Doctor Who: “Ascension of the Cybermen”

***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***

This episode is a very exciting first part of the two-part season finale, but it’s also something of a mixed bag. I liked it, but there are a few things that didn’t work for me. Let’s start with the things I liked.

The Cybermen are back! It’s always fun to see one of Doctor Who‘s greatest and longest-running foes (the first Cyberman episode aired back in 1966!) show up again, but what makes “Ascension of the Cybermen” so much fun is that it’s not your run-of-the-mill Cybermen story. The action takes us to the end of the Cyber Wars, when there are very few Cybermen left (and very few humans, too). What we get are Ashad, the half-converted Cyber zealot who was introduced in the last episode with a total allegiance to the idea of rebuilding the Cyber empire, and two beat up old Cyberguards, and they’re still enough to pose an enormous threat to the human survivors!

In fact, everything having to do with the Cyber Wars is what lifts this episode above others of its kind. There’s a great scene of what is essentially a space graveyard, with hundreds of dead Cybermen (and loose parts) floating in space near the wreckage of one of their biggest battles. It’s a striking image, and one that will stay with me for a long time. I was also very pleased to see classic series-style Cybermen among the revival-style Cybermen on the troop carrier. The scene toward the end with all the Cybermen awakened from their “tombs” and marching through the corridors of the ship strongly reminded me of a similar scene in  the 1982 Fifth Doctor serial “Earthshock” in which awakened Cybermen march out of the hold of a space freighter toward the bridge.

One interesting bit of information we learn is that human survivors have been escaping through the Boundary, a wormhole to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, or perhaps beyond, where the Cybermen can’t follow them. I have to admit, for most of the episode I assumed it was going to be a Logan’s Run situation where the Boundary is actually a trap and everyone who goes there winds up dead! The Boundary is guarded by a lone, older, wizard-looking human named Ko Sharmus, who keeps telling the Doctor to walk closer to the water’s edge to activate the Boundary. I thought for sure Ko Sharmus was going to spring a trap and possibly reveal that he has survived all this time through cannibalism. It didn’t happen that way, and I’m glad because the actual reveal — and the episode’s excellent cliffhanger that made me want to watch the next episode immediately — is that the Boundary appears to lead to Gallifrey!

And of course, out pops the Master, who has obviously escaped from the Kasaavin in the way the Master always escapes his fate. So what does all this have to do with the Timeless Child and the Master’s destruction of Gallifrey (and maybe even Doctor Ruth)? We’re about to find out. Next episode now, please!

I mentioned “Ascension of the Cybermen” is a mixed bag, and indeed there are a few things I didn’t like. The Cyber Drones, which are basically just flying Cyberman heads that can shoot lasers, are the stupidest-looking things I’ve seen on Doctor Who since the Dalek agents that suddenly sprouted Dalek eyestalks out of their foreheads. The idea of Cyber Drones is a good one, and could have been a chance to show how Cybermats — small, rodent-like machines the Cybermen use to infiltrate their targets, which first appeared in the 1967 Second Doctor serial “Tomb of the Cybermen,” and later as the updated Cybermites in the 2013 Eleventh Doctor episode “Nightmare in Silver” — have evolved into something new and more destructive. Instead we just get flying heads, which made me groan rather than worry.

When the survivors’ dying gravraft (great name!) makes one last thruster push in order to make it to another ship in the space graveyard, they don’t appear to have much control over where they’re going, but instead of crashing haphazardly into the side of the ship the gravraft flies right into its perfectly-sized docking bay with the ease of a puck sliding into the goal in air hockey. It was lazy writing and could easily have been fixed with a two-second scene showing one of them desperately trying to pilot the gravraft into the dock instead of crashing it. (And it came as zero surprise to me that the ship was actually a fully-stocked Cyber troop carrier, but that’s probably because I’m a jaded lifelong Doctor Who viewer.)

I wondered what Ashad was doing when he and his two Cyberguards go after the sleeping Cybermen in the troop carrier with what appear to be buzz saws. Afterward I figured this is how he reprogrammed them to follow his orders, but it struck me as a strange way to go about it. Wasn’t there some computer he could tinker with instead? How does cutting into them like that help reprogram them, unless he just needed to switch some wires around? (One theory is that he isn’t reprogramming them, he’s cutting out their emotional inhibitors, but there’s no evidence of this, at least not in this episode.)

