This review isn't going to be quite as in-depth as my previous Doctor Who Series 12 posts, mainly because there are so many unanswered questions about certain elements of this story that I can't yet say how I feel about them. However, in lieu of waiting for Part 2 of the series finale and reviewing both episodes at once, I'll just discuss the things I'm able to share my thoughts on this week and leave the rest for later.
The Quick and Spoiler-Free Verdict
“Ascension of the Cybermen” seems to be an extremely promising first half of of the Series 12 finale. It does a great job laying the foundations for a huge final showdown next week, and builds on the fantastic character development the Thirteenth Doctor got in “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”. Plus, it uses both the Lone Cyberman Ashad and the Cybermen in general to great effect. I don't know yet whether “The Timeless Children” will deliver on all the plot threads from this and previous episodes of Series 12, but “Ascension” definitely doesn't give me any reason to believe that it won't.
What I Didn't Like
Aaaand here's where reviewing this episode gets tricky. As with “Fugitive of the Judoon”, I can't honestly say that I disliked anything in “Ascentsion”, but that's mainly because I don't yet know the true significance of everything I was seeing. I may need to revisit certain elements of this episode when I do my “What I Didn't Like” section on “The Timeless Children”. For now, I'm just going to stick a pin in it and move on.
What I Liked
To preface, I'll admit that I have absolutely no idea what the scenes with the new(?) character of Brendan meant, so I can't say for sure whether I liked or disliked them. They were certainly intriguing and well-acted. Also, there was some clever subversion in them. Toward the middle of this plot thread, I was thinking, “Boy, they really didn't try very hard to make all the other characters besides Brendan look like they'd aged, did they?” However, I think what I chalked up to shoddy make up was actually meant to be a clue–technically, these people weren't aging. It appeared that only Brendan truly was.
Also, side note: I'd expected Brendan to start regenerating after he fell, revealing him to be an unsuspecting Time Lord. But instead, he simply came back to life in a very similar manner to Captain Jack's resurrections. On the other hand, the device placed on his head in the final scenes resembled a Chameleon Arch, and it's been confirmed that that an Arch can dial back a Time Lord's age all the way to infancy (as was the case with the War Master's transformation into Professor Yana). So perhaps Brendan is some form of Gallifreyan–perhaps a mutant who doesn't need to regenerate in order to resurrect (the Timeless Child?)–who's being kept in a confession-dial-esque loop by Time Lord captors. That's the best theory I can come up with at the moment.
The best thing about “Ascension” was that it in no way felt like a reset button after last week's “Haunting”. There were moments of humor (really great humor, in fact), but this is probably the least comedic episode of the Thirteenth Doctor's era so far. And while she seemed to forget all the staggering revelations in “Fugitive of the Judoon” five seconds later and go back to business as usual, this week, the Doctor certainly carried on just as determined and brooding as we saw her in the last moments of “Haunting”. This gives me hope that the new Thirteen, who hearkens back more strongly to the darker qualities of her previous selves, is here to stay. I'd rather not see her go back to the near-constant happy-go-lucky demeanor she had in Series 11 and some episodes of Series 12. Jodie Whittaker is doing a terrific job blending the Doctor's hopefulness and lingering guilt in her performance, and I want future scripts to continue giving her this kind of material.
The companions were challenged more this week than they've ever been before. I feel pretty certain that not all of them will survive the next episode…which might be a good thing, no matter how much I'd like them all to live. I think all of them are in a really good place right now in terms of character development, and yet, it would feel a little too convenient for all three of them to somehow escape the Cybermen. Regardless, they showed off everything the Doctor has taught them this week, taking charge and dealing with problems in a clever and efficient manner. This story put all the growth they've had over the past two seasons on display, instead of reducing them to mere plot devices for convenience's sake. The best companions are always the ones who are truly changed by their travels with the Doctor, and Graham, Ryan, and Yaz certainly have changed a great deal.
Ashad is definitely the most terrifying and interesting villain the Thirteenth Doctor has faced thus far, and now that we've learned more of his backstory, I feel he's an exceptionally strong villain for Doctor Who as a whole. He adds a welcome new twist to the threat of the Cybermen, while exemplifying all the familiar relentlessness that makes the Cybermen frightening in the first place. Using him as the centerpiece of the Cybermen arc in Series 12 was a brilliant choice on Chris Chibnall's part, in my opinion. Also, the Cybermen in general were brought to life amazingly well in “Ascension”, with remarkable visual effects and striking design choices.
The big cliffhanger of this story didn't exactly surprise me–there were clues to it both earlier in the season and within the episode itself. I had a feeling Gallifrey would show up as soon as I saw the purple lightning that so strongly resembled the sky from the Doctor's vision of the Timeless Child. Plus, we all had a feeling the Master would return in the finale, and the BBC didn't even make any great effort to hide that fact from us. But I don't think that the ending of “Ascension” was actually meant to be shocking. In my opinion, it's a good thing that the twists didn't feel completely bizarre. Upon finishing “Ascension”, I was left with the impression that this episode had told enough of the story for “The Timeless Children” to be able to handle the rest in its 60-minute runtime. If this proves to be the case, “Ascension” will stand as one of the better penultimate episodes in the seasons of Doctor Who. For example, while “Heaven Sent” was an amazing story in and of itself, it only contributed a tiny piece of the massive, epic tale that “Hell Bent” tackled afterward. As a result, “Hell Bent” felt far too rushed. The stage is set for “The Timeless Children” not to make the same mistakes…but of course, we have yet to see if Chris Chibnall can actually land this TARDIS.
“Ascension of the Cybermen” is a strong beginning. Whether or not it is a great episode has yet to be determined, as is the case with “Fugitive of the Judoon”. But it left me very hopeful for a satisfying conclusion next week. Plus, regardless of what happens next, “Ascension of the Cybermen” is a thrilling Cyberman story that does justice to a classic monster. In that sense, at least, it's exactly what it says on the tin.