Doctor Who: ASCENSION OF THE CYBERMEN Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad


Tony ‘assentuates’ the positive.

Chris Chibnall and dramatic series finales go together like swimming and paving slabs. If you tie yourself to the former, the latter’s not impossible, it’s just very very tricky to deliver.

The Battle Of Nobody Cares barely raised the skin off an unlimited rice pudding, and if you can remember a single one of the guest characters’ names without resorting to Google, you’re a better fan than I am.

With Ascension Of the Cybermen though, there was the opportunity to get something very very right – I mean, it’s got Cybermen in the title, for a start, and while none of them have been stone cold classics, the Cybermen have delivered at least something interesting in a handful of series finales in recent years.


Unfortunately, there’s a style of writing which Chris Chibnall has made his own, and to which, bless him, he sticks doggedly, irrespective of results. That’s the telling, rather than showing approach of scriptwriting. In terms of dramatic tension, what that does is punch a Cyber-fist-shaped hole in the bucket of tension you’re trying to transport from the start of an episode to the end.

In Ascension of the Cybermen, we’re initially confused as to what programme we’re watching – a friend immediately quipped ‘Is this Doctor Who or Ballykissangel?’ – the rural, bucolic, post-war Irish drama of a mysterious baby left in the road and the flashes forward through his life are undoubtedly leading somewhere, particularly after he’s shot and falls off a cliff and stubbornly refuses to die (Son of Harkness, anyone?), but in terms of tone, they don’t immediately promise the most exciting of Doctor Who series finales.

But that’s fine, because up pops the Doctor and Fam, at the end of the Cyber-Wars, with what we’re told – again, told – are the last seven humans alive. Refugees, not warriors, they’ve never tried to fight the Cybermen, but have always run away. Sensible, but the point is, there are names exchanged in a hurry, and it’s absolutely not worth our while learning any of them. They’re rent-a-humans, with minimal personality. In fact, when one of them tells his trauma-muted brother ‘That’s gotta be good news!’ you can absolutely put money on one or the other of them being dead within fifteen minutes. Spoiler alert: you’d be rich if you did.

Apparently, the Doctor has once again parked an inconvenient distance away from the action, more or less precisely so she can say ‘You’ll never make it back to the Tardis alive,’ and close down that most logical of escape routes. More to the point, all the kit she and the Fam cart into the zone to defend the humans apparently fell of the back of a lorry and is precisely no use when faced with Cyber-drones.

Can we talk about the Cyber-drones for just a second?

The idea that the Cybermen would have drones to act as an advance guard and minimise casualties in a conflict which has taken its toll on their numbers? – absolutely spot-on. The idea that they’d look like Cyber-heads? Unff. Cringeworthy. If they did creepy Cyber-things, like begin the process of Cyberization, as per the Cybermites of Nightmare In Silver, fine – flying Cyber-heads that caught humans by the neck and began the conversion process? Hell yes. Drones that look like Cyber-heads out of some apparent desire to market the brand? No. And yes, I’m aware of a hypocrisy here – when Dalek agents suddenly had eye-stalks burst out of their foreheads, nobody appeared to bat an eye. It’s the feeling that there were so many better ways to deliver the notion of Cyber-drones than this that really rankles.

And when one of the refugees, the ‘leader, as much as anyone’s the leader’ (a line that encapsulates part of the problem with Chibnall characterization), tells the Doctor they’ve been running all their lives and no-one cares, the Doctor determinedly tells them – and us – that ‘We care!’

The point being we’ve been given exactly zero reasons to agree with her. No actual characterization has taken place, just some clunky exposition-as-character, and you can’t force people to care about your characters, you have to make them earn it. And this lot don’t, so we’re being forced to try to care about the idea of the characters, this plucky band of the last seven humans, irrespective of who they actually are, because no-one’s put the work into showing us that. Instead, we’ve had the Ballykissangel scenes. These are choices that, like the cut-aways from action to family drama in Resolution, slow down the equally manufactured pace of the action, and take us from battle drama at 60 miles per hour to family drama at 20 and back again. It’s a guaranteed way to stall the engine of your drama, and it works here to rob even the battle of its pace. We should care about the people in the battle. It should feel frenetic and desperate and dangerous. But for all the CGI and shouting, the battle scene in Ascension of the Cybermen feels about as frenetic as eating a cheese sandwich.

