The end is near and the Cyber Empire is rising once again. “Ascension of the Cybermen” sees Team TARDIS try to fix the mess of the Lone Cyberman and chase him to the far end of the universe, where humanity is all but wiped out and the Cybermen are hunting the few who are left. It’s quite possibly Thirteen’s greatest challenge yet as she struggles to keep her fam safe and protect humanity. Oh, and the Master is back.
Ashad, the Lone Cyberman was introduced in last week’s “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” and he returns with a whole army and a singular goal in mind: destroy humanity. Such villains are rarely well-rounded or more than their goal but thanks to Ashad’s appearance in the previous episode and his unique nature of a half-human, half-Cyberman, he becomes a worthy opponent to the Doctor.
Their “therapy session” is an excellent scene that highlights the conflict within Ashad and what makes him such a compelling foe. He’s driven by his hatred of everything human. He considers Cybermen superior and humans weak, but Cybermen don’t feel and humans do. Ashad feels and feels so much but all of it is anger towards what he used to be. This makes him a lot more compelling than your everyday Cyberlad and arguably a lot more dangerous.
Good use is made of the Cybermen in general. They’ve been these iconic enemies of the Doctor since 1966, not too far behind the Daleks in terms of importance. They’ve had so many versions, so many origin stories and have been reinvented about as many times as the Doctor themselves. Most recently, Moffat brought back the Mondasian Cybermen for the Twelfth Doctor but even there the focus quickly shifted to the Master(s). That might end up happening in this finale as well but in any case, “Ascension” already established the Cybermen as a bigger threat than any other episode in decades.
The Cyber-Wars have been a concept since the 70s and every now and again we saw what devastating consequences an attack by the Cybermen can have. Case in point, Chibnall himself was traumatised when Adric died at the hands of the Cybermen in “Earthshock”. Going back to Moffat’s Mondasians, the Doctor is clearly not over Bill’s unfortunate fate (ultimate happily ever after or not). Chibnall combines all of this and makes the Cybermen truly terrifying again. The Cyberdrone scene, in particular, is such a vivid and well-edited attack. It establishes how powerful and unstoppable the Cybermen are before they even properly appear.
Meanwhile in Ireland
We’re interrupting the Cyber-Wars with what plays out like an ITV3 cop drama. Throughout the episode we see a guy named Brendan grow up. From the moment he was found by his adoptive parents through his childhood years and when he joined the Garda. He also happens to be shot and falls down a cliff but he gets better. Brendan’s mystery only gets more strange in his last scene that leaves us with so many questions.
Brendan is most likely connected to the Timeless Child arc and our questions are hopefully going to be answered in the final episode. His “Ascension” scenes give us just enough to speculate but at this point, the whole Timeless Child thing could be anything. Who knows, the running joke that Gallifrey is somewhere in Ireland may actually come true.
The future of humanity
In this dystopian future, there are only a handful of humans left. A few of them escape with Yaz and Graham onboard and Ethan (Matt Carver) joins the Doctor and Ryan in their hijacking of a Cyber ship. The former team stumbles across a whole army of Cybermen and their fate unknown after Ashad awakens said army. It’s great seeing Yaz and Graham working together, they both picked up things from the Doctor and they manage to keep the others going.
The Doctor sends the fam away but Ryan is accidentally left behind so he tags along with her. Ethan is quite probably the most interesting. If only the situation wasn’t so high stakes, Thirteen would probably find the time to geek out with him more. They eventually meet Ko Sharmus (Ian McElhinney) who guides them to the boundary. The boundary seems to lead to Gallifrey, or does it? The final episode sure will have a lot to answer for.
There are several possibilities now with how the Lone Cyberman and Timeless Child plots will intertwine and what the final episode will entail. If there’s a flaw in “Ascension of the Cybermen” it’s that it’s mostly setup and heavily relies on its second part to make sense of things. Now that it aired for the first time and we haven’t yet seen the second half, it has to stand on its own. On its own, it’s tense and very good at creating this atmosphere but it’s mostly just building towards something even more epic and dangerous. That’s the trouble with two-parters in general, but here especially it feels like Chibnall is putting everything into this final episode.
No one expected conclusion from the penultimate episode but still, “Ascension” feels like an intense but at the same time oddly slow episode at the same time. It’s almost as if the pacing of the finale is off because we needed the end of part one cliffhanger to be the Master’s return. On the bright side, this means that “The Timeless Children” is promising that much more action and plot twists, but the pressure is also on.
“Ascension of the Cybermen” picks up right where the previous episode left off and makes for the best Cybermen story in recent memory. Whether series 12’s ambition of combining that with the Master and a game-changing revelation about Gallifrey is going to make for an incredible finale or fail to live up to all it set out to achieve, well, we’ll see.