❉ Ambitious, dramatic, intriguing… Season 12 begins its conclusion in triumphant style.
“Jodie Whittaker is completely at home now as the Doctor. You know that’s happened when, without thinking about it, you find yourself enjoying every scene she’s in.”
“I was not discarded… I was chosen.”
Well. The gloves are definitely off for the first female Doctor.
Compare her stance in Ascension of the Cybermen with her drama stifling, wagging-moral-finger warning to Graham not to kill Tzim-Sha in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, Jodie’s first season closer. Here she’s on the offensive, prepared to defend human survivors of the Cyberwar with enough ordnance to scramble the Cybermen’s emotions, infect them with gold particles and repel them with a forcefield (it was just a shame she didn’t put all this weaponry under cover, as it was easily destroyed in an aerial assault by the skull-like Cyberdrones. A weak plot point , perhaps, but a master stroke of design work). Later, she determinedly offs a Cyberman with a hand grenade. It’s very satisfying to see some grit and contradictions coming through in the character, and, as always when she has good material, Jodie Whittaker’s performance ramps up several notches.
As you might have gathered from that, Ascension of the Cybermen shows that Chris Chibnall now knows how to do a season finale.
Look closer and it’s the complete reverse of The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. In 2018, I criticised the latter for being ‘directed with all the urgency of a Sunday afternoon ramble’; the breakneck pace and intrigue of Ascension didn’t let up from the first chilling scene of Cyber carnage in space until Sacha Dhawan’s grinning Master popped up to deliver a stunning, unexpected cliffhanger.
Equally, the insipid, stroll-in-the-park nature of much of Season 11 – when Team TARDIS hardly seemed to be in any real danger – was banished for good in Ascension, firstly with a convincing, camera-shaky aerial bombardment (thank you, Saving Private Ryan, 1998) that just missed taking out all four of them. With the audience reeling from that, Yaz and Graham were then trapped in a ramshackle spacecraft with the life support systems running down, then a Cyber War Carrier with an army of Cybermen waking up (a nice nod to 1982’s Earthshock, the original Cyber Action Movie). With a script of this quality to work with, Mandip Gill and Bradley Walsh also raised their acting game, the latter’s chipper bonhomie noticeably toned down in favour of intensity.
Meanwhile, the Doctor and Ryan stole a Cybership and unwittingly headed for the resolution of the mysteries established in Spyfall. I thought Ian McElhinney’s Ko Sharmus was a bit Luke-Skywalker-in-the-wilderness, but he did do gravitas well. It was pleasing to see attention to detail in the characterisations of the motley crew of survivors led by Julie Graham’s Ravio, as they were established just well enough for the audience to care about before some were slaughtered. The demise of Fuskle (Jack Osborn), so traumatised he couldn’t talk, was particularly effective. Charmingly, amid the relentlessly grim tone, Ravio found time to flirt with Graham, something that completely bemused the old devil.
In Ascension, James Magnus Stone, the assured hands behind Spyfall: Part One and Praxeus, delivered an ambitious, magnificent engine of destruction (the minor production gaffe of plentiful eyeliner in a war zone aside), quirkily counterpointed by scenes that appeared to be set in an idyllic 1950s Ireland. I kept looking for some connection with the Doctor’s continuum, but it remained elusive – was what we were seeing some kind of virtual reality loop inside the Lone Cyberman Ashad’s head? Now, having seen that next week’s final episode is called The Timeless Children, I’m guessing that Brendan the indestructible Garda may have some connection with Gallifrey (“Perhaps it’s in Ireland?” – The Hand of Fear, 1976). Whatever the outcome, at this point this plot thread is a great piece of misdirection; it was like my TV had gone wrong and every few scenes BBC1 was jumping to some cosy drama from one of the nostalgia channels.
For those looking for contemporary parallels – which the show isn’t shy of these days, as a quick look at the more hysterical corners of the internet will confirm – we had a villain called Ashad, a name which derives from Indian Muslim culture, with the fanatical belief that the Cyberman empire could “live again in the hands of a believer”, effectively making his war to destroy all humans a holy one. Ascension clearly wasn’t an allegory about the War on Terror or the recent civil war in Syria, but Ravio’s assertion her people were “refugees” who’ve “lost everything and no-one cares,” murmured uncomfortably, and commendably, of the contemporary world.
Faults? The annoying tendency for ‘Docsplaining’ – the dull narrative thud of the lead character telling, rather than showing, the audience what she’s doing – returned, and it would have been a nice twist if the apparently deserted Cyber War Carrier had been set up as trap for Ravio and co., indicating how far ahead of them tactically Ashad was.
Resoundingly, Ascension of the Cybermen bellows CHRIS CHIBNALL CAN DO IT, FOLKS! Yes, he can. It’s just a shame that we had to get to a point with some of the worst ratings the series has ever had for him to prove that. The overnights were a shocking 3.71 million, the lowest so far for Jodie’s tenure.
Which is a damn shame because, so far, Season 12’s concluding two-parter is up to the same standard as Peter Capaldi’s swan song World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls (2017). I can’t think of any higher praise than that.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.