Review by Tim Robins
Written by Chris Chibnall
Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone
The aftermath of the Great CyberWar. The Doctor arrives in the far future, intent on protecting the last of the human race from the deadly Cybermen. But in the face of such a relentless enemy, has she put her best friends at risk? What terrors lie hiding in the depths of space, and what is Ko Sharmus?
Having missed most of this new season of Doctor Who, I rather stumbled my way through the plot of the first part of the season finale, much as everyone on screen seemed to be doing. The episode opened with The Doctor and company running about on a devastated planet, deploying useless Cybermen-counter measures in an effort to save some of the surviving members of the human race in one part of the universe. A group of them ran off into space to find shelter beyond a mysterious barrier, and, along the way, we met a small baby who grew up while no one around him aged and, on retirement, was strapped to a chair and had his brains scrambled.
Which, coincidently, was not too dissimilar to what had been happening to me over the past few weeks, but that was nothing to do with Doctor Who.
Prior to Ascension of the Cybermen, my last recollection of the series was of the Doctor and ‘fam’ falling out of an aeroplane at the end of Spyfall, and wondering why the heck Chibnall was bothering with a franchise no child can possibly cares about (worryingly, a question that continues to be asked about Doctor Who itself). By the start of whatever came next, (“Spyfall Part Two, catch up!”, I am told), I was having trouble following the plot, and asked the redoubtable b to take over reviewing this series of Doctor Who, which, for me, had become gibberish. Also, on a personal level, I seemed to have become involved in an entirely different science fiction series.
I am fascinated by the way memory shapes perception in unfamiliar circumstances. Having accidentally given myself psychosis and getting hauled off to hospital, It took a long time for friends to convince me that I was not in middle of a reboot of Star Trek, featuring a child cast (most hospital staff seem about twenty-years old these days) and that the scripts I was reading were actually patient’s confidential notes.
(Bad news for some, they won’t be making it to next season).
Thankfully, I recovered, just in time to prevent a totally unnecessary Lumbar Puncture and talk down some nitwit teens who were trying to sedate me with some drug or other.
“So you want to knock me out?” I asked the Doctor, a security guard, a policeman (”my chest cam is on you know”, he declared) and the needle-bearing gruesome teen some.
“No, we’re trying to sedate you,” came the glib reply.
I calmly pointed out, “I am not behaving in a way that would suggest that I would need sedating, I’m just sitting on my bed chatting to you, so would that be ethical? And, since I’m not consenting to you sticking a needle in me, that act might well constitute assault”.
They backed down. Jon Pertwee, your third Doctor persona had served me well!
As I finally left the hospital, an on-site Doctor said that he admired my stand taken against having a Lumber Puncture. It turned out that his family grew up in Northern Ireland and had experienced Internment, a process that involved shady trials of suspected IRA supporters some of whom were to all intents and purposes torture and were force-fed during hunger-strikes in protest of their interment. I am certainly no prisoner fo the state, but my invective about hospitals not being above the law and that I was a citizen of a democracy, not a walking pin cushion, must have resonated with an aspect of that sad history.
So it was a synchronic Cyber-segway that, just as I was enduring being poked with a cannula, blood-sampling gizmos and painfully jabbed in the stomach with an arsenal of blood clot-preventing stuff, The Doctor was finding herself up against newly-resurrected Cybermen, a race of monsters who although motivated by tired, so very tired, conflicts between human emotion and mechanical logic, are at their scariest when they channel the bodily horror of human flesh versus medical technology.
Former showrunner, writer and executive producer Steven Moffat recognised this hospitalisation horror in his resurrection of the original costume design that premiered in The Tenth Planet in 1966. As others have noted, the creatures faces look like bandaged tissue, their hands appear to have been grafted onto mechanical arms and opaque plastic material seem to be holding together all manner of viscera. Elsewhere on their bodies, lungs, veins and muscles appeared to have been replaced by mechanical substitutes.
(This design hung around longer than you might imagine thanks to the “Doctor Who” comic strip in TV Comic, and so became for me the definitive look).
The Big Finish Fifth Doctor audio drama, Spare Parts, by Marc Platt, and the Modern era Series Two Russell T Davies two-parter, Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel returned the Cybermen to their chop-shop origins, with Davies gleefully cutting humans up with buzz saws and flying knives, discretely hidden behind makeshift cubicle curtains.
