REVIEW: “Doctor Who” S12E09 – Ascension of the Cybermen

1209 finalIt feels like we just started the season, but we’re already nearing the end. This week begins the first half of the season finale and my excitement levels are through the roof. The most interesting episodes this season have been the ones that have revolved around the multiple overarching plotlines – what is the Timeless Child?; who is the Ruth Doctor?; what does the Lone Cyberman want and how will the Doctor defeat it? Plus there’s been the promise of a glimpse of the Great Cyber War. Following any one of those threads would lead to an interesting story, but the promise of all of them? That’s something exciting. Of course, this first half was never really going to answer all of those questions, but it certainly would begin to tie together all of this season’s various strands into something exciting, right? Thankfully, this first half of the two-part finale does everything a first half should do: it sets up the stakes, deepens the mystery, and leaves us desperately wanting to see how it all is resolved. (Spoilers ahead!)

Season 12, Episode 9: Ascension of the Cybermen (written by Chris Chibnall, directed by Jamie Magnus Stone)
The aftermath of the Great CyberWar. The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) arrives in the far future, intent on protecting the last of the human race from the deadly Cybermen. But in the face of such a relentless enemy, has she put her best friends (Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, Bradley Walsh) at risk? What terrors lie hiding in the depths of space, and what is Ko Sharmus?

Ascension of the Cybermen is an action-packed, exciting, tense, and mysterious episode. It’s filled with some great directing, some neat visuals, and some of the season’s best acting. But, in all honesty, the biggest takeaway from this episode is confusion. I couldn’t begin to tell you what’s actually going on in this story, but I mean that in the best way possible. Everything about this episode is ridiculously entertaining. It’s dripping in atmosphere, mystery, and tension. It’s an episode that exists solely to set up the next episode, but it’s still a lot of fun to sit through. I always love a two-parter that doesn’t make a huge amount of sense in the first half but then totally clicks into place once the second half ends – and that seems to be exactly what’s happening here. There’s a lot going on in this episode and it’s hard to fully understand everything that happens or how it all fits together.

Firstly, there’s the main plotline: the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham arrive on an unnamed planet at an unspecified time in the future, towards the end of the CyberWar, with the intention of defending whatever is left of humanity from Ashad/the Lone Cyberman (Patrick O’Kane) and the rest of what’s left of the Cybermen. They quickly meet a small band of survivors, led by Ravio (Julie Graham), and come under attack by a new form of CyberTech – CyberDrones, literally decapitated Cybermen heads that can fly around and destroy things. The Doctor quickly ushers the human survivors off-planet, sending the companions with them (in a scene that’s filled to the brim with some great acting and some delicious angst for Whittaker’s 13th Doctor), but Ryan and Ethan (Matt Carver), one of the human survivors, get separated from the group and left behind. They are quickly found by the Doctor, who steals a CyberShip (as they can’t safely make it back to the TARDIS) and gets them off-world. All of this happens within the first 15-20 minutes and it’s devilishly exciting. We don’t get to learn a whole lot about the human survivors at this point, but it’s such a great way to set up the stakes for the episode and raise the tension, plus it has the added benefit of splitting our heroes up – a trick I’ll always support.

From there, the bulk of the story is spent following the two groups as they continue to run from Ashad and the Cybermen. Both groups are trying to make their way to a place called Ko Sharmus, a legendary haven where refugees of the CyberWar can go through some kind of Boundary and get transported to a random part of the universe, far away from the Cybermen’s threat. Ravio, Yaz, Graham, and the rest of that group have to dock with a seemingly-abandoned orbiting CyberStation due to a lack of fuel. On the station, they discover that it’s not as abandoned as they thought; there are thousands of dormant Cybermen waiting to be activated. Still, they decide their best course of action is to steer the CyberStation to Ko Sharmus, even after Ashad and his Cybermen guards have boarded the ship and awakened the dormant Cybermen. At that point, it’s a race against time as they try to get the ship to Ko Sharmus safely without being killed by the Cybermen. And, man, it’s tense and frightening. The episode leaves this plotline in an equally frightening position: the awakened Cybermen are about to break down the door to where Graham, Yaz, and the other humans are hiding. How will they survive? Who knows. I guess we’ll find out next week.

