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Doctor Who: Ascension of the Cybermen (Review)

The cynical observation about Ascension of the Cybermen would be that Chris Chibnall has spent the previous season building to an excuse to do Earthshock on a modern television budget.

After all, for all that Ascension of the Cybermen seems to tease mythos-shattering revelations, there is very little in the episode that hasn’t been seen before. The episode builds towards two concurrent cliffhangers. The first is a standard “unexpected Master reveal”, a cliffhanger that Chibnall employed earlier in the season with Spyfall, Part I. More than that, it’s pretty much one of the most archetypal Doctor Who cliffhangers. (There is something be said for symmetry, but recycling the same cliffhanger beat from the season premiere is decidedly unambitious.)

“Okay, it’s season finale time. So generic grey battlefield.”

Similarly, a large part of the power of the climax of Ascension of the Cybermen comes from the revelation that Doctor Who now has the budget to offer a particularly impressive riff on the classic “army of monsters” cliffhanger of the kind employed in beloved stories like Tomb of the Cybermen and less beloved stories like The Leisure Hive. There’s a real sense at the end of Ascension of the Cybermen that the audience is meant to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of Cybermen on screen.

There are other smaller familiar cues tucked away within Ascension of the Cybermen. Chibnall also borrows a few smaller touches from his direct predecessor. The seemingly disconnected snapshots of mundane life juxtaposed with science-fiction spectacle is a familiar narrative trick within Steven Moffat’s two-parters for the show, notably the thread focusing on CAL and Doctor Moon in Silence in the Library and Danny Pink’s bureaucratic induction into the afterlife in Dark Water. Brendan’s plot offers a broader sort of conceptual mystery, a plot waiting to tie in.

Lone ranger.

However, amid all of this cacophony, there’s a strange modesty to this season finale. Ascension of the Cybermen is very much a triumph of production; it features a big introductory battle sequence, a host expensive-looking sets, galactic stakes and a sense of escalating danger. It takes its cues from a variety of familiar and populist sources, from Russell T. Davies’ work with the Daleks in Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways through to the set-up of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The special effects are impressive. The production design is remarkable.

Despite all of this, even as it gestures at grand twists and turns, Ascension of the Cybermen seems to suggest that “Earthshock on a bigger budget” is the platonic ideal of Doctor Who in the twenty-first century. Like The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, there’s a sense in which Ascension of the Cybermen believes that a large part of any Doctor Who season finale should be spent running up and down large and atmospheric industrial corridors. It’s impressive, but it’s all rather hollow.

From the Ash(ad)s…

To be fair, Ascension of the Cybermen gestures at some interesting ideas. One of the most notable failures of the Chibnall era has been its refusal to engage in any meaningful way with some of the biggest issues facing contemporary Britain. Steven Moffat’s finale season wrote around Brexit in a number of vague and abstract ways, in episodes like The Pyramid at the End of the WorldEmpress of Mars and The Eaters of Light. These episodes were all written and produced when the concept was still abstract.

The Chibnall era has largely refused to acknowledge this political and cultural crisis, settling for broad anti-Trump parables in stories like Arachnids in the U.K. or Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. This problem has been somewhat amplified by the era’s somewhat variable attitude towards the concept of aliens and monsters. While stories like The Tsuranga Conundrum, Demons of the Punjab and Orphan 55 careful to avoid easy xenophobia, episodes like Resolution paint the Daleks as “refugees” and Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II have the Doctor assume visiting aliens have hostile intent.

Ascension of the Cybermen at least hints at a potentially pointed political reading. The episode’s cold open features a monologue from the villainous Ashad, who recounts the collapse of “the Cyber Empire”, but promises “that which is dead can live again, in the hands of a believer.” It is possible to read Ashad’s attempts to resurrect the Cybermen as a metaphor for Brexit as an attempt to revive the British Empire. In this context, it seems rather pointed that the episode’s as-yet-detached subplot unfolds in Ireland. Ireland is a country still scarred by the legacy of the British Empire.

However, Ascension of the Cybermen avoids anything that might make its parallels seem too pointed or too cynical. There is nothing as sharp or accusatory as the suggestion in World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls that austerity creates unfeeling monsters. Ascension of the Cybermen occasionally feels like it is trying to have its cake an eat it, unsure exactly what Ashad is supposed to represent. Is the awakening of the “war carrier” meant to call to mind the stoking of primal nationalist sentiment in service of a horrific end?

