Nailing the first half of a two-part episode is always tricky. By their very nature, first halves can’t give away too many answers or there would be nothing left to resolve in part two. Yet they also have to do more than just fill time while we wait to get to the fireworks factory. The best first episodes flesh out a world, establish a tone, introduce some juicy mysteries, and—perhaps most importantly—give us guest characters to care about in the second half’s resolution. “Ascension Of The Cybermen” hits one or two of those specifications, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t utilize the two-part structure to its fullest. Instead, an exciting ending and an intriguing side plot do a lot to paper over some otherwise fairly glaring weaknesses.
In fact, “Ascension Of The Cybermen” actually offers a perfect case study in creating an effective first half of a two-part story in the runner about Irish police officer Brendan. In an impressively concise amount of screentime, writer Chris Chibnall and director Jamie Magnus Stone create a unique tone and a fleshed-out world for the mysterious story of an abandoned infant and his life in mid-century Ireland. Brendan enjoys an idyllic childhood with two loving parents, joins the police force, and somehow manages to survive a point blank shooting and a fall off a cliff. When he reaches retirement age, however, his memory is violently wiped by his suspiciously un-aged father and his former police chief boss. While I would’ve loved something just a touch more concrete to hint at how this all ties into the main storyline, it’s a tantalizing (and tantalizingly well told) mystery heading into next week.
The rest of the episode fails to deliver that same mastery of tone, pacing, and specificity, although it at least builds to a solid enough cliffhanger ending. The Doctor and her fam follow Percy Shelley’s coordinates to the far future, where the Cyber Wars have left less than a dozen human survivors and not many remaining Cybermen either. While “lone Cyberman” Ashad wants to use his new connection to the Cyberium to revive the Cybermen and allow the race to ascend to new heights, the human survivors just want to escape the bloodshed altogether. They’re headed towards a mysterious “Boundary” called Ko Sharmus, where rumors suggest they’ll be able to transport out of the galaxy and away from the Cybermen forever.
Unfortunately, “Ascension Of The Cybermen” is so focused on action and exposition that few of the human characters make any kind of impression—neither the ones who survive nor the ones who are quickly killed off. After the Doctor’s attempt to defend a human outpost goes awry, she’s adamant that her companions get as far away from the Cybermen as possible. Since the TARDIS is inexplicably out of play this week, the Doctor, Ryan, and a scrappy teen named Ethan (Matt Carver) hijack a Cybership, while Graham and Yaz wind up on a damaged escape vessel with former nurse Ravio (Julie Graham), pessimistic Yedlarmi (Alex Austin), and a young woman named Bescot (Rhiannon Clements). All these supporting characters barely get names, let alone character traits.
Building on the season-long theme of the companions’ growing independence, Graham and Yaz prove their mettle as the improvise their way to an escape plan involving an abandoned Cyber Carrier. But while I think we’re supposed to be charmed by how far they’ve come (particularly with Graham’s confidence), I found their methods of rallying their fellow survivors to be rather ghastly. Graham continually teases Yedlarmi for being a pessimistic “Eeyore” without considering the fact that he’s speaking to someone who has survived years of warfare and just saw his brother murdered before his eyes in a terrifying Cyberdrone attacks. It’s one thing to inspire someone in dire straights, it’s another to belittle a genocide survivor for not immediately having a “glass half-full” outlook on life.
The 13th Doctor is frequently defined by her empathy, and it’s baffling that her companions show so little of it here. As with Rose Tyler or Clara Oswald, there’s a chance Doctor Who is building to a story about a companion’s hubris going too far, in which case Graham and Yaz’s aggressive can-do spirit might be recontextualized into something bleaker. But I think it’s more so the result of an episode that doesn’t particularly care about its supporting players and therefore didn’t think through the implications of its worldbuilding.
The one supporting player this episode clearly does care about is Ashad, who continues to be just as effective here as he was in “The Haunting Of Villa Diodati.” In their second big face-off, the Doctor immediately zeroes in on Ashad’s central identity crisis: His desire to rebuild the Cyberman Empire is fueled by hatred and anger, even though the core Cybermen ethos is supposed to be to suppress all emotions. He hates himself and yet his connection to the Cyberium has also given him a divine sense of purpose. He’s a Cyberman whose methods make other Cybermen scream, which is a genuinely terrifying concept. Like many an authoritarian leader, Ashad claims he wants to rebuild an old empire when he actually wants to shape a new one in his own image.
Though some of its early ideas are intriguing, “Ascension Of The Cybermen” doesn’t really pick up steam until its final act, when the Doctor, Ryan, and Ethan discover that Ko Sharmus is a person, not a place. Played by Ian McElhinney, he’s a vaguely Moses-esque figure who fought in the Cyber War, escaped the human internment camps, and helped shepherd people through the mysterious Boundary only to stay behind in case more survivors arrived. Given that he tells the Doctor, “You make it sound more noble that it is,” there’s a good chance there’s something more nefarious at play here. (I’m guessing he’s some kind of Cyberman double agent, even if he doesn’t know it.) But before we have time to think too hard about any of that, the Boundary opens up a portal to Gallifrey and the Master hops through to gloat, “Be afraid Doctor. Because everything is about to change forever.”
“Ascension Of The Cybermen” certainly leaves us with no shortage of questions heading into the season finale. (And we’ve still got the Doctor Ruth and Timeless Child mysteries to deal with too!) But its uneven pacing and worldbuilding also makes me nervous about whether that episode—which is also penned by Chibnall—will be able to elegantly wrap it all up. How well “Ascension Of The Cybermen” works will largely be determined by how effectively “The Timeless Children” resolves its various plot threads. That’s just one more set of stakes to add to a finale with sky-high pressure to stick the landing.
- I can’t decide whether Brendan’s electroshock treatment looks more like a Cyberman conversion or a Chameleon Arch disguise. (The fact that he was gifted a clock just beforehand makes me leans toward the latter.) Is he Ashad? Is he Ko Sharmus? Is he an early regeneration of the Doctor or the Master? Is he the Timeless Child? And why is he so calm when his ageless father and boss first show up?
- Also, for a season that’s been very big on defining its locations in bold letters, it’s technically never confirmed that Brendan’s story takes place in Ireland. Is that a clue it’s actually taking place on an alien world done up to look like that locale? Or am I way overthinking things?
- The image of dismembered Cybermen parts floating through space at the site of the final Cyber War battle is very cool, and I love the way the cold open uses it as a transition to the title sequence.
- Some other nice production/visual design details: The Saturn-like ringed planet that appears in the sky above the human outpost and the full-body controls on the Cyberships.
- The equipment that gets destroyed in the Cyberdrone attack includes a neural inhibitor that un-suppresses emotions, a particle projector full of gold, and an explosive forcefield—all tools the Doctor has used to stop the Cybermen in the past. At least she came prepared!
- There’s a slightly flirty dynamic between Graham and Ravio as they explore the abandoned Cyber Carrier.
- When the Boundary opens up to Gallifrey, Ko Sharmus says, “I’ve never seen it look like that before.” I’m not sure if he means it’s never opened up to Gallifrey before or that he’s never seen Gallifrey destroyed before.