Doctor Who: Ascension of the Cybermen and The Timeless Child

The two part finale is over and can be summed up in a single word: divisive. There are positive reactions to the story, particularly focusing on the scale and dramatic stakes it provided. There are substantial negative reactions. When both veteran Doctor Who critic Elizabeth Sandifer and theocratic blowhard John C Wright hate something (for wildly different reasons) then something notable has occurred. Of course Wright just hates Doctor Who in general now because there are women doing things other than fainting and is just jumping on a bandwagon (if you must, you can read his confusion here: http://www.scifiwright.com/2020/03/the-death-of-doctor-who/ ). El Sandifer’s review is naturally so much better informed but also deeply scathing (http://www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/the-timeless-child-review/). Well worth a read.

I noted that episodes last season often had a great range of interesting ideas that frequently fell flat later in the episode. Chris Chibnall has found it difficult to raise and maintain the emotional stakes in episodes, which has made some potentially great stories like the punch that they need. Last season’s finale epitomised this issue by having the whole season end flat (https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2018/12/11/doctor-who-the-battle-of-ranskoor-av-kolos/ ). I cannot complain this time that Chibnall failed to turn things up a notch — all the dials were set to 11 and stuff certainly happened all over the place and often in entertaining ways. To that end, I’ll call it a success but very much a flawed one.

The biggest dial spun up higher than was safe was marked “lore”. If you start messing with the implied backstory of a genre show then you raise the narrative stakes. It’s exactly the fear that the revised mythology will ruin what a person likes about the show that creates an additional tension in an episode. Of course, it isn’t just science-fiction/fantasy that does this. Soap operas revealing that a key character isn’t dead or isn’t the child of who they think they are or some other shocking change to jolt tension into a story that needs it. It’s both a necessary and a cheap trick that can add more narrative complexity but also turn a series into just a series of ret-cons.

For the moment, I’ll put aside the big revelations and concentrate as far as is possible on the broader story across the two parts. The Doctor has gone to the closing period of a great war between humanity and the Cybermen. Both humans and the Cybermen are on the bring of destruction but the arrival of the Lone Cyberman (the part assimilated fanatic last seen menacing Mary Shelley) and his possession of the Cyberium (the sum total of the Cybermen’s strategic expertise as an AI) will turn the final defeat of the Cybermen into victory. The Doctor and her trio of companions arrive on a ruined planet to find a tiny set of human survivors on the brink of extinction.

Meanwhile, we get a totally separate story about a foundling baby in 1950s Ireland who grows up to be a Garda (Irish police officer). This story that takes a sinister twist at the end is contained within the first of the two episodes and its resolution is contained within the big lore-reveal in the second.

Various things occur in episode 1 and with mixed results. The Doctor turning up with a range of weapons and devices for fighting the Cybermen which are then instantly destroyed by flying Cybermen heads is unintentionally comical but beyond that the desperate fight of the survivors is well done. Splitting companions off from the Doctor is also a good move, as it gives Yaz in particular more to do and adds to the sense of desperate people making hurried decisions just to keep going.

The first episode ends with The Doctor and Ryan landing on a planet that has a special gateway through which human survivors have been fleeing to escape Cyberman-controlled space. Meanwhile Graham and Yaz are trapped aboard a huge Cyberman troop carrier that is coming back to life. At this point The Master arrives through the gateway which is now connected to the ruins of Galifrey and the story heads off in new directions.

The second episode (The Timeless Child) has the big lore reveal and a dastardly plan from the Master. What is less obvious is how unconnected the two are. The Master induces the Cybermen to travel to Galifrey. The Lone Cyberman explains his plan to destroy all organic life (including the inner organic parts of the Cybermen) and thus establishing a purely mechanical future. The Master has some excellent dialogue tearing the whole idea to shreds, pointing out that this is little more than the Cybermen turning themselves into pure robots and how commonplace robots are in the universe. The Master has a better idea. He has the dead bodies of Time Lords and with those he can create Cybermen with Time Lord organic bits capable of regeneration, creating essentially unkillable Cybermen.

