There’s no denying it’s a classy and confident opening to this archly hyped ‘game-changing’ two-part season finale, even if it does evoke David Lynch’s “Dune” just a little. Falling through the floating cyberman eye into the credits is a lovely move although I have to admit as the titles faded, I thought I’d fallen through a time warp myself or at least nodded off and woken up in the middle of “Call The Midwife” as the much-promised cyberwar seemed poised to kick off in an unexpectedly pastoral setting. What was this, Cyballykissangel?
Things soon took a turn for the futuristic though as we whizzed forward(?) in time to the end of the Cyberwar where the scattered remnants of humanity are struggling to survive against the dwindling forces of the Cybermen although there’s a distinct lack of coherence to what’s actually happened and who won. It’s implied that humanity won, but it must be something of a pyrrhic victory given there’s so few of them left. And then there are indications the Cybermen still have stockpiles of soldiers, ships and weaponry which begs the question how did the humans win? Anyway, we’re in the clumsy grip of a Chibnall narrative so there’s no time for the conventions of cohesive narratives when there’s an abrupt action sequence to stage.
Just who is this Doctor anyway? We’re 19 episodes in and I’m not sure thirteen has much of a defining characteristic to hang the persona on. Here, she seems to be in angry warrior mode, a world away from the reluctant-to-take-up-arms pacifism of her predecessors. No, this time she arrives on a planet where there are seven surviving humans, tooled up and ready to rumble. Only not one of the Doctor’s dutifully described gadgets and gizmos works – even a little – and in coming to help the surviving humans fight, the Doctor delivers no help whatsoever and gets two of them killed in short measure. She then sends her companions off with the rest of the humans to their dangerously derelict spaceship while she stages a ‘distraction’ which also fails miserably as well. It’s a disastrous and utterly out of character sequence of ineptitude from the Doctor that’s only barely masked by the breathless action movie direction of Jamie Magnus Stone.
From there, we have a split narrative as Ryan and The Doctor (and a couple of the survivors) steal a Cybershuttle while Yaz, Graham and the other three humans flee in a genuine flying (and spinning) saucer. Both teams exit pursued by self-styled CyberProphet Ashad who, guided by the Cyberium, is on a crusade to resurrect the Cyber army and lead them to glory. The humans, meanwhile, are desperately trying to reach a world where Ko Shamus awaits, and a fabled portal to another galaxy and safety. Along the way, Team B (Graham, Yaz and others) encounter a dormant cyber battleship, replete with thousands of dormant Cybermen while the A-team of the Doctor and Ryan make it to the portal planet only to discover that Ko Sharmus is a man, and the portal apparently leads to the smouldering ruins of the Timelord Capitol on Gallifrey. As Ashad revives the Cybermen and the Doctor stares dumbfounded at the portal, who should jump through but the grinning swivel-eyed loon himself, The Master. In case you hadn’t heard yet, everything is going to change.
It’s a packed episode alright and threaded through all the Cyber-shenanigans is the ongoing arc of the twee life of Brendan, the abandoned baby from the bucolic beginning of the episode proper. It’s an uncomfortable juxtaposition as neither story – yet – seems to fit organically together, so we can but hope the dichotomy is healed in the following episode and retrospectively it all makes sense.
Indeed, there’s a lot riding on next week’s “The Timeless Children” because for all its verve and style, “The Ascension Of The Cyberman” is largely all mouth slit and no cyber trousers. The dialogue is still incredibly clunky, often repetitious or redundant – “We know where you are. We will find you.” – and, unfortunately, for large parts of the script, Chibnall’s writing requires too many people to be too stupid too often and, unforgivably, this includes The Doctor who is forced to be at her most incompetent and obtuse to facilitate some of the turns this story needs. The Brendan subplot may turn out to be terribly clever next week but here, it’s disruptive to the pacing of the episode and not quite as symbolic as it likes to think it is. If nothing else, Chibnall deserves credit for finally managing to resist having the characters simply announce exactly what is going on for one, even if it is only during the scenes set in the most twee Irish television setting since Janeway and co hung out in Fair Haven.
While we’re still awaiting the promised paradigm-shifting changes promised for next week, the game’s already changed quite considerably when it comes to the Cybermen and its not entirely clear to me that Chibnall gets what makes these Modasian monstrosities so terrifying. In Ashad, the lone cyberman, Chibbers has basically forged his own Cyber-Davros and seems intent on turning the Cybermen into ersatz Daleks. Much of the description of Ashad and the Cybermen – especially by the Doctor – sounds like it was written about the Daleks. The anger, the hatred, the self-loathing, the drive for racial purity and supremacy, they’re all Dalek attributes, not Cybermen. It’s heavily implied the Cybermen will only convert humans, but if they need humans to convert into new Cybermen, why are they so intent on wiping the species out? That’s not cold, emotionless Cyber-logic; that’s hateful Dalek xenocide. It’s almost as if Chibnall had originally written this season finale around the Skaro pepperpots then found out for some reason (budget? Rights?) that he couldn’t use them and so sloppily retrofitted the story and season to bring us a Cybermen two-parter, for the third time in the past five seasons.
There are, of course, some lovely visuals in the episode and I absolutely adore the new mash-up ‘Warrior Class’ cyberman design. But then, of course, I would, I’m an “Earthshock” kid so everything about the awakening of the Cyber army pressed my buttons in this episode. Why was everyone so surprised to see an “Earthshock”-sized brigade of Cybermen on a Cyber War Carrier though? Again, too stupid too often. And Chibnall can’t even resist ruining the absolute visual high point of the episode – the human ship drifting through a debris field of dismembered cybermen – by having someone inside the ship announce what we’ve just seen. Still, I suppose ‘show, then tell’ is at least a step forward from his usual ‘tell not show’ approach. Speaking of telling, the Fam are all getting very cocky, aren’t they? From Graham’s (time?)lording it about on the Cyber Carrier to Ryan offering advice to the guy hotwiring the cybershuttle, like he’d know anything about the technology, it all seems to bode ill for one or more of the Fam. Not that I think Chibnall actually has the bottle to kill his darlings. Oh, he’ll flirt with the idea but I somehow doubt any of them will be leaving the TARDIS in a box, blue or otherwise.
Ultimately, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a Chibnall penned season finale. It’s a little unfair to judge it in isolation but then many of its scenes seem to have been written in isolation so what are you going to do? It’s the usual mixed bag of good ideas, clumsy execution and inconsistent writing which may or may not be redeemed by next week’s ‘game-changer’. Until then, though, it’s a decent, if chaotic, beginning to season twelve’s end.