BIT OF ADRENALINE, DASH OF OUTRAGE – Our Thoughts on “Ascension of the Cybermen”

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Loafers (@LoafersWrites on Twitter) is a film and TV critic who has been published in the Sundae and the Mary Sue. Loafers is 24, lives in Waterford, and believes that the best Doctor is Clara Oswald. To find out more, check out the website.

Andrew (@scarvesandcelery) is a co-creator of DoWntime, writing the once-regular, occasionally-revived column “Scarves and Celery”, and still works as one of the site’s editors. He has also written and acted for Doctor Who fan audio series “The Twelfth Doctor Adventures”. His favourite Doctors are Peter Capaldi and Christopher Eccleston.

Janine (@janinemrivers) is a writer and script editor, formerly in charge of this column (now having much more fun as a reader), also formerly in charge of The Twelfth Doctor Adventures, but now busy script-editing and producing podcasts including Verity Weaver and India Ink for iTunes and Spotify.  Her favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi.

Loafers: Welcome back to Dash of Outrage. This week, most humans are dead, and the fam runs away from Cybermen. Meanwhile-ish, a nice lad named Brendan lives an entire life in rural Ireland. What did we think of the episode?

Janine: I actually enjoyed that an awful lot.  It wasn’t perfect, and as per usual, my script editor brain certainly could go into overdrive analysing all the minute flaws of the episode.  But this season (with the exception of “Spyfall”) has been such a vast improvement on the last that I’ve been willing to let a lot of my usual criticisms slide.  For the most part, it’s been fun, competently made, original Doctor Who, that’s slowly but surely been overcoming a lot of the flaws specific to the Chibnall era.  It hasn’t yet asserted the sort of profound, hopeful vision I loved the last two eras of the show for — but the last two weeks, for my money, have shown that it just might.  Without going into too much this early into the discussion, I thought the thematic cohesion this week was phenomenal.  It may not have reinvented the Cybermen, but it’s shown that there are still new and relevant stories to tell with them.

Andrew: It was good. A solid piece of drama for the fam, with a good line in survival horror, and some of Chibnall’s most natural dialogue for the series. Brendan’s storyline was genuinely some of the most naturally moving human drama Chibnall’s written for Doctor Who, told very deftly, and was genuinely fascinating as a tease for next week. Setting aside minor gripes with anti-climax of the Master reveal at the cliff-hanger, and the nagging sense that Brendan’s storyline was more naturally engaging than the leads’, and with the natural caveat that this was very much part one to an old school two-parter, so my feelings on it could change by this time next week, this might be my favourite Chibnall episode, and this is shaping up to be a strong finale.

Loafers: I totally agree with both of you. I found myself totally engaged with this. Chibnall’s dialogue and plotting vices, while present, are tempered to the point that I would only gripe about it as much as the weak spots of previous showrunners. Of course, I always try to go into Who with good faith. It was easier than ever to do so this time.

Andrew: I thought we saw a lot of Chibnall’s thematic preoccupations coming back this week – most noticeably, the use of another heroic police officer, and an exploration of faith that’s much more agnostic than most previous Doctor Who (the Cyber Zealot being counterbalanced by the more positive vision of faith seen in the heroes’ search for Ko Sharmus). And that interested me too on rewatch.

Janine: That’s definitely something I love about a lot of the best Doctor Who, though — the sixteen-year-old atheist in all of us wants it to be a sciencey show about science, but many of my favourite Doctor Who stories have such a strong undercurrent of faith (“Gridlock” most of all).  That’s definitely something Chibnall could bring to the show, as a man whose writing strikes me as that of an agnostic who just can’t believe with any conviction that he lives in a godless universe.

Loafers: That’s fascinating. Do you two want to elaborate more on faith in the episode?

Andrew: Chibnall’s explorations of faith (in Doctor Who and elsewhere) never hit the New Atheist vibe that is sort of the default for Doctor Who, and they also feel a bit more than RTD’s attempt at understanding something he could never believe himself in “Gridlock”. Re. this episode, the first moment that stood out for me was this exchange between Yedlarmi and Bedscot (I’m only remembering the names because I have the transcript in front of me):

“BESCOT: To Ko Sharmus. And the Boundary. It’s where we’ve been trying to get to. Our only point of safety.

YEDLARMI: Yeah, that’s what we’ve been told.

