UK TV review: Doctor Who Season 12, Episode 9 (Ascension of the Cybermen)
James R | On 24, Feb 2020
“Inevitable.” That was how Ashad (Patrick O’Kane) described the Cybermen in the episode leading up to Doctor Who Season 12’s finale, and it feels inevitable that the season that began with a bold, ambitious two-parter should climax with a two-parter that echoes its s scale, style and confidnce.
Chris Chibnall’s sophomore run as showrunner has seen him pull out all manner of stops from the TARDIS, giving us not only a new Master but a new take on The Doctor herself – or should that be herselves? So it’s fitting that he should also reinvent the Cybermen to find fresh fear in their familiar metal figures. Initially introducing us to Ashad, a seemingly half-upgraded Cyberman with a human-like tendency to be angry and want revenge, it gives an extra edge – and a disturbingly recognisable ring – to what had once become a faintly asinine and clinical threat. These Cybermen feel as unpredictable as Chibnall’s plotting, right down to their first group onslaught in this episode – a set piece that introduces Cyberdrones, a new form of Cyber-peril that in other hands might silly and funny, but here just feels eerily timely.
“That which is dead can live again,” a voiceover tells us ominously, with a tone that matches its Game of Thrones-esque wording, bringing a real sense of portent to the showdown – a showdown that sees Ashad essentially resurrect an army of Cybermen after they had mostly been wiped out in the great Cyberwar. The bad news? Humankind has almost been wiped out too.
It’s a rare chance to see The Doctor realising, and regretting, the carnage that has unfolded around them. “I’ve been so reckless with you,” she sighs to her fam – Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yaz (Mandip Gill) – and there’s a genuine hint of the time Lord being out of her depth, with efforts to out-wit or out-power Ashad and his followers mostly unsuccessful.
In a season where splitting the fam up has developed their characters and grown our emotional attachment to them, seeing them being split against their will here is really quite alarming, even as they remain resilient and brave. While the other humans we meet – including a nurse, Ravio (Julie Graham), who flirts with Graham – don’t make much of an impression, that only reinforces the sense that this is not a scenario where people last long.
Director Jamie Magnus Stone, who helmed Spyfall, delivers more of the same thrills and panache, while Segun Akinola, who has been excellent all season, brings a chilling line in electro-dustbin clangs and bongs. Throw in some superbly designed Cyberships and a strange human recluse (Ian McElhinney) who amplifies the biblical tones of the script, and you have yourself a mystery that promises scares as well as surprises, as Season 12 prepares to close its circle with a unsettling grin. Ascension the Cybermen? This first of the two-parter is certainly up there with some of the best Nu Who.
Doctor Who Season 12 is available on BBC iPlayer until January 2021.
Doctor’s notebook (spoilers)
– What is Ko Sharmus? It turns out the refuge isn’t a “what” but a “who”, as he watches over “the Boundary”, which is apparently a portal that will sends human across the universe to safety. Can we trust him? The beard and long staff, plus the fact that he stayed behind on Earth to help others, says yes. Everything else about this story and scenario says no.
– Rewinding back to the beginning, what is up with the young abandoned baby, who grows up to be a Garda (police officer) in Ireland – only to apparently survive falling off a cliff and then end up being attached to electrodes in the back office by his dad and his boss? His name’s Brendan, which suggests that he isn’t Ashad, but might he grow up to be Ko Sharmus?
– Ryan and Ethan hijacking a Cybershuttle is one of the best ideas in the episode, as we get to see a new side to Cybertech. Equally haunting is the site of all the Cybermen coming back to life on the other Cybercarrier that Yaz, Graham and the others boarded, thinking it was abandoned. They might be arriving at Ko Sharmus’ hideout come the end credits, but they’re bringing a whole load of troops with them and are surrounded – with The Doctor on the ground, it’s hard to see how all of them will actually make it out alive.
– Speaking of making it out alive, who should pop up but The Master yet again? Sacha Dhawan’s return was perhaps inevitable, as he leaps through the Boundary portal and on to the scorched Earth with a smile. On the other side of the portal? Gallifrey, it seems, completely destroyed. “Be afraid, Doctor,” the Master declares. “Because everything is about to change. For ever.” How will tie in to the Timeless Child we were told about? Is The Master working with the Cybermen?
– There are still lots of unanswered questions, such as the unclear nature of the Cyberium and what exactly it does. But with Season 12’s opening two-parter managing to wrap up its action with an unexpected swagger, the finale episode of this run looks like it has good odds of keeping that standard high.