Doctor Who series 12 episode 9 review: Ascension Of The Cybermen

Team TARDIS are in the wars for this week’s bleak and battle-scarred Doctor Who. Cyber-spoilers after the squirrel…

Doctor Who series 12 episode 9 Ascension Of The Cybermen

This review contains spoilers after the squirrel.

12.9 Ascension Of The Cybermen

We can only hope that Daphne’s been doing her warm-up stretches, because tonight’s Ascension Of The Cybermen is so jam-packed full of stuff that it’s hard to discuss the episode in any meaningful way without bumping straight into spoilers. Suffice to say that if you haven’t watched yet, you’d be well-advised to steer clear of Twitter and anywhere else that might be discussing the specifics, as there’s lots to mull over in the aftermath.

That’s not to suggest that this must therefore be a brilliant episode, though. In some ways it has less going for it than last week’s adventure, but it does approach one of its story threads in a bullish way that I can’t quite recall Doctor Who attempting before. (I’m sure someone will chime in with examples I’ve forgotten, mind.) That helps to make the episode a lot more layered than it otherwise might have been, and certainly gives fans one more thing to talk about before next week’s finale… so let’s begin. Spoiler Squirrel, activate!

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Spoilers from this point on

Let’s begin with the most fascinating aspect of this Cyberman war story: the part that has absolutely nothing to do with cyborgs, spaceships or the destruction of the human race. (Not yet, anyway.) After the titles, we’re deposited into the amber-tinted haze of the Irish countryside, where farmer Michael is riding his old-timey bicycle and discovers an infant boy, seemingly abandoned in the middle of the road. 

Baby Brendan soon gets himself adopted by Michael and his wife and we cut back to their idyllic life (all set to some really twee music) throughout the episode. He grows up, he becomes a member of the local guard, he gets blown away by a gunman and falls off a cliff but comes back to life, he gets a clock, he retires… Yes, much like Captain Jack, it rather seems as though Brendan can’t be killed. If it wasn’t already obvious from his inclusion in an episode that’s mostly about space-robots from the future, there’s clearly more to this chap than meets the eye.

These kind of cutaway scenes have been used in Doctor Who before, particularly in two-parters, but what’s unusual here is that the episode’s over and we still have no idea how Brendan’s life factors into everything else we’ve seen on-screen. Ordinarily the link between worlds is at least hinted at – in Silence in the Library, for example, we don’t know how or why a little girl’s living room and an alien library are connected, but we do at least know that they are because the Doctor and Donna appear on her TV right away. With Brendan, we might just as easily have been watching clips from an entirely different programme.

There are hints that he and the mysterious gatekeeper Ko Shamus might be one and the same (only Evan McCabe, one of several actors portraying Brendan, is credited as such) but I for one found it hard to say for sure. On the other hand, Ashad begins to electrocute a sleeping Cyberman at around the same time Brendan gets apprehended and tortured, so maybe that’s a clue instead. Is Brendan’s life really some kind of simulation designed to keep the human part of a Cyberman subdued? Is he an ancient hermit guarding a rift in time and space? Is he the Sea Devils? It’s a mystery that adds spice to the story, that’s for sure.

Back to the Cybermen… In last week’s review of The Haunting of Villa Diodati I commented that Ashad was a far more commanding presence than an entire army of zombified soldiers because he was possessed of some extremely negative human qualities. Pleasingly, the Doctor Who team seem to agree and for all its supposed significance, Ashad’s recovery of the Cyberium didn’t alter history so much that he’s ceased to exist. This means that Patrick O’Kane is once again front and centre as the main villain, still scary with a twisted sneer on his half-covered face, leading a dozen battered flunkies across the galaxy. Tim Shaw could only dream of being so imposing.

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Before Ashad and his troops arrive we find the Doctor and Team TARDIS lugging large amounts of equipment through the remains of a settlement that is, the Doctor grimly informs them, most likely the last bastion of humanity. We have arrived at the end of the Cyber-Wars, a bitter conflict where mankind has been reduced to a scant handful of refugees being remorselessly hunted to extinction, although they gave as good as they got and the Cybermen are all-but-kaput as well. There’s almost nobody left to save. 

Read more: Doctor Who and the genius of making the Cybermen an ideology

Given the very personal stakes that were laid out last week, to say that this is a surprise is putting it mildly. The Doctor’s declaration that any ensuing genocide would be a direct result of her choices really doesn’t ring true here. If anything, it seems that this war was a fixed event destined to unfold this way, with only the final few hours in flux now that Ashad’s reclaimed the Cyberium. From a narrative standpoint, this makes sense – we’re going to be more invested in the survivors if we believe that they’re the last humans standing – but it also reinforces that this is an expected part of future history and not the Doctor’s fault, however loudly she might claim responsibility.

