode 9 – Ascension of the Cybermen

“The Cybermen were defeated. The victims of a billion battles, broken. An empire of might and terror, fallen. Their weaknesses exploited, their armies outfought. Every empire has its time, and every empire falls. But that which is dead can live again – in the hands of a believer.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

The Cybermen are made up of parts. Spare parts, human and machine. So it’s apt that almost every latterday story about them has itself been made up of parts of other Cyber stories – and this was no exception. However, that didn’t stop it being a very, very good Doctor Who episode in a season that has been unexpectedly good after last year’s rather lacklustre effort.

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Ascension of the Cybermen (even the title is recycled from 2006’s less impressive Rise of the Cybermen) followed the template by liberally borrowing from other Cyber stories. The discovery of the hordes of dormant Cybermen? Straight out of 1967’s Tomb of the Cybermen. The massed ranks of Cyber troops stalking the darkened hold of a massive spaceship? That’ll be from 1982’s Earthshock.

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But there’s nothing wrong with that – Earthshock itself was largely a patchwork of elements from 1960s Cyber stories. In fact, what we got here was far more interesting, freighted with all the portents connected to Jack Harkness’ dire warning, and the ongoing mysteries of this season’s arc. As with other eps, it may be less than well-served by next week’s conclusion, but it worked very well as an ep in its own right.

We’ve been hearing about the Cyber Wars since 1974, as an offhand remark in Revenge of the Cybermen, and in several stories since. That story showed us a pocket of surviving Cybermen after their epic defeat (nice to see their aversion to gold referenced for the first time since their return in 2006). Earthshock showed us the buildup to the war. But no story till now has actually shown us the war itself. It always sounded epic, but also the sort of thing that would never actually be shown in a series with a, let’s be honest, rather limited budget.

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But with more money to play with, it seems that Chris Chibnall decided to take the plunge and show us the epic conflict in all its glory. My initial worry that this might be too ambitious at first seemed justified, as our first sight of the conflict appeared to be nothing more than a small village in Spain. But it wasn’t too long before we were catapulted into a debris-strewn Cyber graveyard in space, full of shattered battle cruisers and corpses. This was terrific stuff, and it seems Chibnall wasn’t exaggerating when he promised that this two-part finale would be an epic space opera.

But Epic Space Battles are nothing, dramatically, without good stories and characters to back them up. Fortunately, this story had those too. The Doctor was in full-on war mode after her big speech about difficult decisions last week, and it’s seeming that Jodie Whittaker is really getting a handle on the gravitas the character occasionally needs along with the frivolity and lightheartedness. It helps that she’s being given better scripts to demonstrate it – her hologrammatic confrontation with the ‘Lone Cyberman’ was an excellent mix of the serious and the facetious, recalling Tom Baker’s mix of morality, contempt and facetiousness in Revenge of the Cybermen.

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And that Lone Cyberman was himself an effective innovation, giving the soulless metal monsters an actual character to focus on, just as Davros did with the Daleks. Patrick O’Kane continues to impress in the role, making the character an intriguing ideologue able to draw on actual emotions. Your mileage may vary as to whether humanising the Cybermen like that undermines the nightmare of their willingly given up humanity; but you can’t deny he’s an effective voice for them, just like Star Trek’s Borg Queen gave the previously characterless Borg Collective a handy figurehead.

Plus there’s the mystery of his motives and his plan. He seems gripped by malice and self-hatred, as the Doctor correctly identified, but there has to be a reason for it. One thing Chibnall does very well is writing character motivation, so I’m sure that will be further explored in the conclusion.

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The guest characters were well-written too; well, those who survived more than a couple of minutes anyway. It’s always good to see Julie Graham, and I was slightly surprised to realise she’s never been in the show before. Ravio was a convincing shell-shocked refugee from the horror of the war, and in a week with seemingly no modern issues being explored, I found myself wondering whether her speech about being a refugee was a reference to the current refugee crisis prompted by the war in Syria. If so, it’s a measure of its comparative subtlety that I wasn’t sure, but I took the point anyway…

She was accompanied by a solid group of stock survivors typical of any war story. Sadly Steve Toussaint’s Feekat didn’t last long as a nominal leader (and his early death will probably add fuel to the debate over the frequency of BAME characters’ deaths in the show), but Alex Austin’s ever-pessimistic Yedlarmi was an effective variant of the “we’re all doomed!” Private Hudson in Aliens. And Matt Carver made an equally effective variant of that movie’s Newt as Ethan, a kid who’s seen too much and can’t conceive of a life without war.