What was up with Brendan, the abandoned baby who grows up in 1950s Ireland to become a policeman? Why doesn’t that robber’s bullet kill him? I had several theories as I watched the episode: Brendan is the Master reborn after Missy’s death. Brendan is Ashad. Brendan is the Timeless Child. None of them seem to be accurate, especially in light of that final scene with an older Brendan retiring from the force and being greeted by his somehow unaged father and boss who proceed to forcibly mind-wipe him with a device that looked sort of like a Chameleon Arch, but maybe isn’t? (Alexa’s theory is that Brendan is actually a Cyberman, that 1950s Ireland is his dream while he’s in stasis, and that the mind-wipe is Ashad reprogramming him before waking him. It’s as good a theory as any!)

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! At the refugee outpost, Yaz sets up a particle projector to spray gold dust at the Cybermen, claiming that they’re allergic to it. This is a reference to something that was first mentioned in the 1975 Fourth Doctor serial “Revenge of the Cybermen,” in which we learn Voga, the Planet of Gold, was instrumental in winning the Cyber Wars by discovering gold dust choked Cybermen’s respiratory systems. Gold is used as the Cybermen’s weakness in every classic-series appearance after that. The Doctor offers Ryan a humbug out of a paper bag for his motion sickness. While certainly reminiscent of the Doctor offering people jelly babies out of a similar paper bag throughout the classic series, mostly during the Fourth Doctor’s tenure, it should be noted that the Fourth Doctor did once offer a humbug to someone instead of a jelly baby in the 1977 serial “The Sun Makers.” (I had to look that one up. I’m nerdy, but not that nerdy!)

Really looking forward to the next episode, promisingly titled “The Timeless Children”!

The Dead Girls Club

The Dead Girls ClubThe Dead Girls Club by Damien Angelica Walters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Damien Angelica Walters’s THE DEAD GIRLS CLUB is a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable thriller. Given how breathlessly I zoomed through the last third of the novel, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a page-turner, either. Walters’s narrative strength really shines in the flashbacks to narrator Heather Cole’s childhood, writing about girlhood and its close, intense friendships with heartfelt authenticity. The mystery that occupies Heather’s present, with its links to her past and its spooky overtones, hooked me and kept me guessing throughout. THE DEAD GIRLS CLUB is a well written and well executed thriller that stands shoulder to shoulder with Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL, Paula Hawkins’s THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, and Sarah Pinborough’s BEHIND HER EYES. Don’t miss it!

View all my reviews

New Edition of CHASING THE DRAGON Now Available!

Rising from the ashes of the ChiZine Publications scandal, the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated and International Thriller Writers Award-nominated Chasing the Dragon is now available once again courtesy of Crossroad Press!

“A tight, focused narrative…Chasing the Dragon is unlike any other novel I’ve read, and easily one of my favorite reads [of the year]. It is definitely worth checking out if you like fantasy, horror, stories about the darker side of things (cuz heroin addiction is pretty dark) and deep, unique character work.” Black Gate

Chasing the Dragon moves like a bullet. As blood-soaked and thunderous as a Sergio Leone western, and grimly referential to classic pulp horror, Kaufmann turns the screws and steadily escalates the tension. A gory, thoroughly rollicking thriller–not to be missed.” — Laird Barron, author of Blood Standard and Black Mountain

Chasing the Dragon is currently available as an e-book. A new paperback edition is coming soon, but you can buy the e-book right now from:

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Crossroad Press is also the publisher of my novel In the Shadow of the Axe and my collection Still Life: Nine Stories, and I’m thrilled to be working with them again to bring Chasing the Dragon back to life!

Doctor Who: “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”

***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***

Boy did I love this episode! Not just for the obvious reasons — a haunted house, Mary Shelley, and the birth of Frankenstein is so tailor-made for me I’m surprised I don’t already subscribe to its newsletter — but also because its production values, especially the design, make it one of the most convincingly atmospheric episodes in years. There’s tons of great character work on display, from Lord Byron attempting to seduce the Doctor, to Claire Claremont’s reaction to those attempts, to Fletcher, the butler who steals every scene with his endless sighing and eye-rolling at Byron and his friends’ antics. Lili Miller as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, worried she’ll never be as good a writer as her parents, carries a lot of the episode on her shoulders and does a fine job of it. (Kudos to screenwriter Maxine Alderton for really nailing how insecure writers are about the one thing they know how to do.)  And of course I love, love, love a good haunted house setup, even if I know that stories like this in Doctor Who always end with the haunting being alien rather than supernatural. (Although maybe there was a real haunting, too? Never answer that question, Doctor Who!)