Speaking of raised stakes, we get a clever scene where various ways the Doctor has beaten the Cybermen in the past – emotional inhibitors, gold dust, and so on – are set up as literal plot devices, only to be effortlessly destroyed by a squadron of cyberdrones. (Why are these things shaped like flying Cyberman heads? Are they actual Cyberman heads? Enquiring minds must know.) This leaves the human survivors, broadly-sketched civilians ripped straight from the Russell T. Davies era with names like Feekat and Yedlarmi, scrambling to escape. 

Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who series 12 episode 9 Ascension Of The Cybermen

It’s not long before the companions have been separated. Graham and Yaz are bundled aboard the last human spaceship, where their role is mostly to deliver encouraging, Doctor-esque speeches about the importance of not giving up. This convinces the others to keep fighting and make for the Boundary – a wormhole that, so it’s rumoured, humans use to escape to random parts of the universe. Having broken down in a space graveyard, the survivors manage to commandeer an aptly-named cyber-carrier, which soon becomes a problem when they discover thousands upon thousands of dormant Cybermen are still aboard. 

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Ashad is also on their tail, and is delighted when he catches up to his quarry and discovers that an entire army of mint-condition soldiers (which he promptly removes from the packaging, the monster) is his for the taking. This scene serves as a great example of how haphazardly the Cybermen behave throughout this episode, and I’m honestly uncertain how much of that is Ashad’s influence and how much is narrative convenience. 

Historically, Cybermen have mostly sought to upgrade humans by freeing them from emotions, using force mostly to achieve that goal rather than as a matter of course. From the get-go, we’re told that these Cybermen are few in number – the Doctor even warns her companions that if they’re captured, they’ll be ripe for conversion. Despite that, the Cybermen continue to kill on sight, almost as if they’re not paying attention to their own best interests. Also, despite supposedly being brilliant tacticians, they’ve apparently never thought to check their own wrecked ships for survivors.

Read more: what can a Cyberman story achieve?

Then we have the Cyberium itself: a focal point of last week’s episode and previously portrayed as some kind of all-powerful superweapon. Ashad himself treats it with an almost deific reverence, declaring that it’s responsible for leading him to this replacement army, though I’d argue it was following the humans that did that. It’s hard to see what concrete advantages, beyond the ability to read up on the Doctor, the Cyberium has actually conferred upon him. Is it genuinely powerful, or more of a totem? The jury’s still out.

Regardless, we know that Ashad is a cyber-fanatic and that he’s driven by a heady mix of zealotry and self-loathing – the Doctor says as much while they’re butting heads, and Ashad readily agrees. It’s possible to view the contradictory patterns of his behaviour and erratic decisions made by these new Cybermen as symbolic of his state of mind, but a lot of the time it comes across as plotholes rather than precision storytelling. Ashad is still a great villain, but one way or another, he seems far less capable and calculating than he did this time last week.

Having stolen a cybership of her own, the Doctor overtakes the human survivors and makes it to Ko Shamus, who turns out to be a person rather than a planet. Together with Ryan, she learns that the Boundary is indeed a real thing and that humanity might not be as extinct as previously believed – except that when it opens, the Boundary leads to the smouldering ruins of Gallifrey. A moment later the Master appears from the breach, surprising anyone who hasn’t already peeked at this episode’s IMDB page, and the episode reaches its end.

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There’s an awful lot of plot crammed into this instalment, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. The story rarely sits still and so demands your attention throughout, there are some witty exchanges and imaginative visual flourishes here and there. At the same time, all the stuff jammed in means that a series-long problem rears its head once again: there are too many characters and not enough space to develop them. As far as the companions go, it’s Ryan’s turn to tag along behind the Doctor this week, although Graham fares a little better and manages a bit of chemistry with Ravio as they explore the cyber-carrier.

If the Cybermen had been the entire focus of this episode it would have come across as rather aimless, with an awful lot of chasing – but not much actual catching – going on. Luckily, we have two other plot-threads woven throughout that are stronger and more enticing than the war story surrounding them. Firstly, it looks likely that a number of human survivors found their way through the Boundary to Gallifrey, whatever that may mean for Doctor Who canon, so there’s a lot to explore there. 

On top of that, we also have the story of Brendan, his immortality and his torturers that still needs connecting up to the plot-in-progress. There’s no point in waiting to hear how the Master escaped the Kasavin (he’s the Master, of course he did) but his arrival promises to add another rogue element into the mix next week on top of everything else, and I’d expect him to inject a bit of manic levity into proceedings too. 

In summary, then, Ascension of the Cybermen fails to properly capitalise on the strengths of last week’s episode and instead delivers a fairly standard Cyberman romp where victories on both sides seem to stem more from luck than judgement, though it’s still entertaining enough to watch. Luckily, there are other parts to this tale, and the intriguing questions they pose go some way to making up for this week’s flimsy character work and relative lack of focus. Much like the second part of Spyfall, next week’s finale has a lot to prove and plenty of loose ends to tie up – for better or for worse, the truth about the Timeless Child is almost here…