Well, that was very nearly all foreplay and no orgasm. Or, to put it another way, the whole episode pretty much felt like the longest pre-credits sequence ever.
Given how much hype has been attached to this climactic two-parter (or three, if we’re counting last week), ‘Ascension Of The Cybermen’ was hardly the blistering start you might have expected. A decent chunk of the episode was focused on telling us the story of Brendan (Evan McCabe), who was found as an abandoned baby in rural Ireland, and became an apparently indestructible member of the Garda, before having an as-yet inexplicable ending upon his eventual retirement. This sub-Ballykissangel / Heartbeat-type setting was reminiscent of the sort of quaint, twee period fare which you might have expected to find on Sunday nights until Doctor Who became a fixture, but how it fits into the overall story is anyone’s guess.
In fact, that seems to be reflective of the biggest issue with this episode – there are far more questions posed than answers given. As such, it makes it hard to review this week’s instalment in isolation, as it appears that things which have happened or been presaged here may take on a whole new complexion when after the big finale – ‘The Timeless Children’ – has aired. Taken on its own merits, ‘Ascension Of The Cybermen’ looks to be full of sound and fury, signifying… well, what, exactly? Neither the main story nor the Irish-based sub-thread seem to be overly compelling at the moment, and a few bangs and flashes don’t manage to cover up for the overall lack of a half-decent plot.
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There’s nothing wrong with having a reasonable amount of scene setting, but when your whole episode comes across as being nothing but pure setup for a big cliffhanger into the finale, there seems to be something pretty majorly wrong with the writing and pacing. In fact, having established so many dangling threads – as well as throwing in many more literally at the last minute with that big reveal – it makes you wonder whether ‘The Timeless Children’ will manage to do justice to all of them, even with an extended 65-minute running time. Again, next week may end up making this episode look altogether different, given a new context, but from this side of things it looks like writer Chris Chibnall may have left himself something of a mountain to climb (or, if you like, ascend).
Actually, ‘Ascension’ is an appropriate word to use here, due to the religious overtones associated with it. In one of the best things Chibnall has done to date on the series, he’s given us a Cyberman – Ashad (Patrick O’Kane) – with something of a Messianic complex. The notion of an established baddie becoming a religious fanatic isn’t a new one – Russell T. Davies did just that with the Daleks way back in season one’s ‘Bad Wolf’ / ‘The Parting Of The Ways’; however, treading similar ground with the Cybermen is a fascinating new twist, as they’re traditionally emotionless creatures, so to have one ranting away with such zeal and delusions of self-importance is something rather intriguing. It does seem a terrible shame in one sense that Ashad isn’t more at the forefront here, but you can have too much of a good thing, and we’ve yet to see just what lies ahead for him.
If anything, this is atonement for Chibnall’s earlier faux pas in the Torchwood episode ‘Cyberwoman’, where the sight of a part-converted Cyber(wo)man in a metal bikini having a punch-up with a Pterodactyl is enough to make anyone wake up screaming with the memory of how awful it was. Listen, if you don’t believe me, they’ve just put all of Torchwood up on BBC iPlayer, so watch ‘Cyberwoman‘ for yourself, and get ready to weep. In O’Kane’s Ashad, we have a truly worthy villain, a Cyberman who’s able to speak with both venom and conviction – you can understand why Davros was devised as a mouthpiece for the Daleks, as they’re rather dull, monotonous conversationalists in their own right. O’Kane makes the Cybermen seem more menacing with the passion in his speech than the ‘Speak & Spell’ voices we’re used to.
The Cybermen themselves have also received a much-needed upgrade, giving them a hybrid look somewhere between the classic series, and the clanking, stomping tin men we’ve seen since the show returned in 2005. Speaking of which, it was depressingly unsurprising to see a couple of those more recent suits brought out of mothballs and pressed into service here, as they’re probably the worst – but most ubiquitous – Cyberman design we’ve seen. Mind you, it’s probably down to budgetary reasons, as a lot of what happened here seemed to be less spectacular for the most part than you might have expected for a big wrap-up – it might explain the frequent forays back to Ireland, as a means of helping squirrel a few quid away for what looks to be coming up in the next episode, as they seem to be pulling out all the stops for that.
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As for this being at the end of the last great Cyberwar, if the motley crew that’s left here is all that remains of humanity, then I say bring on the Cyber conversion. Actually, that’s a bit harsh, as the only one who seems not worth saving is Yedlarmi (Alex Austin), the miserable git. The stakes do seem a bit fudged here, as we’re told that this is all that’s left of humanity, at least on this side of the universe; however, it’s not clearly explained whether this is due to Ashad managing to get hold of the Cyberium and using its knowledge to change the course of future history, as we’ve had stories set in the year 5,000,000,023, and humanity seems to be in pretty rude health then. Again, perhaps all will become clear next time, but it’s probably not worth holding your breath if you’re waiting for all the questions to be answered.
And as for that cliffhanger, well, the pre-publicity listed an appearance by an actor called ‘Barack Stemis’. Now, you don’t need to be great at anagrams or the Countdown Conundrum to work out that’s not a real name, and who it’s telling you will be returning. In fact, you could have probably guessed anyway that we’d be seeing a certain someone again for the end of season denouement. We can only hope that Chris Chibnall can play a Masterstroke when it comes to giving us a worthy ending.