The excellent character work extends to the Doctor as well, particularly in the climactic scene where she’s faced with the impossible choice of either letting Percy Shelley die prematurely, thereby altering history, or saving Shelley’s life and unleashing an army of Cybermen in the future. Ryan posits that it might be worth letting Shelley die if it saves thousands of lives in the future, and the Doctor lets loose on him in a way we haven’t seen before. Shades of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor and Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor break through as she rages at him — at everyone, really — about the choices that only she can make, that she’s forced to make, and that no one else can make for her. “Sometimes even I can’t win,” she says, and in that moment everything shows in her face, from her trauma about Gallifrey being destroyed again to the same frustration Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor felt in the 1989 serial “Ghost Light” when he realizes even he can’t handle all the small, secret manipulations he’s put in motion. This is the scene that solidifies the current TARDIS crew as never before, finally seeing the Doctor for who she really is, the angry and angst-ridden Time Lord under the friendly mask, and I suspect it is also the scene that gets the ball rolling on at least one companion leaving at season’s end.

Graham remains a joy. His search of the villa for a lavatory, only to realize they’re a few years too early for indoor toilets, is hilarious, but even more hilarious is his line at the beginning, when he’s standing in the rain at the door, “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” (To which the Doctor whispers, “Wrong writer.”) Of the companions, it better not be Graham who leaves first!

Because any story taking place at the Villa Diodati during that fateful summer is going to offer an explanation for why Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein (my favorite iteration of this idea is Ken Russell’s completely insane 1987 film Gothic), I was fully expecting the Lone Cyberman to inspire Mary’s story, and indeed it does, as she refers to him at one point as a man made from many parts. However, her line about the Cyberman’s connection to future tech making him a “modern Prometheus” is just eye-rollingly bad. It tries way too hard to shoehorn Frankenstein‘s subtitle into the dialogue, and as a result it’s cringeworthy. (I also cringed when the Doctor says something like “we’re all in the same boat” to Mary Shelley. Knowing what’s coming in her and Percy’s life, it seems a little cruel to talk to her about boats!)

Speaking of the Lone Cyberman, I like his inclusion as a way to link the forthcoming finale with Captain Jack Harkness’s warning from a few episodes back, but I also felt that the episode became a little sloppy once he arrives. In trying to juggle the needs of the Mary Shelley plot with the needs of the Lone Cyberman plot, the episode trips over its own feet a little. Not terribly, mind you, but part of the problem is that after such a compelling setup, a Cyberman is so immediately recognizable that to make it a part of the “haunting” feels almost anti-climactic. For a moment, though, I thought the Cyberman was going to be revealed as the missing Percy Shelley, somehow dragged to the future, transformed, and sent back. That would have been an interesting twist!

One thing didn’t make sense to me. I get how the Cyberium could make Shelley briefly invisible and use a perception filter to turn the house into a maze all in order to protect itself, but what was the point of reanimating the skeleton hand? What was it trying to do? Certainly it wasn’t trying to scare everybody out of the house, considering it wouldn’t let them leave. It just seemed to exist for added creepiness.

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! The Doctor mentions to Byron that she knows his daughter, Ada. This is a reference to the earlier episode this season, “Spyfall, Part Two,” in which she meets computer pioneer Ada Lovelace (nee Byron) in 1834. Later, the Doctor explains to her companions that the reason they can’t follow her into danger is because she refuses to lose anyone else to Cyber-conversion. This struck me as a direct reference to what happened to Bill in the 2017 Twelfth Doctor two-parter “World Enough and Time”/”The Doctor Falls.” However, the Doctor has seen other people get turned into Cybermen as well over the years, including Danny Pink in the 2014 Twelfth Doctor episode “Death in Heaven.” (Ostensibly, the Brigadier was also turned into a Cyberman in that same episode!) Lastly, the future Cyber-War the Doctor mentions might be the same one referenced in the 1974-5 Fourth Doctor serial “Revenge of the Cybermen,” in which we learn the planet Voga helped defeat the Cybermen by identifying gold dust as their weakness and developing gold dust particle-shooting weapons with the unfortunate name of….glitterguns.

 

 

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