If it gets worse, I’ll call the doctor.
Not a lot actually happens in World Enough and Time, on a purely technical level. The plot, if you distill it right down, is fairly easy to describe in a sentence or two; it’s not exactly the most involved or convoluted episode Doctor Who has ever done. Rather, it’s much more of a mood piece, a fifty-minute statement of intent: here’s why the Cybermen are scary, this is what’s engaging and compelling about them, this is why they’re going to matter next week. It works – The Doctor Falls benefits a lot from following World Enough and Time, with all the momentum and mounting dread it offers.
Ascension of the Cybermen, then, is Chibnall’s attempt at the same. A lot of this is just part of the DNA of the new series (when do we stop calling it the ‘new’ series, by the way?) two-parters: they’re all chessboard episodes, moving the pieces into position, an hour of set-up ready for next week. Almost invariably, then, they’re difficult to discuss and engage with on their own terms – it’s difficult to talk about Act One without knowing how it’s going to resolve in Act Two. A lot depends on The Timeless Children. Often, I’m inclined to be kinder to the first episode of a two-parter, because of the difficulty in judging them in isolation – but Ascension of the Cybermen shows the limits of that inclination. All this episode does is move pieces into position for next week, an hour of Chibnall spinning wheels. There’s action but not drama, plot but not story; you could pare most of this back to a cold open without really losing anything. (I think the only thing I’d miss is that lovely transition to the title sequence from within the Cyberman’s eye, which is one of my favourite shots of the year.) Often, it feels like the televised equivalent of procrastinating – the extended sequence of the Doctor and the companions setting up and explaining anti Cyberman weapons, only for the Cybermen to shoot at these weapons before the Doctor turned them on, felt particularly egregious.
But then, that illustrates the other, far greater, flaw afflicting Ascension of the Cybermen. When Chris Chibnall sat down to write that scene, he surely wasn’t actually just trying to fill five minutes of screentime, even if it felt that way; the point of that scene was to show off the Cybermen. All your defences are useless: there is nothing you can do to stop them. Much like World Enough and Time, Ascension of the Cybermen is a fifty-minute statement of intent. This is why the Cybermen are scary. But where its predecessor – and, actually, by the way, I’ve criticised Chibnall a few times this year for lifting directly from Russell T Davies’ work, but I cannot imagine what prompted him to want to do a finale with the Cybermen and the Master so soon after Steven Moffat wrote two Cybermen/Master finales that are each among Doctor Who’s best. But, anyway, where World Enough and Time was invested in an almost post-austerity sort of body horror, Ascension of the Cybermen thinks the Cybermen are scary because they’re brutish, sci-fi robots from in a grimy space war. Nothing in Ascension of the Cybermen holds a candle to the nurse turning down the volume dial as a partially converted patient screams in pain – which rather undercuts this grand statement of intent.
To be clear, I enjoyed Ascension of the Cybermen, more than I enjoyed a lot of episodes this year (and across Series 11 too). It’s a cut above a lot of Chibnall-era episodes in terms of sheer competence alone: Yaz gets a nice, decent role; there are a few moments where Jodie Whittaker gets to be angry and frustrated; it’s capably directed, avoiding a lot of the mistakes The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos made even as it indulges in a similar aesthetic. (Plus, there’s a handful of bits where, surely by accident, Chibnall seems to be setting up the idea that Yaz has a crush on Graham, which is just really, really funny.) More to the point, though, it has a certain momentum to it – Chibnall is spinning a lot of plates here, and there’s an intrigue to it borne of not knowing what’s coming next.
But it faltered on rewatch. I can’t imagine Ascension of the Cybermen is going to age especially well; familiarity blunts that momentum, all those big explosions and expensive Cyberman action feeling like little more than a cheap thrill in the end. Up to a point, I suppose that’s just my own lack of patience for Cybermen that are trying so hard they actually have spikes – it doesn’t emphasise any of the concepts I find interesting about them, a reinvention that leaves them feeling generic rather than distinct. Clearly, it worked for some people, but I’d be lying if I said I understood exactly why: few of the action set-pieces made much impression, relying on spectacle that Jamie Magnus Stone proved unable to provide. It’s functional rather than memorable.
