Doctor Who review: “Ascension of the Cybermen” tries to do too much

Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor - Doctor Who _ Season 12, Episode 9 - Photo Credit: Ben Blackall/BBC Studios/BBC America
Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor - Doctor Who _ Season 12, Episode 9 - Photo Credit: Ben Blackall/BBC Studios/BBC America /

“Ascension of the Cybermen” sets up a lot of questions that Doctor Who may not be able to answer with just one episode to go in season 12.

As a microcosm of Doctor Who season 12, “Ascension of the Cyberman” is a great example of what’s been both wonderful and endlessly frustrating about this year’s set of episodes. On the plus side, it’s action packed, taking big swings with complicated stories, epic battle scenes, a mysterious new character and the returns of both Gallifrey and the Master (again).

Unfortunately, it’s also an hour that’s entirely too crowded, jammed with so many storylines that nothing has time to breathe or develop. Which is a problem not just for this episode, but the finale that follows next week. Because I’m not convinced there is any way that, with just one hour to go, the show can possibly pay off all these plot threads in a way that feels satisfactory.

To be fair, it’s difficult to truly rate this episode on its own merits, simply because it’s the first half of a two-parter. “Ascension of the Cyberman” is only worth our time if “The Timeless Children” manages to effectively wrap up its outstanding story beats next week. And at the moment we just don’t know whether that will – or even can – happen. Because although this particular installment did continue the tale of Ashad and the Cyberman that began with last week’s Mary Shelley adventure, it also introduced a raft of new characters and concepts, most of which we’ve had precious little time to get to know.

(Can anyone name more than one of the random group of human refugees? Anyone other than the one Graham flirts with a bit? Yeah.)

As the hour begins, the Doctor and friends travel to the coordinates Shelley kept scribbling on his walls, a date that turns out to be in the far future, when the last vestiges of the human race have nearly been wiped out. Given how eager Thirteen was to blame herself for the fallout from her decision to hand the Cyberium over to the Cybermen, it seems as though her decision had little impact in this moment. (So why did Jack not want her to hand it over, then?) Most of humanity has already been destroyed, and less than a dozen people appear to remain alive.

The visuals of this installment are quite stunning, it must be said – including everything from a big-screen cinematic battle between our human refugees and a fleet of Cyberdrones to a creepy sequence in which a stolen transport vessel drifts through a vast floating field of dismembered Cyberman body pats. As villains, the Cybermen are largely the same – faceless, disturbing and relentless, save Ashad, who continues to be the most intriguing bit of the story.

Because, at the end of the day, he’s a monster that doesn’t just hate everyone else – he despises himself as well. Ashad is a Cyberman who still feels human emotions like rage, yet he’s the driving force behind the attempt to rebuild an empire whose primary ethos is that it’s members must feel nothing. He’s a zealot and true believer that the very ideology he espouses would straight out reject. And, as such, his story is one that deserves to be told in….well, let’s just say in a way that doesn’t focus primarily on Cybermen chasing various ships and people across the galaxy, but Doctor Who doesn’t really have time to give Ashad’s journey the depth it deserves.

Or do they? Elsewhere, the episode weaves in the tale of a lost child named Brendan into the mix, with no real explanation for his presence. He’s found in the lane by a local Irish family and grows up in what appears to be a fairly typical childhood. Until it’s revealed that Brendan, apparently, can’t die and is being experimented on in some way by several of his relatives, who haven’t aged, despite the fact that many decades have passed since we last saw them.

Doctor Who has used these sort of cutaway B-plots in the past to further illuminate larger arcs or provide more context within a given episode. But the entirety of the Brenden scenes feel as though they come out of nowhere or are, perhaps, happening on a different show. My best guess is that Brendan either grows up to become Ashad, or he’s actually Ko Sharma, a strange mystical hermit figure who guards a mysterious gateway known as the Boundary.

The show doesn’t tell us, and its various clues are conflicting – the headgear Brendan is forced into during his torture and mind wipe look like the Cyberman’s famous headphones-shaped helmet, but his immortality certainly feels a better fit with the world-weary Ko Sharma who’s so eager to risk his physical safety to help others. Had this series of flashbacks not existed, I’m not sure I would have questioned or cared about who Ko Sharma is really, other than the fact that he’s apparently been sitting on a portal to Gallifrey, but….here we are.

Yes, The Boundary opens into the Time Lords’ destroyed homeworld. The Master pops through, because of course he does, and if you’re harboring any delusions that Doctor Who will tell us how he escaped the Kasavins I’d advise you to just let it go now. Apparently on top of the Cybermen/Brendan/Ko Sharma/Graham and Yaz’s near-death experience situation going on, we’ve got to throw in a little bit more about whatever mysterious secret the Master was on about back in the season premiere.

I’m already tired, y’all.

Kidding, kidding. I’m mostly excited, because these are answers I really do want to know. I just…I’m so nervous about the show’s ability to fit all these answers into a single episode and have it all feel like a satisfying, complete arc. How will Graham and Yaz save the day? Are the Timeless Children the humans that passed through the Boundary into Gallifrey? Why is Brendan immortal? Did he become a Cyberman? What happened to make the Master destroy Gallifrey? Are Time Lords actually part human?

Maybe we’ll find out next week. Fingers crossed.

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Doctor Who season 12 concludes next Sunday at 8pm on BBC America.