The episode “Ascension of the Cybermen” would have grabbed me even if it had not used religious terminology, but that aspect makes it all the more interesting to someone like me. The language of ascension is of course closely associated with the depiction in the Acts of the Apostles of Jesus literally going up into the sky, and of the Gospel of John’s language of the Son of Man who goes or has gone up into heaven. But there is more to it than that. Before the opening credits sequence begins, we see a space “graveyard” of Cybermen floating in space, as the voice of the lone Cyberman Commenting on the fact that all empires fall. He adds, “That which is dead can live again, in the hands of a believer.”
This episode contains a parallel storyline that, by the end of the episode, we still don’t know how it connects with the main plot. It begins the episode and so it would naturally appear to be the main story, and yet it doesn’t intersect with the experiences of the Doctor and her friends. In this storyline, in Ireland a man finds a baby in a basket on the road. He and his wife keep it, until such time as the parents are or identified. They name him Brendan.
In the main storyline we see a future after the Human-Cyberman War, In which 7 humans are left. The Doctor and crew arrive to try to help with equipment they have prepared especially for this purpose, such as a neural inhibitor and gold dust (to which Cybermen are “allergic”). The leader of the survivors emphasizes that they are refugees not warriors. The Doctor offers her usual confident reassurances. But Cyberdrones take out the Doctor’s defense systems, and kill two of the last remaining humans as well. The Doctor’s plan is a disaster.
The Doctor is not willing to risk seeing her friends caught and “upgraded” and so she tells them they must flee. Ryan however gets separated from the others, and so while Graham and Yaz leave the planet with a few of the refugees, Ryan is reunited with the Doctor.
The Cyberman is ready to let one human live and tell of the demise of humanity. The anti-Gospel he is told to proclaim? “Be afraid,” an inversion of the Bible’s repeated refrain “Fear not.”
Brendan grows up and applies to join the Garda (Irish for Police). He is asked why he wants to be a Gard. His answer is, “I want to make a difference.”
The lone Cyberman describes himself as a willing recruit. He refers to the “Blessed ascension.” He later says, “The death of everything is within me.”
Serving as a policeman, Brendan tries to talk a robber into surrendering. Instead he shoots Brendan, who falls off a cliff. Sone how he survives. A newspaper carried a headline calling it a “Miracle fall.”
Eventually the episode brings us to the place of the opening sequence with the dead Cybermen floating in space. The characters use the last life support energy they have to power failing engines, to try to reach a dormant vessel. They have been trying to reach Koshamis, which we initially assume is a planet but turns out to be a person, who has remained behind in case any other humans arrived there, everyone else having gone through a mysterious portal to survive somewhere beyond their galaxy and out of the reach of the Cybermen.
The ship the others reached turns out to be a Cybermen troop carrier. The lone Cyberman says it will soon be “a shrine for our rebirth.” He further says the cyberium has called him here, and now its vision will be fulfilled. The other Cybermen respond by saying “Hail the cyberium.” As he does something to one of the dormant Cybermen on the troop carrier it screams. “Ascension is near,” he says.
When Brendan retires, that timeline takes an eerie and as yet unexplained twist, as he is hooked up to a machine to wipe his memory.
Entering the portal is referred to as a “leap into the Unknown.” As it opens with the Doctor before it, the boundary portal shows Gallifrey. Koshamis says it has never looked like that before. As this part of the story concludes, the Master appears, saying that everything is about to change forever.
One thing I didn’t mention yet is the Doctor’s psychoanalysis of the lone Cyberman, which he acknowledges is accurate, to her surprise. Having “upgraded” to remove emotion, is his vision to restore it, perhaps because he recognizes how he himself has found strength through his rage?
There is probably no point in speculating too much about where things might go. The religious language in the story thus far, however, offers a double-edged critique of how religion can make a sinister plan seem noble and destined to succeed (to the one concocting it if not to others), and on the other hand, the vision of technological enhancement providing what many have hopes that religion might, something akin to divinity or at least transcendence of human weakness and pain.
What are your thoughts about “Ascension of the Cybermen”?