Doctor Who Reviewed | 12.9 & 12.10 Ascension of the Cybermen/The Timeless Children

~Spoilers ahead! ~

12.9 & 12.10 Ascension of the Cybermen/The Timeless Children – Chris Chibnall

Story & Review

I usually consider two-parters as one story – I was waiting for The Timeless Children to air before writing my thoughts down but this felt like two distinct episodes that were conveniently connected by their ending.
Ascension of the Cybermen felt slow to me in the way that most Chibnall episodes do; most of the episode is spent on build up. This would be more acceptable in a two-parte but considering how distinct the two episodes are and how the latter mostly abandons Ashad and the Cybermen plot, it did not feel like it was worth the wait.
The entire plot of Ascension of the Cybermen can be summarised in that Team TARDIS find the last seven survivors of the human race, get split up and each make their way to the Boundary, an anomalous tear in the universe whilst being chased by Cybermen. Though there is some tension with Yaz, Graham and some of the human survivors as they seek refuge on an abandoned Cyber warship with the big bad lone Cyberman himself, it feels slow. I don’t get along with Chibnall’s writing at the best of times but for a series finale it was particularly frustrating to watch as there’s no real sense that anything is happening to move the plot forward.
6 Cyber warship
Part of the issue is that this episode features scenes of Brendan, a young child in Ireland who is adopted and becomes a police officer. These are an interesting addition to Ascension, especially the final scene that suggests something more sinister where Brendan is strapped to  a chair to a device that looks like a chameleon arch. The scenes felt jarring amongst the futuristic sci-fi setting of the rest of the episode and felt like they were inserted to create mystery and conversation. The reveal, that these are scenes from the Doctor’s past and with a filter over them within a database in Gallifrey, makes little sense and ultimately felt like a waste of runtime.
5 Brendan
Telling and not showing is the greatest cardinal sin in writing and it is one of the biggest issues with The Timeless Children. The second part is essentially a vehicle for exposition to alter Doctor Who lore. Ascension of the Cyberman ends with the Doctor, Ryan and gate keeper Ko Sharmus, standing at the Boundary where it opens up to the ruins of Gallifrey. The Master appears and takes the Doctor, by the hand, into the remains of the Timelord citadel. Here he traps her, physically paralysed whilst he speaks to her consciousness in the Matrix, explaining, finally, what the mystery of the Timeless Child is.

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These lore-altering scenes summarise that an early resident of Gallifrey, Tecteun, travelled amongst the stars. She discovered, adopted and experimented on the Timeless Child – a being who could regenerate endlessly. The elite society of Timelords was based on said experimentation, torture and theft, and the big reveal of the episode (which has been floating around the internet in leaks and forums and theories) is that this child is the Doctor. The reveal feels like twist imagined just for the sake of surprising the audience, rather than being motivated by plot or character. Where RTD introduced the Time War to shape the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, this twist devastates Thirteen for a brief period before it resolves itself. The Ruth-Doctor manifesting in the Matrix and reassuring the Doctor that she is the same person removes any potential fallout from this revelation.
14 Timeless Child Tecteun
In the meantime, the Master has also been plotting with the Cybermen, first inviting Ashad onto Gallifrey, then stealing the Cyberium (yes, it becomes relevant again) and shrinking Ashad. Sacha Dhawan is fantastic as the Master, and he steals every scene that he is in. It is entertaining to see him dismiss the Death Particle that the Cyberium has created – something that will erase organic life in favour for creating an army of Robots – in favour of creating a race of CyberMasters. The Master is really evil in this episode from inviting the Cybermen to Gallifrey to putting targets on the back of the last human survivors at the Boundary (including Ryan). Whilst fun, it does relegate both the Doctor and Ashad down to secondary characters.

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The Doctor spends most of the episode locked up, being talked at and as a result the ending is rushed. She escapes, finds her fam and through the power of editing destroy the Cyber warship. The final plan is to blow up the shrunken Ashad, releasing the Death Particle and destroying all organic life on Gallifrey (after sending her companions home in spare TARDISes of course). This end scene borrows from The Parting of the Ways and The Day of the Doctor but lacks the gravitas and significance of those endings. It feels ultimately hollow for the Doctor to claim to be willing to give up her life in a heartbeat for this universe but is undermined within minutes when she hands over the detonator to Ko Sharmus. She doesn’t want to personally push the button but is happy for him to make the noble sacrifice. This reveal that he is responsible for sending the Cyberium back in time comes out of nowhere and feels very forced in. (Also exploding the death particle was always the plan but they still didn’t keep back a timer explosive for it?)
21 Pulling the Trigger
The episode ends with the companions back home, thinking the Doctor is dead and her being captured by the Judoon and sentenced to lifetime imprisonment on a floating prison on a meteorite. A nice, open ending for the Christmas/New Year’s special.

Fun Parts

1 Floating Cybermen

  • The Cyberdrones were fun, very RTD era
  • I like that the Doctor and Ryan straight up stole a Cybership
  • I really liked seeing bits Cybermen floating in space and it was chilling to hear them knocking against the ship too
  • I like the animated sequence of the citadel of the Timelords being built, that was lovely
  • The Master absorbing the Cyberium was great to watch

Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey

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  • I really like the concept of the anomalous Boundary that doesn’t present the same part of the universe twice. I also like the implication that the only reason that Gallifrey appeared was because the Doctor stood next to it and it responded.
  • Of course, the entire concept of The Timeless Child – more about it in Concluding Thoughts.
  • There are now three rogue TARDISes scattered around time: the Master’s TARDIS, the TARDIS disguised as a house and the tree TARDIS sitting on a random planet. I like seeing the Chameleon circuit in action. I’m guessing this is something that the show will eventually forget about too.

