Doctor Who: Truly, A Really Dense Initial Story

by thethreepennyguignol

So, as this season of Doctor Who draws to a close, it seems only right that we take a look over what has already been thus far. And…well, it’s a bit of a mess, isn’t it?

We’ve had some real stinkers, we’ve had some high-concept classics, we’ve had a whole lot of over-writing and over-stuffing. There’s been a concentrated effort to engage with the mythology, unlike last season’s almost deliberate avoidance of the same, along with a hard focus on rekindling my crush on John Barrowman to great effect. To call it a mess is accurate, I think, but that’s not necessarily an insult – in order for something ambitious to land, you need to toss all the pieces in the air first, and that feels a lot like what’s been going on for these last ten episodes or so, a tipping-up of the Risk board by the metaphorical clumsy family dog while you were away taking a break for the proverbial lunch. Not that I would know anything about that.

And, of course, all of that relies on what happens over these next two weeks. After last week’s backdoor finale first part, we’re into the wrap-up for the season proper. And, with all these pieces (the Timeless Child, the Master, the new Doctor) still hanging in the air, it’s up to these episodes to bring them in for a safe landing.

That starts here, with these week’s episode, Ascension of the Cybermen. Which, in the grand tradition of these season so far, is really just fifty minutes that manages to cram in more plot than most of Marvel’s Phase One outings – I get that this is a first part, that has to set up all the pins to be knocked down next week, but bloody hell.

It starts off reasonably simply – the Doctor and company arrive at the last human outpost that survives after the Cybermen have ravaged the human race. In an unexpected drone attack on this refugee state (Doctor Who has been more political in Chibnall’s era than Steven Moffat would have dared to breathe near, and I’m here. for. it), the cast is scattered across the galaxy; Yaz and Graham are caught up escaping on a faulty ship, while the Doctor and Ryan are left behind to try and navigate to a safe haven in a stolen cyber-ship. Oh, and the whole episode is built around the story of an adopted Irish boy, from his abandonment on a roadside, to his fostering by loving parents, to his involvement in the Garda, to Broadchurching it off a nearby cliff, and, uh, so on and so forth.

I feel like trying to analyse story when we’ve only had a half of it is just a bad idea, and I want to save lots of juicy analysis in that department for the apparently game-changing finale next week, so strap your boots on for that, and let me get into what worked for me this week.

One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about this season, and especially this episode, is the development of Jodie’s Doctor into something with a little more bite – this episode, especially, she’s frustrated, desperate, angry with herself for allowing herself to be so reckless with the people she cares about, and she takes that out on the people around her. I complained a lot about Capaldi’s Doctor and his miserable and abject cruelty, and I stand by those criticisms, but I don’t think that means the Doctor has to be some paragon of patience and virtue – there’s a reason that the Doctor is always so fascinated by the distinctly imperfect humans, in no small part due to the fact that there is a lot of them in the human race.

And this is a confident episode for the assistants, too – everyone gets something to do here, and with Yaz and Graham off on a faulty ship, they’re left to fend for themselves and to draw on their previous knowledge to keep them and the people travelling with them alive. I really adore Yaz and her distinct competence, and this is one of the best examples of it – even outside of the Doctor, she’s brave, quick-witted, and a little headstrong, not reliant on her very homosexual lesbian lover travelling companion to keep her safe. I think one of the most reasonable criticisms aimed at last season was that the assistants often felt clunky compared to the story, but these last ten episodes have gone a long way to fix that.

And then, of course, you have to consider the Cybermen themselves. I’ve always found them the scariest of the show’s recurring villains – something about that relentlessness really flicks my buttons, and the imposing presentation works for me in a way that the immensley silly-looking Daleks just don’t. The Lone Cyberman of last week’s episode is still the most impressive thing about them, a commanding presence who feels really unique for the show’s exploration of these beings; it’s the perverted humanity of these creatures that really makes them frightening, and it’s never been more blatant than here, with the elegant backstory woven into the episode.

Then Sachan Dhawan comes tumbling out of a time-hole, dressed like a whole-ass evil snack and consolidating the crush I’ve been nursing since Spyfall, and things promise to take a turn for the outright mythological next week. I don’t want to get too heavily into speculation, but I am excited to see how all the moving parts come together by the time this is through – and if they’re going to make an ounce of sense when they do. As it stands, this is a solid middle part to what promises to be a crammed finale – and I, for one, I’m just waiting with baited breath to see where the pieces will finally land.

If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to check out the rest of my Doctor Who recaps right here and hey, how about checking out my movie blog, No But Listen? If you just stop by for these recaps, then might I draw your attention to the fact that my first book, Rape Jokes,was released in between the last couple of seasons, and, oh, just so happens to have a few five-star reviews, not that I’m counting? As ever, thank you for reading, and drop your take on this episode in the comments below!

(header image via Radio Times)