“Ascension of the Cybermen” Review – Some Assembly Required
Clint Hassell gives his SPOILER-filled commentary on the ninth episode of Series 12.
Note: this review contains full SPOILERS for episode 9 of Series 12.
The most impressive thing about “Ascension of the Cybermen,” the first part of the two-part, Series 12 finale, is how it reformats the Cybermen, upgrading them to be legitimate threats for the first time in several series. Since their introduction in Series 2’s “Rise of the Cybermen”/“Age of Steel,” the Cybermen have been largely portrayed as the lesser menace in two-villain stories, opposite the Daleks or the Master. Worse, the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure featured episodes with Cybermen being “[blown] up with love,” failing to pose a threat to the much-maligned Maitland children, or serving as a proto-companion to Eleven, in his final days on Trenzalore. “Ascension of the Cybermen” corrects this, revealing that the titular cyborgs eventually chase the vestiges of humanity to the ends of the future Universe. Continuing directly from “The Haunting of Villa Diodati,” the first act of “Ascension of the Cybermen” includes an impressively violent sequence that not only demonstrates the nigh-unstoppable power of the Cyber-army, but the cruelty inherent to their emotionless state.
The first half of the Series 12 finale also makes effective use of its two-episode format, giving its various story beats time to breathe and devoting ample screen time to developing characters in ways not often seen in standard, 50-minute episodes. For example, while it’s sensible to see the Doctor utilizing future tech to exploit the Cybermen’s weaknesses, it’s even more delicious to see the Doctor utterly outwitted as the advancing Cyber-army sends robotic drones to devastate her lines of defense. Accustomed to being the smartest and the most prepared in any situation, Thirteen is left scrambling to formulate a new plan on the fly. The Doctor rarely underestimates a villain, and the episode cleverly exploits this situation to reveal Thirteen’s layered response. “I’ve been so reckless with you,” the Doctor states, “If they capture you, they’ll convert you.” While Cyber-technology is incompatible with Time Lord physiology, making the Doctor almost unnoticeable to the advancing drones, the same cannot be said for her human companions. Here, the Doctor realizes that her miscalculation of Ashad has placed Graham, Ryan, and Yasmin in direct danger, again recalling the loss of former companion, Bill, and culminating in a scene where a desperate Doctor eschews her normally weapons-averse nature and constructs an explosive device to use against Ashad.
“Ascension of the Cybermen” further examines the dangers of companion life as Graham and Yaz are forcibly separated from Ryan and the Doctor and must consider their future prospects, stranded amongst strangers, forever removed from their lives on present-day Earth. Single episodes rarely have the time to deal with this aspect of TARDIS travel, and the narrative references this peril twice, as the Doctor later states that the refugee humans “leaping into unknown” via the Boundary rift is “quite a risk.” Further, “Ascension of the Cybermen” uses Graham and Yasmin’s plight to again demonstrate how the Doctor’s companions are beginning to emulate Thirteen’s enduring hope, with the two convincing Ravio, Yedlarmi, and Bescot to reroute the remaining power in their failing spacecraft in an attempt to reach safety aboard an abandoned Cybercarrier. “We must be mad,” Yedlarmi cries. “Not ‘mad,’ ‘hopeful’!” responds Yaz.
Just as important though, is that the two-part format of the finale allows the narrative to demonstrate that the companions, like the Doctor, are capable of failing. Ryan becomes separated from the others during their escape attempt. Yaz announces to the entire Cybercarrier that Ashad and his troops have boarded, giving away not only her location, but that of Graham and Ravio, too. Graham fails to consider that a Cybercarrier might contain remnants of the Cyberarmy, much less an entire cavalry of Cybertroops. So often, single episodes only provide enough time for the companions to heroically and capably perform the actions given to them by the Doctor; here, they are shown as realistically underperforming in novel situations.
“Ascension of the Cybermen” even finds the time to examine how the last remaining humans have adjusted to their impending extinction. Despite being described as “ordinary humans,” with jobs including teacher, nurse, and builder, Feekat’s group of survivors are anything but ordinary, preternaturally placing survival above all else. Ethan states, “The War made us pariahs, because of what was always coming for us: the last Cybermen, intent on destroying the last humans.” Note that, despite Feekat’s assertion that he had never actually encountered a Cyberman, evading their tech is so engrained in the human condition that all of the humans are able to effortlessly utilize Cyber-technology. As Ryan mentions, “This is all [they’ve] ever known.”
Doctor Who involves a great deal of technobabble and scientific inaccuracy, with “Kill the Moon” being the prime example of the “science” being so errant as to be distracting from the narrative. In “Ascension of the Cybermen,” Ravio and Yedlarmi argue about life support systems and oxygen levels, mining more-realistic scientific concerns for dramatic tension. Sure, this moment of serious consequence is undone by the extreme coincidence of the failing escape pod crashing through conveniently open bay doors, which then close, reestablishing the necessary pressure and oxygen levels for the survivors to disembark – – but the viable tension created as Graham and Yaz are placed in legitimate danger makes the necessity of storytelling shortcuts a worthy trade-off. Note that the survivor’s escape pod is described as an “antigrav,” and not a rocket. Considering the velocity required for a rocket to escape the Earth-like gravity of a planet, the escape pod would’ve been ripped apart as it encountered a debris field of Cyber-corpses. Describing the pod as an “antigrav” utilizes a pseudoscience reason to counter what would otherwise be a minor plot hole caused by blatant scientific inaccuracy.
Still, while the finale’s two-episode format is its greatest asset, it is also the basis of its problems. Most importantly, Brendan’s storyline in no way ties in with the plot of “Ascension of the Cybermen,” meaning the fate of the elderly Brendan is less “cliffhanger” and more “confounding.” Surely, the events of “The Timeless Children” will resolve this disconnect, but only in hindsight can the importance of Brendan’s storyline be appreciated.
Further, as it was announced that Sacha Dhawan would be starring as the Master in four of Series 12’s 10 episodes, his arrival at the end of “Ascension of the Cybermen” is expected, not surprising. Featuring only in the final seconds of the episode, the Master’s relation to the Cybermen and/or Brendan, if any, is not defined, further removing him from the cliffhanger. His appearance is less a reveal than a reminder that his story arc is but one more plot point that must be resolved in the finale, making his character feel particularly ancillary – – especially compared to the salient danger faced by Graham, Yaz, and the remaining human survivors.
Ironically, while the episode goes to great lengths to once again make the Cybermen scary, it fails to accurately outline their overarching goal. Ashad seems to desire the end of all non-Cyber life in the Universe – – a goal normally attributed to the xenophobic Daleks – – claiming that “the death of everything is within me.” Yet, Ashad considers sparing Ethan, merely so the boy will spread his message of fear that “all life will fall and the Cybermen will rise again.” Despite retaining some of his human emotions, Ashad does not consider that sparing Ethan enables the human resistance to continue. Further, considering that Cybermen are cyborgs requiring a human base, one must question why they would obliterate the human subjects they need as fodder for cyber-conversion, which would be necessary for their plans of Universal conquest.
(Time) Capsule Review
Effectively using its two-episode format to provide character development for the core cast of characters and to examine the state of a future humanity facing extinction, “Ascension of the Cybermen” returns the titular cyborgs to fearsome form. However, by not attempting to tie Brendan or the Master into the episode’s narrative, the cliffhanger suffers, and the episode never rises to be more than the sum of its spare parts.