So this is a fun twist with a good use of The Master to betray the initial main villain and substitute a new evil plan as the driving threat of the story. Like any evil plan, it can’t matter to much as it will be defeated somehow. Indeed it is, by the mechanism already established by the Lone Cybermen for destroying all organic life on a planet. What it lacks is a clear reason for everything else that is going on. Is it all just coincidence that The Master’s other scheme and the Cybermen scheme are colliding at this point? It seems to be and this is just part of where amid all the big explosions and lore reveals, there is that same sense of ideas thrown together but left unexamined. I’m not saying The Master has to have manipulated ALL the events for it make sense but there’s a lack of a story’s connective tissue here that makes a rewatch feel distinctly less good.

Which takes us back to The Master and the big lore reveal. The Master forces The Doctor into the Time Lord’s psychic virtual reality archive (called The Matrix long before the movie). There she learns the secret history of the Time Lord’s regeneration ability. It seems they discovered it even prior to becoming Time Lords when they were just the Shabogan people (and yes, that is another term established decades ago) from a child found at a gateway on a remote planet. That child…dun, dun, dun…was The Doctor (gasp etc) and worse, their DNA was used to alter the Time Lords making the Time Lords all part The Doctor and so on. But also…The Doctor knows nothing of this and The Matrix has had chunks of the Doctor’s pre-Hartnell regenerations hidden. What does exist instead is the fake memories of a foundling in 1950s Ireland who grows up to be a Garda. What does it all mean! At the moment not very much. Clearly there are going to be more reveals. Indeed, to get past all these revelations requires a pep-talk from the Jo Martin Doctor to the Whittaker Doctor which enables The Doctor to realise that really, while interesting, it makes no difference to who she is. And that’s sort of true.

I don’t think this is a great bit of new canon for the Doctor’s past and brutal dissection of the flaws in it in El Sandifer’s review are right in substance. However, the insight by The Doctor that really it doesn’t matter that much is also true. I prefer when the show isn’t The Doctor is the Most Special but also the weight of the show is that PRACTICALLY The Doctor is the only Time Lord in the universe other than frequently dead Master. The thin scattering of other non-Galifrey Time Lords can be counted on one hand.

What annoys me more is again, how unconnected all this is. The revelation about regeneration is supposedly the motive for all the angst and destruction The Master has now perpetrated. Now yes, he’s annoyed that The Doctor is even more special than he thought but its oddly flat as a motive for destroying Galifrey. Yes, The Master doesn’t need much of an emotional pretext to do something evil but it still lacks substance. It is misreading of dramatic empathy where a revelation that is taking as a big deal for the audience is assumed to be a big deal for the characters. However, the connection just isn’t there. If The Master had been The Timeless Child and had their regenerations repeatedly exploited by the Time Lords and by their secret Special Circumstances Division THEN the story makes sense.

I’m back to that issue with the Chibnall years that ideas are undercooked. A revelation drives The Master to genocide of his own people! Wow, powerful idea but only if the revelation is something that is shocking to The Master. Otherwise it is just The Master killed his own people because he is messed up and evil and oh, there’s a revelation as well. Indeed, the whole thing is just SO much better if The Master is the Timeless Child that I struggle to see why they didn’t go that way other than because they wanted there to be a secret regeneration of The Doctor (even that could have been worked in – e.g. The Doctor was a Time Lord attempt at Timeless Child Mark 2 but without the psychosis).

My repeated complaint this season is exactly that there is a missing level of thought in the plots and dialogue. In the Moffat years, stories would skip past things or leave threads unresolved intentionally (and that was annoying) but in the Chibnall years we get the same result but by accident. Over-worked stories have become under-worked stories that need just a bit more attention.

What is good about this two-parter? Quite a lot. Plenty of explosions and action and mostly good effects (the flying cyber-heads, not so much). Views are divided by the gloriously over the top Cyberman-Time Lord costumes but frankly I love them. There joy that somebody had designing those shines through.

