Whenever the Cybermen arrive in Doctor Who, the emotionless metallic hordes bring with them only the dread tension of despair. They’re inevitable, relentless, unstoppable, ever building and ever marching. The first half of Doctor Who’s season finale brings this dread and wants to answer it with hope. But for once, it’s not just the Cybermen’s foes that are hoping.
Not a lot actually happens in “Ascension of the Cybermen,” for better or worse. As the clear first half of a story we’re still waiting to see fully unfold, it is light on answers, and heavy on set-up. The Doctor and her friends have reached the last days of the Cyber Wars, with Cyberkind and Humankind alike dwindled to their final survivors—only to find that not only are the former a little more plentiful than previously thought, but there’s a whole other problem to deal with: humanity’s remnant has been escaping their cyborg pursuers through a rift in space, watched over by the mysterious Ko Sharmus (Ian McElhinney, Game of Thrones’ very own Ser Barristan Selmy), opening up to randomised, distant parts of the universe. Except, inconveniently for the Doctor, this time it’s opened up to the same pocket universe Gallifrey had been hiding in since being saved from the Time War, where her archnemesis the Master, and more secrets to unfold, await her.
And that’s…sort of it, really. What does any of this mean for our heroes? We don’t know yet. Will the Cybermen prevail now that they have re-emerged from the shadows? We don’t know yet, either.
In a way, that’s also the story of the Cybermen, a force throughout Doctor Who’s history that has always benefited from the build-up of tension much more than they have the actual release of that tension. The Cybermen, by their very nature, are their strongest in the shadows—then their threat is lurking, inevitable, and seemingly unstoppable, and the dread inherent to their horror as human facsimiles is allowed to linger. The actual act of fighting and defeating them has never been the strongest part of their appeal and their fear. It’s why, over the years, we’ve had them defeated in such silly ways, from gold dust to glitter guns, from head-popping emotional inhibitors to the literal power of love. Much like this episode itself, the Cybermen are great at atmosphere rather than actual, direct action.
But the relatively minuscule advancement in the plot of this finale here allows the episode to linger on a fascinating question about its titular heroes that it had started to touch upon in last week’s 19th-century horror epic, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati.” It’s one that asks us to consider something we’ve seen in countless Cyberman stories before and draw a new parallel between humanity and its cyborg mirror: What does a Cyberman with hope look like?
Because really, that’s what Ashad’s—the battered, beaten, and broken Cyberwarrior we met last week—journey throughout this episode is about. Just as it is with the scant few human survivors Graham and Yaz find themselves tagging along with throughout “Ascension,” Ashad is driven by hope. While the humans just want to escape across the mythical boundary to freedom (well, we’ll see about that, I guess), Ashad just wants to see his own people thrive again, to survive…and eventually rule. Yes, it’s a hope driven by a cruel and terrible goal—the extinction of races so that the Cybermen may rule dominant—but…it’s the Cybermen. Their goals are usually driven by cold, hard, programming: they’re better than organic life, and therefore must convert and rule the universe to their own kind. Hope? That’s an emotion that feels both puzzling and fascinating to attach to them.
And yet, that’s what this episode does constantly, making an alluring mirror to the trajectory of the humans we meet here too. Their story too is one driven by hope: first, the distinct absence of it, so wholly tired of fighting that they’re practically waiting to die. But especially when Yaz and Graham find themselves with them for one last attempt to escape to the boundary by our human remnant—Ravio (Julie Graham), Yedlarmi (Alex Austin), and Bescot (Rhiannon Clements)—they’re confronted by humans who are so tired, so scared, and so utterly defeated that hope is an almost alien concept.
Every time they dare to contemplate it at Graham or Yaz’s encouragement—doing their best to be Doctor-esque, even separated from her after the initial Cyberattack—they’re rewarded with perseverance, but also a new nightmare to face: sure, their tattered spacecraft gets away, but they leave the Doctor, Ryan, and Ethan (Matt Carver) behind. Sure, they survive its drive overloading, but they drift aimlessly into the mass Cyber-graveyard that is the battlefield of the Cyber War’s largest clash. Sure, they managed to find a way to push themselves onto the safe harbour of a giant ship among the debris, but it turns out that ship is a Cybermen Troop Carrier, fit to bursting with Warrior-caste Cybermen. Every time these people are asked to believe in hope—hope to survive, hope to escape, hope to not immediately die—and do so even for a moment, they’re rewarded with despair.
