Doctor Who Review: “Ascension of the Cybermen” and “The Timeless Children”

The two-part conclusion of this season feels like old-time Doctor Who, but it also retcons a good deal of what we know, and raises questions that, presumably, will be the focus of the next season. Certainly, they didn’t answer them in this one.

We do, however, get to meet the Doctor’s mother, and we encounter a new mystery in the form of this Irish lad named Brendan.

Titles: “Ascension of the Cybermen” and “The Timeless Children”

Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone
Written by Chris Chibnall

Cast
Jodie Whittaker, Jo Martin, and file footage of Colin Baker, Tom Baker, Peter Capaldi, Peter Davidson, Christopher Eccleston, William Hartnell, John Hurt, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Jon Pertwee, Matt Smith, David Tennant, Patrick Troughton as The Doctor
Sacha Dhawan as the Master
Tosin Cole as Ryan Sinclair
Mandip Gill as Yasmin Khan
Bradley Walsh as Graham O’Brien
Patrick O’Kane as Ashad
Ian McElhinney as Ko Sharmus
Evan McCabe as Brendan
Julie Graham as Ravio
Alex Austin as Yedlarmi
Matt Carver as Ethan
Rhiannon Clements as Bescot
Seylan Baxter as Tecteun
Steve Toussaint as Feekat
Matt Carver as Ethan
Jack Osborn as Fuskie
Branwell Donaghey as Patrick
Kirsty Besterman as Solpedo
Paul Bailey, Nicholas Briggs, Matthew Doman, Simon Carew, Jen Davey, Jen Davey, Richard Highgate, Richard Price, Mickey Lewis, Matthew Rohman as Cybermen
Paul Kasey and Nicholas Briggs as Judoon Captain

Premise

The Doctor and some companions assist surviving, far-future humans in a battle against the Cybermen, before encountering the Master, a war-ravaged Gallifrey, and a darkish truth about the Time Lords that will have far-reaching effects on the series, if future episodes take them seriously.

At the very least, next season will undoubtedly feature a jail-break and a Quest for the Hero’s Identity. I’m still not certain how I feel about either.

High Point

What was supposed to be the shocking reveal, that the Time Lords lied and covered up certain information, isn’t all that shocking to anyone familiar with the show’s history. More startling is that The Master has an original and seemingly unstoppable plan. Much could be done with the underlying concept. I also like that, before revealing his plan, the Master shows such obvious disappointment in the Cybermen’s rather predicable plan.

Low Point

His plan then gets stopped at the gate, with no further apparent development possible, and a last-minute ass-pull allows the Doctor to escape. Meanwhile Gallifrey, a planet outside of time, once again gets definitively destroyed to suit the whims of the show’s current runners. I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed.

Is this just me? Point

Look: I recognize that a long-running series has to take chances and try new ideas. But, to repeat what I have written elsewhere, the Doctor works fine as a renegade from a group of powerful aliens who can, at times, be kind of dicks. They can be brought into the show or ignored as the writers require.The Doctor emphatically does not need to the Teh Special Chosen One. Earlier writers for the revived show imposed Last of the Race Syndrome on the character, and I was happy that got reversed. Now Chibnall and company have gone further. The Doctor is now the mysterious origin of the Time Lords.. I am interested in how they address this point and the unanswered questions it raises, but it feels wildly unnecessary.

Unless, I suppose, she’s still in the Matrix. But I doubt they’ll go that route.

The Scores

Originality: 4/6

Effects: 4/6

Acting: 5/6 The supporting performances vary, but Sacha Dhawan’s over-the-top Master makes for demented entertainment. It takes talent to chew scenery without merely becoming a joke, and Dhawan makes this version of the character work.

Story: 4/6 The first part really had me gripped. The second part works, but for a plot that proffers so many changes to the Doctor’s history, it feels decidedly incomplete.

I am going to allow the handwave regarding Graham’s plan to escape the Cybermen. It’s the sort of thing that happened all the time in old Doctor Who episodes, and this episode needs such a moment.

Emotional Response: 4/6

Production: 5/6 The episode features an admirable blend of location shooting and serviceable special effects, and some nice shout-outs to past Doctor Who designs.

Overall: 4/6

In total, “Ascension of the Cybermen” and “The Timeless Children” receive 30/42

17 replies on “Doctor Who Review: “Ascension of the Cybermen” and “The Timeless Children””

  1. J_W_W says:

    I’m wondering…. is this set of episodes “The Last Jedi” of Doctor Who??

    They can’t leave any existing origin story alone anymore can they?

    • JD DeLuzio says:

      It’s a good question. One difference here is, the Jedi had been presented in Star Wars (originally) as the Guardians of Peace and Justice. They were Heroes. The Time Lords, on the other hand, have always been a bit sketchy. It gets established back in the Hartnell years that the Doctor has some serious issues with his people, and later episodes pretty clearly show that they’re not consistently admirable creatures.

      But do they need a new origin with the Doctor at the centre? It feels, at this point, unnecessary and a little strained.

  2. J_W_W says:

    The reaction to this coming in on the internet today is completely on fire.

    Doctor Who is over now.

    • JD DeLuzio says:

      I’m finding a range of reactions, though many are negative. I’m not sure it spells the end of the show yet– and it has survived its own end before, in any case.

