Doctor Who: 17 big questions after Ascension of the Cybermen
Who is Brendan? How did the Master return? What are the Cybermen planning? And how does any of this relate to the Timeless Child?
Doctor Who series 12’s penultimate episode ended on one hell of a cliffhanger, with the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her friends facing a new army of Cybermen while The Master (Sacha Dhawan) returned with a scheme of his own.
And as the credits rolled we found ourselves with more questions than ever about what to expect from the next instalment. What exactly are the Cybermen up to? How does it relate to those scenes in Ireland? And how will any of this tie back to the Timeless Child?
Well, as ever we’ve tried our best to answer a few of these questions below. Starting with…
What are the Cybermen's weaknesses?
Early on, the Doctor and friends attempting to fight back against the Mondasian monsters using tried-and-tested methods – including a "neural inhibitor system" that'll drive the Cybermen insane by unleashing their suppressed emotions and a "particle projector" designed to release gold dust into the air.
Besides being susceptible to the precious metal (which clogs their respiratory systems) and their own buried feelings, the Cybermen are also vulnerable to radiation, chemicals and EMPs. You can read a full summary of their various weaknesses - and the Doctor Who stories in which they were first established - right here. Morgan Jeffery
Has Julie Graham been in Doctor Who before?
Well, no – but she’s no stranger to the Whoniverse, following in the footsteps of Bradley Walsh and Anjli Mohindra in first appearing in spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures before cropping up in Who proper.
In SJA she was an alien Qetesh who disguised herself as a human named Ruby White with an eye to feeding on Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah-Jane, so it’s fair to say that Ravio in Ascension of the Cybermen was a bit of a departure… Huw Fullerton
Who was Brendan in the weird Irish subplot?
Throughout the episode we cut away from the main Cyberman storyline to see the life story of a foundling called Brendan (Evan McCabe as a young man) who grew up in rural Ireland and joined the Gardaí (irish police) before things started to get strange for him.
After surviving a shooting and a cliff fall without a scratch, Brendan went on to grow old working for the Guards – but on the day of his retirement he was intercepted by his adoptive father and his police officer mentor, who hadn’t aged, and who took him to a room where they implied his memories would now be wiped.
By the conclusion of the episode we were none the wiser about Brendan’s true nature or how it ties into the main story. Is he a Time Lord in disguise? A Cyberman illusion? A relative of Captain Jack Harkness? Or could he have something to do with the Timeless Child?
We go into a few of our theories here… HF
Is Graham about to leave the TARDIS?
So did Ascension of the Cybermen just lay the groundwork for the departure of Graham (Bradley Walsh)? The bus driver turned galactic adventurer struck up a somewhat flirtatious relationship with Ravio, and Yaz's assertion that he's "come a long way" – displaying bravery and humour in the face of unspeakable terror – certainly felt like it was teeing up something.
It'd make a kind of sense for Graham to leave the TARDIS to travel with Ravio – he'd still get all the excitement of spacefaring adventure but it'd be just that little bit less manic than life in the TARDIS, which we can imagine he'd be keen on.
Prepare yourselves for a tearjerking farewell next week... MJ
How does this all fit in with Cyberman history?
If you were wondering whether the “Cyber-Wars” mentioned in this episode have factored into Doctor Who before, they have! 1975’s Revenge of the Cybermen picks up after the “Great CyberWar” where the Cybermen were defeated by a gold-firing glitter-gun (see “weaknesses” above), while 1982’s Earthshock noted another terrible defeat for the Cybermen in the 26th Century.
The latter story also established an “alliance” of humans trying to defeat the Cybermen, and this “alliance” was referenced by John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness earlier this series when he warned the TARDIS team about the Cybermen’s plans.
2013’s Nightmare in Silver noted another conflict with the Cybermen in the Tiberian galaxy, which ended in another Cyberman defeat. It seems likely, based on the models of Cybermen seen in Ascension of the Cybermen, that the latest episode takes place in the aftermath of a Cyber-War from around this time period.
If you fancy re-familiarising yourself with the Cybermen's appearances in Doctor Who, check out our full history here. HF
Why are there different types of Cybermen?