BESCOT: You’ve got to believe, Yedlarmi.

YEDLARMI: Do we? And how’s that working for us?

BESCOT: It’s the best we’ve got.”

Janine: I’m actually of the opinion that RTD still does the best faith-driven stories — there’s something in him that’s drawn to and fascinated by faith, even if he doesn’t have any himself.  But this is certainly different.

Andrew: In a story with a religious zealot as the talking face of the Cybermen, this frames the heroes’ quest as one of faith and belief, too.

Janine: Almost a pilgrimage…

Andrew: See, Janine actually knows the words to use.

Janine: And of course, this is literally an episode called “Ascension of the Cybermen”.  We don’t yet know what the eponymous ascension is, and it could just be a weird Chibnall thing, but the whole idea of it has my brain in overdrive.  It’s very true to the Cybermen, too: they’ve always been about drawing humanity towards its telos, us out-evolving ourselves to become the ultimate lifeform.  It’s natural to think that quest would end in a sort of spiritual ascension beyond the technology and logic which has previously defined the Cybermen.

Andrew: I like that a lot! Going back to the “Pilgrimage to Ko Sharmus” reading, the other part of the plot that jumped out to me was this exchange between the Doctor, Ryan and Ko Sharmus:

RYAN: So where’s this Boundary? Cos that’s just the sea.

KO SHARMUS: This is where it starts, every time. Where I’ve seen people go through, and I hope they’re alive and well elsewhere.

DOCTOR: That’s quite a risk everyone’s taking. A leap into the unknown.

Janine: And that’s what I wanted to talk about in terms of the thematic cohesion of this story: when you compare that to survivors’ journey/pilgrimage to Ko Sharmus, and the seemingly unconnected Brendan plot… well, you get a really interesting exploration of, if not faith, then certainly survival.  What do we do in the face of the end of all things?  The Cybermen are all but wiped out, merely bits of junk floating through space; there are about five humans this side of the universe.  But the different approaches to survival there are telling us something.

Survival as a Cyberman isn’t really any sort of survival at all.  The humans, in contrast, survive because they work together, they hang on to their faith, they celebrate their identities.  They aren’t super-soldiers, but a community of ordinary people who survive through each other.  The Cybermen have all their clever plans, but it’s hard to imagine them making the leap of faith the humans do when they switch off the oxygen, or when they cross the Boundary and trust the universe to deliver them to safety.  It’s almost like salvation is only delivered to those who surrender themselves to the sheer might of nature, supplicating before the void like some sort of Homeric entourage.

Andrew: Crossing the Boundary itself is an act of faith (and hope, Chibnall’s other favourite buzzword for Thirteen that crops up a few times this episode) that a better life awaits on the other side.

Loafers: I’ve joked a few times on Twitter that Janine and Chibnall independently came up with the same idea for a Doctor Who story, but I think it’s worth discussing. Janine, your last story for the fan series Twelfth Doctor Adventures is “The Owl of Minerva” / “The Falling of the Dusk”. I think it hits a lot of similar thematic ideas. Do you think that’s the case?

Janine: I do, yeah.  I mean, there’s the surface details of an advanced Cyber-AI from the future, a mysterious (female) incarnation of the Doctor, an exploration of what becomes of the Cybermen (and humanity) at the end of the universe, an emotional, monstrous parody of survivalism becoming the mouthpiece for the Cybermen — but I guess it’s very natural that we landed on the same ideas, because I think it’s a testament to both of us (if I say so myself): this just is the story you get when you look at the state of the world, look at the Cybermen, and try to pay off the way they’ve been explored over the last few years.  The Moffat influence is there, but so is the real-world influence; the survivalism cults and the (often faith-driven or multi-faith) communities that stand in opposition to them. I’m a bit gutted that I didn’t get my story out sooner – it was meant to come out just before Series Twelve started – but I’m just flattered that I had an idea so good the Head Writer of Doctor Who spent the entire budget on it.

Loafers: Now, I think it’s high time we talk about Brendan. This lad wasn’t explained within this episode, which irked some but pleased me. It left me wondering how the four strands – Doctor, Graham/Yaz, Brendan, and Gallifrey – connect. A little messy, but it’s a Moffat-style move of creating tension out of the question ‘What kind of story is this?’

