Doctor Who 12.9 – Ascension of the Cybermen

Last time, our son reminded us that he really did not like the creepy Cyber-ghost story of “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” but that he was looking forward to seeing this one again. After telling us, in that perfectly ten year-old way, that he remembered 64% of it, he was again very satisfied. This is definitely a crowd-pleaser for younger viewers who want some big, stomping Cybermen action and lots of explosions. I’m a little less taken with it.

One of my complaints is that this is a very, very ordinary action-adventure runaround, with just about none of the spark, life, imagination, or silliness that makes for great Doctor Who. It’s extremely well-made for ordinary action-adventure – the opening location filming is as good as or better than anything anybody is making in any medium and it has a great guest star in Julie Graham – but after several minutes of this, I was ready for some farting aliens or some Kandymen. That Doctor Who is presently capable of looking like the most competently-made show on television is certainly very nice, but great Doctor Who should look and sound like nothing else. This is so ordinary that the Doctor throws a grenade at the Lone Cyberman. That she does this in front of Ryan, who, last season, she chastised for using a rifle to shoot robots, shows where this one is.

That said, I do like that this is a very interesting look at the Cybermen that the show hasn’t really done before. This one is set very, very far in the future, and probably in another galaxy. Here, the Cybermen have just about won. There are fewer than a dozen humans left. What’s curious about this is that up to about 2006, the Cybermen may have been very popular with fans and audiences, and they racked up a big body count on and offscreen, but there was always the understanding that while they could be huge and formidable threats, their time on the galactic stage was very limited. In “Earthshock”, which this story resembles in many ways, they’re on the brink of a big interplanetary war that will destroy their growing empire. By the time of “Revenge of the Cybermen”, set in the 29th Century, they are only “a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking about the galaxy in an ancient spaceship.” The Daleks, in “Doomsday”, don’t think of them as rivals on the universal stage; they’re just pests to them.

I think what this story does is take a cue from “Nightmare in Silver” and move the story very, very far out and very far away. “Silver” mentioned that an entire galaxy had to be destroyed to stop the Cybermen some time before the events of that episode. That’s a scale far greater than anything the show had previously done; the Cybermen of most of Doctor Who hid in sewers and poisoned sugar and fired pathetic little laser bolts which didn’t bother Daleks no matter how many times they shouted “upgrade” first. Obliterating galaxies is overkill for Cybermen, unless these are very different Cybermen fighting very different wars, with very few survivors. So yes, the teenage fanboy in me is thrilled with this one’s scope. He probably would have liked the action-adventure feel to this one, too.

The other thing I don’t like about this one is that there’s a side story which is not explained at all – and even then not fully – until the next episode. It’s about a policeman named Brendan in a small Irish village full of people who don’t age. I think it’s sort of bold storytelling, to say it kindly, to have an entire B-plot running through your hour of television without a single connection point between the two, not even at the cliffhanger. Normally I bristle when people commenting on TV they don’t enjoy rely on the old chestnut “Why should I care about these characters,” because if you have elected to watch their story, you have elected to care. But I didn’t elect to watch Brendan’s story. If it’s part of the Doctor’s story, then the hour needs to show me how, even if right at the very end. Not next week!

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