Indeed, back in the 1960s, Dr Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis were inspired to create the Cybermen as a result of advances in prosthetics and human transplants. Only a year later, Dr Chris Barnard would perform the first successful human heart transplant.
(This, by the way, was also an inspiration for the memorable Timeslip story broadcast in 1970, The Time of the Ice Box, which delved into similar chilling themes).
The Cybermen stepped in where Terry Nation would no longer allow the Daleks to tread and remained the key creatures of 1960s, although warranting only a cameo for the Doctor Who Radio Times Special and a glimpse in Carnival of Monsters in the early 1970s. Things didn’t improve with their arrival of producer Phillip Hinchliffe and script editor Robert Holmes, who were looking for more sophisticated thrill than the desultory Cybermen in Revenge of the Cybermen, a story that was yet another reworking of their creators’ by then over-familiar template.
The story did at least make reference to a CyberWar, partly to explain the least impressive gathering of Cybermen in the show’s history and introduced the creatures’ vulnerability to gold, a wearisome idea only made unexpectedly poignant in Eric Saward’s Earthshock during the Fifth Doctor era.
In truth, it is hard to make the Cybermen interesting and easy to get them wrong – as evidenced by their appearances in the series of the Sixth and Seventh Doctor’s eras, and, more recently, Neil Gaiman’s twee Nightmare in Silver demonstrated, despite referencing the title of Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad for the hive mind of the Cyber-race.
Chris Chibnall is therefore to be applauded for the introduction of a new Ashad, a genuinely grotesque figure introduced as the inspiration for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein Monster in The Haunting of Villa Diodati, a previous episode I’d missed (“Surely you’ve discovered iPlayer?” Paul asks me, a little incredulous).
In Ascension of the Cybermen, the story bounced along with the Doctor and “Fam” finding an unlikely group of human resistance fighters just before a flotilla of Cyberheads sailed over the horizon. The heads were apparently Cyber-drones, but they paled in comparison with the cyborg-human the master called Toclafane, that debuted in The Sound of Drums.
After a brief battle, Graham was packed off with Yaz and some humans to find a mysterious barrier that supposedly has allowed humans to flee the Cybermen. After much falling about the place, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea-style, the group choose a Cybermen battleship to continue their journey. What could possibly go wrong?
Elsewhere, Doctor-Cybermen scenes were intercut with a small baby (“Aw!”), growing up among ageless adults who celebrate his retirement by strapping him to a chair and wiping his memories clean. (If only that could have happened to me).
Fan theories have proliferated. Is this “The Timeless Child?” Is the village actually on Mondas? And are we witnessing the Time Lords creating the Cybermen?
It is clear that narrative mysteries and revelations have driven the more engaging episodes of this season of Doctor Who. There is always a worry that the denouement cannot live up to the preceding set up (I present The Trial of a Time Lord and “The Key to Time” seasons as evidence of this, or beyond Doctor Who, Lost).
I’m not sure the series finale, The Timeless Children, will clear things up. After all, Captain Jack and the Daleks are waiting in the wings. By the time a little old man was revealed as the keeper of that mysterious barrier, and the sky broke open to reveal Gallifrey and deposit the Master on a beach, and nothing seemed to be what it was, all I could think was, “Oh no! Not again!”
This review is dedicated to all my friends, family the staff of Brighton’s Sussex Royal Hospital and police who came to my aid despite me being, by common consensus during my unexpected ‘incarceration’, “an utter pain in the neck”.
CYBERIAD versus CYBERIUM…
The Cyberium is described as an AI which contained all the knowledge and future history of all Cybermen, (as noted in The Haunting of Villa Diodati) serving a role once held by the history computer. (as seen in The Tomb of the Cybermen, and in the Doctor Who novel, Iceberg by David Banks, and elsewhere). The TARDIS Wiki has background information here
The Cyberiad, which debuted in Nightmare in Silver, was the shared consciousnesses of the Cybermen, similar to a hive mind. It contained the collective knowledge of every active operating cyber-unit on any level. The Cyberiad was what any upgraded organism was connected to in order for any Cyber-Planners to control them. In addition, basic cyber-units would sometimes greet any near-upgraded organisms to the Cyberiad.
In the Twelfth Doctor Supremacy of the Cybermen comic written by George Mann and Cavan Scott, when the Time Lord Rassilon found the Cybermen at the end of the universe, he gave them leadership, and joined their Cyberiad. The TARDIS Wiki has background information here
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