Andrew: Yeah, I liked the Brendan plot, and the decision to leave the connection to the Regulars’ story unexplained until next week. The script leaves you confident you’re going to get answers next week, so I’m happy to wait for now.

Loafers: Also, I love being confused! It rules! Just throw colours and shapes at me! Explain nothing!

Janine: So I theorised after the episode (and hinted at this above) that the whole thing is about survival — so while the plots don’t cohere (yet), the themes *do*.  My theory about Brendan is the same as a lot of people’s: he’s the Timeless Child, an immortal being of another species, whose endless life was exploited by the people who would later become Time Lords.  So, again — survival, immortality; the Cybermen in the future, the humans in the future, and the Time Lords, all playing into a commentary on what it is to live forever and how far you can go before survival becomes something monstrous.  If I’m right, then the survival of the Time Lords, the whole concept of regeneration, is built upon the suffering of an innocent being.

Loafers: Permit me some speculation. I’ve said this on Twitter and will repeat myself here: the memory-wiping technology used on Brendan must also be the reason that Thirteen doesn’t remember Ruth and vice versa – and why Ruth spent some time not knowing she was the Doctor. I do think that the Gardaí (Irish guards) are Time Lords, although whether they’ve become Time Lords yet remains to be seen. That the next episode is called “The Timeless Children” makes it easy to guess that Brendan isn’t the only immortal getting memory-wiped; one assumes that the Doctor and Master were also subject to this. It’s easy to draw a line from that to Ruth. Why are the Gardaí doing this? Based on the themes, I would guess survivalism.

Andrew: I like that theory! What I appreciated about Brendan’s plot, independent of the mystery, was that it was told with admirable emotional economy – I really felt the heft of his parents being allowed to foster him, and his quiet efforts to hush up the circumstances of his survival and live a normal life, such that his Dad’s betrayal really is a brutal gut punch. Also, Brendan’s Dad, not having aged a day, appearing outside the station on Brendan’s retirement day is a genuinely brilliant “What the Fuck” moment. Possibly the best Chibnall’s written for Doctor Who.

Loafers: Before we move on from Brendan, I want to say that the way rural Ireland is portrayed could have been much worse but definitely got a few chuckles out of me. The bit where Brendan chases a robber through a field all the way to a cliff edge is mostly down to Chibnall’s weird plot logic but also seems to suggest that Ireland is all fields. The accents were also hit and miss. Still, it’s genuinely funny to me that An Garda Siochána may end up tied inextricably to Doctor Who lore. Speaking of lore: Gallifrey is here, as we all expected!

Andrew: While I wasn’t sold on the decision to re-destroy Gallifrey (as I felt it was trying to recreate the status quo of series 1-7 rather than do anything new), and still feel there was more to be gotten out of a Doctor Who universe with a Gallifrey that hadn’t been destroyed, I do feel, at this end of series twelve, that the new “Gallifrey gets destroyed again” plot has done enough to distinguish itself from the Time War, and as such, is an earned creative decision, and not an attempt to recreate the past.

Loafers: I totally agree.

Andrew: Here, Gallifrey the planet can still be visited, and there’s potential to bring in Gallifreyan characters who survived the master’s attack if the show chooses, and the arc has given us a way to learn more about the show’s lore (never my favourite part of Gallifrey stories, but definitely a part of the show Chibnall can explore, and should if he wishes to). That said, I’m going to have to step aside and let others do theorising, that’s never something I’ve been good at.

Loafers: I’m not a fan of the rare occasions where stories mainly focus on lore, but I like a little lore as a treat.

Andrew: A little lore as a treat can definitely be fun.

Janine: I mentioned on Twitter a very optimistic possibility about all this: if Chibnall is leaning into “the Time Lords are irredeemably awful and their civilization is built on suffering and exploitation,” it gives the Doctor a chance to actually reject her status as a Time Lord altogether and embrace a new vision for herself going forward.  Race is just a construct, at the end of the day; what does it really mean to be a Time Lord?  It would be fascinating for her to realise what her society really was, and then choose to define herself against that.  And maybe for the first time in all these years you’d have her call herself something *other* than Time Lord, and maybe that’s too big a change, but I like it — Time Lord is a title, not a race.  If Gallifrey is destroyed, perhaps its destruction is an opportunity to reconstruct something else in its place.  Maybe Gallifrey survives but outlives the Time Lords; its civilisation becomes a utopia for the last human refugees, a new society that the Doctor can still belong to as a moral participant.  I love that idea, but I doubt that’s where it’s going.

