Ascension of the Cybermen

Posted in Episode by - February 24, 2020
Ascension of the Cybermen

Aired 23 February 2020

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Following the chilling events at Villa Diodati, the Doctor and her friends determinedly follow Percy Shelley’s coordinates to the grim aftermath of the Great Cyberwars and the final bastion of humanity struggling to survive as the Chris Chibnall-penned two-part series finale begins with ‘Ascension of the Cybermen.’

With the promise of the threat of the Cybermen, the warnings of the Master, and the mysteries of the Timeless Child and Gallifrey all manifesting at some point during this serial, ‘Ascension of the Cybermen’ rather surprisingly dedicates a decent portion of its running time to a more intimate side plot set in rural Ireland. Opening with a farmer finding an abandoned infant in a basket on the road, periodic segments interspersed with the Cyber action reveal the eventual story of Brendan’s life as he is officially adopted, goes to school, and becomes part of the local police force. While perhaps steeped a bit too heavily in Irish stereotypes and more disjointed than similar initially disparate threads like in ‘Silence in the Library,’ this more gradual introduction to the well-intentioned Brendan is nonetheless effective, and the mystery surrounding his survival without harm after being shot and falling from a cliff is an intriguing hook that leads into the altogether more shocking cliffhanger in which his father and friend who have not aged connect him to a machine on the day of his retirement and warn him he will forget everything he knows. Whether a Cyberman in some sort of artificial world during or after conversion to cope, one of the Timeless Children who remain an unknown quantity to this point, a version of Ko Sharmus, or something altogether different, this storyline has the potential to have immense payoff and at least here serves as something of a respite from the grim struggle for survival happening elsewhere.

Chibnall, of course, is incredibly familiar with the Cybermen in all of their various iterations, and it’s refreshing to see the Doctor at least attempt to set up defenses using the various weakness that have been discovered over the years. That these defenses are so easily cast aside by drones that add an entirely new element to the Cyberman threat is terrifying, and their incredible mobility and power by themselves highlight just how desperate humans must have become as the battles continued on ever more. However, whereas Ashad as the Lone Cyberman who retains his emotions was a mesmerizing presence in the preceding episode, his necessary inclusion here does somewhat muddle the overall threat of the Cybermen. To his credit, Ashad very directly admits that he is in constant conflict with himself because of the very emotions he retains that are so abhorrent to the Cyberman race he so zealously wanted to join, but having such a dynamic leader in front of an army of creatures who are so terrifying precisely because of the forced means of personality erasure they represent does sacrifice some of the core identity of the Cybermen, at least in this episode. Indeed, with no actual threat of conversion or the body horror that the Cybermen generally represent, it’s the setting and iconography that make their dangerous presence all the more effective.

While the fact that both humans and Cybermen are already near the point of extinction here does rather undermine the Doctor’s grim declaration previously that the genocide would be her fault, it effectively raises the stakes and emotional investment as the team gets split up while attempting to make it to the Boundary that reports say houses a wormhole that allows humans an escape to random points throughout the universe. But as Ashad awakens a newfound army of activated Cybermen once he reaches his quarry, this calls into question why the Cybermen and Cyberdrones were so eager to shoot down humans rather than convert them since their numbers are purportedly so low and why the Cybermen did not check their own wrecked ships for potential survivors to add to their cause. ‘Ascension of the Cybermen’ unquestionably uses narrative convenience to enhance the drama and spectacle, but fortunately the drama and spectacle are well worth it as all roads lead to the Boundary and the manifestation of Gallifrey on its other side. While neither the Cybermen nor humans have relied on anything more than luck to this point, asking what the Cyberium truly allows, the questions that each of the plot strands raise that reach a climax as the Master appears with an ominous warning in what is surely a purposeful mirror to the ‘Spyfall Part One’ cliffhanger successfully make up for some of the gaps in logic shown to this point. With the core cast on top form as the stakes continue to increase, ‘Ascension of the Cybermen’ more than capably sets the scene for what promises to be a game-changing finale even if it doesn’t quite capitalize on the genuine intrigue Ashad presented during his introductory episode.

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