Doctor Who: Ascension of the Cybermen

The penultimate episode of Season 11 of Doctor Who has arrived, and overall it’s quite a good one.

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Many Spoilers

The big selling point of course is the return, en masse, of the Cybermen, Doctor Who‘s second most famous alien threat.  The episode does quite a good job with them, introducing a few new wrinkles to their method of operation (flying Cyberman-heads that shoot lasers, for one) and makes them feel legitimately threatening–the tension that the characters feel as they are hunted down is palpable.  The stakes that these may be amongst the last remaining human beings seems absurd, but still serves to ratchet up the drama.

The Lone Cyberman, such as he is, is back, and though he is not entirely an original creation (being a partial Cyberman, after all) he is potentially fulfilling my desire for a new recurring antagonist.  This is because he comes with the threat of the Cyberman combined with the emotional struggles that keep him interesting.  His religious devotion to the Cybermen is different to what we’ve seen before, and I’m hoping the inevitable filling-in of his backstory does not diminish the impact he’s having so far.

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On the whole, both script writer Chris Chibnall and director Jamie Magnus Stone deliver a gripping installment to the series, and a contender for the tightest and strongest episode that the 13th Doctor has had so far.  The story makes solid use of its entire cast, including the companions, which is no mean feat.  Not that the companions are massively developed or anything–it’s more that they just feel purposeful to the plot and the episode doesn’t feel like it’s struggling to make room for them all.  Jodie Whittaker is never bad but in this episode she really has a lot to play with.  And the odd scenes of the abandoned baby Rufus add a lot of mystery and interest to the story.

Indeed, the only real weakness that I can see is a nitpick, which is the appearance of the Master at the end.  In this, the problem is not so much the fact that he shows up, but rather the use of his appearance as some sort of “closing shock” for the episode.  It is of course, not a shock at all that the Master is back–we’ve been fully expecting it for the entire season.  And since it is something we’ve been expecting, and since it didn’t happen earlier in this story, his eventual reappearance isn’t so much surprising as it is completely obvious and predictable.  It makes the ending feel cheap and uninspired, which is a pity because the rest of it is a consistent good time.

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However, I am worried about what is to come.  In part because of the show’s past difficulty with resolving stories as well as they are built up (I’m looking at you, Death in Heaven or Hell Bent).  But more because of the promise, given in both the dialogue and in the promotional material, that “everything will change” in the season finale.  Big plot twists are fine of course, and there are examples out there in fiction of “everything changing” and it being good for the story or series.  But I’ve read a lot of comic books and I’ve read a lot of “everything will change” stories which were disappointing–because the change was stupid or ill-conceived, or simply because of the diminishing returns associated with dramatically pulling the rug out from the reader / viewer’s feet too many times.  Eventually, you stop caring, because you know the rug will just be replaced in a little while with a similar or identical rug.  And then eventually you stop standing on the rug all together and look for a story that has its act together a bit more.  There are very few “everything will change” moments that readers and viewers legitimately have not seen before, so the fact that’s being promoted so clearly makes on feel like they are trying to compensate for weak storytelling.  All this is true as well for the “everything you know is a lie” sort of moment, except those revelations usually turn out to be even more ridiculous.  This season of Doctor Who has gone hard with both of these, which makes me worried that I need to be cautious because shallow writing lurks ahead.

But, obviously, this is all just speculation.  Maybe The Timeless Children will roll around and I’ll think it’s amazing–bringing out a new dimension to the show while maintaining its spirit and narrative consistency with beautiful finesse.

If my worried are unfounded, I’ll be the first to admit it.

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