Last season’s finale, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos”, was one of the worst episodes of post-2005 Doctor Who. Not because it was offensively bad, but because it was completely forgettable. This season, Chris Chibnall instead tried to create big, memorable moments in every story. In “Ascension of the Cybermen”, Chibnall and director Jamie Magnus Stone deliver a fun runaround while killing time before the real finale.
Doctor Who (Series 12)
“Ascension of the Cybermen”
Jamie Magnus Stone (director), Chris Chibnall (writer)
Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, and Mandip Gill (cast)
February 23, 2020
This episode looked beautiful, especially for Doctor Who. Going into Series 11, Chibnall and the BBC cut from 12 to 10 episodes a season, and have been more flexible about playing with the runtime of individual episodes. The superb visual effects here show the direct results of that decision. Chibnall and Stone unveil multiple new Cyberman designs here. Most of them are more polished versions of earlier designs and different combinations of earlier designs, but there is one wholly new idea, flying Cyber heads that hunt down and zap their victims. It’s so obvious and fitting that it’s shocking it’s never been done before. Surely televised Doctor Who didn’t have the effects or the budget to do this until very recently, but this could’ve been done in other media decades ago. Maybe it’s just because the Daleks get all the attention.
This story includes multiple small references to other Cybermen stories from both the new and classic era; these come not only from visual cues, but also in the ways the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her companions (Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, and Bradley Walsh) try to fight back against them. It feels like a fannish love letter from Chibnall.
I did struggle with one specific element of this story’s production of the Cybermen: the sound mixing. While characters are speaking, Cybermen are almost always walking around in either the background or the foreground, stomping loudly. During a couple key moments, I couldn’t make out what people were saying because of the Cyber-stomping. It may seem like a small gripe, but it’s a large problem when the drama takes place in the middle of the “Cyber Wars”.
The Cybermen give the main cast a big spectacle to grapple with, but the more consequential storyline is told in the subplot surrounding a seemingly Irish family. While the main story feels like a big sci-fi action blockbuster, the story of “Brendan” feels like a fable or a fairy tale. It even begins with a Moses or Superman archetypal scene of a young couple finding a baby in the middle of nowhere. This likely holds the key for next week’s episode, whether Brendan turns out to be one of the eponymous “timeless children” or not. His story will likely tie in with the Master’s tale of Gallifrey and even the mysterious Doctor we’ve avoided for half a season now.
Chibnall and Stone carefully construct these scenes to avoid telling us whether this story is set on Earth or not, and give hints here and there towards a Time-Lord-y nature. It looks like the finale will reveal that Gallifreyans and/or Time Lords are descendants of humans, maybe even Gallifrey being a far-future Earth. This is in line with the Tardis crew this season never leaving Earth or humanity. As long as there’s a narrative reason for it, this won’t bother me. It doesn’t have to tie into decades-old continuity (and it won’t), but as long as it offers a good dramatic turn for the main characters and this story, I’ll consider it well-earned.
The Master’s (Sacha Dhawan) return and Gallifrey’s reveal in the final moments frustrated me. We already knew they were coming back, not just from a production or trailer standpoint, but it’s obvious narratively. They’re in the opener, so they’ll be in the finale; what kind of a cliffhanger is that? And then The Master promises that “everything will change” but doesn’t give us any actual information to chew on. It feels weak and lazy and left me wanting more, but maybe that’s what part one of a two-parter should be? And maybe “Ascension of the Cybermen” does exactly what it should do.