Doctor Who – Season 12 Episode 9
“Ascension of the Cybermen”
Doctor Who gears up for the end of the season with a hopeless battle against Ashad and an army of Cybermen bent on destroying Humanity.
The previous episode ended with The Doctor making a choice that apparently risked dooming the entire Human race because she ignored Jack’s warning and gave the lone Cyberman what he wanted. This episode would suggest that her decision meant pretty much nothing as there’s no declaration of guilt when Team TARDIS arrive in the far future to find Humanity almost wiped out by the Cybermen. The way she talks is as if it’s a foregone conclusion that this War takes place and ends up the way it did. This a major problem with the current era of Doctor Who; things are brought up and swiftly ignored which makes a lot of what goes on feel meaningless. It would have been so easy to give this episode extra weight by having The Doctor feel guilty because her decision led to the death and destruction she finds herself surrounded by.
One thing this episode does is move quickly though that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Another problem with this era of the show is that many of the episodes feature an abundance of characters but lack the time to develop them in any meaningful way. This episode features another collection of characters too broadly drawn to properly invest in. Of course, The Doctor and her companions are going to encounter people as they travel from place to place and teaming up with natives of the places they appear can help deepen the setting if done right. If there’s a character with a profound connection to where and when they are then it can add greater significance to it. This is why the Russell T. Davies era kept setting stories on modern day Earth; it was somewhere the companion could care about and the audience could easily connect to. The problem here is that there’s no time to get to know the setting or the people in it before things start moving.
Urgency is important in a story, especially an action driven one but this episode moves far too quickly to have the urgency mean anything so it just becomes a collection of things happening to people we as viewers don’t really know or have any reason to care about. It is good that The Cybermen are identified as a significant enough threat and there’s no time to waste in dealing with them but it’s at the expense of having something significant to latch onto it’s far less than ideal.
The problem with more action driven storytelling is that there’s very little to actually analyse. Most of what goes on here is in service of moving onto the next scene or placing a particular character in a given situation. The episode is fairly light on characterisation short of a couple of scenes that are worth digging into. The Doctor repeats her assertion that she’s in charge from the previous episode when she orders her companions to leave with the remaining Humans. She goes into a bit more detail as to why she’s giving that order and talks about how reckless she has been with them up to this point. She doesn’t want them to suffer for her mistakes so makes it an order to get to safety. The Doctor seems frantic in this scene as if she’s genuinely concerned that her companions might be killed. It makes sense that she would think this way given that they are under attack by far superior forces bent on hunting Humanity to extinction. In general The Doctor seems more strung out than usual which does support the idea that she’s trying to atone for a mistake she made even if the episode doesn’t play out along those lines.
As is typical of episodes in this era of the show, the companions become separated which gives them the opportunity to show what they’ve learned while travelling with The Doctor in the context of a difficult situation. Yaz and Graham manage to escape Earth with the majority of the remaining survivors while Ryan gets to tag along with The Doctor after being separated from the others. The survivors have all but given up hope because they have witnessed pretty much the entire Human Race be wiped out by a relentless foe so it’s easy to see why they aren’t very optimistic about their chances of survival. Graham and Yaz help them to think a bit more positively and encourage them to try things that might seem hopeless because death is assured if they don’t so it’s worth the risk. Naturally those risks pay off and a little more optimism begins to materialise in the group. Graham even strikes up some chemistry with Ravio (Julie Graham) as they explore their new surroundings.
None of this is especially deep or even all that interesting but it does give a sense that the companions are paying attention to what The Doctor is showing them. Graham is the one promoting a hopeful attitude which prompts Yaz to point that out which suggests that she sees herself as further ahead in tuning into The Doctor’s wavelength and learning how she operates. There’s little to no evidence of this in the episode or anywhere else in the season of her being that way beyond being assertive in certain situations and actively challenging The Doctor but it’s good to see that there is growth being achieved even if it does happen off screen and only becomes evident when appropriate for the plot.
The situation Yaz, Graham and the rest are placed in is far less than ideal as they find themselves on a Cyberman troop carrier filled with countless dormant Cybermen primed for an invasion. To make matters worse Ashad arrives shortly after they do and immediately wakes them up. This leaves the episode on a cliffhanger hinting that Yaz and Graham might be dead which fails to generate any intrigue because they obviously won’t be. The idea of them being trapped on a ship full of the enemy they’re trying to escape and having nowhere to run is a tense setup that certainly generates a sense of jeopardy.
Ryan and The Doctor find themselves on a planet with only one inhabitant by the name of Ko Shamus (Ian McElhinney); an old man burdened with the task of waiting for any survivors to arrive so he can guide them through a wormhole to safety. My first thought is that he would turn out to be an earlier iteration of The Master as his role was eerily similar to Derek Jacobi’s Professor Yana. Thankfully this didn’t turn out to be the case though his appearance is somewhat confusing as his entire existence seems to be built around little more than pointing out that there’s a wormhole nearby. This is only part one of a two part story so there may be more to be revealed about this character.
