NOW I'LL NEVER KNOW IF I WAS RIGHT
I remember the thrill when Earthshock first came out. Lots of science guys getting killed in a series of caves; a great big final-frame reveal that the Cybermen were behind it: new, glossy, post-Star-Wars versions of the Cybermen. Nathan-Turner reputedly refused to put the Cybermen on the cover of the Radio Times. What the story lost in ratings it won in legacy. Doctor Who fans of a certain age all remember the thrill of that final image. Chris Chibnall is a Doctor Who fan of a certain age.
1982 was quite late to be trying to look like Star Wars: but Doctor Who was always good at riding the last wave but one. John Nathan-Turner’s new fibreglass Cybermen were glossy and violent and the video effects now ran to zap guns which zapped convincingly. Since Doctor Who had always looked shabby, glossy was a good thing to be. In retrospect, Earthshock turned the Cybermen into Stormtroopers. Into canon fodder. Into an infinite stream of extras in silver suits being bumped off by the Warrior Robot or by extras with golden crossbows. It didn't matter. Adric died in the final episode and the theme music didn’t play. What happened in between I can barely remember.
Ascension of the Cybermen is firmly in the tradition of Earthshock. This is Doctor Who as action movie; Doctor Who with added gloss; Doctor Who with the best special effects the BBC can muster, which these days means pretty good.
There are at least three styles. The seven-ordinary-people who are the sole survivors of the human race look like they came out of a late 70s BBC sci fi series for grown-ups. Out, indeed, of Survivors. They have grav rafts and grenades and wear wooly hats. The TARDIS team are incongruous, but only a bit incongruous, in this punky world. They have technology, rather than gadgets and plot devices. Graham has changed back into a realistic grown up human being, who has more or less grasped what the neural inhibitor system, is for, and does a good job of explaining it back to the natives, and therefore the viewers.
The Cybermen themselves, when they come, come from Star Wars rather than Terminator, flying in formation with pretty computer game targeting computers.
The idea of flying Cyberheads is a misstep. There is no special reason for the drones to be head-shaped: they are just there because the viewers might want to see some Whovian furniture. But the Cybermen themselves, when they show up are rusty and battlescarred and the Lone Cyberman, from last week, is still nasty and cruel and treacherous rather than cold and calculating.
I must admit that I lap this kind of thing up. We all talk about speculative fiction and sci-fi as a respectable literary genre; but we all got into it for the big space ships and zap guns and baddie robots.
There is some fabulous imagery: the first shot of the great big shiny Cyberman on the Cyberman troop ship made me grin; as did the scene of millions and millions of Cyber soldiers marching as to war. And I loved it when the spaceship flew through the debris of thousands of dead Cybermen.
It is tremendous fun that ordinary people who dress like truckers and treat their spaceship like a caravan get to pass through space cyber graveyards and find themselves wandering around cyber troop carriers. It is tremendous fun that sci fi technology looks shabby and lived in and is allowed to seem almost ordinary. This is what was so riveting when Star Wars came out; a very long time ago; even before Earthshock. Doctor Who is being quite unoriginal; even quite retro. But it is being it very well indeed.
There is a separate, unrelated story. It is set in Ireland. We know it is Ireland because everything is green. Jonathan and Martha O’Kent find a foundling boy and bring him up as their own. Everything is ordinary. He goes to school and learns how to stack hay with a pitchfork and joins the police. Weirdly, he is shot and falls off a cliff but is uninjured. The story overlaps with the main plot only through Watchmenesque segues. When Brendan is poorly, and his mother sends for the Doctor, we cut straight to our Doctor fighting the Cybermen. There is no hint as to how the two stories relate: whether we are watching a dream or a flashback or a story. The characters are nice enough that it doesn’t matter all that much. The main story is relentless grim and explodey; it is quite pleasant to cut to an inset story where the land is green and the people are pleasant. At the end the boy, now an elderly cop, is strapped into an electric chair at the back of the Garda station. Which is not so nice.
If you can fall off a cliff and get better you are probably a Time Lord, although we rather pointedly didn’t see the orange fireworks which normally come out of someone’s head in a regeneration scene. The Doctor and the Master didn’t grow up in 1950s Ireland, so far as we know. So my money is on this being the Doctor’s long lost son. The people frazzling his mind at the end must be other Time Lords, for some reason.
The Master has always been a bit of a Pantomime villain; a bit of a cartoon-strip baddies. Nothing against Pantomimes; nothing against cartoon strips; but he is the kind of baddie who is bad because he is bad; and Sacha Dhawan's characterisation is very clownish and quite meta. He falls into the quite realistically drawn space opera in the last half minute and says "Nice entrance!" for all the world like Lord Flashheart. Like Missy, he knows he's in a TV series; he knows this is all made up.
Apparently, everything is going to change and nothing is ever going to be the same again. So we're back to the set ups and unanswered questions that have been driving this series. Why is the Lone Cyberman so important? Why is there a logically impossible extra Doctor? What news does the Master have which is going to rock the Doctor’s world quite so comprehensively. And what on earth does this have to do with an Irish cop who came to a sticky end a few decades ago?
Will the season wrap-up be able to answer all these questions to everyone’s satisfaction?
NOTE: When Ravio tells Graham that he is strange, Graham replies “Excuse me, I am the most normal bloke you are ever going to meet.” But there is a false start, and he very distinctly says “Excuse me, I am the D….” Under other circumstances, I would say that this is a set-up for a very clever twist. (Remember Matt Smith’s jacket in Time of the Angels?) But his worst enemy would never accuse Chris Chibnall of subtlety.