Doctor Who Ascension of the Cybermen review: brutal, tense, biblical, Chris Chibnall’s finale opener is nudging up among the best Cyber-tales

Facing implacable foes, the Time Lord regrets involving her plucky but inept team. Will they all emerge from this alive?

Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor - Doctor Who _ Season 12, Episode 9 - Photo Credit: Ben Blackall/BBC Studios/BBC America
4.0 out of 5 star rating

Chris Chibnall has come out with all Cyber-guns blazing. There’s a clear sense of the showrunner relishing his Doctor Who finale. The first of a two-parter, this is already far more exciting and laden with import than His Chibs’s previous end-of-series effort, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos in 2018, which wasn’t really a finale at all in impact or intent.

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Steeped in Who since boyhood, he adores a cliffhanger and it’s highly effective here, in its crescendo and delivery. I’m left itching for the follow-up. Although it has to be said, this one is markedly close to his previous cliffhanger in Spyfall: the companions in mortal peril a long way from the Doctor… who is herself on the threshold of another dimension… just as the Master springs up from nowhere…

This time there’s a biblical vibe. Elderly sage Ko Sharmus (Ian McElhinney) stands like Moses with his rod by the Red Sea, showing the Time Lord how the waves divide to provide a route to salvation, except for her it is less the Book of Exodus and more the Book of Revelation. She sees the apocalypse again, Gallifrey destroyed, and the Master pops up like Satan to taunt her: “Be afraid, Doctor. Because everything is about to change. For ever.”

But let’s rewind. To the beginning. The grim spectacle of that sea of Cyber-debris in space. A portentous voice intones: “The Cybermen were defeated. The victors of a billion battles broken. But that which is dead can live again – in the hands of a believer.” There’s a majestic flourish as the image zooms into the eye socket of a dead Cyberman and the bowel-movement opening titles swell forth.

Our reacquaintance with the Cyber-foes must wait, however, as Chibnall next plunges the viewer into a subplot about a baby abandoned in a cot. More Mosaic allusion. We’re shown a bucolic, sepia-tinged locale, unspecified but apparently early 20th-century Ireland. It provides contrast to the war-strewn bulk of the piece, and builds in mystery as the orphan Brendan grows up rapidly, miraculously survives a bullet and cliff fall, and eventually, as a retiring cop, is subjected to bizarre torture by his boss and his adoptive father. How will this hook into the threads of the Cyber-war and Timeless Child? It’s pointless to speculate, but it is intriguing.

Doctor Who - Ascension of the Cybermen

On the edge of the universe the Doctor tracks down Ashad the emotive Cybermoan from the previous episode, and rues involving her team (“I’ve been so reckless with you”). The foursome’s ineptitude in this warzone only adds to the sense of peril. Their gadgets are swiftly destroyed by Cyber-drones (alarming flying heads) and, inexplicably, they cannot retreat to the Tardis. Separated and on the run, Yaz, Ryan and Graham remain so plucky and brave that we can’t help but root for them or worry – or even hope (you know who you are) – that somebody won’t come out of this alive.

The remnants of humanity with whom they engage are a sorry bunch. So fast is the action that they barely register as characters and their names are lost, though all are suitably desperate and grubby. Steve Toussaint (as former teacher Feekat) looked like he’d stay around longer. Julie Graham fares best (with smutty cheeks but thick, immaculate eye-liner) as Ravio, a nurse in a former life who takes a shine to Graham. “Strange is a compliment,” she tells him. “I like strange.” Flirting in the face of adversity is never a good sign.

Patrick O’Kane gives another deliciously sinister performance as the Cybermoan, who was “chosen to revive the glory of the Cyber race… The death of everything is within me.” Cheerful! As Ravio observes, Ashad is “a Cyberman that makes other Cybermen scream”. He’s proper nasty. And he turns the Cybermen, who let’s face it can be unutterably dull, into a palpable threat.

Ashad (Patrick O'Kane) and the other Cybermen (BBC)

Creating his own aftermath of a Cyber-war and the AI “Cyberium”, Chibnall has effectively overwritten Neil Gaiman’s abysmal Nightmare in Silver (2013) and its “Cyberiad”. Ascension of the Cybermen is brutal, tense and rollicks along, with returning Spyfall director Jamie Magnus Stone expertly handling the high-energy set-pieces and grand spectacle. The space-hardware FX, the interior of the Cyber war-carrier and the Cyber-costumes in various states of polish and distress are all first-rate. Segun Akinola cranks up the unease with an edgy score.

So far, Chris Chibnall’s Ascension is nudging up among the best Cyber-tales, such as Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis’s The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967), Eric Saward’s Earthshock (1982) and Steven Moffat’s World Enough and Time (2017).

I may not be smitten with the “Everything changes!” shtick. That was John Barrowman’s mantra in Torchwood and it led nowhere memorable or interesting. But bring on part two, The Timeless Children – and further revelations…

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Catch up on all the Jodie Whittaker episodes in the Radio Times Doctor Who Story Guide.