Doctor Who Answers the Despair of the Cybermen With Hope...of the Cybermen?

The Doctor faces something new: a hopeful Cyberman.
The Doctor faces something new: a hopeful Cyberman.
Image: BBC

Whenever the Cybermen arrive in Doctor Who, the emotionless metallic hordes bring with them only the dread tension of despair. They’re inevitable, relentless, unstoppable, ever building and ever marching. The first half of Doctor Who’s season finale brings this dread and wants to answer it with hope. But for once, it’s not just the Cybermen’s foes that are hoping.

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Illustration for article titled iDoctor Who/i Answers the Despair of the Cybermen With Hope...of the Cybermen?

Not a lot actually happens in “Ascension of the Cybermen,” for better or worse. As the clear first half of a story we’re still waiting to see fully unfold, it is light on answers, and heavy on set-up. The Doctor and her friends have reached the last days of the Cyber Wars, with Cyberkind and Humankind alike dwindled to their final survivors—only to find that not only are the former a little more plentiful than previously thought, but there’s a whole other problem to deal with: humanity’s remnant has been escaping their cyborg pursuers through a rift in space, watched over by the mysterious Ko Sharmus (Ian McElhinney, Game of Thrones’ very own Ser Barristan Selmy), opening up to randomized, distant parts of the universe. Except, inconveniently for the Doctor, this time it’s opened up to the same pocket universe Gallifrey had been hiding in since being saved from the Time War, where her archnemesis the Master, and more secrets to unfold, await her.

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And that’s...sort of it, really. What does any of this mean for our heroes? We don’t know yet. Will the Cybermen prevail now that they have re-emerged from the shadows? We don’t know yet, either.

Ravio excavates the distinctly chilling ruins of the Cyber Carrier.
Ravio excavates the distinctly chilling ruins of the Cyber Carrier.
Image: BBC

In a way, that’s also the story of the Cybermen, a force throughout Doctor Who’s history that has always benefited from the build-up of tension much more than they have the actual release of that tension. The Cybermen, by their very nature, are their strongest in the shadows—then their threat is lurking, inevitable, and seemingly unstoppable, and the dread inherent to their horror as human facsimiles is allowed to linger. The actual act of fighting and defeating them has never been the strongest part of their appeal and their fear. It’s why, over the years, we’ve had them defeated in such silly ways, from gold dust to glitter guns, from head-popping emotional inhibitors to the literal power of love. Much like this episode itself, the Cybermen are great at atmosphere rather than actual, direct action.

But the relatively minuscule advancement in the plot of this finale here allows the episode to linger on a fascinating question about its titular heroes that it had started to touch upon in last week’s 19th-century horror epic, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati.” It’s one that asks us to consider something we’ve seen in countless Cyberman stories before and draw a new parallel between humanity and its cyborg mirror: What does a Cyberman with hope look like?

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Because really, that’s what Ashad’s—the battered, beaten, and broken Cyberwarrior we met last week—journey throughout this episode is about. Just as it is with the scant few human survivors Graham and Yaz find themselves tagging along with throughout “Ascension,” Ashad is driven by hope. While the humans just want to escape across the mythical boundary to freedom (well, we’ll see about that, I guess), Ashad just wants to see his own people thrive again, to survive...and eventually rule. Yes, it’s a hope driven by a cruel and terrible goal—the extinction of races so that the Cybermen may rule dominant—but...it’s the Cybermen. Their goals are usually driven by cold, hard, programming: they’re better than organic life, and therefore must convert and rule the universe to their own kind. Hope? That’s an emotion that feels both puzzling and fascinating to attach to them.

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And yet, that’s what this episode does constantly, making an alluring mirror to the trajectory of the humans we meet here too. Their story too is one driven by hope: first, the distinct absence of it, so wholly tired of fighting that they’re practically waiting to die. But especially when Yaz and Graham find themselves with them for one last attempt to escape to the boundary by our human remnant—Ravio (Julie Graham), Yedlarmi (Alex Austin), and Bescot (Rhiannon Clements)—they’re confronted by humans who are so tired, so scared, and so utterly defeated that hope is an almost alien concept.

