ASCENSION OF THE CYBERMEN
It was written by Chris Chibnall. It's got Cybermen in it. And yet we actually didn't hate it! Woohoo!
Some of it is because it's only part of a story, and an earlyish part at that (of course it kicked off during the previous episode The Haunting Of Villa Diodati). And if there's anything we've learned about Doctor Who stories it's that setting up the story is reliably more intriguing and fun than the resolution. Whatever theories you come up with are always dispiritingly far more interesting than what the writer ends up plumping for.
So that's a huge plus for Ascension Of The Cybermen, and even more so given that there's absolutely no resolution to the Brendan story in this episode. Who is this apparently deathproof guy living his entire life through a yellow filter? Not a clue. Fab!
And nestled amongst the Brendan story is a Cyberman story that's, and we can't quite believe we're saying this, actually quite effective. The reduction of the human race to a few fleeing refugees is a genuine gut punch: we really felt the horror and the desolation, especially in the face of the overwhelming superiority of the Cybersquads.
So yes, we had fun. Which is nothing to be sneezed at, but alas, it doesn't actually make it a good episode. If you think about it too hard, or in fact at all, the plot falls into cobwebs and dissolves away like morning dew.
For a start, if you're trying to make the Cybermen scary again instead of the tin figures of fun they've become, flying Cyberdrone heads is most definitely the wrong direction. All that intoning at the beginning, with the solemnity turned up to eleven, and they wreck it with a bunch of hilarious flying bonces. Oops.
And the script fails at the first hurdle: there's no good reason that the TARDIS, which could solve the central problem here in a trice by whisking away the humans, is parked so far away. Finding a convincing reason for the TARDIS not to be a deus ex machina is task one for every Doctor Who scriptwriter, so not to deal with this is very poor writing.
Also, what kind of a dumb plan is it for the Doctor plus fam to turn up when all the action's already happened and there's only a handful of humans left? Couldn't she come up with a better plan to stop this at an earlier stage? Leaving it until now is basically the same as waiting till the humans have been wiped out entirely, because that teensy bunch is definitely not a breeding population. So much for the Doctor's determination to fix the mess she made: tidying up the Cybermen with so few humans left is not quite a pyrrhic victory, but it has the same effect. Nul points.
What was the Doctor thinking? Well, actually, we can't see that she was thinking at all. Once they got back in the TARDIS after the Villa Diodati, she had all of time and space to find a way out of the situation before heading for ground zero. And what's the sum total of that superior Time Lord cogitation? One measly neural uncoupler plus a gold dust sprinkler. Pathetic. And even more pathetic when the Cyberdrones show up and effortlessly drill holes in it.
It finally dawns on the Doctor that her precious fam are in danger of being converted. How could it possibly have taken that long for her to figure it out? Then after shooing them away, she taunts Ashad with how crash hot she is and how she's going to take them all down. We know the Doctor is frequently confident to the point of arrogance, but that's because they have the smarts and the cunning plan to back that up. Here, she has neither. We've just seen it all fall to shreds, and her boasting is therefore skin-crawlingly embarrassing. Even her most basic and obvious strategy to act as bait doesn't work.
After the departure of the extremely unconvincing wobbly hockey puck of a ship, the Doctor et al nick one of the Cybermen's shuttles. It's clear later in this episode that the Cybermen can beam down from their mothership, so why would they need shuttles? Oh well, we suppose it's good enough for Star Trek. The kid hotwires the shuttle, programs in the destination, and fills in some backstory about his childhood as a guerrilla. Eh? Didn't that other guy say earlier that they were just ordinary humans?
Back on the hockey puck, their systems are melting down. Might we suggest they should have just put 'er down next to the TARDIS? Too logical? OK then, on we go. The puck ends up in a field of Cybermen bits, which is genuinely impressive. They decide to repurpose life support for propulsion and Graham advises everyone not to take any deep breaths. Turning off life support isn't going to affect the breathable atmosphere already there, though, and it's not going to be used up in the few seconds it takes them to get to the Cybership, is it? They pop the puck into a Cybership's docking bay, Battlestar Galactica-style, and Graham and Ravio have a wee bit of a flirt and a look around.
Well, not just a look around. If we landed on a Cybercarrier, the last thing we'd want to do is go around waking things up, especially after we'd already been wondering what the carrier was carrying. Doesn't make any difference anyway, because Ashad and his buddies have followed them and head straight for the Cyberfreezers. Ashad has a lot to deal with here, because he has a massive pile of pontificating and grandiloquent speech-making to get through. With a lesser actor in the role, it'd sound megahokey, but Patrick O'Kane just about manages to rescue it. Ashad mysteriously attacks a Cyberman: our best guess for this, given that the attacked Cyberman doesn't have a light on his chest, is that Ashaf is sawing away at the organic bits and that the ones with the chest lights are the improved version. That, however, doesn't explain why the ones he wakes up already have the chest lights. Is it a here's one I made earlier scenario? Has he even been there before? Also, why don't the ones that have been following him round the ship have chest lights? Gah, we're giving up on this one. Then all the doors open and the Cybermen step out. It's a nice shot, but to be honest it's just a less impressive retread of Tomb Of The Cybermen, and that was made in 1967.
Meanwhile, the Doctor's found Ko Sharmus and discovered it's not a planet, it's Ser Barristan Selmy. Pay close attention to what he's saying, because he's the hero of this story. Apart from the Doctor, right? Nope. Just him. More on that story later. We were busy suspecting him of being a Cyberman stooge, especially when he was encouraging the Doctor closer to the Boundary, but apparently that was too complex. Instead, the big reveal (excuse our sarcasm) is Gallifrey and the Master.
Ascension Of The Cybermen is a long way from perfect. Luckily for it, it's got some good parts, and it benefits from being the first half of the story. As a result, it's a pretty fun watch. As with The Haunting Of Villa Diodati, that just by itself is enough to catapult it close to the top of the season. Is it a good thing that just being watchable is a bar we've come to be grateful they clear? Hardly. But that's what we've got.
TO INFINITY AND BEYOND
What a bloody relief to get off the Earth! We were getting quarantine fever.
Just like in Broadchurch, there's a child dead at the bottom of a cliff. Doesn't Chibnall have any other ideas?