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Doctor Who: Ascension of the Cybermen

"If it gets worse, I'll call the doctor."

Both Doctor Who and the Doctor make some brave choices in part one of the big two-part season finale.

Hands up, everyone who was expecting that this episode would close with a big reveal as to who or what Brendan was and what exactly his whole Masterpiece Theater life story had to do with the Cybermen.

Yeah, me too.

Having mulled about it for a good hour or so now, I think I like that they didn't. I think I really, really like that they didn't.

Look, having an episode that leaves the viewer confused isn't necessarily a bad thing. The trick is that you have to make it very clear that you are deliberately leaving the viewer confused. When done well, that's the exact thing that used to lead generations of British schoolchildren to spend a solid week between episodes on the school playground anxiously debating, theorizing, and violently disagreeing. That's what 'trending' was, back when human interaction was a thing.

So the fact that they opened with a completely unknown man finding baby Brendan, then regularly interrupted the Cyber-goings-on to show us fragments from Brendan's entire life story, then ended the episode without even the slightest hint as to what any of that had to do with anything, worked for me. It worked because they made very, very sure that we knew they were doing it on purpose by ending the storyline with a rapid sequence of increasingly bizarre events that seemed designed to be as disorienting as possible.

And now we get to spend an entire week mulling, as I have been doing for the last good hour, about what any of that could possibly mean. Did Brendan understand what the Hell was happening to him? He didn't seem to fight getting into the chair at all, but he did look a little puzzled. Were they wiping his memory? How did I not notice that the Dad and the helpful cop hadn't been aging all this time? Was this all inside some kind of simulacrum? Is that why getting shot and dropped off a cliff didn't harm Brendan at all? Is Brendan Irish Superman? Should we be calling him 'Eirinn-El'?

There's a delight in having a big pile of clues with no concession to the solution left neatly for us to chew on all week long. I can guarantee you that I'll be laying in bed tonight turning over all the possibilities in my mind. And I really love that. The main clue as far as I can see is that everyone in that storyline behaved as if they believed themselves to be exactly what they seemed to be. Dad seemed happy to adopt Brendan. The thief seemed honestly afraid of Brendan arresting him. If it wasn't all 'real' as presented, then everyone certainly seemed to believe it was. Even the helpful cop seemed genuinely surprised by the discovery of the baby. What could that mean?

I must have enjoyed that plotline a lot, because look how long it's taken me to get around to even mentioning the Doctor and the 'Fam'.

Every Cyberman story for the last ten years has had the same basic brief. 'Try to make the Cybermen scary again.' Here they mostly succeeded. They really only made one mistake. The cinematography and sound design were both on point, working overtime to slather atmosphere of dread all over everything. That worked great. They pulled the time honored trick of making the enemy scary by showing the usually unflappable hero being afraid of them. Check. And honestly, the way that they've slowly been unraveling this Doctor's level of cheerful unflappability over this season has been a big plus. I really enjoy the way that Jodie does cheerful optimism, but her increasing tendency to become snappish and withdrawn as the season has worn on has really given some depth to her characterization.

Then they play the bonus card of deliberately reminding us of the previously established 'weaknesses' of the Cybermen from earlier stories so that they could show these new ones being totally unaffected and mowing them down. I liked that detail a lot, but I wish they'd included nail polish remover on the list. Yes, that was a thing that really happened. The 60s were a strange time.

They've got all that working. The sense of menace about imminent cybermen was at an all time high. And then the stupid floating heads came buzzing over the horizon and nearly ruined the whole thing. Seriously, the flying Cybermen heads were the worst. They made no sense as drones, the CGI of them was frankly a little poor, and it looked stupid. I am not a fan of the heads.

Fortunately, they showed up early and didn't stay long, so I'm willing to forgive them. In no small part because they later went on an extended tribute to 'Earthshock' and finally gave me the giant disco earmuff Cybermen of the 80s that I've always hoped we'd one day see again. That made me happier than I should admit.