Monster of the Week

11 Master and Ashad
The lone Cyberman felt less effective in Ascension than in the previous episode. The lofty way he speaks in this episode makes him feel like a generic villain, monologueing but not actually saying anything. The Doctor also accuses him of having an inner conflict because he both wants to destroy all humans but is part human himself. It would have been interesting to have witnessed it.
Sacha Dhawan as the Master is the best thing about these episodes. He’s fun, his mannerisms are great, he’s really truly evil and a little bit unhinged. There’s a couple of times where you feel like he actually would rather die if only someone would pull the trigger which adds an interesting element to his character. He dresses well. He is excellent.
19 Cybermasters
There are divided opinions on the CyberMasters. I fall on the positive side, the idea of an undefeatable army is pretty cool and I like their design. However I’m not sure how different they are from a normal race of Cybermen and ultimately I don’t think they’re that interesting.

Concluding Thoughts

Suffice to say, this finale was not everything I wanted it to be. I would be lying if I said I was disappointed because I honestly did not have faith in Chris Chibnall to come through with a good reveal. I was initially opposed to the idea of there being regenerations before William Hartnell (an instinctive geeky clinging to canon, what can I say?) but having thought about it, I would say that messing with the lore in this way also doesn’t work that well on a narrative level.
The idea that the source of regenerations came from outside of Gallifrey and was stolen DNA, that it was from a source of torture and experimentation, is not a bad idea in itself. This is in line with how the Timelords have been presented to us thus far. The fact that this child is the Doctor is what is problematic. The question is: how does this add to the story? For the most part, it takes away a lot of the Doctor’s character. The Doctor is no longer special because they chose to be a good person, she is now realigned as a generic chosen one. Perhaps they could have explored how this revelation affects the Doctor on an emotional level, feeling like she doesn’t know who she is anymore and perhaps furious at the Timelords for doing this for her. But that is also thrown away as the Ruth-Doctor reassures her within minutes that she is still the same person. The Twelfth Doctor had a whole series character questioning whether he was a good man, here Thirteen is reset, like a sitcom, to the default, morally correct hero-character. 
13 Timeless Child
On top of that the Master’s motivations make very little sense. In The End of Time we discover that the Timelords planted the sound of the drums into the Master’s brain as a child. This drove him mad and was a selfish act to guide the Timelords and Gallifrey out of the timelock following the Time War. This is a level of personal torture that doesn’t realistically compare to disgust of having a part of the Doctor in him. It would make more sense for him to be the Timeless Child. That feels like a solid enough reason to burn down Gallifrey, kill all of his people and then use their bodies to Frankenstein a new race. (Side note: how exactly does he manage to commit genocide and destroy Gallifrey?). It would especially fit with him being the regeneration following Missy (and how he managed to survive a deadly blow). Missy having had a redemptive arc throughout Series 10 then finding out something this horrific and deciding that being good wasn’t worth it would be narratively very satisfying. 
To be fair, there is room within the narrative to make the Master the Timeless Child as there’s nothing to actually prove that it’s the Doctor but I very much doubt this would happen.
‘The death of everything is within me’
I liked the idea of the Death Particle, something that destroys all organic life. Chibnall has taken a lot of inspiration this series from the RTD-era and this feels like something akin to the Reality Bomb. However, what Davies did really well was seeding stories ahead of time. Though this line is said in Ascension and the foreshadowing upon a second watch is nice, it blends into the background with all of the Timeless Child events happening. Plus, the humans already know about the Death Particle, so it is something that should have introduced it earlier so that the threat felt more real. (Also, at what point was he going to release it? Why was he waiting?)
22 Death Particle
I want to talk a little bit about Ashad being a secondary villain that is defeated easily. I’m not against this as a concept but it needs to be done well. I direct you to Joss Whedon and Buffy Season 6 where initially we’re introduced to the Trio, a gang of geeky boys who are a bit lame especially in contrast to Season 5’s villain, Glory, a literal goddess. That’s because the main villain of Season 6 is revealed later on. Whedon is also very good at cutting villains down unexpectedly from The Avengers to Firefly. Whilst it is totally within character for the Master to shrink Ashad, it feels like he is compressed and moved out of the way so that the Master can get on with his part of the plot.
Finally, some thoughts on the Doctor’s character. This series has given her some much-needed darkness. I also enjoyed seeing her be more assertive in Ascension of the Cybermen from telling the survivors what to do to acknowledging how reckless she has been with Team TARDIS. This was completely undone in The Timeless Children. Time and time again, Thirteen is shown to be a passive character and she spends most of the finale being tied up, before letting someone else bite the bullet. It’s highly problematic and frustrating that this is a character trait that will forever be associated with the first female Doctor.
To conclude, the series finale was underwhelming at best, and although there have been a lot of improvements with series 12 overall, I’m not looking forward to the next one.

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