Yaz, Ryan and Graham are still underused but they did get things to do and separating them from The Doctor gave the characters an opportunity to be active participants in the story. It was great that they could rescue each other and have plans of their own. Having said that, another obvious missed-opportunity was that they didn’t rescue The Doctor from the Matrix but instead just get to wake her up after she rescued herself.

I really liked the two occasions were The Master and The Doctor commented on the stories plot. The Master’s example was ridiculing the Cyberman organic extinction plan. Honestly, somebody should have The Master check out all the scripts. He maybe evil but he has a good sense of plot when he wants to.

The Doctor’s example was the insight that who she is as a person and a character matters more than what she is or what her DNA is or what her now very convoluted back-story is. I’d feel happier if I knew this was an intentional repudiation of the lore-heavy segment of the story i.e. as if The Doctor themselves was renouncing the relevance of a canon that can never make sense.

18 thoughts on “Doctor Who: Ascension of the Cybermen and The Timeless Child

  1. I dunno. I can cope with the revisions to the canon, because the canon is flexible (and frequently broken) anyway…. I can see some interesting things the show can now do with its central character. I can also see Sandifer’s point about how it can now vanish up its own fundament with endless reexaminations of the lore of Gallifrey, but… well, I’m prepared to give the show the benefit of the doubt.

    I can also buy the Master’s motivation, believe it or not, because the Master has often been a nihilist and a narcissist, and the discovery that the Doctor is fundamentally more special than him is *exactly* the sort of thing that could make him throw a massive wobbly – and when the Master throws a wobbly, things get broken. Like any planet he happens to be standing on at the time. (Back when Roger Delgado played the part, there were always odd moments when the urbane villain mask slipped and the *absolute psycho* underneath showed through. Sacha Dhawan, like John Simm before him, is playing the Master with the brakes off – and the frequent comedy of the portrayal shouldn’t distract from the fact that that is a massively scary idea.)

    But the plot of this two-parter appears to have been assembled on a sort of guess-and-hope basis, and it shows. The bit about the “death particle”, for instance. We learn about this when the Lone Cyberman shows it to the Master; obviously it’s got to be important, but how? I wondered. Then the Lone Cyberman is turned into a wargames miniature, and now the only person who knows about the Death Particle is the Master…. except, it turns out, Julie Graham’s character has conveniently heard a “legend” about it, the Doctor conveniently infers exactly how it works, and finding a single tiny Cyberman figure on a massive Cyber warship turns out to be – conveniently – easy. I’m sorry, but I didn’t buy any of that for a minute.

    Then there’s the resolution, which depends on Mr Character No One Knows Or Cares About conveniently sacrificing himself… and I can’t help but think, hold on, the Cyberium and the Matrix aren’t organic, are they? The Cyberium specifically designed the “death particle” to destroy only non-Cyber things… which suggests to me that the Cyberium is now in uncontested control of Gallifrey and whatever’s left of the Time Lords’ technology. So all it needs is one person to land on Gallifrey, the Cyberium can take over their body, and the unstoppable rise of the new time-travelling Cyber Empire can commence.

    I’m not going to disown the show over this one, but it strikes me as loose and messy, and it should have been done better. (And a bunch of Judoon breaking into the TARDIS at the end? “The assembled hordes of Genghis Khan couldn’t get through that door”….)

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  2. From their very first appearance on, the Master’s emotional pretext to do something evil has always been to get the Doctor to notice them.

    Otherwise, I haven’t watched the episode. I went off Doctor Who several seasons ago and never came back in spite of occasional attempts.

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  3. It wasn’t the disaster it could have been, but it falls way short of the potential. We got the promised revelations, and every one was a disappointment. The Cyber Timelords weren’t bad but they didn’t need the spikes (neither did the other Cyberman, but they didn’t look as bad on them).

