Doctor Who: Ascension of the Cybermen

Doctor Who: Ascension of the Cybermen February 24, 2020

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”?

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  • I always thought the Cybermen were more of a threat than the Daleks, but that’s probably because I was shaped by all the original Dr. Who episodes (and movie) where the Daleks are repeatedly manhandled, sometimes for comedic effect.

    Apparently, the Cybermen were originally conceived to embody an actual fear in the 80s with medical technology that involved supplementing the human body with mechanics or hooking them up to machines.

    • Dalek1963

      The fishermen first appeared in the 1960s but I think your assessment of them is correct.

      • I’m guessing that autocorrect has been at work here. You need to write about Cybermen more often! 🙂

  • Dalek1963

    As an episode the weakness was these final two episodes should be viewed together.
    I like your the religious connections you made. Perhaps the story arc of the season includes the “religion” of the Timelords being a false narrative to protect the collective culture and cover their guilt over events in their past. I am also thinking of the early 11th Doctor episode The Beast Below with the passengers of the good ship England (Britain?) choose memory wiping when they learn there ship is being carried by a captive space whale they end up torturing to control it.
    Has Chris Chibnal said anything about his religious beliefs or background. I don’t know about Stephan Moffat but Russell Davies did speak of his atheism but used icon religious imagery both from common cultural usage and his exposure to them raised going to church.

  • I noted the Moses like things – being a chosen one, baby in a basket, Ko Sharmus in his robe carrying a staff and helping to get you to the other side. It will be interesting to see how this story line proceeds and how the religious allegories play out.

  • Scurra

    So, the problem with two-part stories in the modern era is that you really need to wait for part two to find out what the writer is doing. Based on Spyfall, which was the first real Chibnall two-parter, it will be the second two-thirds of the story (iyswim) as he’s got too much to do and too little time to do it in (which is, oddly, the opposite of the problem with the season ender last time, which had too little to do and too much time.)

    I thought the title massively underdelivered though; we didn’t really get close to any sort of ascension, merely the traditional resurrection (which was a properly dumb element of the story really; it was done much, much better in Army of Ghosts, and that managed it with both Cybermen *and* Daleks!)
    My biggest complaint is that – as with all of Whittaker’s run – three companions means that anyone else gets horribly short-shrift. I can’t even name any of the ‘last humans’ and there were only, what, seven of them, and several of those died pretty quickly. Although I did like the one on the cybershuttle with the Doctor and Ryan who was better at hotwiring warpdrives than the Doctor was… (In passing, why didn’t they just blow up the other shuttle before leaving? That would have trapped the cybermen on the colony.)

    I did admire the nerve of the Brendan plot though; to have literally no linkage to the other part of the story for the entire episode is probably unique in Who up to this point. Although it seems reasonable to speculate (as dschram does) that Brendan and Ko Sharmus are the same character in some fashion.

  • I was working in the lab early this morning when I decided to look up the meaning of the name Brendan – it’s king or prince. I think that he is really one of the “Eternals”, since he didn’t die when he fell of the cliff, somehow he becomes the Lone Cyberman (unable to be fully converted). Not sure how Gallifrey ties into all this but I am wondering if it has to do with regeneration and where all that comes from.