Yaz and Graham tag along for a ride with the last of humanity.
Yaz and Graham tag along for a ride with the last of humanity.
Image: BBC
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Every time they dare to contemplate it at Graham or Yaz’s encouragement—doing their best to be Doctor-esque, even separated from her after the initial Cyberattack—they’re rewarded with perseverance, but also a new nightmare to face: sure, their tattered spacecraft gets away, but they leave the Doctor, Ryan, and Ethan (Matt Carver) behind. Sure, they survive its drive overloading, but they drift aimlessly into the mass Cyber-graveyard that is the battlefield of the Cyber War’s largest clash. Sure, they managed to find a way to push themselves onto the safe harbor of a giant ship among the debris, but it turns out that ship is a Cybermen Troop Carrier, fit to bursting with Warrior-caste Cybermen. Every time these people are asked to believe in hope—hope to survive, hope to escape, hope to not immediately die—and do so even for a moment, they’re rewarded with despair.

Ashad and his two Cyber-pals, meanwhile, are likewise driven by hope throughout the episode. A maligned hope as it may be, but unlike our human heroes, they are rewarded for that hope repeatedly. Initially, Ashad gets to bite a proverbial thumb at the Doctor, not just overcoming her brash plans to stop him in his tracks but getting to kill off a few humans in the process. His faith in the Cybermen’s rise persistently unsettles her, and yet that faith—that hope, that clarity in purpose he now feels thanks to the Cyberium (basically a Cyberman almanac) coursing through his techno-organic veins—puts him on the path to chase Graham, Yaz, and the remaining humans down. Ashad arrives at the same Troop Carrier they found, and ultimately begins to reawaken a whole army of his kind, ready to finish the task he had started so long ago.

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The last of the Cybermen persists.
The last of the Cybermen persists.
Image: BBC

And he relishes in that hope, as if it’s an almost religious experience—this isn’t just the rise of the Cybermen but their ascension, Ashad as the zealous host to a new era for their kind. When the Doctor attempts to needle him from afar as this self-loathing walking irony, a Cyberman who hates emotion but is so wholly driven it, Ashad just...accepts that truth. He is at peace with who he is, in spite of those paradoxes, because the Cyberium has shown him that hopeful vision of the Cybermen ascendant. The idea of a hateful Cyberman as we saw last week was already unnerving enough, but the idea of one that can share one of our most powerful emotions is altogether more chilling.

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Stories about the Cybermen always invite us to hold up a mirror ourselves and consider the horror these metallic beings represent through it. That’s what has always driven the greatest and most compelling part of the Cybermen’s fear: they are us, but askew. We’re always invited to note how familiar they are but also fear what is absent from that familiarity—the lack of a true face beyond the metal, unmoving mouth slot, the lack of emotions, all these hallmarks of what we feel make us human and how they are not quite represented in this dreadful merging of flesh and steel. “Ascension” asks us to instead consider a Cyberman so like us that the things we’d typically find absent in them are still there, deep down, pulling the mirror ever closer to our own visage.

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Whether or not next week’s climactic follow-up will deliver on just how fascinating and chilling this concept is remains to be seen. We’re clearly heading into more of a focus on whatever the Doctor and the Master will be up to rather than our Cyber-friends, now forced to play the supporting role to the true villain. But if it does, we could see a fascinating take on the Cybermen that could make their future returns all the more compelling. Just as with so much of this episode’s set-up, we’ll have to wait and see now that the stage is set.

An age of Steel begins anew.
An age of Steel begins anew.
Image: BBC
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Assorted Musings:

  • Although we don’t get to see much of them this episode, I really, really do love the latest Cybermen design. It’s a smart update of the “Nightmare in Silver” style we’ve had recently, but with elements that feel right out of older iterations—the larger earmuffs are obviously very ‘70s/‘80s era Cyberman, but the subtle lining down their arms feels like a good throwback to even earlier designs. I just wish they’d had something more to do.
  • One other major thing running throughout all this episode is the bizarre subplot about a mysterious young man named Brendan (Evan McCabe). He was found abandoned as a child in what vaguely looked around the 1940 or ‘50s, became a Garda (the Republic of Ireland’s version of a Police officer), seemingly could cheat death, and then...had his mind wiped by his unaging dad and boss when he retired? There are no signs in this episode of it being connected to the Cybermen—I thought it might be Ashad’s origin story at first, but apparently not—so is...Brendan the Timeless Child? Does he have something to do with Gallifrey’s fall? So many questions and basically no answers.
  • Speaking of our last Cyberman, it’s never explained why Ashad woke up those first few Cybermen by...making them scream? What was he doing? Why did the first few have to be tortured to be re-activated, but all the other Cybermen on the ship were fine?
  • The lovely idea of all the old anti-Cybermen tactics—use force fields! Make them feel emotions! Here’s some gold dust!!!—being what the Doctor brings to the table only for none of it to actually work or matter was great. Time to find some new tricks, Doctor!
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James is a News Editor at io9. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!

