Doctor Who review, Ascension of the Cybermen: An expansive, ambitious and absurd episode

Ed Power

Doctor Who has not lacked for arresting images this season. Cuddly comedian Lenny Henry as a snarling dotcom megalomaniac. Lord Byron chased by ghosts. Fascist space-rhinos implementing a stop-and-frisk policing policy in Gloucester’s main shopping district (you haven’t forgotten "Fugitive of the Judoon" already have you?). But the terrifying tableaux we’re all going to remember is the one unleashed in the penultimate episode as the Doctor and her team are menaced by a fearsome flock of…flying Cyberman heads.

It’s certainly a new twist on the traditional sci-fi action scene and injects a big squishy dollop of absurdity into a solid but also rather po-faced and portentous helping of Who. Hopefully, it is a set-piece that will catch on too. Picture a future Avengers movie where Iron Man is pursued by miniaturised Thanos noggins. Or a round of post-Brexit trade talks in which Boris Johnson tips open a crate and dozens of flying Dominic Cummings heads emerge with chomping maws, sending Brussels bureaucrats fleeing for their panic rooms. Take THAT European common fisheries policy.

In Doctor Who, the airborne Cyberheads pop up early in an instalment that follows directly from last week’s face-off between the solitary Cyberman with the flaking mask and Lord Byron and chums. Using co-ordinates provided by early 18th-century poet and philosopher Percy Shelley (it’s a long story), the Doctor and her crew have traveled to the far future, where the Cybermen have hunted humanity to the brink of extinction.

This is Doctor Who at its most expansive and ambitious. Sadly, a whiff of pantomime intrudes in the final seconds when Sacha Dhawan’s Master turns up and cackles a bit. Dhawan is clearly having fun in the part. Dare we suggest too much fun? Oh for a jot of real menace to go with the cartoon nefariousness he conjures with so excitedly.

But wait – because we’re nearing the end of the season, show-runner Chris Chibnall has decided he fancies a spot of prestige-esque multi-layered storytelling. So there’s a parallel plot set in Ireland. Or at least Ireland as imagined by someone who has watched two, potentially three Father Teds and thinks they may have seen Darby O’Gill and the Little People when they were a child but can’t be positive.

It centres around a policeman called Paddy McShamrock – I haven’t checked but I’m pretty sure this is his actual name – who has Ed Sheeran’s hair and a potato sticking out of his back pocket. Oh, and he’s impossible to kill. This is confirmed when he is shot at point blank range and then pushed off a cliff. Not even the gentle Riverdance fiddles wafting in the background can keep him aloft and down his plunges. But he does not die!

Fascinating – but what’s it got to do with the Doctor in the far future? That remains to be seen. However, the fact that both Policeman Pat and the Cyberman are portrayed by Irish actors has set our antennae tingling. Another Irishman pops up at the end in the from of Game of Thrones actor Ian McElhinney.

He is playing a Gandalf-type named Ko Sharmus (you really wish they’d doubled down on the Celtic theme and called him Yo, Seamus) and is the guardian of a portal to another galaxy far, far away from the Cybermen. When the Doctor arrives in a stolen Cyberman ship he invites her to investigate this “boundary”. As she does it opens a gateway to Gallifrey – and then in pops the Master! Something is afoot, though what precisely is not clear as the end credits roll.

Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) likewise find themselves at a sticky impasse. Separated from the gang, they take shelter with other human survivors of the Cyberman genocide only to fly straight into a space hulk containing tens of thousands of box-fresh killer robots. They are quickly hunted down by our Lone Cyberman friend (Patrick O’Kane) from the Lord Byron episode who then powers up the new Cybermen. With an army at his disposal final victory is within his metallic grasp.

Everything is in place, then, for a stirring finale. Chibnall has chucked in the Master, a Cyberman with a wonky faceplate, a Game of Thrones actor and a Father Ted policeman who can’t be killed. Where it’s all headed will presumably be revealed sooner rather than later. But let’s be very clear about one thing: unless it features flying Cybermen heads blasting lasers we’re writing it off as an anticlimax.