It’s also here where we start to learn a bit more about the human survivors – mostly Ravio, though. She and Graham develop a lovely rapport together, bouncing off each other like they’ve been together for ages. It’s nice seeing how Graham and Yaz’s relationship has evolved, as well. They’re both so supportive of each other and I always love when Yaz gets to make some kind of an impact on an episode. In fact, it was a great idea to split up the TARDIS team in general, because it gives us plenty of time to spend with each of them – evidenced perfectly here by Yaz and Graham’s plotline. We also get to see Ashad continue to be truly terrifying – he does something to the dormant Cybermen, causing them to yell in pain. In response, Ravio says “We’re carrying the Cyberman that makes other Cybermen scream.” It’s genuinely frightening. One of Chibnall’s best ideas this season was having a Cyberman that still retained a bit of its humanity – namely, its anger. It’s like having a slightly defective Dalek: it just makes the entire monster seem scarier. Cybermen are already pretty scary, but an unhinged Cyberman? Yikes. We still don’t know exactly what Ashad’s plan is – though the trailer for next week’s episode suggests he knows about, and is interested in, Gallifrey. But Ascension of the Cybermen definitely succeeded in establishing Ashad’s threat and furthering his mystery – which is exactly what it needed to do.

Meanwhile, The Doctor, Ryan, and Ethan are able to travel directly to Ko Sharmus (after a brief holographic conversation with Ashad where we get to see some really juicy anger from the Doctor). Upon arriving, they quickly learn that Ko Sharmus is not actually a place, but a person (played by Ian McElhinney) who guards the Boundary, helping those who wish to cross it do so. He leads the Doctor, Ryan, and Ethan to the Boundary, telling the Doctor she needs to get closer to it for it to open. She does so, revealing Gallifrey to be on the other side of it. Ko Sharmus seems to be surprised at the state of Gallifrey, implying he’s seen this planet before, but never destroyed the way it currently is – a fact that seems to fly in the face of an earlier statement that the Boundary deposits people in random locations and never the same one twice.

But before we can ruminate on that too much, the Master (Sacha Dhawan) jumps out of the portal, grinning with glee as he tells the Doctor that everything is about to change…forever. Obviously, very little of this makes any sense at this point, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t super excited to see both Gallifrey and the Master again and to, hopefully, learn more about the destruction of the planet and what, exactly, made the Master do this. While we don’t learn a huge amount about Ko Sharmus, the Boundary, or what the Master is actually doing here yet, it’s still a great cliffhanger, leaving you itching to see what happens next and I’m just so happy that Dhawan’s Master is back so soon. I’m very eager to see how this plotline turns out.

I know what you’re thinking: none of this sounds all that confusing – or at least no more so than any other two-parter. And you’re right. But that’s because I left out the subplot that proved most confounding: the stuff taking place in 20th century Ireland. Ascension of the Cybermen opens with an Irish couple, Patrick (Branwell Donaghey) and Meg (Orla O’Rourke), finding a baby boy left abandoned in a field and choosing to raise it as their own. Throughout the episode, we keep cutting back to this boy, Brendan (played by Evan McCabe as an adult), as he grows up, joins the police, and ultimately retires as an old man. Brendan’s life, however, is really weird. Early in his police career, he is shot and falls off a cliff – only to be completely fine. Then there’s the weird fact that the people around him – including his father and his police mentor, Michael (Andrew Macklin) – don’t seem to be getting older.