The Cybermen's design has varied greatly over the years. Of course in reality this is down to evolving production techniques and different creative teams wanting to put their own stamp on the iconic monsters, but within the fiction of the show, it's been explained away (in 2017's The Doctor Falls) by suggesting that different models of Cybermen originated independently on different home-worlds, including Mondas, Telos and a parallel Earth.
Interestingly, though, Ascension of the Cybermen - which features several different variants - suggests that there's more than one reason for the differing Cyber-designs, with the latest overhaul being described as "warrior-class" – implying that there are different models of Cybermen with different capabilities even within a single faction.
When it comes to explaining away a redesign, then, we're very much spoiled for choice. MJ
What was Ashad the lone Cyberman doing to the other Cybermen?
After gaining access to a massive army of “warrior-class” Cybermen, you might have thought that Lone Cyberman Ashad was sitting pretty – but apparently, his plans were only beginning, with the newly-declared Cyber leader painfully altering multiple Cybermen as they emerged from hibernation.
The humans watching wondered why this Cyberman would make other Cybermen “scream” – but could it have something to do with the Cyberium AI that Ashad stole in episode eight? Was he somehow injecting these Cybermen and raising their consciousness as part of his grand schemes to take their race further than they’ve ever been before?
Speaking of which… HF
Why are the Cybermen marching to Gallifrey?
In the Next Time trailer, it’s revealed that Ashad and his new troops are heading to the Doctor’s home planet – but why?
Are they hoping to become immortal, like the Time Lords once were? Or does their plan somehow involve the mystery of the Timeless Child, which series boss Chris Chibnall has promised will be (at least partially) solved in the series finale? HF
Why do the Cybermen follow Ashad?
Ashad (Patrick O'Kane) was a Cyber-reject, deemed unfit for the conversion process and rejected. So how has he now risen to the lofty heights of Cyber-leader? Why do the other 'pure' Cybermen now follow a being they previously discarded?
Perhaps, again, it has something to do with the Cyberium? Could Ashad be using it to reprogram other Cybermen, with his assault on them actually a kind of 'hack' that forces them to follow his will? His troops certainly seem in thrall to the AI, repeatedly trotting out their “Hail the Cyberium" mantra, so it's a strong possibility. MJ
Why are the Cybermen killing everyone?
Famously, what sets the Cybermen apart from other Doctor Who baddies is their desire to convert rather than execute their opponents, turning their captives into soulless monsters "like us".
That being said, they're rather trigger-happy in Ascension of the Cybermen – the Cyber-drones slaughter rather than subdue a pack of defenceless humans, while Ashad seems equally eager to murder perfectly good specimens.
Perhaps given that they're on a war-footing, the Cybermen have changed up their modus operandi somewhat and it's a case of shoot-first, convert-later? Besides, we know from 2014's Death in Heaven that certain Cyber-factions are able to resurrect the dead as their own kind, so maybe it's not all that important to the Cybermen whether their victims are breathing or not. MJ
How did the Master escape?
Last time we saw the Master he was trapped in the Kasaavin’s dimension with no escape – so how did he end up back on Gallifrey at the close of this episode?
Well, he’s the Master – he always escapes, even from death! It seems unlikely the series will bother to explain how he got out, but perhaps the Master was able to fashion a device to transport him back to our universe, or he cut another deal with the Kasaavin, and then picked up the TARDIS that the Doctor conveniently forgot to dispose of in Spyfall – Part 2. HF
What is the Boundary? How does it work?
Though we know approximately what the Boundary does – it's a gateway in space that somehow transports those who pass through it to another random part of the universe, with the destination co-ordinates in constant flux – we still don't know exactly what it is.
Is it a natural phenomenon, or something man-made? If it always opens a portal to a totally random destination, the odds of it offering the Doctor a path to Gallifrey seem infinitesimal – so has the Master somehow hijacked the Boundary? Could that be how he escaped the realm of the Kasaavin? MJ
Is Gallifrey in a bubble universe or not?
Stick with us on this one, kids, because things are about to get complicated...
The Time Lords' home planet Gallifrey was revealed - in Doctor Who's 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor - to have been frozen in time in a pocket dimension, not destroyed as was previously believed.