      It’s too bad, because I found much to enjoy in these episodes. If, instead of giving us a GAME-CHANGING REVELATION, they had just developed the Master’s plot, I think we would have had a positive response overall.

  3. lost says:

    I think how well the retcon works will depend on where they plan to take it. It’s clearly a set up for something more. Whether that will be any good, or whether they’ll manage to execute it properly is anybody’s guess. Anybody else expecting some sort of shark jumping ouroboros type time loop?

    That Time Lord history is not what we think it is, or what the Time Lords think it is, actually has precedent all the way back to Tom Baker’s tenure, so I can accept that the origin story, at least in broad strokes. The rest of it does seem like a dose of contrivium, though. Have the producers been watching Terrible Writing Advice and using it as a howto manual?

  4. I love it.

    They are putting the Who back in Doctor Who, they don’t take anything away from her existing story and structure, just revealed that the drawer of story had a false bottom and now there are many, many, many more places to go. It felt, to me, that was what The Doctor was telling The Doctor, that even if there is this much additional information, is she any less The Doctor?

    Many of my favorite serialized fiction are stories that have fifty-plus year histories, so enjoying *this* section of it without directly contradicting the past doesn’t feel like they are taking anything away, just adding to it.

    Also, it’s not like this is an out-of-the-blue sort of thing. They’ve referenced pre-Hartnell Doctors before, and we know that The Doctor was “far more than just another Time Lord,” and it’s not like the limit of Regenerations was applicable to The Doctor.

    This brings a lot of the mystery back, and gives us a fascinating status quo, for however long it lasts. I love it.

    • J_W_W says:

      I hate it. I’m getting kinda pissed that every hero and story that I’ve grown up loving, is facing incessant need to be deconstructed, analyzed, re-evaluated, and re-imagined.

      Try new stuff, create new characters, do whatever you want to do with new stuff.

      But its the easier path to try and mold something people love into something else to service a narrative. The only problem is that people stop loving it. The best they can do is make a shadow of what was, or pawn off imposters like Jake Skywalker as the real thing…..

      • zocalo says:

        I think that’s my biggest issue. I’m finding myself fairly conflicted on this; while I don’t have a problem with the big reveal, it’s more that they’ve not only needed to use the “last of kind” trope but have now decided to retcon in “the chosen one” trope as well – it just comes across as a lazy writing hack. As others have noted though, it doesn’t actually blow away existing canon that much, especially if you gloss over any inconsistencies as being part of the Timelord’s retcon of their own history (which could also account for a lot of the other inconsistencies in the established canon, come to that).

        The last few seasons have been decidedly “meh” for me; I’ve only watched two episodes of this one at first broadcast, and only watched the finalé yesterday, and I can definitely see where the whole “jumped the shark” vibe is coming from. The UK’s viewing figures have dropped another 20% this season – it’s still a popular show, but is now now to about 50% of what it was during Tennant’s tenure, and that trend clearly can’t continue much longer. I agree that they either need to urgently reinvigorate it, or – as you said above – rest it.

      • JD DeLuzio says:

        While I liked this season a lot more than J_W_W, it really feels like a failure of imagination. This is Doctor Who! The Doctor can go anywhere! The timeline of the universe is seriously inconsistent flexible. They can introduce pretty much any new adversary, concept, or alien they want. I don’t mind some new background on the Doctor or the Time Lords, and it’s good to see the Cybermen and other familiar elements now and then, but there is so much more they could be doing with this show, and we see only traces of that.

  5. Vulch says:

    News today in the UK is that the two male companions will be leaving after the christmas episode at the end of this year. I’ve felt for both the recent series that having three was too many, and that The Doctor wasn’t getting the screen time needed to establish her character because the others had to get their 7 minutes of focus on them each episode. I have suspicions that Chris Chibnall was getting ‘advice’ from upstairs…

    • zocalo says:

      Tosin Cole apparently has a major role in another series which would have made a commitment to both shows difficult, so I think his departure has been all certain for a while and is unlikely to be the result of any “advice”. While I agree that three companions are perhaps too many at times, Classic Who managed just fine with two companions on multiple extended occassions, and also done more, so I doubt this is anything other than a decision by Walsh, or maybe down to the means of Cole’s departure.

      • Also, about three seasons is average for a companion.

      • Vulch says:

        The ‘advice’ I meant was to have three in the first place. Somewhere in the chain of commissioning there was likely unhappiness at risking a female Doctor so extra companions were heavily suggested. Multiple companions in the past were rarely introduced at the same time as a new Doctor, eg Adric/Teegan/Nyssa were established with Tom Baker and carried over to Peter Davison.

        (I’m an ex-BBC engineer and worked on some late Tom Baker and early Peter Davison episodes. Friends who stuck it out longer than I did mutter about internal politics interfering in programme making)

        • JD DeLuzio says:

          That’s fascinating! Let us know if you’d ever like to do some retro-reviews of that era. Like many people, Tom Baker was the era I most recall, before I abandoned regular viewing until the show returned.

        • I’d love to hear more behind the scenes gossip, even if it’s decades old!

    • crow says:

      I *so* hope this is true. I’ve said from the beginning of 13 that it felt like we had too many companions to treat them fairly. “Fugitive of the Judoon” was the only one that really seemed to use all three in a meaningful way. Most of the other times with multiple companions, either they were introduced separately, or it was an situation with a primary companion and an add-on.

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