Weirder still is what happens when Brendan retires. He’s given an award, but as he leaves the building, Patrick and Michael quickly grab him and lead him into a room where they strap some kind of contraption onto him. They tell him they’re going to have to “erase everything” and that they’re sorry he won’t remember anything and the last we see of this is them turning the machine on and Brendan screaming in agony. We have no idea how this relates to anything else in the episode or who Brendan is. Is he the Lone Cyberman? Doubtful since they’re played by different actors and are named different things. Is he a Time Lord? Maybe. Is he the Timeless Child? Also, maybe. It’s very clear that Brendan is somehow involved with the greater narrative of this story, and possibly the whole season, but how he fits in is totally up in the air and it’s easily the most intriguing and confusing part of the episode. But it has definitely left me curious as hell to see how he fits in. So, mission accomplished there.

So, while many of the various story threads still don’t quite feel connected, it’s obvious that Chibnall has an end-goal in mind. Everything in Ascension of the Cybermen is very clearly building toward whatever will happen next week and every piece of information he’s divulged so far has been carefully given to us in order to tell that story. So, right, now it’s hard to judge how good the story is since we don’t have all of it. What I can judge is how enjoyable this episode was, in the context of it being the first part of a two-part finale. Splitting the TARDIS team in half was a great idea, allowing us to spend equal time with all four of our main characters. Each of them got great moments to shine, some great dialogue to deliver, and a chance for their respective actors to give some great performances. Jodie Whittaker was a true standout in this episode, finally being given the chance to dig into her darker side. She’s one of those Doctors that’s a joy to see angry. She puts up this hopeful, optimistic front so when we see the rage come to the surface, we know things are bad. The pacing of the episode was equally excellent; the moments that needed to be faster were faster and the moments that needed room to breathe were allowed to do so. It was a really well-written episode, managing to be mysterious, exciting, emotional, and entertaining all at once.

Not only was it well-written, though, but the technical side of it was well-executed. Jamie Magnus Stone is a great director. He knows how to direct dialogue scenes with a sense of energy that keeps them exciting, but he also knows how to direct excellent action scenes, combining practical effects and CGI into a seamless experience that’s easy to follow and delightful to watch. He and his editor do a fantastic job at ensuring the episode’s pacing best serves the script Chibnall has written. And, most impressive of all, are the sets and the design for the new Cybermen. It feels like Ascension of the Cybermen got a good chunk of the season’s budget because this episode looked so good. We got to visit a number of different locales – the initial planet, three different spaceships, and the planet Ko Sharmus resides on – and all of these locations looked great. I’d imagine the CyberStation was a blend of practical and CGI, but you couldn’t tell where the practical stuff ended and the CGI began. The designs of the ships were proper sci-fi and a lot of fun to watch. The same can also be said about the design of the Cybermen. While Ashad’s half-destroyed look is totally scary, I’m really digging the design of these new Cyber Warriors. They’re sleek and dangerous looking, with literal spikes on their shoulders and arms. The design is a great blend of Classic and New Doctor Who, mish mashing various elements of various Cybermen designs together in order to create something new – and it really works. On the whole, it’s just a great episode from a visual standpoint. Great cinematography, great editing, great sets, and great monster designs. It’s wonderful stuff!

At the end of the day, Ascension of the Cybermen is another of those episodes that’s really hard to judge on its own because much of its success will depend on how well-executed the second half of the story is. But as the first half of an explosive two-part finale, Ascension of the Cybermen does everything right. It’s exciting, it sets up the main threat well, it raises the stakes and gives everything that bit of genuine danger, and it leaves you desperately wanting more. Ashad/The Lone Cyberman truly feels threatening as hell, as do the rest of the newly designed Cybermen. This whole mystery involving Brendan, and how he fits into the greater story of the season, is intriguing and the reappearance of the Master sends us hurtling into a finale that feels like the culmination of everything that’s happened thus far. Everyone involved is at the top of their game here, from Chibnall and Stone to Whittaker, Walsh, Cole, and Gill to the entire guest cast. It’s exciting to see all of the different strands of the season’s storyline start to converge towards some kind of solution and I’m devilishly excited to see how Chibnall wraps it all up next week. There’s a lot riding on the finale, but if this episode is anything to go by, it’ll be a good one.

4.5 out of 5 wands.