Stock they may have been, but they were well-written and well-played. The regulars too got a fair share of the action, once more sensibly split up into several subplots as the story separated all the characters. It was good to see Yaz paired with Graham, and pointing out how far he’s come from where we met him – a truly heroic figure with an almost Churchillian rhetoric to boost the survivors’ morale; albeit in Cockney rhyming slang, which was a nice bit of levity in a very serious situation. And was that a hint of a budding romance between him and Ravio?

Director Jamie Magnus Stone gave us some effective battle scenes, both on the unnamed planet and in space – these were some very good spaceship effects, and clearly a lot of the season’s budget had been kept by for this (and presumably, the next) ep. The design of the Cyber troop carrier could have come straight out of Starship Troopers, and its gloomy interior was well-designed and thought out, down to those chest unit style blue lights that served as door locks and controls.

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Indeed, the whole design of the ep was very impressive, even down to a previously unseen variant of the Cybermen themselves. The hibernating troops on the carrier were a nice mix of the past and the present, their more blank faces intentionally recalling the designs from 1968 and 1974, but cleverly mixed in with some styling cues from the more modern, post-2006 Cybermen. After the mixture of Cyber models in Peter Capaldi’s final story, it’s nice to see the show acknowledging again that there have been more than one model of Cyberman.

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The ‘Cyber drones’ were fun too. We’ve seen in the past that parts of dismembered Cybermen can be just as dangerous as the complete creatures; so it made perfect sense that they might have detachable, self-contained heads capable of flight and equipped with weaponry. Mind you, it did make me wonder why the rest of them bothered having full bodies at all…

But of course this ep had more to do than just show us a well-realised depiction of the Cyber War. It had to tie into the ongoing enigma of the season’s arc – the destruction of Gallifrey, the Timeless Child, the mysterious, previously unknown version of the Doctor… For the most part, this was dealt with in the final few minutes, obviously as a precursor to next week’s Big Finale.

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So it was that our heroes finally reached the refuge run by Ian McElhinney (Game of Thrones’ Ser Barristan Selmy), hanging out on a picturesque cliffside like Mark Hamill in The Last Jedi, while resembling nobody so much as Alec Guiness’s Obi Wan Kenobi. And everything suddenly went batshit crazy when the previously mentioned ‘Boundary’ through which the humans were escaping turned out to lead to nowhere else but Gallifrey. And then Sacha Dhawan’s Hot Camp Master made a welcome surprise reappearance to promise that “everything’s about to change – forever!”

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So what does it all mean? Have the humans been escaping to Gallifrey all this time? Does that mean that they’re actually the forerunners of the Time Lords, the lie that so horrified the Master he burned the planet to the ground? Except that the Gallifrey we saw was already devastated; so have the humans travelled to an earlier time?

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No answers till next week, it seems. Nor to the still unconnected tandem plot set in 20th century Ireland, where a Superman-style foundling was adopted to a seemingly typical Irish family before becoming a Garda officer then turning out to be immortal with a Jack Harkness style resurrection after a fatal cliff fall.

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I’d expected that plot to be joined with the main one at some point this week, but apparently not. Just what was happening with young (and later, old) Brendan? Is he another immortal? Why did his father and his CO turn up in his dotage having not aged, to wipe his memory? Are they in some sort of simulation? Will Brendan, by some convoluted route, turn out to be the original identity of Ashad, the Lone Cyberman? Or is he from Krypton after all?

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So many questions. Again, I didn’t mind them being left hanging as the story has yet to conclude; and again, the answers may not live up to them. But this ep worked well as far more than a setup for a bigger story. It was as epic as we’d been promised, and the Cyber Wars were an obvious example of a major plot from the show’s history that had never been directly addressed. The depiction here was truly satisfying, and that the ep managed to be a good war story, and a lead in to the resolution of all the season’s questions, was a quite impressive achievement.

If I had one niggle, it wasn’t connected to the story itself but that it risks becoming repetitive for the show as a whole. I mean let’s face it, two of Peter Capaldi’s three full seasons ended with epic stories involving the Cybermen and the Master, and that wasn’t that long ago. But I have the feeling that what Chris Chibnall is doing here will be different enough to justify that repetition. It all hangs on next week – but against all my expectations, I’m actually starting to think Chris Chibnall is a good enough writer to pull something truly satisfying out of the bag.

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