Doctor Who: Ascension of the Cybermen/The Timeless Children ★★★

A brutal, tense set-up dissolves into a woeful morass of 'Master-splaining' as the Doctor's personal history gains wads of earlier chapters

Sacha Dhawan as the Master in Doctor Who

“Be afraid, Doctor. Because everything is about to change – for ever!” – the Master

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Story 295

Series 12 – Episodes 9 & 10

Storyline
In the far future, the Doctor and her gang arrive on a planet ravaged by Cyber Wars and team up with a disparate band of refugees. Their defences destroyed by Cyberdrones, the survivors flee through space, pursued by Cybermen led by Ashad. They head for salvation at a mythical place called Ko Sharmus. Meanwhile, in rural Ireland, a young man called Brendan is seen growing up, joining the Gardaí and proving to have remarkable powers of survival. Ko Sharmus turns out to be the elderly guardian of the Boundary to another dimension – through which the Master triumphantly appears.

Again in league with the Cybermen, he has prepared a trap for the Doctor. The Boundary is a portal to Gallifrey, where the Master has wiped out the Time Lords and laid waste to their Capitol. He is furious that they’ve been lied to for centuries but delights in revealing that the Doctor is in fact “the Timeless Child”, who long ago gave rise to the Time Lords’ regenerative powers. Irish Brendan and the mysterious Doctor who was Ruth are just two of many previous incarnations the Doctor has been unaware of. The Master also turns his allies and the slain Time Lords into CyberMasters, but Ko Sharmus destroys them by activating a “death particle” developed by Ashad.

The Doctor’s friends arrive safely back on Earth but she is imprisoned in space by the Judoon…

First UK broadcasts
Ascension of the Cybermen – Sunday 23 February 2020
The Timeless Children – Sunday 1 March 2020

Cast
The Doctor – Jodie Whittaker
Graham O’Brien – Bradley Walsh
Yasmin Khan – Mandip Gill
Ryan Sinclair – Tosin Cole
The Master – Sacha Dhawan
The Doctor – Jo Martin
Ashad – Patrick O’Kane
Ravio – Julie Graham
Ko Sharmus – Ian McElhinney
Yedlarmi – Alex Austin
Feekat – Steve Toussaint
Bescot – Rhiannon Clements
Ethan – Matt Carver
Fuskle – Jack Osborn
Brendan – Evan McCabe
Patrick – Branwell Donaghey
Meg – Orla O’Rourke
Michael – Andrew Macklin
Sergeant – Caolán Byrne
Tecteun – Seylan Baxter
Solpado –Kirsty Besterman
Judoon Captain – Paul Kasey
Voices of the Cybermen and Judoon Captain – Nicholas Briggs
Cybermen – Matthew Rohman, Simon Carew, Jon Davey, Richard Highgate, Richard Price, Mickey Lewis, Matthew Doman, Paul Bailey

Crew
Writer – Chris Chibnall
Director – Jamie Magnus Stone
Series producer – Nikki Wilson
Music – Segun Akinola
Designer – Dafydd Shurmer
Executive producers – Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens 

RT review by Patrick Mulkern

The Ascension of the Cybermen

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.

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…


The Timeless Children

2.0 out of 5 star rating

What an awful, boring mess. That’s what I jotted in my notebook halfway through this Doctor Who finale and it didn’t much improve, so that’s what I pass on to you first, unadorned.

Despite Cybermen stomping around, the Master grandstanding on Gallifrey and the Doctor learning loads about her earlier lives, The Timeless Children manages to be spectacularly turgid, an overblown gush of nonsense that gobbles up almost 65 minutes of primetime television. Frankly, I’d rather have sat through a double edition of Countryfile.

Where to begin? “Everything is about to change.” Such is the Master’s teasing warning in the cliffhanger recap. I’m not remotely bothered if current showrunner Chris Chibnall scatters and scrunches the sacred texts. Really, there aren’t any. There is no Doctor Who Bible. Rather he has concocted an earlier, unknown Testament, but in so doing has stretched the mythology to breaking point. You can’t fault his audacity, but The Timeless Children can’t hope to be interesting, as any sense of drama or dramatic tension makes way for an exposition megadump. This lore fest might startle the drooling devotee but must signally fail to engage the programme’s dwindling audience.

I prefer the idea of William Hartnell being the first, the original Doctor, but numerous incarnations prior to his…? I can accept them. I’ve been intrigued by this concept since 1976 when eight unfamiliar faces popped up in the mind-bending contest in The Brain of Morbius. (“How far, Doctor? How long have you lived?”) We also already knew that the Doctor (in The Time of the Doctor) and the Master (in The Five Doctors) were offered a full new set of regenerations. So none of this is new.