Industrious companions.

Ascension of the Cybermen seems to suggest that Ashad could be read just as easily as a metaphor for ISIS or Islamic extremism. (“Ashad” is quite close – phonetically – to the Arabic name “Asad” or “Assad”, meaning “lion.” It is also the name of the President of Syria, the latest in a long dynasty.) After all, Ashad’s faith is defined in terms that are consciously religious. Despite the presence of “cyberfighters” or “cyberdrones” that suggest a more developed galactic power, Ashad’s force seems defined largely by terror; they are a rag-tag group of fanatics that spread fear across the galaxy.

Indeed, Ashad himself is presented as a disaffected young man. “When the glorious Cyber Empire arrived, I was a willing recruit,” he tells the Doctor. “But as I took my rightful place, as I began my blessed ascent, I was denied. At first, I cursed myself, hid in the shadows, ashamed. But now I understand. I was not discarded. I was chosen. To revive the glory of the Cyber Race.” Ashad’s rhetoric is not that of a nationalist leading his chosen people towards a vaguely defined ideal, but a disenfranchised young man acting out.

The Chibnall era deserves credit for its interrogations of failed masculinity, from the cheating Tim Shaw in The Woman Who Fell to Earth to the angry young bomber in Kerblam! to the failed father in It Takes You Away. Under Chibnall, Doctor Who understands that angry and disenfranchised men can be dangerous to those caught in their orbit, which feels like a very pointed observation for the lead character’s first female regeneration. It is hard to overstate the degree to which this sort of theme is relevant and important in the modern era. For all the faults with the Chibnall era, its gaze seems to point in the right direction.

(In this sense, the Chibnall era might be read as an inversion of the central dynamic of the Moffat era. Under Moffat, the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors explored their own relationships with masculinity – the Twelfth Doctor literally asking Clara, “Am I a good man?” At the same time, characters like Clara, River and Missy pushed at the boundaries of what was possible for female characters on the show.)

Closing window of opportunity.

However, there’s a sense in which the Chibnall era sets hard boundaries on its interrogation of these sorts of dangerous power fantasies. Ashad is presented as an angry and vengeful disenfranchised man, but he is juxtaposed with Brendan. Ashad attempted to join the Cybermen and was rejected, while Brendan volunteers to join the police force. “Why do you want to be a Guard?” the officer inquires. Brendan replies, “I want to make a difference.” It’s a very earnest portrayal of law enforcement.

Doctor Who has historically been wary of authority and power structures. The Sunmakers was effectively a long screed about Robert Holmes’ refusal to pay income tax. The Doctor has always been wary of systems that concentrate power away from individuals, with the notable exception of the Third and Thirteenth Doctor. “I’m not actually the police, that’s just what it says on the box,” the Twelfth Doctor told Clara in The Girl Who Died. The Tenth Doctor was horrified that Martha became a soldier rather than a doctor in The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky.

A large part of the Moffat era was given over to the Doctor reconciling his mistrust of military authority with a growing empathy for actual soldiers. The entire eighth season explored this arc through the Doctor’s evolving relationship with Danny Pink. To a certain extent, this understanding was a key to the Tenth and Eleventh Doctor’s reconciliation with the War Doctor in The Day of the Doctor, an understanding that sometimes good people have to do terrible things. However, through all that, there has been a wariness of actual authority structures.

In contrast, the Chibnall era seems to have a lot more respect for established systems. Kerblam! is a story about the horrors of working for Amazon, but which somehow plays as a celebration of the company. Episodes like Praxeus and Can You Hear Me? venerate the role of law enforcement professionals, even when Jake takes things too far. Even in episodes with corrupt authority figures – like Ilan in The Ghost Monument or Robertson in Arachnids in the U.K. – the Doctor tends to refuse to confront or topple them, responding passively to their abuses of power.

Cold blooded and thick-skinned.

There have been a handful of exceptions, of course. Part of what made Fugitive of the Judoon so compelling was the fact that the show touched upon police brutality in the first episode to feature a version of the Doctor who was a person of colour. It was a small, but important creative choice. However, it’s frustrating that this stands in such stark contrast to the episodes around it. Fugitive of the Judoon is the exception that proves the rule.

All of this combines to muddy any potential metaphorical reading of the monstrous ascent of the Cyberman as the shadow of a resurgent British Empire. Despite the similarities, Ascension of the Cybermen seems to position them as an allegory for ISIS. In this sense, Chibnall seems to be drawing heavily from Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways. One of the most interesting things that Davies did with the Daleks during that first season was to reimagine them as avatars of religious extremism, updating those hateful creatures for the twenty-first century.

(Indeed, it could reasonably be argued that this was why Davies was much better at writing the Daleks than Moffat. Moffat often seemed to need some justification for the hatred that the Daleks felt, suggesting their attitudes were shaped by their shells in Into the Dalek, The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar. Moffat seemed to believe that it was impossible for people to be truly hateful and monstrous. In contrast, Davies seems much more skeptical of people, and much more willing to except monstrous hate at face value without needing to find a reason for it.)

As such, the promising upgrade of the Cybermen in The Haunting of Villa Diodati feels a bit muted in Ascension of the Cybermen. Part of this is simply down to the decision to keep Ashad as the primary antagonist. Ashad was an interesting character in The Haunting of Villa Diodati because he provided such a sharp contrast to the archetypal Cybermen. He was an individual, not a faceless automaton, as demonstrated by the fact that the audience could literally see his face.

Ashad to Ashad, funky to funky…

However, treating Ashad as the primary antagonist in Ascension of the Cybermen feels like it erases a lot of what makes the Cybermen so terrifying. The Cybermen are terrifying because they represent the complete erasure of an individual by a systemic force. Giving them a leader with a strong individual personality and strong emotional responses feels like awkward attempt to inject life into the iconic alien menace at the cost of their core identity.

Again, the Daleks are an interesting point of comparison here. Since Davros was introduced in Genesis of the Daleks, he has had an interesting relationship with his creations. He is a distinct character in the Doctor Who mythos, but the Daleks do not serve him. This tension played out in their treatment of him in stories like Revelation of the Daleks, The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End, The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar. Even when Dalek Caan freed the Daleks from the Time War in The Stolen Earth, he was chained up and treated as a freak rather than an idol.

In contrast, Ashad seems like a new villain with a generic invading army. He is a fairly cliché sort of villain. In some ways, he recalls the characterisation of Tim Shaw in The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, full of bile and sadism. “Should I let you live?” he taunts Ethan during their confrontation. “You could the tale. Speak of their deaths, of my power, to every other species. Spread my message: be afraid.”

This is the paradox of Ascension of the Cybermen, the sense that the Cybermen are largely inessential to it. What does Ascension of the Cybermen have to say about the Cybermen? What thematic purpose do they serve? Why couldn’t this story be told with the Daleks or the Sontarans or the Stenza? Indeed, a significant stretch of Ascension of the Cybermen evokes nothing so much as The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, as the companions wander through the giant industrial corridors of a floating genocide machine. (Ascension of the Cybermen does occasionally feel like a second draft of The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.)

Face-to-face-off.

Ascension of the Cybermen seems to acknowledge the scale of this reinvention, of the pushing of the Cybermen away from their familiar archetypes. There is no cyber-conversion drama in Ascension of the Cybermen, outside of a few stray lines here and there, despite the fact that body horror is such a core part of what makes the Cybermen distinct from other Doctor Who villains. When the Doctor has her companions set up familiar safe-guards against the Cybermen – like “glitter bombs” and “emotional disinhibitors” – they are quickly swept aside by the advancing enemy.

To be fair, there are some effective sequences in Ascension of the Cybermen, such as the soft thuds against the hull of the ship as it drifts through a battlefield, the morbid spectacle of “bits of dead Cybermen” brushing against the craft. It’s an effectively unsettling sequence that manages to exploit the Cybermen for a narrative beat that would be too grotesque if they weren’t made of metal. However, there is also a lot of generic nonsense, particularly as Ashad monologues repeatedly and at length about his destiny and purpose, uttering stock assertions like, “Yes, the Cyberium sees all.”

Again, it’s strange how the Saward era seems to be such a touchstone for the Chibnall era, particularly given the many problems with that period of the show’s history. Ascension of the Cybermen takes a surreal amount of pleasure in placing the prefix “cyber-“ in front of things to denote that they are Cybermen-adjacent; “Cyberdrones”, “Cyberfighters”, “Cyberwarp.” As with Earthshock, the driving ambitious is to make an absurdly “badass” story featuring the Cybermen rather than a Cyberman story. (“We’re carrying a Cyberman that makes other Cybermen scream,” Ravio states, asserting how “badass” Ashad must be.)

Despite the episode’s difficulty in characterising the Cybermen, it is at least welcome to see the show dealing with the refugee crisis. This is a major contemporary issue, and it is nice to see the Chibnall era acknowledging it. Moffat’s penultimate season returned to it repeatedly in The Zygon Invasion, The Zygon Inversion and Face the Raven. After the clumsy misstep of characterising the Dalek in Resolution as “a refugee from the planet Skaro”, it is welcome to see Ascension of the Cybermen offering a more compassionate view of the migrant crisis.

Future tense.

“We’re just ordinary humans,” Feekat complains. “Refugees. And we just lost everything to the Cybermen. And nobody cares.” These migrants are the dispossessed. They are desperately searching for shelter from persecution and violence. They are precisely the sorts of people being excluded by Brexit immigration policies. “The war made us pariahs,” one character explains, evoking the manner in which the War in Syria created a migration crisis in the Mediterranean. Certainly, the image of refugees packed into a life boat looking for “the best hope of safe harbour” is evocative.

However, the Chibnall era pulls its punches once again. Ascension of the Cybermen offers an apolitical account of the refugee crisis, much in the same way that the environmental parables of Orphan 55 and Praxeus offer a broad feel-good message that is relevant without ever seeming particularly confrontational. It is easy to look at refugees and migrants fleeing war with compassion and empathy. It takes a very cynical and very selfish person to look at those sorts of people and insist that they are wrong to flee persecution and destruction. Everybody can agree these are victims who deserve compassion.

The refugee parable of Ascension of the Cybermen very consciously avoids the potentially abrasive and challenging aspects of the crisis, the question of settlement. After all, the issue with migration is not the fact that these people are fleeing wars and famine in their home land. The challenge is finding a way to house and integrate them into another society. It is a thorny issue, but one that actually affects the kinds of audience watching Doctor Who. Migrants fleeing from horrors in Syria does not affect a viewer watching in – say – Birmingham, but those migrants arriving in Birmingham does.

Ascension of the Cybermen wants credit for grappling with a loaded political issue without actually saying anything insightful about it. There is never a sense that Ravio or Ethan will be turned away when they arrive at Ko Sharmus, that they will be left to die floating in space because their arrival might impact the Ko Sharmus’ standard of living or because their customs might create challenges integrating into the community. Ko Sharmus talks about the horrors of a Cyberman “Internment Camp”, but one he escaped from rather than fled towards. In contrast, modern refugees are just as likely to be interned at their destination.

Don’t get so emotional…

Ascension of the Cybermen removes any barbs from the issue of immigration and asylum seeking. It is worlds away from the questions posed by The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion or from the marginalised reality presented in Face the Raven. There’s a sense that the Chibnall era actually wants to be seen as political, but without the actual risk of being political. It’s a very empty form of representation, one that often comes down to signifiers and platitudes rather than meaningful engagement with the ideas in play. (This is perhaps the most convincing line of criticism on the Chibnall era.)

As with a lot of the Chibnall era, there’s a sense in which Chibnall has his eye on the cultural pulse and is trying to draw from contemporary popular culture. The Woman Who Fell to Earth seemed to bet on Predators being a bigger hit than it was. Resolution was basically Venom… but with Daleks. The James-Bond-esque hijinks of Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II evoke not only the seasonal screenings of the previous films on television over the Christmas break, but also the looming release of No Time to Die.

So Ascension of the Cybermen seems to draw from Star Wars. This makes sense, given that Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker was released only a couple of months ago. While the film might have underperformed critically and commercially, Chibnall had no way of knowing that when scripting Ascension of the Cybermen. The basic premise of the episode owes a lot to the Star Wars saga, most notably the subplot about the plucky rebels fleeing the evil empire as in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

It is Ko Sharma himself who provides the most obvious point of comparison. A lone bearded exile wandering through the wilderness in robes, he recalls Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars or Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens. Indeed, Ko Sharma very consciously draws on the depiction of Luke in the sequel trilogy. He has secluded himself on a remote planet away from the conflict raging in the heavens. He is even introduced standing on the shore by the cliffs, evoking the closing shot of The Force Awakens. “I had given up hope,” he tells the Doctor. She replies, “Consider us your hope restored.” A new hope, even.

Things come apart.

Again, there is something to be said for the skill in riffing on this iconography, in framing Doctor Who as something that can present Star Wars on a BBC budget. If nothing else, it demonstrates how far the show has come since the late seventies, when producer Graham Williams seemed to struggle with how best to approach Doctor Who in the wake of the game-changing science-fantasy spectacle of Star Wars. The Chibnall era has always taken pride in its polished production, and inviting a comparison to one of the biggest movies of all-time is a bold move.

However, there is a sense in which this seems to be all to which the Chibnall era aspires. Ascension of the Cybermen seems to assume that it is enough to imitate Star Wars, not to engage with it. It’s possible to parallel Ashad with Kylo Ren, or to suggest his resurrection of the Cyber Empire might be paralleled with the Neo-Nazism of the First Order, but there’s not a lot within the text to support such a reading. More to the point, Ascension of the Cybermen doesn’t seem interested in doing anything with this iconography once it has invoked it.

It is possible to undervalue this in a producer. For all its flaws, the Chibnall era is well produced. It is the most expensive that Doctor Who has ever looked, due to innovations like the overseas location shoots and anamorphic lenses. Chibnall is not a particularly strong storyteller, but he knows what top-shelf television looks and feels like. The invocation of Star Wars in Ascension of the Cybermen is much more visually convincing than the allusion to superhero blockbusters in The Return of Doctor Mysterio. Moffat was interested in the thematic mechanics of the narrative, whereas Chibnall is more interested in production value.

Indeed, this is perhaps the best way to look at the episode’s thread focusing on Brendan. There are obviously any number of ways that the plot might tie into the story’s conclusion in The Timeless Child, and the episode is deliberately constructed so as to leave some ambiguity as to whether Brendan is connected to the Cybermen or Gallifreyian halves of the plot. (He might even serve as a bridge between them.) The Irish setting feels like a wry inside joke, a reference to the suggestion in episodes like Hand of Fear, Human Nature and Family of Blood that Gallifrey “must be in Ireland.”

Holo man.

There is no way to make sense of the thread in the context of Ascension of the Cybermen. This isn’t a problem. Moffat employed the same approach in the domestic scenes in Silence in the Library, which is largely built around the power of the image of a young girl watching Doctor Who on television as a way of working through trauma. (This is similar to Amy’s relationship to the Doctor as established in The Eleventh Hour, with the Doctor as her imaginary friend.) The Irish scenes in Ascension of the Cybermen serve a similar, if altogether more modest, ambition.

The scenes set in Ireland deliberately play up the twee elements of the setting, offering something close to a slice-of-life drama, snapshots of a rural life. Chibnall feels quite at home here, perhaps tapping into his experience with Law & Order: U.K. and Broadchurch. (In fact, the sequence of Brendan falling off the cliff and landing on the beach directly invokes the opening of Broadchurch.) It doesn’t seem as though the audience is intended to approach these scenes as a literal representations, particularly given the nightmarish way in which they end. Instead, it makes sense to approach it through the language of television.

This is most obvious with the score. Segun Akinola’s work on Doctor Who has largely been defined by how understated it is, particularly in contrast to that of his predecessor. While Akinola’s score has gotten a little more conventional over the twelfth season, the soundtrack of the introductory Irish sequence is much more intrusive and heightened than anything Akinola has scored to this point. It sounds like a different television show. This would seem to be the point. The Irish sequences look and feel like they have been ported over from a different television series.

Again, this is a familiar trick. The Davies and Moffat eras leaned heavily into the language of television. Bad Wolf was effectively about the Doctor and Rose hopping between channels, from Big Brother to The Weakest Link. Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead found the characters cast in different television shows, difficult conversations navigated by cuts. Aliens like the Weeping Angels in Blink and the Silence in The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon navigated the internal logic of the medium, drawing the audience’s attention to things like the placing of the camera and use of editing.

Holy Moses!

So Ascension of the Cybermen is not a radical departure in this sense, even if it feels a little more ambitious than most of Chibnall’s other scripts. The Irish plot serves as an exercise in “channel hopping”, a different sort of television show sent crashing into a big budget science-fiction Saward homage. Again, Chibnall’s instincts as producer shine through. The Irish scenes look and sound like the sort of “Sunday evening period drama” that would occupy the slot opposite or around Doctor Who. It evokes everything from Poldark to Call the Midwife to Downton Abbey. It’s a very different sort of television.

There’s a question as to what any of this means. What is the point of the contrast? What is Chibnall juxtaposing, beyond demonstrating a clear contrast and showcasing the ease with which he hops between genres? Moffat was often criticised for being “clever”, for showing off without any underlying purpose. This seems a much more valid criticism of the channel hoping in Ascension of the Cybermen. When Davies had the Doctor and Rose jump across the television schedule in Bad Wolf, it was to contextualise Doctor Who as part of the modern television landscape. That doesn’t apply here, though.

To be fair, maybe Davies was cheekily and affectionately making an argument that Doctor Who was better than any of its competitors because it was not confined by any single format. Is that the argument Chibnall is making here? It’s possible that the point of these contrasts is to argue that “Cyberman war epic” is inherently superior to “Sunday evening period drama.” It doesn’t really make a strong case, or argue for why that is. It just seems to throw the prospect out there, that Doctor Who is superior to Call the Midwife because it contains Cybermen.

This is the most depressing aspect of Ascension of the Cybermen, the sense that that Chibnall era might actually believe that the past thirty-eight years of Doctor Who have been about nothing more than spinning the wheels until the point that it could do both Star Wars and that Earthshock cliffhanger justice.

9 Responses

  1. I really liked this one, genuinely the first episode this series to click for me – coincidentally I rewatched Earthshock this week and it absolutely is a big budget do-over like you say, right down to lifting certain shots. Wouldn’t surprise me if one of the companions is shown the door Adric-style next week. Or maybe more than one of them, that’d fit the ‘same but bigger’ ethos.

    I think Chibnall’s series is quite Saward-y, a lot of similar strengths and failures, and I think the peculiar logic of where the series’ DNA seems to want to go (which Moffat always leant into, leading to the prospect of an episode kicking off with a dinosaur vomiting up the tardis in the thames seeming totally natural) butts up against Chibs’ desire to prestigify or adult it. Moffat turns the logic and narrative thrust of rape-revenge narratives inside out with AGMGTW, its reaching a point where you can imagine Chibs approaching the subject head on… Which I don’t think’d end well.

    I think if I have one main criticism of his era so far its just that.. it doesn’t seem interested in the property’s almost unique position as a vehicle for allegory, as the best serialised story *about* stories, possibly ever. But Moffat was always going to be a tough act to follow in that respect, it’s just a shame Mathieson and Dollard, Harness too, all lost out when Chibs decided to refresh the whole team. I think he’s mostly kept it too directly tethered to actual real-world political issues, in a way that causes the stories to have to grind to a halt. There’s no in-universe reason why King James can’t be punished for killing women the way an alien that kills women would be, so you just end up with a succession of incomplete stories.

    But anyway, for me this is the first episode where I’ve felt that it might be headed in the right direction, even as he’s never been more Saward-y. He’s spun away from Moff’s take on the cybermen as a useful archetype and found a way to inject some character in. The way Moffat himself told these stories the Cybermen didn’t need to operate in that way, but for my money the Cyber-fanatic is a more compelling way to create a lead antagonist than, say, Mr. Clever.

    I think this episode felt like… a statement of intent to some degree. It was unusually dark for sure, it turned Cybermen into an allegory for fanaticism. And, credit where it’s due, as dramatically successful as Harness’ zygon two-parter was, the allegory – one of the last times the show went down a ‘these aliens are kinda like religious fanatics’ route, was uncomfortable and poorly judged. The dramatic logic of the story pushed the allegory aground, because refugees aren’t really hideous aliens. The way the story settles is just uncomfortable, zygon-ISIS were maybe a little too explicitly zygon isis.