    I like the idea of the Master as the Timeless Child. We can keep the Doctor’s time with The Division. We can say that thwarting the Master was a part of the job – and one the Doctor did often. We can say that the Master was returned to childhood, and that the Doctor was given a new regeneration cycle (and mind wipe) and placed with him (perhaps she discovered the truth about the Timeless Child). I think that works so much better. It expands the rivalry between the Doctor and the Master without making the Doctor oh so very special. There’s no need to lose anything. And if the Master is the Timeless Child maybe there’s something there that would give him the strength to destroy Gallifrey. It’s not really the sort of thing he usually manages without allies, even without considering that Gallifrey is a harder target than most planets.

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  4. The aspect that really disappointed was the final confrontation with the Master and his Cybercrew – what looked like a moral dilemma (shall the Doctor destroy all cybercized Time Lords in a new genocide?) turned out to be apparent cowardice (the Doctor had appeared to be hesitating out of moral confusion, but when old whats-his-name showed up, she had no objection to sacrificing him, the Master and all the Time Lords, suggesting that the real holdup was the sacrifice of her own life).

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    1. Yes! I meant to write about that as well because the scene was nearly absolutely great but then fizzles. The master goading the Doctor to commit genocide and the Doctor seeing that The Master would be happy to die in that circumstance…but then just getting somebody else to do it resolves none of the tension or issues. Again, it really wouldn’t have been hard to keep the dilemma and still have the old guy blow up everybody but without the doctor’s implicit cooperation or a host of other possibilities

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  5. Up until the Master revealed that the Timeless Child was the Doctor, I thought that it was going to be the Master. Which would, as you say, explain why his rage manifested as it did.

    Even have the reveal, I was expecting the Doctor to figure out how to restore some of the information, and then discover that it was a lie–a misdirection left behind for some other purpose.

    Instead we got this mess… which I didn’t exactly hate while I was watching it, right up to the Doctor letting the old guy take the deadman’s switch from her. But that was because I kept waiting for the Doctor to do what the Doctor usually does, think of something out of left field…

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  6. Possibly a minor point, but I’m wondering about that TARDIS disguised as a house, and how it’s going to fit in. I mean, can you imagine what the council tax is going to be like? (“How many bedrooms, Mr. O’Brien?”)

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  7. Maybe it’s my headcanon but I always thought regenerations had *something* to do with the timey-wimey nature of TARDISes and the like and wasn’t just a genetic mutation in, apparently, The Doctor. Quite disappointed by the choice to do that and also makes less sense than the Master being the Timeless Child since that would give him a lot of motivation to want to destroy the planet that would periodically wipe his memories out to probably keep him under control.

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    1. The second Doctor, in his introduction in “The Power of the Daleks”, sort of not-explains his regeneration as “It’s part of the Tardis… without it, I couldn’t go on.” But that line sort of gets forgotten in later stories.

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      1. I vaguely recall something about it, possibly from how/why River Song is the way she is (because she’s a baby sort-of kinda exposed to lots of time energy from the TARDIS with her parents and kinda sorta becomes something a bit Timelord-esque but that might be my brain papering over things to make them make some sort of sense.)

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  8. My fundamental problem with the last couple of episodes is that the Doctor didn’t actually *do* anything. Especially in the last episode. And it wasn’t even one of the companions who made the noble sacrifice, but a guy who had zero backstory up to that point.

    And the whole story being built upon multiple genocides was a bit disturbing too, even though that was brushed away as though it wasn’t important. I can just about buy humans vs cybermen being a score-draw, but The Master vs The Whole Of Time Lord Society? Nope, that’s not even within the realms of plausible.

    I did like the Brendan fake-out. But, as with too many of these things, the execution was terrible. If Chibnall had learned from Bad Wolf and started that story right back in episode one and had little clips all the way through, then the audience would have been invested in it, and asking questions about it, and the pay-off would have had real emotional punch. But no. It was just a way to pad out the first part of a story that wasn’t quite long enough to get the characters to where they needed to be.

    One thing I was mildly interested in was whether or not it has been established that the Shobogans/Time Lords have two hearts? Or is it, in fact, only the Doctor that has the two hearts? Otherwise, it’s a bit weird if the Timeless Child had the same sort of fundamentally weird biology as the random alien race that discovered it.