However, in 2015 episode Hell Bent, the Doctor discovered that Gallifrey had been unfrozen and moved to "the end of the universe". But then, in Spyfall - Part 2, the Master claimed that he'd visited Gallifrey within the pocket or "bubble" universe in order to wreak his revenge on the Time Lords.
Now, even if we assume that the Master crossed time-streams and returned to his home-planet before it left the bubble universe, that would mean that Gallifrey would have to be restored at some point before the Doctor visited it in Hell Bent.
Or possibly Gallifrey left and then later returned to the pocket 'verse? Perhaps the Boundary is a Time Lord creation, allowing them to transport their world in and out of 'our' universe at will? It would explain a lot... MJ
How do Time Lords age?
While hijacking a Cyber-fighter, the Doctor suggests she "used to hot-wire warp drives for fun on a weekend as a teenager" – before admitting that the concept of "weekends" and "teenagers" don't actually exist in Time Lord society.
So how does the Gallifreyan ageing process actually work? Well, going on past evidence, it appears similar enough to how humans age, but at a much slower rate – with regeneration throwing in an added complication...
We've seen both the Doctor (in the episode Listen) and the Master (in The Sound of Drums) as 'children', though in The Stolen Earth, the Tenth Doctor said that he considered himself a "kid" at age 90, so it's possible that both the Doctor and the Master were older here than their physical forms might suggest.
But while Gallifreyans physically age much slower than humans, they do age, with each incarnation of the Doctor visibly growing older throughout their tenure (which may, from their perspective, span hundreds or even thousands of years), before regeneration reboots their physical form.
Providing they're in their first body or regenerate into a young enough form, Gallifreyans can also grow into a state which us Earth folk would consider physically 'teenage' – the Doctor's granddaughter Susan was certainly able to pass as a teenager Earth girl for a time while residing in 1960s London.
So while the concept of "teenagers" as we understand it might not exactly exist on Gallifrey – those who appear physically teenage are in all likelihood much older – there certainly exists an 'inbetween' physical period bridging early and later life. MJ
Why is “everything going to change” for the Doctor?
When the Master appears in the last moments of the episode, the Master tells the Doctor to “be afraid,” because “everything is about to change, forever.”
Later, in the Next Time trailer he adds: “I told you before that everything you knew was a lie. Well now you get to face the truth.”
Presumably, then, what’s about to “change” is the Doctor’s understanding of both herself and her society. The Master previously teased this “lie” as related to the mysterious Timeless Child, who is somehow tied into the founding of Gallifrey and the Time Lords – so perhaps, when the Doctor finds out the truth she’ll be shaken to the core.
And if the Timeless Child mystery also relates to the new incarnation of the Doctor we met in series 12’s fifth episode – Jo Martin’s so-called ‘Fugitive” Doctor, who doesn’t fit into the previously-established sequence of regenerations – this earth-shattering information could also change how the Doctor sees herself. HF
Is there a connection to Jodie Whittaker’s first ever teaser in the finale?
This might be a reach, but in the Next Time trailer for episode 10 we see the Doctor and the Master facing off on a grassy hill, standing near a small plinth of some kind.
Watching the footage, we couldn’t help but notice the location’s resemblance to one used back in 2017 for the first trailer teasing Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who casting (see above) when a TARDIS key emerged on top of a very similar plinth.
So is this a coincidence? Well, maybe – Chibnall and the team might have liked the location and decided to use it again, assuming that’s it’s not somewhere completely different that just looks similar – but we like to think that some part of this Doctor’s story has been seeded from the very beginning. HF
And finally – how does any of this relate to the Timeless Child?
Given that the series finale is titled “The Timeless Children” it seems odd that we already have so many threads – the Cybermen, Brendan, the Master – with little connection shown to that final mystery.
But who knows? If the Doctor (or at least the Jo Martin version) is the Timeless Child as we’ve previously theorised, and the Master reveals that truth to the Doctor? Well, that would sort of tie the whole thing together.
Until we know more, we’ll give Who the benefit of the doubt for now… HF
If you want to read more about episode 10, Radio Times’ Doctor Who finale exclusive (featuring interviews with Sacha Dhawan, Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh) will be on sale from Tuesday 25th February.
Doctor Who returns on BBC One at 6:50pm on Sunday 1st March