TARDIS 12-09 : Ascension of the Cybermen

Warning: This episode recap contains spoilers. Proceed with caution.

OK, so personal story time: I became a Whovian at the tender age of 10 when school friends encouraged me to check the show out. I was confused by my first episode (“Black Orchid,” if you’re curious) which confused me by being a very atypical episode, but there was enough there for me to fall in love and never look back. At the time I began watching, Peter Davison was the current Doctor (at least he was in the run that my PBS station was airing back in the late 80s) and so Five became My Doctor. I was also obsessed with boys, like any pre-teen, so Adric, the cherub-faced math prodigy companion, became one of my first TV crushes (this also explains why I like the recent multiple companion format so much; that’s how it was when I started out as a fan). If you’re a Classic Whovian, you can understand the impact that the Season 19 episode “Earthshock” had on me. For the benefit of the uninitiated, it’s a Cybermen adventure in which the Doctor and Co. ruin the metal men’s plans to destroy Earth by crashing a spaceship into it. The ship, the viewer discovers, is a transport carrying 15,000 Cybermen soldiers of a similar design to those found on the ship this week who would presumably subdue survivors and take over Earth following the crash. Adric is able to manipulate the controls enough to send the ship back in time and alter its trajectory, turning it into the projectile that causes the extinction of the dinosaurs. As the remaining humans escape, Adric stays behind, the only person with the skill to disable the Cyber device controlling the ship and save Earth. A straggling, injured Cyberman destroys the controls before Adric can completely disable the device and save himself.  It was the only time (depending on your definition of “companion”) during the Classic Who era that a companion died on-screen. So you can understand why, when Graham and Ravio discovered the dormant Cybermen in storage aboard the ship this week, I poured myself an enormous glass of vodka. Even before the Master showed up, I knew shit was about to go down.

“Earthshock” popped into my head close to the top of this week’s episode, as Yaz explained her device that diffuses particles of gold through the air, targeting the Cybermen’s allergy to that substance. I don’t believe the allergy has been mentioned in New Who (though research reveals that a website created for Cybus Industries claims the gold allergy present in earlier prototypes has been eliminated), so my mind was instantly drawn back to the classic episode I’m so very familiar with. Out of a combination of nostalgia and pure WTF I was left with after watching “Ascension of the Cybermen,” I decided to rewatch the classic episode it reminded me of. If you have the ability to do so in the next week, I highly recommend it. Aside from being a pretty great (albeit tragic) episode of Classic Who, you will get to see some great parallels between 5 and 13. Youth and fair hair and complexion aside, they have the same sort of flair and pith to their personalities and you can hear lines like, “Abandon methodical procedure for blind instinct!” and “I want to announce my PRESENCE and see what the response is” being said by 13, even though they are direct quotes from 5. It’s only logical that Chibnall & Co. would draw inspiration from the JNT-era of Classic Who, as it was most likely their first exposure to it as kids. So it’s an extra level of gratifying for fans of that era to see elements of that part of the show’s history reflected today. The other thing you will learn while watching “Earthshock” is that the Cybermen plan to destroy a conference of planetary leaders who are set to unite in a war against the Cybermen. Given what we have learned about where the Cybermen are in their history at the present point in the show, it seems like that might come up.

ANYHOODLE, let’s talk about the episode that aired this week instead of one that aired *checks notes* 38 years ago. We already knew the Cybermen had some new tricks up their sleeves with the lone Cyberman, but they didn’t stop there. The Cyber drones were pretty cool and a great way to immediately raise the stakes while demonstrating that although the Doctor has faced the Cybermen a lot, they have upgraded and adapted to eliminate all the weaknesses she has exploited previously. I can hear some people disliking them as not being canon, but honestly the Cybermen have new devices every time they show up, so it’s fine and shut up. It seems pretty clear the show was setting episodes largely on Earth to save the season’s budget to blow on some special effects shots in this episode and those were effectively chilling. We’ve come a long way from Cybermen busting out of hibernation through the plastic wrap and paper-mâché of the 80s.

As usual, the humans are the best of what the show has to offer, even when there are only a handful of them left. I really appreciated the care they took to explain that these last refugees are just normal folks forced into fighting for survival, those are always the best types of stories. Even though there were only a few people left, there were a lot of characters to keep track of. I do feel like everyone new that we met had their own identity, but there are some things that are unclear about some of these new people and it’s difficult to tell if that’s the case for story reasons or just due to the time constraints. I liked how Team TARDIS got broken up this week. Ryan getting left behind just felt like a natural consequence of the fast-paced action. Graham and Yaz aren’t the most natural pair, but I feel like she has natural leadership qualities in the Doctor’s absence and it was nice to see Graham back her every play. The idea of one or more of the companions leaving the show is ever-present in the back of my mind and it doesn’t look good for those two being trapped on the bridge of that ship with an entire Cyber army advancing on them. The spectre of Adric looming in my mind isn’t helping anything either.

Then again, Ryan is with the Doctor, but he’s also where the Master is, because, oh hey, the Master is back. Are you surprised? Well then congratulations on having been born in the last six weeks, because otherwise, there is no way you should not have expected to see the delightful Sacha Dhawan again. I mean, yes, the manner and timing of his re-emergence was surprising, but the fact of it was absolutely not. Surprised or not, I’m definitely pleased and furthermore intrigued to see where they’re going with this and what Gallifrey, Timeless Children, the Cybermen, and mid-century Irish orphan-turned- policeman Brendan have to do with each other or with anything at all. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention Brendan until I was over a thousand words into this, despite his story taking up a good chunk of the episode? That’s just how much stuff this episode had going on, that’s not my fault and I won’t apologize for it. What I will say is this: every other significant element of Who Canon that’s been touched upon in this season reappeared in this episode, so where TF is Captain Jack MFing Harkness?!?!?!?!

I mean, it’s a gross understatement to say I’m excited for the finale. It’s a good thing that the vodka I had last night was from a new bottle, because I’d venture that I’m going to need a little more to settle myself down between now and next Sunday night. My schedule is cleared and every to-do list item between now and then is just a box to tick off to get me there. See you then!

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