***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***
This episode is a very exciting first part of the two-part season finale, but it’s also something of a mixed bag. I liked it, but there are a few things that didn’t work for me. Let’s start with the things I liked.
The Cybermen are back! It’s always fun to see one of Doctor Who‘s greatest and longest-running foes (the first Cyberman episode aired back in 1966!) show up again, but what makes “Ascension of the Cybermen” so much fun is that it’s not your run-of-the-mill Cybermen story. The action takes us to the end of the Cyber Wars, when there are very few Cybermen left (and very few humans, too). What we get are Ashad, the half-converted Cyber zealot who was introduced in the last episode with a total allegiance to the idea of rebuilding the Cyber empire, and two beat up old Cyberguards, and they’re still enough to pose an enormous threat to the human survivors!
In fact, everything having to do with the Cyber Wars is what lifts this episode above others of its kind. There’s a great scene of what is essentially a space graveyard, with hundreds of dead Cybermen (and loose parts) floating in space near the wreckage of one of their biggest battles. It’s a striking image, and one that will stay with me for a long time. I was also very pleased to see classic series-style Cybermen among the revival-style Cybermen on the troop carrier. The scene toward the end with all the Cybermen awakened from their “tombs” and marching through the corridors of the ship strongly reminded me of a similar scene in the 1982 Fifth Doctor serial “Earthshock” in which awakened Cybermen march out of the hold of a space freighter toward the bridge.
One interesting bit of information we learn is that human survivors have been escaping through the Boundary, a wormhole to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, or perhaps beyond, where the Cybermen can’t follow them. I have to admit, for most of the episode I assumed it was going to be a Logan’s Run situation where the Boundary is actually a trap and everyone who goes there winds up dead! The Boundary is guarded by a lone, older, wizard-looking human named Ko Sharmus, who keeps telling the Doctor to walk closer to the water’s edge to activate the Boundary. I thought for sure Ko Sharmus was going to spring a trap and possibly reveal that he has survived all this time through cannibalism. It didn’t happen that way, and I’m glad because the actual reveal — and the episode’s excellent cliffhanger that made me want to watch the next episode immediately — is that the Boundary appears to lead to Gallifrey!
And of course, out pops the Master, who has obviously escaped from the Kasaavin in the way the Master always escapes his fate. So what does all this have to do with the Timeless Child and the Master’s destruction of Gallifrey (and maybe even Doctor Ruth)? We’re about to find out. Next episode now, please!
I mentioned “Ascension of the Cybermen” is a mixed bag, and indeed there are a few things I didn’t like. The Cyber Drones, which are basically just flying Cyberman heads that can shoot lasers, are the stupidest-looking things I’ve seen on Doctor Who since the Dalek agents that suddenly sprouted Dalek eyestalks out of their foreheads. The idea of Cyber Drones is a good one, and could have been a chance to show how Cybermats — small, rodent-like machines the Cybermen use to infiltrate their targets, which first appeared in the 1967 Second Doctor serial “Tomb of the Cybermen,” and later as the updated Cybermites in the 2013 Eleventh Doctor episode “Nightmare in Silver” — have evolved into something new and more destructive. Instead we just get flying heads, which made me groan rather than worry.
When the survivors’ dying gravraft (great name!) makes one last thruster push in order to make it to another ship in the space graveyard, they don’t appear to have much control over where they’re going, but instead of crashing haphazardly into the side of the ship the gravraft flies right into its perfectly-sized docking bay with the ease of a puck sliding into the goal in air hockey. It was lazy writing and could easily have been fixed with a two-second scene showing one of them desperately trying to pilot the gravraft into the dock instead of crashing it. (And it came as zero surprise to me that the ship was actually a fully-stocked Cyber troop carrier, but that’s probably because I’m a jaded lifelong Doctor Who viewer.)
I wondered what Ashad was doing when he and his two Cyberguards go after the sleeping Cybermen in the troop carrier with what appear to be buzz saws. Afterward I figured this is how he reprogrammed them to follow his orders, but it struck me as a strange way to go about it. Wasn’t there some computer he could tinker with instead? How does cutting into them like that help reprogram them, unless he just needed to switch some wires around? (One theory is that he isn’t reprogramming them, he’s cutting out their emotional inhibitors, but there’s no evidence of this, at least not in this episode.)
What was up with Brendan, the abandoned baby who grows up in 1950s Ireland to become a policeman? Why doesn’t that robber’s bullet kill him? I had several theories as I watched the episode: Brendan is the Master reborn after Missy’s death. Brendan is Ashad. Brendan is the Timeless Child. None of them seem to be accurate, especially in light of that final scene with an older Brendan retiring from the force and being greeted by his somehow unaged father and boss who proceed to forcibly mind-wipe him with a device that looked sort of like a Chameleon Arch, but maybe isn’t? (Alexa’s theory is that Brendan is actually a Cyberman, that 1950s Ireland is his dream while he’s in stasis, and that the mind-wipe is Ashad reprogramming him before waking him. It’s as good a theory as any!)
And now for some Doctor Who neepery! At the refugee outpost, Yaz sets up a particle projector to spray gold dust at the Cybermen, claiming that they’re allergic to it. This is a reference to something that was first mentioned in the 1975 Fourth Doctor serial “Revenge of the Cybermen,” in which we learn Voga, the Planet of Gold, was instrumental in winning the Cyber Wars by discovering gold dust choked Cybermen’s respiratory systems. Gold is used as the Cybermen’s weakness in every classic-series appearance after that. The Doctor offers Ryan a humbug out of a paper bag for his motion sickness. While certainly reminiscent of the Doctor offering people jelly babies out of a similar paper bag throughout the classic series, mostly during the Fourth Doctor’s tenure, it should be noted that the Fourth Doctor did once offer a humbug to someone instead of a jelly baby in the 1977 serial “The Sun Makers.” (I had to look that one up. I’m nerdy, but not that nerdy!)
Really looking forward to the next episode, promisingly titled “The Timeless Children”!