Ashad and his two Cyber-pals, meanwhile, are likewise driven by hope throughout the episode. A maligned hope as it may be, but unlike our human heroes, they are rewarded for that hope repeatedly. Initially, Ashad gets to bite a proverbial thumb at the Doctor, not just overcoming her brash plans to stop him in his tracks but getting to kill off a few humans in the process. His faith in the Cybermen’s rise persistently unsettles her, and yet that faith—that hope, that clarity in purpose he now feels thanks to the Cyberium (basically a Cyberman almanac) coursing through his techno-organic veins—puts him on the path to chase Graham, Yaz, and the remaining humans down. Ashad arrives at the same Troop Carrier they found, and ultimately begins to reawaken a whole army of his kind, ready to finish the task he had started so long ago.
And he relishes in that hope, as if it’s an almost religious experience—this isn’t just the rise of the Cybermen but their ascension, Ashad as the zealous host to a new era for their kind. When the Doctor attempts to needle him from afar as this self-loathing walking irony, a Cyberman who hates emotion but is so wholly driven it, Ashad just…accepts that truth. He is at peace with who he is, in spite of those paradoxes, because the Cyberium has shown him that hopeful vision of the Cybermen ascendant. The idea of a hateful Cyberman as we saw last week was already unnerving enough, but the idea of one that can share one of our most powerful emotions is altogether more chilling.
Stories about the Cybermen always invite us to hold up a mirror ourselves and consider the horror these metallic beings represent through it. That’s what has always driven the greatest and most compelling part of the Cybermen’s fear: they are us, but askew. We’re always invited to note how familiar they are but also fear what is absent from that familiarity—the lack of a true face beyond the metal, unmoving mouth slot, the lack of emotions, all these hallmarks of what we feel make us human and how they are not quite represented in this dreadful merging of flesh and steel. “Ascension” asks us to instead consider a Cyberman so like us that the things we’d typically find absent in them are still there, deep down, pulling the mirror ever closer to our own visage.
Whether or not next week’s climactic follow-up will deliver on just how fascinating and chilling this concept is remains to be seen. We’re clearly heading into more of a focus on whatever the Doctor and the Master will be up to rather than our Cyber-friends, now forced to play the supporting role to the true villain. But if it does, we could see a fascinating take on the Cybermen that could make their future returns all the more compelling. Just as with so much of this episode’s set-up, we’ll have to wait and see now that the stage is set.
Although we don’t get to see much of them this episode, I really, really do love the latest Cybermen design. It’s a smart update of the “Nightmare in Silver” style we’ve had recently, but with elements that feel right out of older iterations—the larger earmuffs are obviously very ‘70s/‘80s era Cyberman, but the subtle lining down their arms feels like a good throwback to even earlier designs. I just wish they’d had something more to do.
One other major thing running throughout all this episode is the bizarre subplot about a mysterious young man named Brendan (Evan McCabe). He was found abandoned as a child in what vaguely looked around the 1940 or ‘50s, became a Garda (the Republic of Ireland’s version of a Police officer), seemingly could cheat death, and then…had his mind wiped by his unaging dad and boss when he retired? There are no signs in this episode of it being connected to the Cybermen—I thought it might be Ashad’s origin story at first, but apparently not—so is…Brendan the Timeless Child? Does he have something to do with Gallifrey’s fall? So many questions and basically no answers.
Speaking of our last Cyberman, it’s never explained why Ashad woke up those first few Cybermen by…making them scream? What was he doing? Why did the first few have to be tortured to be re-activated, but all the other Cybermen on the ship were fine?
The lovely idea of all the old anti-Cybermen tactics—use force fields! Make them feel emotions! Here’s some gold dust!!!—being what the Doctor brings to the table only for none of it to actually work or matter was great. Time to find some new tricks, Doctor!