Whatever you felt about Doctor Who season 11, you have to admit that “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” was a very weak finale, with the lack of story arc that year and lackluster plotting of the last episode meaning the run ended on a whimper rather than a bang. Season 12 has sported much more serialized storytelling, however, dropping some major twists along the way that have promised a huge, shocking conclusion. The fact that the final story was a two-parter also added to the hype. All this is to say that I had high hopes going into “Ascension of the Cybermen,” but unfortunately I found it rather underwhelming – though it was by no means a failure.
Following on from last week’s “The Haunting of Villa Diodati,” which introduced Ashad the Lone Cyberman from the future, this episode kicks off with the TARDIS team arriving in said future – a dark period where both humanity and cyber-kind have almost wiped themselves out in a great war. The Time Lord and her team quickly befriend a band of survivors but are split apart. The Doctor and Ryan end up with elderly hermit Bo Sharmas, cosplaying Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, while Ryan, Yaz and assorted humans get trapped on a Cyberman carrier ship.
The first half of a two-parter is difficult to nail as you have to deliver an entertaining ride while deliberately holding back all the best stuff until the second half. Here, showrunner and writer Chris Chibnall is arguably reserving too much for the finale which means this hour felt undercooked. As the plot description above makes clear, “Ascension” is a very a simply plotted narrative which means the pace somewhat stops and starts. In some ways, you could say Chibnall did something similar with the two-part season opener “Spyfall,” but that first episode had the benefit of its high-concept spy pastiche premise.
Ashad was a strong presence in last week’s outing, serving as a fascinating Frankenstein’s Monster of a Cyberman who was curiously full of emotion – rage and viciousness, you understand, not love and laughter. He remains front and center in “Ascension,” but frustratingly his character is not deepened all that much. Again, Chibnall appears to be saving it all for next time. Just how is Ashad in charge of the Cybermen when he’s a faulty convert? Surely the other Cybers would either fully upgrade him or just kill him? And the Cyberium A.I., which is much discussed, doesn’t factor at all into the plot. Still, at least we get an army of beautifully redesigned Cybermen by the episode’s end. And those Cyber drone heads were a fun addition to Cyber-lore.
Patrick O’Kane continues to steal the show, though, marking himself out as one of the best villains of this era. Out of this week’s guest cast, Julie Graham is the standout, with her character potentially sharing something with Bradley Walsh’s Graham. What with that and Yaz’s comment that he’s come along way since they started traveling in the TARDIS, it’s looking like he could be on his way out of the show next week. With Ryan potentially also being written out, we could end up with just Yaz, or will the whole fam be wiped out? Surely we’re not going to have more companions killed by the Cybermen?
One of the most fascinating elements of the episode is the subplot which appears to be entirely divorced from the main narrative, in which we fast-forward through the life of an orphan in old-timey Ireland who grows up to be a policeman. The strange thing is he appears to be immortal as he survives a gunshot wound and a great fall. Stranger still is where we leave him – at retirement age, his mentor and father appear as young men and start to wipe his memories. It certainly leaves us a lot to mull over for the next week, but I wonder if maybe Chibnall should’ve dropped the bombshell of what it’s all about this time around, just to add some extra kick to the cliffhanger.
Yes, let’s discuss the episode’s final moments. The Boundary that’s been spoken of is revealed to be a wormhole… to Gallifrey! And, right on cue, out pops Sacha Dhawan’s Master to promise that things are going to get messy. In my review of “Fugitive of the Judoon,” I voiced my concern that blowing the big reveals in the first half of the run would make it tougher to deliver surprises in the finale. Well, that unfortunately came to pass here as “Ascension” was always going to dovetail into the Timeless Child arc by its end as we had been so clearly told that was coming. The interest lies less in the surprise factor, then, but in the logistics of the twist. Why is there a wormhole to Gallifrey on this planet?
Overall, “Ascension of the Cybermen” certainly does its job of putting all the pieces where they need to be on the board to set up an exciting finale. The Master’s back, Gallifrey’s a wormhole-hop away – will the Cybermen invade the planet? – and we’ll presumably get an explanation for whatever the Timeless Child is. And, fingers crossed, a reappearance from Jo Martin’s Doctor. The thing is, though, as an episode on its own terms, “Ascension” doesn’t quite excel, at least in this reviewer’s opinion. But all will be forgiven if Chibnall manages to stick the landing next week.
Don’t miss Doctor Who 12×10 “The Timeless Children” Sunday, March 1st on BBC One/America.