Wednesday 26 February 2020

WHO REVIEW: 12-9 - Ascension of the Cybermen

I don't usually review part ones, but this one was a bit of an event. You might say that this season has been a little cynical, in that is has piled shock upon twist to keep people talking about the series. But hell, it's worked; there's a sense of engagement and excitement about this season that was missing from series eleven. This is an episode that's designed to keep viewers guessing all the way through, but unlike most times the series has tried this, there are absolutely no answers on offer.

Some fans have compared this to "Utopia," what with the surprise appearance of the Master, the threat to all humanity and the (implied) Time Lords in disguise, but the closest episode in terms of structure is "Silence in the Library." Both that and the gloriously-titled "Ascension of the Cybermen" run with two seemingly unrelated parallel plots, one of which is sic-fi shenanigans and the other seemingly in a familiar, Earthly setting. Only in "Silence in the Library," there were at least hints that the little girl in her front room and the events in the Library were somehow linked.

But this? There's virtually nothing in the story of Brendan that suggests any kind of link with the Cyber-assault on the last survivors of humanity. Naturally, we're desperately looking for links there, and there has to be something, but we're clutching at straws. I think it's pretty obvious that Brendan is the Timeless Child, or one of them at least, but what that actually means is anyone's guess.

With all the speculation, it's easy to miss just how good this episode is. It's a fast-paced, storming adventure that really pushes the Doctor and the fam into a desperate situation. Whittaker is at her best when the Doctor is against the wall, and while she misreads some lines (there are a couple of times that she delivers a line earnestly when it was surely meant to be off-the-cuff), for the most part she plays the desperate Doctor well. It's quite right that the Doctor is guilty for bringing her companions into this situation; at least previously, when she came up against the Cybermen it was accidental. (Although the Doctor did take Bill right into a Dalek fight once to try to shake off a puddle, but that worked out OK.)

Bradley Walsh is at his best as Graham, perfectly balancing the ordinary bloke with the hardened TARDIS traveller. Mandip Gill is great as Yaz now that she actually has something to do with the character, although I fear Yaz's new-found cockiness and deliberate Doctorishness is going to get her killed. Ryan... well, I can't say anything bad about Tosin Cole this episode, but he doesn't get much to do. Even his regular role of bonding with the guest characters is reduced here. Still, there's a lot going on, and maybe he'll have a bigger role next time.

Splitting the fam up into two teams is by far the best thing for the script, giving the guest cast some room to actually have characters without completely swamping the regulars. They're broadly drawn characters, but they're recognisable, believable ones. I was a little underwhelmed by Julie Graham, who's normally very good, but I particularly liked Steve Toussaint as the de facto leader of humanity.

The Cybermen, though. The Cybermen absolutely rock in this episode. "Rise of the Cybermen" tried to reinvent the Cybermen with a Davros-type character, and it didn't really work, so they've been mostly faceless since (with a sort-of exception of Miss Hartigan in "The Next Doctor.") Ashad works as both a formidable monster and as an inverted Cyberman, leading them while being apart from them by his nature. Indeed, the parallels with Davros are clear when you look at them. While they're personalities and appearances are poles apart, they are both drawn up as half-human/half-classic monster, determined to bring their chosen monster race to superiority. Patrick O'Kane has a genuinely threatening presence in the episode, the kind of relentless power that Tim Shaw could only dream of.

Worn out, rusting Cybermen are always good for a creepy but dangerous foe, but it's the new variants of the Cybermen that work best here. Having multiple versions knocking around at the end of a war makes sense, even if the Cyber Empire doesn't look as defeated as it's made out to be. The Cyber-drones are a great idea - are there heads inside those or are they just robotic? - but ti would have been great to see them dropping down onto people to convert them. Indeed, for all the talk of conversion, the Cybermen here seem mostly out to simply "delete" humanity, which is going to leave them in a pretty pickle once they realise they've wiped out their main resource. The new warrior-class Cybermen look fantastic, a perfect halfway point between the modern era versions and the classic designs. The faces have a look of the versions that appeared in 1968's The Invasion, which would then influence the 1975 version and, to a lesser extent, the '80s versions. These guys are just spot on.

The fact that the Boundary wormhole leads to Gallifrey is the one predictable element of the episode, but that's fine. A touch of predictability is fun, and we were all waiting for the Master and the Time Lords to show up. Sacha Dhawan's sudden appearance was positioned less as a surprise than as an, "Oh, there he is."

Brendan, though. The credits are a bit ambiguous and I'm not sure which Brendan actor is being listed, but they all make the nice policeman into a likeable and sympathetic character through very little screentime. The final attack on him, by what seems to be his adoptive father and police superior, is really upsetting. At first, I presumed this was linked to the Cybermen, and the headset and its effects do look rather like they could be early Cyber technology for wiping emotions. Notably, there's no caption that says IRELAND like is the standard for this season. Are we wrong to assume this is Ireland? Is it even Earth? I find myself wondering if this could, in fact, be Mondas. We've never seen it pre-Cyberman, so who knows. As Star Trek: Picard has established, lots of planets have an Ireland.

On the other hand, on second viewing it seems that the device that Brendan is subjected to is very much like a Chameleon Arch. His reaction to it is virtually identical to Tennant's reaction in "Human Nature." Could this, then, be somehow linked to the Time Lords? Brendan is found as a baby, like Professor Yana, and seems to, somehow, be immortal, although his return to life is played out more like Jack's than a Time Lord regeneration. Ko Sharmus seems like he could be a much, much older version of the character, but he's played by yet another actor, and there's no direct link between his planet and Brendan's home (although the vistas do look a little Irish).

In the end, all or none of these could be true. "The Timeless Children" has 65 minutes to answer all these questions, and presumably explain away Jo Martin's Doctor, and see the Doctor save the last of mankind from Cyber-oblivion. Is there any way it can actually pull this off? We shall see. For now, I'm very excited.

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