Doctor Who: 12.09 Ascension of the Cybermen
After last series' damp squib of a finale, series 12 has gone for an epic two-part conclusion in the style of Russel T Davies' big showstopping finales. Ascension of the Cybermen was a big episode, building off the threat of the Lone Cyberman from last week and plunging the Doctor and her companions into the far future where humanity was hanging on by a thread after a devastating Cyber war.
The episode plunged the audience straight into the action, as the Doctor, Graham, Yaz and Ryan raced to stop a group of bedraggled survivors from being slaughtered in a Cybermen attack. From the start it was pretty grim viewing; humans picked off one by one, Graham and Yaz separated on a lifeboat vessel, leaving the Doctor, Ryan and Ethan (Matt Carver), whose skills and quick thinking set him up nicely as a potential new companion should a bloodbath befall the existing TARDIS family next week.
Talking of which, both Graham and Yaz are contenders for the axe after this week's cliffhanger. Particularly Graham. Yaz's remarks about how far he had come were certain to ring alarm bells; there was a strong connection to Julie Graham's Ravio, working together on the powered down Cyberman ship; I can't help but feel her fate is tied to his. Yaz meanwhile, continues to prove herself this series, this time whipping up the survivors to find a way of their doomed lifeboat vessel and inspiring Yedlarmi (Alex Austin) and Bescot (Rhiannon Clements) to pilot the Cybermen vessel to safety. This isn't the first time we've seen her play Doctor and I'm convinced the finale will either see her prove her worth as a leader or die trying.
Ryan does feel the one left out here, separated from Graham and Yaz and then playing second fiddle to Ethan. When we have a boat load of good guest characters, Doctor Who can struggle with three separate companions, though this episode works better than others, even if it is just Yaz that makes any difference narrative speaking. As for the Doctor herself, gone is the sense of wonder, replaced by a grim forbidding as she realises she has put her companions in grave danger. Her actions last week aren't really addressed her sadly, but there is a sense of her becoming a one woman crusade against the insurmountable odds.
Patrick O'Kane's damaged, emotional lone Cyberman Ashad continues to be a formidable villain, a threat that continues to hound the Doctor and all those around her. Giving character and personal motivation really elevates the Cybermen beyond just being an unstoppable threat, and this episode really shows them at their most terrible. It does feel a little too grim; the idea of humanity all but wiped out by the cybernetic race offers a bleak look at the future, but this episode shows how successful they can be as a villain, particularly when spearheaded by O'Kane's menacing pursuit of humanity.
I loved the fusion of 80s and modern Cybermen in the new design. The Cyber drones less so. Floating heads? It was the one naff element in an otherwise strong, relentless episode. There were also some nice call backs to old Cybermen defeats - gold, overloading emotional circuits - both of which the Doctor planned to use and were quickly destroyed. A nice touch from Chris Chibnall.
And then we had Brendan. I had to wonder if BBC One had slipped ahead an hour to Call The Midwife with a completely disconnected storyline surrounding the discovery of a small baby boy raised in a village community and becoming a police officer. It wasnt until we jumped to his retirement and suddenly his dad and commanding officer hadn't aged that the sci-fi elements really kicked in. And the small matter of surviving a gunshot wound and fall off a cliff. I was waiting for the big hook to tie into the Cybermen threat that didn't come. My money is on Brendan being the Lone Cyberman. But it seems we're not getting any answers on that until next week's finale.
Ascension of the Cybermen also set up the finale in dramatic fashion with a myriad of cliffhangers. The Lone Cyberman infected the dormant Cybermen with the Cyberiad while Graham, Yaz, Ravio, Yedlarmi and Bescot faced certain death onboard the Cyberman ship. But it was the encounter with Ian McElinney's Ko Shamus on the distant planet that yielded the biggest surprises. Not only did the portal lead to ruined Gallifrey, but the return of the Master was another bold moment - not unexpected but completely welcome. All we needed was Jo Martin's Doctor and the return of Captain Jack and it would have been a full house.
Ascension of the Cybermen was a bold, if somewhat grim start to the two-part finale of series 12. The stakes have certainly been raised and I'm not convinced everyone is going to make it out alive. The story's success will be measured by how well Chibnall ties up all the loose threads - and he had plenty to tie up.