Now, the Lone Cyberman from The Haunting Of Villa Diodati is of course back, and it’s not until this episode that we realise what his actual function in the drama is supposed to be – he’s the New Who equivalent of the ‘positively flippant’ David Banks Cyberleader in Earthshock, or the Cyberleader in the equally emotive Revenge of the Cyberman. He’s the Cyberman with personality, who raises them up (who lets them ascend, if you like) above being an army of identical logical cyborgs. But whereas in Diodati his mission was desperate and raging and powerful, here, he’s left with quite a lot of prophetic exposition to do, lots of ‘Yadda yadda destiny, yadda yadda ascension, yadda yadda keep watching everyone, it’s about to get interesting any minute now…’ which oddly makes him feel less of a threat – in the parlance of bullies, there are doers and there are talkers. The more he talks, the less seriously we’re inclined to take him in this episode. That said, he does provide a solid enough arch-villain sounding board against which the Doctor can rail, only for him to undercut her sense of towering self-certainty. It’s almost as if the Davison Doctor were faced with a Cyberleader who, faced with the speech about eating a well-prepared meal responded not with ‘These things are irrelevant,’ but with ‘I’m going to eat your bones, mate, so stitch this.’

Throughout the episode, not a single one of the escaping humans really becomes a believable character, and not even the wonderful Julie Graham can really lift her character to the point of having a personality, just as it ultimately proved beyond the usually equally joyous Phyllis Logan in The Battle Of Thingummy Doodah.

Now, one thing can and must be said. The design on this episode is drop dead gorgeous. The gigunda-Cybership on which our humans, along with Graham and Yaz, find themselves, elevates the sense of scale at work to a whole new level, and the new Cyber-head design is a thing of almost as iconic a beauty as the original Dalek or its 2005 bronze do-over. It’s a fabulous synthesis of the evolving ‘Iron Man’ version with the older, chunkier and infinitely more threating ‘Invasion’ style Cyber-head, and the truth is, we could watch these Cybermen walk down corridors all day long and sigh happily, feeling ourselves well served. And indeed, many fans will have felt this way after Part 1 of Ascension Of The Cybermen – They’re back, they look better than they have in all of New Who so far, and they’re marching. Oh, they’re marching – they’re escaping from storage, synchronizing, and marching down spaceship corridors. You could argue that’s the quintessential Cyber money shot, and you wouldn’t be far wrong. It’s just moderately depressing that the production team knows that’s the case, and relies on it to cover up the lack of personality in the supporting characters. Even when the humans find themselves on a gigunda-ship in the middle of a Cyber-graveyard, they still seem amazed and mystified when the obvious likelihood that it’s a Cyber-ship is brought home to them, like a bunch of Beryl Reids on a shipful of much less well-hidden Cyber-recruits.

Ultimately, there’s a sense throughout Ascension Of The Cybermen that we’re heading towards something big – the Lone Cyberman is a strong creation, giving the Cybermen a sense of communicable destiny arguably for the first time since John Lumic in Series 2, which means as a Cyber-story, it’s up there in the top half of New Who’s dalliances with the sci-fi Frankensteins. Meanwhile, the Doctor’s story-thread of a journey, a guardian, a boundary through which apparently Cybermen have not been able to go, the Master’s not entirely surprising return at the end and the bridge to Gallifrey is all, at least on first viewing, rather more uninspiring because of the lack of new marching Cybermen. There’s a chance it will all come right in the end of course, that Part 2 will pay off all the potential of this substantial Cyber-upgrade, while finding enough for the Cybermen, the Master, potentially the Time Lords and the Doctor all to do (ideally while blasting Ballykissangel to atoms). That most of the non-regulars are as entirely forgettable as those in The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos (I Googled it. I swear if the story were more memorable, I’d have memorized its name) though means that while it aims ever higher up the drama and jeopardy ladder, we have yet to actually care for any of the potential victims of the Cybermen, which leads to a sense of dislocation going into the second half. It might well justify the hope that’s been stoked occasionally along the way through Series 12 and end on a belter, but as yet, beyond the interesting journey of the Lone Cyberman and the look of the new Cyber-heads, it’s difficult to see where the viewer’s investment is supposed to come from.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad