This article covers the episodes Ascension of the Cybermen and The Timeless Children, which together form a single Doctor Who story.
“That which is dead can live again, in the hands of a believer.”
This one is going to divide opinion. This is the moment Chris Chibnall rewrites Doctor Who history. It’s a big change, and fans of Doctor Who aren’t necessarily known for embracing change, slightly ironically considering it is a series that changes more than any other. But before we get to the big stuff, let’s look at what else this story does.
Well, the other big thing is of course the return of the Cybermen as a major force once more. They keep coming back, don’t they. There’s always one last ship, packed full of them. For most of the story Chibnall goes with a greatest hits of the Cybermen. The ship with Cybermen in suspension is pure Earthshock, which itself borrows the dormant Cybermen idea from The Tomb of the Cybermen. People trying to disguise themselves as Cybermen by wearing the suits brings back unhappy memories of Attack of the Cybermen, and shares the same problem. In reality they are suits an actor can wear, but showing them to actually be that spoils some of the illusion. The scariest aspect of the Cybermen has always been the conversion process, the thought that metal and flesh are… integrated. Graham’s comment about not being able to “get the hat off” is amusing, but robs the Cybermen of something. At least we were left in no doubt that removing the person inside the suit was a messy and complex business.
Everyone who writes for the Cybermen seems to want to add some extra versions of them to an already very long list. Not content with bringing us the Cyberwoman in Torchwood, Chibnall here adds no less than three different versions. The one that I thought really worked well was the “Warrior Class” of Cybermen. They are visually almost pure Invasion, and look amazing. Those various 60s varieties of Cybermen were all really scary, so it’s a good place to look for inspiration. I wasn’t so keen on the Cyber Drones. Maybe children would find them frightening, but I found flying Cyber heads to be all kinds of silly… but not half as silly as the Cyber Time Lords. The idea behind them was absolutely terrifying: a form of Cybermen who get killed and then come back to life. But visually… I can’t say it didn’t make sense. After all, they are the product of a union between the Master and the Cyberium, so it’s natural they would be just a bit bonkers, but those Time Lord headpieces and robes coming off of them couldn’t fail to raise a smile for all the wrong reasons.
OK, let’s get to the main event. The Master was back again, and the performance Sacha Dhawan put in here was breathtaking. I won’t chatter on too much about the many ways he was brilliant – you’ve seen it (presumably – if you haven’t what are you doing here?) so you know how amazing he was: a strong contender for the greatest ever performance as the Master, and considering the many stunning performances we have to compare with, that’s really saying something. He took the Doctor into the Matrix (which has been visually disappointing in every subsequent appearance since The Deadly Assassin and continues to be so) and then revealed the truth…
Love it or hate it? I loved it. When the Ruth/Doctor asks “have you ever been limited by who you were before?” she makes an important point. This takes nothing away from the Doctor. It adds plenty, but it removes nothing. Everything that has happened from the origins of the First Doctor onwards still remain in place. We just now have to think of him as an amnesiac, and a whole world opens up. It even makes sense of the extra versions of the Doctor seen in The Brain of Morbius. When the Doctor is overloading the Matrix with visions of her adventures, that moment was right there in amongst the various clips of the Doctor’s past, a bit of cheeky fun from Chibnall. Yes, we get the point! It fits beautifully, and contradicts nothing, and believe me, I’ve been an advocate for the idea of pre-Hartnell Doctors ever since Fugitive of the Judoon, and my wonderful friends who are much more sceptical have thrown every imaginable reason at me why it’s a contradiction. None of them held water. In the end, the only reason the fans have for not liking this will be a gut feeling, and a resistance to change. If you feel like that, then I think it’s worth considering what the Doctor says about it herself:
“It makes me more. You want me to be scared of it, because you’re scared of everything.”
I think Chibnall knew exactly what he was doing with that line. It’s directed at the Master, but it could just as easily be directed at the Doctor Who fans who are so resistant to any tinkering with the past of the show. Doctor Who has been going for 56 years, but it has never been anything less than a living, breathing, huge, amazing show. It’s not set in concrete. It’s there for writers to do what they want to do with it. And with this episode Chibnall gives Doctor Who a shot in the arm, makes his mark on the show, and does so spectacularly. It has been a long time coming, but this is the moment he finally took his place among the ranks of the truly great Doctor Who writers, and in doing so he gave us a wonderful gift. The universe of Doctor Who is so much bigger than it has ever been.
Some threads are left hanging, and that’s fine. What exactly was the Division? When will we see Jack again? How did the Judoon get into the TARDIS?
This series came the closest to losing me as a Doctor Who viewer since 1984, but by the end of it my love of the show and excitement for what’s coming next has been fully reignited. Thank you Chris Chibnall for being brave enough to do what you did here, and for making me love Doctor Who again. RP
The view from across the pond:
All season long, I’ve been dreading what’s coming with the two part finale. How will Chibnall screw this up? Since week 5, I’ve been involved in massive debates about what would happen with the finale and then episode 9 shows up and… immediately makes me feel like my fears are coming true. I mean, it wasn’t from the start. The pre-credit opening spoken by a truly terrifying Cyberman was outstanding, but after that it just goes pear-shaped. Let me count the ways…
Team Tardis show up on a distant planet carrying tons of equipment to help fight Cybermen. They don’t park the TARDIS close to carry the stuff, because if they did, they could get back to the TARDIS with ease. No, instead they park miles away so when the Cybermen come, all channeling their inner Toclafane, the Doctor tells her “fam” that there’s no way to make it back to the TARDIS, it’s safer to launch in a rickety ship being chased by Cybermen. WHAT?? Within minutes of the episode opening, everything the Fam sets up is wiped out anyway, so that was just a way of filling the time. Then while trying to escape in said rickety ship, the rag tag group realizes they are going to die. They are dead in space and running out of air. So they look out the sunroof (yeah, I know) and see where they are – because, lots of landmarks in space – when, lo and behold, they see a Cybership. They have a conversation, and I’m paraphrasing it: “hey, if we use all our oxygen in a desperate attempt to rocket this ship at that stationary ship, maybe we can hit the small opening and land in a breathable section. Sort of like the luck everyone has when throwing a coin at a pay phone and hoping it goes into the slot. Yeah, let’s do that, with all our oxygen. ALL OF IT. Every bit. You know, use it up. Nothing left…” It’s so emphatic that it feels like a joke, but that’s what they do, and like a lucky coin toss into a coin slot… they make it! But that’s not all… We are given hints about something called Ko Sharmus which sounds like it’s going to be this really impressive thing. Its an old dude who guards a gateway that mysteriously leads to Gallifrey. We’ll come back to that because at least that does get better in part two. What doesn’t is this whole story about Ireland and a mysterious kid who grows up, get shot joins the force, lives a long life and then gets taken as an old man and has his memories erased. Yes, there is a payoff but it’s not well designed. See the problem with this episode is that it’s only half of the whole so you can’t really establish things and say we’ve seen an episode.
Now, in fairness, there are good things too. There’s a great line that sums up the terror of the damaged Cyberman: “We are carrying a Cyberman that makes other Cybermen scream!” The new Cybermen are beautiful; a mix of modern coupled with The Invasion. They look great and, hey, well done making them scary. Mostly. (I say mostly because when they walk together shooting humans, they might as well be Stormtroopers from Star Wars. I mean, good lord, if the humans were at least running serpentine I could understand missing. Everyone knows serpentine! But these dudes can’t shoot in a straight line, so… mostly.) There are some great lines from Graham (“Thank you, Eeyore!” and in part two “I can’t get this hat off”), the Doctor (“I’ll have to bill you for therapy at this rate”) and the Master (“Be afraid, because everything is about to change!”) But as openings go, we are left with more questions than answers and I’m a little annoyed at how much I was reminded of the first episode of Star Trek: Discovery. No, not in the story, but the way CBS released it. CBS released the first episode for free for everyone to watch to determine if they wanted CBS All Access, but the first episode was meant to be a two-parter. So I ended up thinking they were snakes in the grass, and that left a bad taste in my mouth. This episode invoked a similar reaction. Waiting a week was not fair. So when episode two was released, I sat down with a mix of excitement and worry. And I asked again: how was Chris Chibnall going to mess up the history of the show?
And I have to be honest, I was completely surprised by it. What a difference having the whole picture can make. First of all, it has got to be said that Sacha Dhawan is amazing as the Master. He is a tightly-wound blend of genius and psychopath. Frankly, he carries so much of the story that even the half-faced Cyberman doesn’t seem as terrifying. (Well, except for when he’s looking for Yaz and company, as they hide inside the bodies of other Cybersuits.) But even Jodie knocks this one out of the park. Maybe this is her coming-of-Doctor moment, where she really becomes the Doctor. (Sad if it took this long, but if they maintain the momentum, I can live with the delay!) There is a truly stunning piece of dialogue between Graham and Yaz too; heartfelt and lovely. And while Ryan has felt like the gooseberry for much of the season, I did like his comment about not being “sure about weapons”. He has learned something from traveling with the Doctor. And his basketball moment was a good one too, if I’m honest.
The episode was very cinematic. I felt like I was watching a big theatrical movie and that added to the beauty of it. So let’s get to the moment we’ve been waiting for: the Master in the Matrix. Yes, history gets a re-write but as much as I didn’t want that, it was done in a way that I actually accepted. Maybe I needed sleep, or protein, but I came away happy with the explanation and I can’t explain why. The Master tells the Doctor, after reminiscing about the Academy and spending time together “assassinating presidents” (a reference to The Deadly Assassin) the Master opens up to the Doctor. Before the Time Lords, there were the Shobogans (which I first remember from The Invasion of Time). One of them, an explorer named Tecteun, went to the stars and found an abandoned child. She took the child home and raised her. One day, after an accident, the child fell from a cliff and … well, regenerated. Tecteun began experimenting with the child trying to find the secret of regeneration. That child was the Doctor. That ability, once discovered, became the foundation of Time Lord society, but it was deemed important to limit those regenerations to 12. Yes, the Doctor is the Timeless Child. (So why is the episode called The Timeless Children? Yeah, that’s a fair question!) Also, does this mean the Doctor is from another species altogether from a universe of which we know nothing? Might be worth exploring one day!
So in the scene, Jodie is trapped with the knowledge while the Master goes off to discuss terms with the Cybermen. While alone, Jodie comes face to face with the Jo Martin Doctor who is no wiser about things. But they start putting their heads together, putting things into perspective and we get a moment of Jodie being the Doctor: “have a blast of this!” I know I’m a sucker for moments like this but the Doctor Who theme plays in all its majesty over flashes from the entire series. And if you’re paying attention, Chibnall finally pulls off a fix for a scene from The Brain of Morbius. We see that those other people were the Doctor all along. And the Master is jealous as can be!
Like so much with a series as vast as Doctor Who, this does fix one problem but creates another. When Matt Smith was “given” his extra lives by Clara’s plea to the Time Lords… well, was he actually given anything? If the Doctor was not really restricted anyway, what got into Smith? Guess Chibs has his work cut out for him down the line.
Meanwhile, I do need to credit the writing here. The Master has some amazing lines, and it has often been said that a hero is only as good as the villain they are up against. This Master is perfect and may help make a great Doctor of Whittaker. His Rassilon speech was perfectly and psychotically delivered: “For Gallifrey, for the Time Lords, for the end of the universe itself!” Watching him destroy the most chilling Cyberman of all with such cold disregard was amazing but his afterthought of saying “I should have said ‘you need to be cut down to size’” was ever more shocking. And as deliveries go, taunting the Doctor to “Become death. Become me,” was amazing. We also see that somewhere inside him, he wants to die based on his realization that death was not instantaneous from the Death Particle contained in the Cyberman’s chest! And I have to say the comment about the red carpet being soaked in blood was another triumphant moment.
The good guys have their moment too. The scene of Ko Sharmus being shot repeatedly was amazing, but he manages to save the Doctor from becoming the Master and the resultant explosion is glorious. But it does beg the question: how will the Master survive and will Gallifrey ever be whole again?
Jodie’s sad departure from the fam, “Live great lives”, is heart wrenching and before she can go find them, Judoon appear in the TARDIS, incarcerate her leaving us with another “what, what, what” cliffhanger right out of the David Tennant era. Now, two things: if everyone including the Judoon can waltz into the TARDIS, it’s not that special. The TARDIS should be off limits. But, maybe, also like Tennant, she forgot to turn the forcefields on. Ok, I can borderline accept that. But that leaves one great question: with the realization that she is more than the sum of her parts, will we see more of the other Doctor’s traits in the future? Was Tennant just the start? If so, we may be in for a real exciting roller coaster in her next season.
Finally! I’m excited for Doctor Who to come back. And it’s about time!! ML