    Here though, the Cyber-fanatic is explicitly (i don’t think it’s an accident his face is showing) a white man who can’t deal with failure, and who turns his self-hatred outwards. I think it’s a fair recognition of what fanaticism looks like in the west in 2020, more on the money than the (better written) Harness/Moff story. He’s a character that has an obsession with purity that he won’t apply to himself.

    While not always successfully communicated that’s been one of this era’s central concepts. I think they’ve found a good vehicle for it, cos its sci-fi enough to pursue the logic where it needs to go without treading on historical toes (because dr who can’t just kill king james). I hope the positive reception of this story pushes Chibs in a bolder direction for s13.

    These last two eps have been JW’s strongest performances too, outside of her first ep and ITYA. It’ll be interesting to see how her Doctor ends up being viewed if she becomes the first modern doctor to get a load of her companions straight-up killed. Cannot imagine Chibs going for (or pulling off) a Heaven Sent kinda-thing really. She’s ended up feeling like an interesting creation almost by accident, a Doctor that’s frequently ended up feeling like a bit of a cynic or a coward – and if as teased they are about to kill a companion off, a failure. Cos I think the Moffat-era’s duty of care thing really did argue quite convincingly that the primary measure of success for a Doctor is keeping their friends safe. They’ve sort of made her into a second Colin Baker, by accident.

    Christ this comment got long, sorry!

    • Yep, I’ll be the first to concede that The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion were messy and their analogies a little clunky, but their ambition carried them a long way. I think it’s the ambition that I miss most about the Chibnall era. Although you’re right – and I acknowledge it myself – that the Chibnall does have a strong recurring preoccupation with that sort of fragile and toxic masculinity, Ashad being the latest in a long line that obviously goes back to Tim Shaw and even the fathers in It Takes You Away and Resolution.

      And no worries about long comments! It’s great to have that sort of engagement.

      • Interesting to think that this episode’ll look totally different in a week – mainly because the aspect of this episode that is completely not Seward and indebted to RTD or Moff or anyone else but Chibs is the Ireland stuff. Which at the moment could cme mean absolutely anything – if he sticks the landing it’ll elevate the episode with something distinctive… or we’re about to have the Doctor’s real name revealed and it’ll turn out he’s been.. an Irish policeman called Brendan all along. Would be the most Chibnall reveal imaginable, I’d almost respect it.

        It doesn’t loom as large in the minds’ eye once the credits have rolled as the Cybermen stuff, but its comprises a significant stretch of the episode and in its way is a significant, bold swing. I didn’t think it derailed the episode, which must’ve been a tough balance to strike. But yeah, that’ll look different in a week. Hopefully not to its detriment.

        It’s interesting really, because Chris really does have significant strengths as a writer – he can draw those sorts of lives effortlessly. He clearly loved writing Brian Pond, and Graham’s very much in that mould, (and is also the only companion with much sense of an inner life). Chris really does have some skill, its just those skills form an odd toolkit to then have to make Doctor Who work with. I just really, really hope – two seasons in, that he’s cracked it.

      • I don’t know. I think the Ireland stuff is quite close to, say, the Danny stuff in Dark Water or the CAL and Doctor Moon stuff in Silence in the Library. It even – like Bad Wolf and Silence in the Library – feels like television creeping into Doctor Who. It looks very like Call the Midwife, and even evokes Broadchurch in that beach sequence. It keeps feeling like somebody changed the channel mid-broadcast.

        Which is, I think, one of the most ambitious things Chibnall has attempted. It works better than the shift he tried between Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II, where he shifted from a globe-trotting to a time-hopping adventure, which was a fantastic idea in theory, but the execution was abysmal. Here, it feels like Chibnall has a tighter hand on what he’s doing, although – as you rightly point out – we won’t know exactly what any of it means until next week.

  2. Went back and rewatched the last two eps – now he have more of a sense of where this story’s going as a loose three-parter it feels the closest this era’s been to the classic era, structurally.

    Could easily imagine Haunting comprising the first two parts of a six parter, all shot on one location. Then the third episode’s future war could’ve been done in a quarry, then episode 4’d take us into some industrial corridors to see the story out.

