Season 12 ramps up the tension with a thrilling hour that threatens lore-shattering conclusions next week.
Buckle up, buckeroos, because tonight’s Doctor Who was a lot. After the relatively low stakes and self-contained adventures of the Chibnall era so far, “Ascension of the Cybermen” felt like the first true attempt at an effects-driven epic this leg of the show has attempted to date. As with a lot of two-parters, a lot of it felt like setting up the dominoes so Part 2 can eventually knock them down. That said, it did a damn sight better than “Skyfall Part 1” at being a strong episode in its own right.
Following the events of “The Haunting of Villa Diodati,” where the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) was forced to hand over a Cyberman AI to the Lone Cyberman Ashad (Patrick O’Kane), she and the gang jet to a far-flung future human colony at the end of the Cyber-Wars to try to stop Ashad from using it to revive the Cyber armies that were virtually destroyed. This means hooking up with the last human settlement on this side of the galaxy, a razor-thin cabal of seven poor souls just trying to survive on the edge of the universe. They’re the usual rag-tag band of base-under-siege occupants, but Chris Chibnall‘s script manages to eke out a few moments to give them a bit more life than they’re normally afforded. (Sidenote: the back half of this season has been a real rejoinder to the pacing problems of the previous season; “Ascension” moves, but doesn’t rush.)
Unlike most base under siege episodes, where the Doctor comes up with a brilliant plan to stave off the alien baddies, her plan folds under the slightest push. We spend much of act one establishing the characters, setting up fancy perimeter doo-hickeys to fight off the Cybermen, but Ashad’s fledgling Cyber-army simply throws Cyber-drones at them and decimates the place. Left with nowhere to run, the gang splits up: the Doctor, Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Ethan (Matt Carver) hijack a Cyberman spacecraft, while Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) stow away on the remaining colonists’ escape ship. From here, it’s a chase through space – Yaz and Graham work to keep the remaining humans alive, which includes a stopover at a dormant Cyberman troop carrier, while Doc and the rest search for a mysterious “boundary” that will take the remnants of the human race through a portal to a point on the other side of the universe.
Once again, Chibnall and co. are really finding solid ways to showcase the overstuffed TARDIS gang, though I wish it didn’t have to involve so much splitting up. But if it works, it works; it’s gratifying to see Yaz and Graham take on a leadership role, adopting what they’ve learned from the Doctor to think on their feet and keep everyone alive. It’s genuinely thrilling to see Gill embrace the more proactive Yaz of the last few episodes, and she bounces wonderfully off the always-watchable Walsh.
As for the Doctor, Whittaker keeps finding newer, darker layers to plumb with the character, ones which dovetail into the season’s overarching desire to cut the Doctor off at the knees. “I’ve been so reckless with you,” she admits, recognizing that her love of adventure has, once again, dragged another group of her beloved humans to the slaughter. We don’t know what’s going to happen to Ryan, Yaz and the gang yet, but this season’s been heavily hinting that one or more of them will leave the ship by the end. Whether it’s voluntarily, or in a body bag, remains to be seen.
Speaking of which, one of “Ascension”‘s greatest gifts is its ability to make the Cyberman genuinely scary again. Ashad was a breath of fresh air in “Villa,” and “Ascension” puts him front and center as one of the most remarkable, watchable baddies of this era. He’s a broken, fanatical Cyberman left behind when the Cyber-Wars abandoned him without an emotional inhibitor. This makes him angry and fearful, properties atypical of the Cyberman. Instead, he’s a volunteer, a true believer in the Cyber-cause who’s turned his own abandonment into almost religious zealotry: “I was not discarded. I was chosen.”
We don’t know what’s going to happen to Ryan, Yaz and the gang yet, but this season’s been heavily hinting that one or more of them will leave the ship by the end.
O’Kane is beautifully menacing in the role, and the half-broken nature of his robotic suit allows for him to make mincemeat out of his villainous dialogue, lips spread in a devilish sneer. Cybermen used to be scary because of their emotionless efficiency and lack of affect; now we have a true mustache-twirling Cyber-villain, and it’s such a refreshing change.
In the meantime, we’re left with a lot of finale-appropriate questions in the show’s final minutes. While the Doctor finally discovers the source of the boundary, located on an isolated planet stewarded by an old, enigmatic man named Ko Sharmus (Game of Thrones‘ Ian McElhinney). He opens the boundary so they can step through, but eventually, it transforms into a portal to…. Gallifrey? And not just that, the Master (Sacha Dhawan) steps through, smug, furious and ready to show the Doctor the truth about their people. “Be afraid, Doctor, because everything is about to change… forever.” He practically says it straight through to the screen to the audience. It’s all very spooky, but I can’t wait to get past the pomp and circumstance to find out exactly what he’s been blabbing about all season.
Which brings us to one of the most interesting detours of the episode, one made more fascinating by the fact that we’re still just as in the dark about what it means heading into the finale. “Ascension” begins, and regularly checks in with, the largely-ordinary life of an orphan in early 20th-century Ireland (Evan McCabe). He’s found and taken in by nice Irish parents, grows up to become a member of the Garda, and lives out his whole life there. In one pivotal moment in his life, he’s shot by a criminal, falls off a cliff, and… survives without a scratch? Then, as an old man, he’s taken to a room by two mysterious people, strapped to a chair, and zapped of all his memories.
Who is he, really? Is he a young Ashad? Is he a young Ko Sharmus? Is he a Time Lord? This is the kind of mystery that feels intriguingly set up, and which next week’s finale should hopefully resolve.
- You can tell they really saved up the effects budget for this one; the spaceship scenes are all lush and effective, especially the very Dead Space-y scene where the human ship has to push itself with its remaining air to land on the Cyber carrier.
- Well, now’s a good time for a good old-fashioned end of life speech,” one of the doomed colonists says. Once Yaz starts one: “Oh God, you’re not actually gonna do that, are you?”
- Graham’s exasperation at the colonist not getting Cockney rhyming slang.
- I generally appreciated how resourceful and competent the colonists were, despite not being soldiers. They each had their own talents and sense of initiative, and they bounced greatly off our gang.
- The Cyber troopers look to be a lovely mix of old and new Cybermen, and I love the contrast between them, the clunky pair of Davies-era Cybermen that act as Ashad’s acolytes, and Ashad’s own rusty mix of classic Cyber (gloved hand) and Moffat-era Cybers.
- Are we going to see Captain Jack again before the season’s out? Or solve the mystery of Doctor Ruth? And what about the Timeless Child? I fear that throwing all this into the mix for Part 2 will take focus away from a perfectly-solid Cyberman adventure. But like all things, we’ll just have to wait and see.