What’s frustrating is that when the episode does offer something compelling, it largely languishes in the margins, never given the chance to graduate beyond the peripheral. I noted last week that The Haunting of Villa Diodati “offers an interesting spin on the Cybermen, with this half-converted, Cyber-zealot, it does little to uncouple it from the stompy robot archetype that so often holds them back”; Ascension of the Cybermen, in much the same way, is littered with interesting ideas that never quite cohere. (Incidentally, Ascension of the Cybermen does a relatively poor job of following The Haunting of Villa Diodati on its own terms – why do we need an episode establishing the Cybermen as a significant threat if that was the point of last week? Certainly, it exacerbates the sense that this episode is just procrastinating the finale.)
An almost religious Cyberman is a genuinely interesting idea – not least because of how it might bring them back in line with Kit Pedler’s original idea of the Cybermen as Star Monks. Similarly, Ashad’s voluntary conversion is a neat way to complicate our idea of the Cybermen; his talk of resurrecting a dead empire, alongside his angry outbursts, have an obvious potency. Even the flying Cyberman heads have a germ of an interesting idea to them, actually. After all, if the Cybermen were solely about preserving life, they’d be digital: you’d upload people to the cloud, or something similar. For the Cybermen to exist, on some level there’s got to be a fetishisation of image, of shape – which ties neatly to that idea of reaching for an abandoned imperial past, and my own preferred take on the Cybermen as a sort of forced heteronormative, patriarchal conformity. Of course the Cybermen would use drones with that particular shape! (That said, though, imagine how neat it would’ve been if the Cyberheads didn’t just shoot lasers, but – like in The Pandorica Opens – tried to latch onto and convert the remaining humans.)
Little of that made an impact, though – because, in the end, that’s just not what this story was about.
If, then, there’s not a whole lot to say about this episode – and if I’m still determined to write these reviews in three sections, which I am – then let’s devote some time to speculation. I never really do this, but hey: Ascension of the Cybermen is written essentially as a fifty-minute trailer for next week. I think speculating is exactly what we’re meant to do at this point.
Which brings us to Brendan, the nominally Irish police officer, and the most interesting part of Ascension of the Cybermen. I say “nominally-Irish” because I’m convinced that these scenes aren’t actually taking place in Ireland – rather, they’re on Gallifrey (or at least some sort of visual metaphor for it), the punchline to that old joke about how “Gallifrey is a place in Ireland”. Brendan, I assume, is the Doctor somehow – a policeman, not unlike how the Doctor travels in a police box, “sorting out fair play across the universe”. Brendan being found as a baby is, presumably, how Chibnall intends to reinvent the Doctor’s origins – not a Time Lord, just raised by Time Lords, instead an adopted (Timeless?) child from another world. “Everything you think you know is a lie, Doctor” – you’re not a Time Lord at all. (Is the Master? Dunno – but I do like the idea of him being so invested in the Doctor that he’s treated this as a much bigger, more personal, revelation than it actually is.)
The question that poses in turn – “If not a Time Lord, what is the Doctor?”, or more simply, “Doctor Who?” – is a neat way to turn the series on its head. You can see, suddenly, the dramatic engine of Chibnall’s five-year plan, a sweeping change that offers stories both intimate and epic. It’s the sort of thing Doctor Who should embrace, I think; there’s little benefit to being beholden to decades-old canon if it prevents you from telling new, compelling stories today. Plus, there’s something very neat about Chibnall scrawling over Doctor Who’s mythology with his own ideas in an episode that borrows a key scene from Broadchurch.
Admittedly, the danger is that what’s compelling about these stories is walking up to the line, flirting with the idea of crossing it, indulging in the blasphemy of it – but its rare that these questions might have a satisfactory answer. The Doctor isn’t a Time Lord. She’s a human. She’s a Cyberman. She’s a Timeless Child. She’s half-human on her mother’s side. She’s a Slitheen. She’s something we’ve never heard of before, from a race that… looks human and can regenerate. Hmm. Best case scenario, The Timeless Children is 2020’s answer to The War Games – more likely, it’s going to be akin to The TV Movie, and we’ll all just sort of ignore whatever happens next week the same way we all sort of ignore the half-human thing. (That said, there’s a get out; if Time Lord is a rank, the Doctor can still be a Time Lord but not a Gallifreyan, and a happy ending reclaiming an imperial birthright is… well, we’ll see.) In any case, Doctor Who might be about to quite radically reinvent itself: I’d be lying if I said I thought Chibnall could pull it off.
Equally, I could be entirely wrong – it’s surely not a coincidence that both Ashad and Ko Sharmus are played by Irish actors, after all. Suppose we’ll see!