The Doctor’s long, lost history exposed now offers one minor reward in that the “Irish” Brendan simulation establishes that he/she was at least once ginger, and a fine red head. Expect the actor Evan McCabe shortly to be whirled around the Who convention circuit and Big Finish audio merry-go-round. The finale disappoints by showing little of the magnificent Doctor Ruth (Jo Martin). This guff about the Gormless Kid, sorry, the “Timeless Child”, abandoned, dithering around on the Boundary to another realm, discovered by the Shobogan space explorer Tecteun, regenerating through a flurry of races and genders… This might read well in prose (one of the fan fantasies indulged by BBC Books perhaps), but narrated by Sacha Dhawan’s Master, at length, and enacted by a mute cast on BBC One, it does not make for involving television.

For me, the crucial line in this is Doctor Ruth’s: “Have you ever been limited by who you were before?” Let’s hope we can file all these earlier identities under Unclaimed Baggage, forget and move on.

Despite Dhawan’s considerable charm and maximum efforts, I miss the Master. I mean the proper Master. The original, you might say. I’m so lucky I grew up watching Roger Delgado’s interpretation in the 1970s. He was dastardly, suave, charismatic, utterly persuasive. I also miss Missy. A waspish, hilarious, black-hearted Mary Poppins who sought and earned redemption, expertly pitched by Michelle Gomez. Dhawan’s Master seems to be channelling the bonkers John Simm version. He’s trying too hard to be insane, pouring glee and little restraint into each scene, though his florid performance helps lift many a stagnant stand-and-mansplain moment.

It’s the third finale in recent years to rely on the Master/Missy in alliance with the Cybermen. Remarkably quickly, these new arrivals on Gallifrey are blended with Time Lord body parts; they also have time to augment their armour with the outré regalia, those silly ceremonial collars that even in their debut The Deadly Assassin were described as “seldom worn robes with their colourful collar insignia”. They look ridiculous.

When will the Who makers stop relying on the Cybermen? They are dullness personified. Ashad the Cybermoan shows some personality and promise but is “tissue compressed” in the most anti-climactic manner. His army yet again are lousy shots. It would have been gratifying had they at least grazed Graham, singed Yaz or flattened Ryan.

Accentuate the positives. There are some. The heart-warming interlude where Graham praises Yaz for being “such an impressive young woman… you’re never afraid and you’re never beaten”, then worrying he’s offended her sensibilities, is beautifully written and played. The Doctor using all her memories to blow the Matrix and free herself is a flurry of joy, and a rare example of the signature tune being used mid-programme. In a vacuum of tension, one scene gets close to suspenseful when Yaz, Graham and co hide inside Cybersuits and are stalked by Ashad. Oh, I also liked the minuscule beat of relief when Ravio (Julie Graham) steps out of a Tardis/20th-century house and realises, “This is Earth. We’re on Earth.”

Sacha Dhawan as the Master in Doctor Who
BBC

Apart from the deliberate obfuscation in Chris Chibnall’s script, which simultaneously reveals but withholds so much, a few minor quibbles remain. How did the Master escape from his trap at the end of Spyfall? How did he destroy Gallifrey? How did he wipe out the Time Lords, stop them regenerating or deep-freeze a selection for Cyberconversion? He just does. How did the Boundary establish a handy link between Ko Sharmus’s beach and Gallifrey? It just does. How do the Doctor and the humans get off the exploding Cybership and suddenly access a working Tardis? They just do. How on Earth can the Judoon materialise inside the Doctor’s supposedly impregnable Tardis? They just do.

Thus The Timeless Children clamps shut with a tedious cliffhanger. The Doctor being incarcerated is death to drama. Former showrunner Russell T Davies appreciated that and would never allow it during his tenure.

Series 12 has improved on series 11 but, tragically, Doctor Who has been haemorrhaging viewers. At least in the UK. It’s still being made by well-intentioned, dedicated cast and crew, but it has become old hat on a good day and old toot on a bad one. They can’t physically produce the rate of episodes the BBC secretly would like each year, nor to a high enough standard. Will another overhaul help? A casting coup to entice young or disenchanted viewers? I would look to the emerging talent in Netflix’s Sex Education.

This finale demonstrates that “everything is about to change” does not equate to “everything is about to improve”. With luck, there are a lot of lives left in the good Time Lord but, with a heavy heart, I’m saying she/he deserves – and indeed needs – a lengthy rest.


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