    I love season 9 so would in theory love more two and three-parters, especially as I’ve just got on with this story so far in a way i haven’t this whole season. I think this ep is Chibnall at his best, but otoh Spyfall are his weakest scripts and really felt like the worst possible start to this series, so who knows. But so many eps this season – as you and others have pointed out – have felt compressed or unresolved. Praxeus for instance as a two-parter might’ve actually worked.

    The Ireland stuff played quite differently to me on rewatch, less like will-converge-at-some-point cutaways and more explicitly a metaphor. If it turns out to be a strange way of showing what the doctor’s been through – ie her treatment at the hands of the timelords that the master and ruth have alluded to – i’d find that so strange, if weirdly effective, a way to do it.

    Chibnall sometimes struggles balancing selling emotion while also making the dialogue sufficiently expository, splitting them totally and just putting someone’s emotional journey on screen – using stock tv tropes to do it – then tying it in with some big lore exposition dump next week is genuinely so bizarre while being pulling on very normie aesthetics. It’s only really a trick you can do once but it’s utterly baffling. It’ll be interesting to see.

    If that guy is meant to represent some version of the Doctor it’ll be interesting to see how the way we saw it play out does colour all the exposition we’re about to get. Unless it turns out I’ve misread that completely and that was literally just some guy in Ireland.

    • I guess the interesting thing for me about the ireland stuff relative to Library/Heaven is how.. both of those still felt like we were watching the same episode. Ascension genuinely felt like channel hopping. It’s some of the most texturally strange the show’s ever felt, especially contrasting with the industrial aesthetic everywhere else.

      • That’s fair, I think. Although Silence was about stepping outside the television – CAL was watching Doctor Who, effectively – rather than hoping within it. I do think Bad Wolf comes a bit closer, even if it’s a bit more formally modest – and those other shows and channels still feature Rose and the Doctor.

    • Well, to be fair, one of the theories doing the rounds is that Brendan is an older version of the Doctor, one of the pre-Hartnell regenerations. Which would be a bold move I’d respect on pure chutzpah. So your reading might make sense on those grounds. That said, I think the episode seems to be pushing Brendan closer to either a reveal that he’s secretly Ko Sharma or Ashad. It has been observed that Patrick Kane and Ian McElhinney are (Northern) Irish actors.

      That is a fair point about the structure. In hindsight, it makes sense that Chibnall should conclude the season with a three-parter, which is about a six-parter in terms of classic series. Chibnall’s always been interesting to me as a writer who is surprisingly heavily influenced by Terry Nation, which I think is the source of some of his pacing issues. He often feels like he’s plotting stories from the classic series.

  3. “It’s possible that the point of these contrasts is to argue that “Cyberman war epic” is inherently superior to “Sunday evening period drama.” It doesn’t really make a strong case, or argue for why that is. It just seems to throw the prospect out there, that Doctor Who is superior to Call the Midwife because it contains Cybermen.”

    This line really stuck with me. During the episode, I found myself really enjoying the Brendan/Ireland stuff. It was engaging and effective in communicating a lot in a short amount of time*. And from reading comments after the episode, it seems that a lot of people felt the same way. I can’t bring myself to get excited about a stompy Cyber-army, or the Master saying trailer lines, but I am genuinely really pumped to see what’s going on with Brendan and the weird not-aging father figures. And even Brendan himself is a stronger character than the companions – I know more about him and how he feels about being in the police in two scenes than I do about Yaz in 20 episodes.

    *(For example, the moment where the mother says they’ll take care of the baby, and then smiles hopefully at her husband. That communicated “we wanted to have a baby but have been unsuccessful, and this is our best chance for a family” without saying anything. Compare to any moment in a Chibnall episode where something will happen, and a character will immediately describe what just happened, and you can see clearly which genre Chibnall is comfortable in).

    So if this episode wants to argue that Doctor Who (or, a Saward-esque version of Doctor Who that consists largely of monsters stomping down corridors) is superior to Call the Midwife, it fails, because the Call The Midwife parts are vastly more engaging than the Doctor Who parts. Chibnall is clearly more at home with the former, and really does write a great sub-plot – but it’s a sub-plot that damns his main series pretty effectively.

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