Warning: Contains Spoilers!
“You’ve no home planet, no influence, nothing! You’re just a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking about the galaxy in an ancient spacecraft.” As far back as 1975’s Revenge of the Cybermen, the classic series was purporting the idea that the Doctor’s second greatest enemies were an empire in decline. Unfortunately, it was never followed up on and it would be another seven years before the Cybermen were back in Earthshock; seemingly at full strength in both this and Attack of the Cybermen and then positively glowing in 1988’s Silver Nemesis. From the interesting idea seeded in Tom Baker’s first season, they just went back to being another massed alien horde, fully tooled-up for galactic invasion. The new series has made the most of modern technology to show us the Cybermen in even greater numbers, so I was quite pleased when The Haunting of Villa Diodata introduced us to Ashad the Lone Cyberman and the idea of a cyber-empire brought to its knees, extrapolating the idea that I had always found fascinating from Revenge of the Cybermen.
One of the things that Series 11 sorely lacked was an epic climax. Sure, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos brought the season full circle, but it was almost wilfully low-key, with a tiny cast of characters in an isolated setting. It really made me pine for the overblown climaxes of the Russell T. Davies era; they didn’t always make a whole lot of sense but BY GOD, they were epic! But here we have an old-school climactic 2-parter, complete with classic monsters and the promise that the story is a game changer (a promise that always gets fandom wound up, but they rarely are). Tuning in after the title sequence, you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve switched channels to Drama and caught an old episode of Ballykissangel – that’s a whimsical 90s Irish drama for non-UK readers – as a cyclist in a flat cap finds an abandoned baby in a wicker basket. You can tell that it’s Ireland by the diddly-diddly music, but it could be set in any time from the 20s to the 60s; I’m guessing it’s post-war, as there is no mention of hostilities and the child is seen playing with a toy spitfire at one point. Anyway, the family adopt the little boy who grows up to become a Garda (that’s an Irish policeman).
Elsewhere, the Doctor has followed co-ordinates given to her by Percy Shelley in last week’s episode and travelled to the far future where the last half-dozen survivors of the human race take shelter from their enemies, the Cybermen. However, the equipment that the Doctor has brought proves useless when the Cybermen attack led by Ashad. I’ve got a couple of issues with how the Cybermen are portrayed in these scenes. Firstly, they’ve gone back to the RTD era ‘Cybus’ costumes, rather than the ones that were introduced in Nightmare in Silver and I have to be honest and say I was never a fan; they’re too stompy and robotic, and I could never get away with the flares and the ‘Cyber Speedos’. Also, I thought that the Cyber-Drones being flying Cyberman heads was a bit silly. We would a race as aesthetically practical as the Cybermen choose a design that was so un-aerodynamic? Plus, drones – ugh, so 2019.
The story splits up the TARDIS fam into two groups; the Doctor and Ryan along with a young human survivor called Ethan (Matt Carver) steal one of the Cyber-shuttles, while Graham and Yaz, along with the leader of the survivors Ravio (Julie Graham) and two others Yerdlami (Alex Austin) and Bescot (Rhiannon Clements) escape in a ramshackle spacecraft that they have restored. I quite like the idea of the crew getting split up and travelling in vessels away from the TARDIS; it’s got an almost Dalek Masterplan feel to it. Since the Doctor seems to have had complete control of the TARDIS since somewhere in the middle of the Moffatt era, it’s become a bit too much of an easy out for scriptwriters, so it’s nice to see that option being eliminated from the frame.
The Doctor’s shuttle, pursued by Cybermen, heads for an unnamed planet where a man called Ko Sharmus (Ian McElhinney) is the guardian of a portal through which he’s been helping humans escape from persecution into another universe, while the ramshackle spacecraft containing the others careers out of control into deep space where it encounters a fleet of massive derelict Cyber-ships left over from the war. Seeing boarding these ships as a preferable alternative to dying on their own deteriorating ship, Graham, Yaz and co dock with one of the enormous vessels. I’m not sure how they know that the ship intended for Cybermen contains the oxygen they will need to survive. We’ve had conflicting information about the Cybermen’s need to breath in previous stories; in The Moonbase and The Wheel in Space they move freely through the airless vacuum of space, but in Revenge of the Cybermen we’re told that gold ‘clogs their breathing apparatus and in effect suffocates them’. Somewhere along the line, the whole gold thing seems to have been amended to a general intolerance to the metal.
Ashad and his pair of Cyber-goons follow the humans to the derelict and begin to resurrect the army of Cybermen that they find in cold storage there, resulting in reawakening sequences reminiscent of Tomb of the Cybermen, Earthshock etc. It’s not a proper Cybermen story without a reawakening sequence! The Cybermen have been redesigned for this story and, although the new versions have proved divisive among fans, I personally love them. They have a stocky Revenge of the Cybermen look to them which really appeals to me; as I said before, I never really liked the ‘Cybus’ design and the Nightmare in Silver ones were only a slight improvement. The high cheek-bones and broad shoulders of the RTD era design always makes me think that this is how a Cyberman would looks if you asked an haute couture fashion designer to create one. They’re supposed to be soldiers and the chunky new design goes a long way to redressing that, even if they’ve still retained that unfortunate tendency to STOMP VERY LOUDLY wherever they go.
You might be wondering at this point what happened to that diddly-diddly Irish copper? Well, he went through his career displaying an amazing capacity to survive life-threatening illness and injury, only to have his memory violently wiped on the day of his retirement. There’s no explanation in this episode as to who he was, but it invites you to make assumptions. Is he Ashad? Is he the Doctor? More likely he’s Ko Sharmus, although the fact that the actor playing that character is Irish is a bit too big of a giveaway, so that might be a red herring. The episode ends with Ko Sharmus inviting the Doctor to open the portal that is known as the Boundary, beyond she sees Gallifrey (destroyed, as it was in Spyfall) and then moments later the Master (Sacha Dhawan) comes tumbling out and tells her that everything is about to change.
Ascension of the Cybermen is an enjoyable episode and a worthy start to this climactic 2-parter. Two small gripes I have about it are that it was visually a bit dark; bringing back echoes of the murky Series 11 climax The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, and that Segun Akinola’s music to represent the Cybermen was a bit overpowering at times. I thought we’d seen the last of the domineering musical scores with the departure of Murray Gold, but the banging and clanging that drowned out everything else as the Cybermen emerged from their slumber brought it all flooding back. As I said, those are two minor quibbles and on the whole I thought this was a very good episode. I’m old school enough to be concerned by the implication that the events of episode two of this story will ‘change everything’, but I feel confident that Chris Chibnall, being a fan himself, is also old school enough to know that the fans will lynch him if he interferes too much in the show’s history. Such claims make for really good publicity though and I think that’s the whole point here.
To be concluded…