    And yes, I too am in the group that thinks that if the revelation had been that it was The Master who was the Timeless Child, then that would have been both more properly shocking and more coherent in canon. As it was, there are too many holes that simply don’t work – perhaps most notably, that the Doctor has been President of the Time Lords, and a secret as big as the Timeless Child would not have been possible to keep from him, no matter how much “redaction” there was in the Matrix.

    I didn’t hate the episode in the way El Sandifer did. But it was unsatisfying in a way that season finales really shouldn’t be.

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  9. And there I was hoping that the reason The Master was wiping gallifrey out was some sort of “Those who walks away from Gallifrey” thing (or was that “Omelas”). I did get “the Timeless Child is the source of regenerations” right, just completely and utterly wrong about the mechanism.

    In a way, The Master throwing a complete hissy-fit over The Doctor being “more special” is better in keeping wit the character than throwing a wobbly over an unnamed Timeless Child being tortured to provide the Time Lords with regenerations, But I think my hypothesis was better.

    And, yes, I suspected something like that at the end of the season double, although I don’t think I thouhgt “timeless child” at the time.

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  10. I didn’t find it as messy as others, but that’s not the same as having it be satisfying. The main theme of Doctor Who is the issue of the corruption and abuse of power and the Doctor’s attempts, not always successfully, to try not to do that. But the Doctor is often faced with the dilemma of taking out a lot of life forms to stop them destroying the rest of the life forms and the reality that often doing that act of power for a good cause doesn’t keep it from being abusive and corrupting. The Doctor ran away from the Time Lords to avoid becoming corrupt and abusive of power and takes companions in part to keep grounded in not becoming corrupt and abusing power.

    The Master, on the flip side, believes in the corruption and abuse of power to the point of meglomania madness and nihilism, but above all, in wanting to lead the Doctor to corruption and abuse of power because it will destroy the Doctor’s inner compass and self-view (come over to the Dark Side). They still haven’t explained how the Master escaped the double non-regenerative destruction of the past, but for some reason the Master survived in some version and this version has gone fully mad and is suicidal. But in doing that, he wants to cause the Doctor maximum pain and regretted responsibility and get the Doctor to betray herself into corruption and abuse of power, and thus be proved like the Master and thus wrong and lesser than the Master.

    So the Master killed the Time Lords, for revenge but also because the Doctor killed the Time Lords to save the universe, regretted it and was then able to correct it. In the process of doing that, the Master found that he and the Doctor are not the same — the Doctor is responsible for his power and that is what drove him suicidal. So once again he injects himself, tricks a group as an ally while planning to take over and wreak havoc. He shrinks the Cyberman, half expecting that to kill everything including him. When it doesn’t, he leaves the Cyberman for the Doctor to find. He shows the Doctor the ultimate threat, the thing she must kill massively to save the rest of the universe and gives her the weapon to do that killing with — to be corrupted and abuse power, to be defeated by the Master. He doesn’t try to stop her. She hesitates for the same reason she hesitated in Byron’s mansion — she’s not sure what course of action will cause a greater disaster and what it will make her, even in death.

    When the human guardian shows up, he points out that the Doctor can stop blaming herself for having created the situation — by giving the Cybermium to the Cyberman — because he and his group actually caused the situation by sending the Cybermium off in time to Byron’s lake. And thus it is his decision to make, not hers, humans ending the war. And she accepts that. It isn’t the necessarily courageous or right decision to make, since she’s letting the destruction occur, but she caused the genocide of Galifrey once, so she does leave. So there was a thru line on the plot but it was hectic. And having the Master that easily trick the Cyberman seemed rather anticlimatic. Plus no Captain Jack at the end either, which was a disappointment for me.

    But there were a lot of nice bits in it and I was glad that some of the apocalyptic future humans got to live. And they did make a nice cliffhanger for next season, though I don’t see how the rhinos were able to just pop into the Tardis.

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