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DISCUSSION

bluehinter
bluehinter

My own random thoughts:

* A bit like Spyfall, this episode spent a lot of time running around, but when you actually think about it, you could have jumped in midway into the action and not missed anything important. Other than separating The Doctor from her TARDIS, splitting up the fam, and introducing some ancillary characters who were only there to be picked off, the entire bit on the planet could have been skipped. Then again, you could say the same thing about roughly 2/3 of Frontier in Space.

* The episode, especially the interior of the cyber ship, was gorgeous looking. That, at least, is one thing the Chibnall era has done quite well.

* The exception being the “Gravitron” escape ship. Which looked like it may have actually been filmed inside a Gravitron. I mean, it’s one thing to have spinny engine parts on the outside, or a big roulette wheel to simulate gravity through centripetal force, but if the interior walls of your spaceship spin around you while you’re trying to take off, forcing you to cling on to some flimsy support beams... what the hell?! I think I actually laughed at the idiocy of the design. It’s a good thing they lost half their survivors in the drone attack because they would have been tossed around like the inside of a rock tumbler.

* Speaking of, the flying Cyberman head drones were pretty cringe-worthy. Thank goodness they didn’t give them beanie-coptors, but they were very nearly that lame. They could have at least come up with something that looked like a flying Cybermat. (Cyber Wasps maybe? Maybe something that looked more like the Revenge of the Cybermen versions?) Also, if the Cybermen are all about converting captured humans, why would they haphazardly murder half their conversion stock, especially if resources are so thin?

* I did like the more Invasion looking Cyberman redesign for the ones on the spaceship. And while we didn’t hear the new Cybermen speak, their screams sounded remarkably like the 80's Cyberman death burbles, which was pretty cool. I’m halfway hoping one of them says “Excellent” next week in David Bank’s voice.

* Angry emo Cyberman is still angry, emo, and annoying. Sigh.
At least they did call out, in episode, how stupid it was to have a Cyberman running on hatred, anger and self loathing. So apparently, he gave himself up willingly for conversion, and the conversion failed, but the Cybermen still let him hang around all pissed off and brooding? And was he given a half broken Cyberman helmet to begin with or is he just wearing it as a mask like some wannabe Kylo Ren?

* How many “last of the humans” stories do we really need? They’ve killed off the human race and/or had them converted into something else what... six or seven times since the series came back in 2005. Twice in this season alone. I really hated it when RTD used to over-inflate things, and somehow Chibnall is even more ham-fisted about doing it. Not everything has to be “the last” or “the most powerful” to be scary. It would have been perfectly fine to say that humans were losing the battle against the Cyberman, and these were just some unlucky survivors stuck behind enemy lines, who didn’t flee the galaxy quick enough, while the Cyber Empire stretches ever-outward. That wouldn’t invalidate any of the far better episodes that came before. You don’t have to bring humanity to extinction (again) just to prove a point about how whooo whooo scary your new Cybermen are.

* I wonder where the Daleks were when the Cybermen were taking over half the universe? Seems like they’d be a little pissed at someone biting their style.

* As soon as they started ripping off the Superman origin story with this mystery “Brendan” character, I started getting a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. When they casually had him signed up to join “the guards” it sank even more. When they had him wake up after falling off the cliff and then start to look down at his hands, I literally shouted “oh **** you” at the screen thinking they were actually going to have him regenerate into Hartnell or Ruth. By the time they had Brendan retire and get dragged into the Chameleon arch chair thing with the clock, I was just sort of numb about the whole thing. Is it feasible to screw up canon worse than the 8th Doctor TV movie? I guess we’ll find out next week.

* Chibnall could really *really* screw over classic series fans in part 2. At this point, I’m sort of hoping for a lackluster dropped ball of a finale (or that he’ll shamelessly rip off Grant Morrison and have either the Cyberman or the escaping humans “ascend” into becoming the first Time Lords) because if their idea of shaking things up is to try and rewrite classic series continuity by giving The Doctor a lame Superman secret origin, and/or make everything that Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks came up with a lie... I think that may actually be the final straw.
I’ve been a fan almost my entire life, I weathered Colin Baker’s run, the wilderness years, the TV movie, and RTD’s farting aliens. But if Chibnall decides to take a massive dump on the work of every single writer/director/producer that came before him just to leave his mark on the show (he already casually ruined Moffat’s wonderful Missy redemption arc) then after 35+ years of fandom, I may finally have to give up and stop watching the new series... at least until a different show runner takes his place and hopefully figures out a way to undo or conveniently forget all the damage he’s caused.