I do also want to mention that as with last episode, the visuals were gorgeous. The DP did an amazing job. The cramped spaces felt cramped, the vast spaces felt properly vast, and it all looked sumptuous on screen.

Bits and Pieces:

-- That opening crawl through the cyber-debris ending in the credits being revealed through the cyber eye socket was amazing. I liked that a lot.

-- I thought maybe Brendan was going to get harvested by Cybermen after falling from the cliff and become the new angry Cyberman, but then I remembered that we already knew that his name was Ashad, and that he'd killed his own kids for joining the resistance, so he's probably from the future.

-- The implication is that the Cybermen were almost entirely destroyed, but that Ashad was a 'believer' who could help them ascend again. Ashad apparently volunteered to be converted, but for whatever reason they stopped part way and rejected him.

-- What the Hell was Ashad torturing that first Cyberman all about? Was that the previous leader and he was putting him out of the way? Was he just trying to look badass for the other Cybermen? What was going on there?

-- If the rest of the Cybermen were almost all destroyed, where did Ashad get his backup dancers and all the flying heads?

-- The attack scene of the Cybermen descending on the survivors was shot with a very 'war film' aesthetic. Hand held, shaky cam, quick cuts, that sort of thing. They did this because our brains have been trained to interpret those visual cues as 'overwhelming threat is attacking.'  It's another trick to make the Cybermen feel frightening.

-- This, as long as we're talking film language, is also why the escaping humans were running toward the escape ship from the right side of the screen toward the left. Western media is conditioned to view things from left to right because that's the way we read. Therefore, anyone moving from left to right is instinctively understood as being powerful and proceeding with force. Usually the implication is that they're also the 'good' guys. Anyone moving from right to left is instinctively felt to be either the enemy or struggling in some way. The journey to safety feels more difficult if they're running the 'wrong' way. You will never not be aware of that again in any movie with a battle sequence.

-- Graham and Yaz make a nice team. They're a less common pairing among the current crew. Their plan to blow the gravraft into the docking bay was both clever and fun.

-- Ashad said that the death of everything was in him. That can't mean anything good.

-- So did all the remaining humans go to Gallifrey, or is it a different destination every time? The dialogue on that point was a little vague. Ko said it had never looked like Gallifrey before. Please, God, don't let the reveal be that the Time Lords are all descended from those escaping humans. That would be stupid.


Yaz: "Cybermen are allergic to gold, right?"
Ravio: "I did hear that once."

Ashad: "Spread my message. Tell them: Be afraid."

The Doctor: "I used to hotwire warp drives for fun on the weekend as a teenager -- not that we had weekends. Or teenagers. Basically, I used to do this a lot and people got mad. But now it's gonna save all our lives, so who was right all along and is now the real winner?"

Ashad: "Yes. You are correct."
The Doctor: "Oh. Am I? I didn't expect you to take it that well."

Graham: "We're still alive."
Bescot: "Give it time."

Bescot: "That could work."
Graham: "Oh, careful son. You sounded slightly positive there for a sec."

The atmosphere, bar the occasional flying head, was all great. It looked wonderful. And I'm left with a lot of interesting questions to think about. I could have lived without the last second reappearance of the Master, but it wasn't a deal breaker.

Most of all, though, this episode made a really brave choice in not giving us any answers, and I have a lot of respect for brave choices.

Ten out of thirteen Doctors.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.


  1. I believe the mystery scenes have something to do with what the Master has been going on about - i.e., I think they represent some kind of experiments or atrocities carried out by the Time Lords. Maybe Brendan is the "Timeless Child"? The problem is, none of this looks any worse than things we (and the Doctor, and the Master) already know the Time Lords have done, so it doesn't seem like much of a justification for destroying Gallifrey.

  2. Is anyone else really tired of Cybermen? (And Daleks, for that matter?) They were interesting the first few times they were on the NuWho but isn't it time to retire them for good? At least they're trying to do something new with them here, but I'd much rather see a whole new villain than Cybermen for the umpteenth time.


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