Andrew: I would love it if they did go there, that would be a wonderful idea.

Loafers: “I’m the Doctor.” “Doctor Who?” “Doctor Skywalker.” (Sorry.)

Janine: And that idea points towards what’s likely to be my biggest issue with this arc: that is, the best emotional drama you can mine from an exploration of Gallifreyan history is to have the Doctor stand apart from it, realising that her life was built upon that; that she is a Time Lord and embodies that history.  If it turns out that the Doctor is the Timeless Child (the victim, then), there’s no moral quandary for her.  She’s a lot less interesting as someone who was just wronged and actually belongs to an innocent, maybe even supernatural species.  Not acknowledging the privilege built into the character feels like such a copout.

Loafers: I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Either way, this very much seems like a story that understands that the Time Lords are the bad guys, and that counts for a lot. Thirteen renouncing her Time Lord status would give thematic and dramatic credibility to the show’s (and Chibnall’s) insistence that this is a massive game-changer.

Andrew: Definitely, yes – this era’s had problems acknowledging and challenging the Doctor’s privilege (the closest it’s gotten was her speech at the end of “Villa Diodati”) But as you said, Janine, this season has done a good job of quietly addressing the flaws that had been building up through the Chibnall era up to this point – maybe this storyline can do the same.

Loafers: Is there anything else we’d like to discuss before wrapping up?

Andrew: I thought Yaz and Graham were well served by their plot but was very bugged by the lack of anything Ryan had to do this week. Hadn’t seen anyone comment on that yet, but he definitely got the short end of the “this era can’t handle four leads” stick this week.

Janine: I was so excited when I saw him teaming up with Thirteen, too!  But there’s this weird reluctance to explore Thirteen’s relationship with *any* of her companions on a one-to-one basis.

Andrew: Agreed – which is a shame, because I really love the idea of the show exploring Thirteen’s relationship with Ryan – there’s potential there to explore a type of Doctor/ companion the show hasn’t gone near before, there, but the show never has. But Yaz and Graham getting to play Doctor to the Doctor role for the group of human survivors was a lovely “seasoned companions show their character growth” moment.

Janine: And I knew Graham was finished as soon as Yaz said, “You’ve come a long way, Graham O’Brien.”

Loafers: RIP Graham. He did it, mate.

Andrew: That was a really sweet moment, mind – you actually felt the bond between the characters, just with that small, honest moment (the type of moment the show won’t give Thirteen with any of the fam, dammit). On rewatch, I also thought that Graham and Yaz both getting moments where they give the technobabble explanation of the Cyber-fighting tech to individual survivors was a nice character moment to set up their Doctor-ish roles this week

Loafers: I do think the “you’ve come a long way” beat would have landed better if Graham hadn’t been basically keeping up as early as “Ghost Monument.”

Andrew: Yeah, I think I liked that moment more for the warmth between Graham and Yaz rather than any meaningful sense of character growth for Graham.

Janine: And oh boy, was I unhappy with the cliff-hanger this week.  We’ve already had one surprise Master cliff-hanger; this one was never going to live up to that — but even in light of that, it was bad.  It’s particularly telling that Segun Akinola, whose haunting final piece was building up to a beautiful crescendo, abruptly cut off and ended on a really meagre little echo of the Master’s theme, as if to say “Eh, that’ll do”.  Nothing about that was as interesting as Chibnall thought it was: the arc tease (we’ve been hearing the same thing in trailers all week), the character (bleurgh), Gallifrey (less interesting now there’s no one else there).  This episode was a masterclass in suspense, but then in that final moment, it just fizzled.

Andrew: Minor niggles mentioned above aside, I really enjoyed this. Probably Chibnall’s best episode for the show – I’m genuinely excited to see what the show throws at us on Sunday. At this point, I think I can happily join the people saying series 12 has felt like a substantial step up from series 11.

Janine: I really loved that, and it’s so hard not to see the potential in this storyline: a smart, reliable writer would turn next week into the best Doctor Who episode ever written.  As it is… well, Chibnall could do lots of things, not all of them good, but not all of them bad.  I’m reserving judgement on the series as a whole.  Importantly, this is the show playing with a set of concerns that are very important to me, building upon stories I love, being confidently Doctor Who again.  Long may that last…