Doctor Who – Season 12, Episode 9: Ascension of the Cybermen – Reviewed

After a season that has raised many tantalizing questions and been very cagey about their answers, the two-part finale of Doctor Who season 12 began this week with Ascension of the Cybermen. But while it provides a great, appropriately thrilling follow-up to last week's The Haunting of Villa Diodati, it is certainly not the first half of a finale that this season may have lead us to expect - and that is a good thing, at least for now. The episode packs some surprises; less in what it reveals, and more in what it doesn't, and how it doesn't. This whole season has been about building up mystery and adding layers of depth to the 13th Doctor era, and this episode continues that trend excellently. After season 11 was frequently criticized for consisting almost exclusively of one-off threat-of-the-week episodes at the expense of any larger story arc or mythos, season 12 has expanded and enriched the universe in often unexpected ways. Old heroes and villains have returned, elements of the show's canon going back to the original series have been brought back with new twists, and in some key ways the show's mythology has been turned on it head - or at least the show has threatened to turn its mythology on its head. In a typical season, one would expect the two-part season finale to spend its entire extended runtime untangling these new mysteries, but instead, Ascension of the Cybermen just deepens them further.

There were a lot of big, looming questions from the season going into this episode: questions about Ruth, about The Master and what he may or may not have done to Gallifrey, questions about The Timeless Child, and questions about dark secrets in The Doctor's past that are secret even from The Doctor herself. But rather than diving into answers, part one of the finale adds still more mysteries to the pile, continuing the season's trend of adding depth and complexity to this era right up until the end. It feels like Doctor Who is playing a long game: like the days of the 13th Doctor era trafficking predominantly in monster-of-the-week stories are long gone, and the show is now primarily concerned with exploring and expanding the mythos, and maybe even redefining what Doctor Who is.

As The Doctor and her fam follow the Lone Cyberman into the future after the end of the previous episode, they bring us to the aftermath of the great Cyber War: a cataclysmic event that we have regularly heard about since the 2nd Doctor era, but have never actually seen firsthand. The conflict with the Lone Cyberman and his henchman than follows serves two purposes: to be a more or less straightforward thrilling Cybermen story that fleshes out the long-term mythology surrounding that race, and to move The Doctor and her friends closer to an increasingly surreal and opaque convergence of the season's other mysteries (presumably). It succeeds on both counts. As a Cybermen story it is very good indeed, quickly establishing the post-apocalyptic world that it inhabits, creating stakes that feel very real, and making the often-tropey cyborg soldiers pretty creepy and intimidating again. The Lone Cyberman makes a very strong lead villain; one who is all the creepier because of how totally insane, and totally not like a Cyberman, he seems. The number one rule of the Cybermen has always been that they have no emotions, and act on machine logic; with that rule out the window, all bets are off, and it makes him an oddly unpredictable villain despite being just the newest iteration of a recurring threat that goes back to 1966.

The episode does an equally good job of expanding the larger mystery at work within the season, introducing more tantalizingly strange and elusive elements into the bigger picture that part two of the finale next week will presumably contend with. Elements feel built upon gradually rather than suddenly dropped in as deus ex machinas, and the confusion feels as though it is truly adding to something fascinating, and not just being willfully opaque. There are moments in the episode that catch us genuinely off-balance, and that is a rare treat. As the mystery mounts, the bonds between The Doctor and her TARDIS team continue to be tested, and it provides both some excellent moments for character development, and some excellent moments to showcase the strengths of the four members of our ensemble. All in all, the elements in this episode are very well-balanced.

Of course, continuing to raise questions rather than working towards a resolution right up until the season's final episode does raise some concerns: has season 12, like season 6, introduced more elements than it can possibly resolve in one more hour with any kind of satisfying results? Part of me can't help but be nervous that next week's episode will be more rushed a denouement than these mysteries deserve, and I can't help but fear that only one more episode will not be enough. But on the other hand, it is entirely possible that everything we've seen so far is about more than just this season: that season 12 hasn't just been building its own arc, but also working with the mythos of the show to set up larger plot threads, and shape the Chris Chibnall era in a broader sense. By next week at this time we will know. Hopefully one more hour will suffice, and season 12 will end as strongly as it has built itself. But as it slides the last of those building blocks into place before all is revealed, Ascension of the Cybermen is a great first half of the season finale, if an unexpected and mysetrious one.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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