The end of the episode supports the idea that he’s very much a means to an end. Having Gallifrey appear for The Doctor when the wormhole opens before The Master leaps through it promising that everything is about to change is an effective surprise ending especially when combined with the Cybermen closing in on both the other characters and The Doctor’s current location. The suggestion is that the plot of the next episode will be consumed by The Master’s appearance though it would be odd to introduce a character so late in the episode for him to have no significance.
Ashad returns as the central antagonist to offset the robotic menace bereft of emotion that the Cybermen represent. As with the previous episode he remains appropriately imposing and definitely feels dangerous when on screen. The problem of him lacking in depth still exists though there is a brief attempt to detail his backstory that falls somewhat flat because it plays out as admittedly well delivered exposition. The most frustrating thing is that there is so much potential teased with that backstory to make Ashad a really interesting character. He’s a Cyberman who isn’t a real Cyberman because he is governed by his emotions so can never fit into what he strongly believes in. He talks about being discarded and finding purpose through his uniqueness. In effect he’s self hating because he believes in everything the Cybermen represent but can’t live up to it because he is driven by his emotions. He freely admits this as well but remains no less committed to his cause.
He talks about the Cyberium as if it’s a deity that he worships. It gives him purpose and helps him understand his place in the universe. Being a vessel for the Cyberium has solidified him as a religious fanatic who believes that the universe should bend to the will of the Cybermen. His relentless pursuit of what remains of Humanity is a clear declaration that anything considered to be “other” must be destroyed which factors in with the Nazi appearance earlier in the season. Such extremism is dangerous and shouldn’t be allowed to continue but in this case the Cybermen wield too much power and Ashad can’t be reasoned with because he is simultaneously representative of everything the Cybermen stand for as well as everything they stand against. It’s fascinating and deserved more time to be fully explored.
As if the episode wasn’t busy enough, there were frequent cuts to a seemingly unconnected plot involving a man named Brendan (Evan McCabe among others at different times in his life). What this has to do with the Cybermen plot is unknown at this time but there is a brief chronicle of his life from boyhood to retirement, a scene where he’s shot and falls from a great height only to survive as well as a scene showing his memory being wiped for unknown reasons. It’s probably worth noting that the headset resembles the top of a Cyberman head. My immediate thought is that Brendan might be on Mondas and signify the beginning of the Cyberman race or he could be the Timeless Child. I have to commend the episode for placing a genuinely confusing mystery within the episode by having it appear to be completely unconnected from the main plot. It remains to be seen if it can all be connected in a satisfying way.
A problematic episode that moves too quickly to allow any meaningful connection to the events playing out though does manage to have flashes of brilliance and features an impressively confusing mystery. The first thing that stands out is that the implied consequences of The Doctor’s decision in the previous episode have no bearing on anything that happens in this episode. It’s such a wasted opportunity and deprives much of what happens of any meaning. It’s difficult to analyse this episode because it moves so quickly with no time to actually explore many of the moments. The Doctor ordering her companions to leave in order to keep them safe while being angry at herself for being so reckless with them was a good moment that isn’t necessarily supported by anything else we’ve seen in the series so far. In general The Doctor seems more strung out than usual which does help dial up the urgency. The Doctor and her companions are separated which gives Yaz and Graham the opportunity to be the beacon of optimism that The Doctor usually is. It’s not especially deep or interesting though it does give the guest characters some much needed hope.
The appearance of Ko Shamus so late in the episode is odd given how limited his purpose is. Hopefully he will be more significant in the next one but his appearance here is strange and doesn’t quite fit with the events. The Doctor being shown Gallifrey before The Master appears as the Cybermen close in on everyone else does make for an effective cliffhanger that sets up a lot of promise for the next episode. Ashad remains imposing in his repeat appearance here and there is some attempt to explore his backstory as well as his motivations but it comes across as exposition and has more potential than the episode has time to explore. The idea of Ashad being a religious zealot who will never be accepted by the ideals he lives up to is an interesting one but the episode moves so quickly that nothing is done with it. The scenes featuring a character called Brendan with his life being chronicled from boyhood to retirement with scenes that show him surviving being shot and falling as well as having his memory wiped make for an engaging mystery. They appear completely unconnected to the main plot so we shall see how it all links together in the final episode.
- The Doctor being driven to order her companions to get to safety
- creating extra tension by making The Doctor appear more strung out than usual
- Yaz and Graham giving hope to the hopeless
- an effective cliffhanger ending
- the mysterious seemingly unconnected Brendan plot
- Ashad’s backstory and motivations setting up a compelling antagonist
- the episode moving too quickly for the audience to connect to anything
- very little depth attached to anything that plays out
- Ashad’s interesting backstory and motivations amounting to little more than exposition
- too many guest characters
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