Once again for this series of Doctor Who, Blogtor Who is looking at all the nods and references to adventures which have gone before. This time its the turn of Ascension of the Cybermen. So even if you are not already a Mastermind expert on all things in the Whoniverse you can appreciate the little detail as well. Perhaps you are a very knowledgeable Whovian already but did you spot them all?
This week in Doctor Who we saw one of its biggest monsters return in force as we witnessed the Ascension of the Cybermen. And Chris Chibnall and his team have spoiled us with a feast of references to Cyber-adventures gone past.
The very first shot of the episode – with its stylish titles transition – reintroduces a well worn Cyberman design. First introduced in 2006’s Rise of the Cybermen, it’s a look that’s appeared in more stories than any other. Even since it was supplanted by a new design in 2013 it’s continued to make return occasional return appearances. While this has undoubtedly been partly as a budget exercise, in Ascension of the Cybermen it helps adds to the contrast between Ashad’s battered old war veterans and the shiny new ‘warrior class’ Cybermen the story introduces.
As or those new Cybermen, they feature some nice kisses to the past of their own. Their bodies and limbs seem heavily inspired by 15th century armour. But the head reflects elements of Cyber-design from 1968 to 1988. It has built up, ridged ‘headphone’ elements on either side, and chunky thick versions of the classic handlebars. And it’s an instantly familiar look to fans of a certain age. There’s a higher light housing sitting above the rest of the head where the handlebars meet too. That’s particularly strongly reminiscent of their Invasion appearance.
Trapped in a Glass Cage of Emotion
Unusually for her, the Doctor arrives prepared for the fight ahead. And she’s just short of throwing the gold plated kitchen sink at Ashad’s forces. Among the defences she’s brought along in a neural inhibitor she has Graham set up. It effectively broadcasts emotions directly into the Cybermen’s brains, causing them pain, insanity, or even death. It’s a form of machine first introduced into Doctor Who in 1968’s The Invasion. It’s the brainchild of Tobias Vaughn, CEO of evil 20th century microprocessor manufacturer International Electromatics (no relation to the thoroughly innocent microprocessor manufacturer Intergrated Electronics – better known as Intel – founded that same year.) Vaughn was working alongside the Cybermen in their attempt to invade and conquer the entire Earth. He was even partly Cyber-converted. Like Ashad, he kept his own personality and emotions, but unlike Ashad, wanted to keep it that way.
But aware that they might betray him, he wanted a weapon of his own as leverage. Hearing of Professor Watkins’ Cerebatron, a teaching machine able to transmit information directly into the brain, he had the scientist kidnapped and forced to modify it to transmit emotions into Cybermen. It worked and could drive any Cyberman exposed to it violently and incurably insane, or even kill them. However events moved too quickly for Vaughn’s plan to mass produce them for his own private army could bear fruit. Ultimately he and the Cybermen were both wiped out in a series of double-crosses.
Talk of Vaughn and his weapon also brings us neatly to aural homage later in episode. As Ashad awakens his new Cyber-army, he forces them to undergo some sort of modification. Some sort of painful modification. As Ravio notes, they’re up against a Cyberman that makes other Cybermen scream. 21st century Doctor Who has always had a strong tradition of re-using the original sound effects from its earlier incarnation, whether the TARDIS dematerialization of an Auton’s gun. This is a particularly obscure and welcome example, though. When Vaughn first experiments on a Cyberman with his emotion-generating machine it goes completely mad. It quickly escapes into the London sewers, screaming all the way. Its scream is an alarming electronic shriek. And it’s a scream given again by the Cybermen in Ascension who fall victim to Ashad’s plans. Nicely done, sound team.
The Doctor’s also brought along a machine which fills the atmosphere with gold particles. Ravio admits she’s heard something about the Cybermen being allergic to gold, and it’s actually true. It’s an idea first introduced in 1975’s Revenge of the Cybermen, after previous stories had used radiation, gravity, and, um, nail polish remover as their Achilles’ heels. In Revenge, the last remnants of the Cybermen seeking to destroy the ‘planet of gold,’ Voga. It had caused their defeat in the recent Cyber-war and they need to destroy it before staging their big comeback.
That first time it sounded half plausible, with the idea being that the slight electric current through the Cybermen’s breathing grills had a magnetic effect on gold dust – clogging their breathing units and causing them to suffocate to death. In later adventures it becomes simple Cyber-Kryptonite. To the point where 1988’s Silver Nemesis sees them brought down by gold coins and a slingshot.
Lost in Space
As Graham, Yaz, Ravio, Yedlarmi and Bescot prepare to vent their atmosphere in order to propel themselves towards the Cybership, Graham gives them advice on how to survive in a vacuum for as long as possible. Yaz then reassures the others that they’ve had to do it before. Just last season in fact, where their first journey with the Doctor involves her accidentally teleporting them all into the depths of space without spacesuits.
Ashad reveals his origins as a human chosen for conversion but for whom the conversion failed. This isn’t the first reject Cyberman we’ve come across down the years. Back in 1985 Attack of the Cybermen revealed that a certain small percentage of conversions always fail, the bodies being augmented with replacement limbs and implants but the mental conditioning refusing to take. These rejects are typically either destroyed or put to work in a slave labour force and Attack features a subplot about one group of such rejects attempting their escape. More recently we also have Yvonne Hartman in Doomsday – whose iron will and dedication to Queen and country was so strong she continued battling the Cybermen even after her own conversion.
But Ashad is probably closest of all to Lisa the eponymous Cyberwoman in one of Chris Chibnall’s Torchwood episodes. Half completed when the Cyberman invasion in Doomsday failed, she retains some echo of her human personality and emotions. But like Ashad, she’s a true zealot. She still loves her boyfriend, Torchwood agent Ianto Jones, but she expresses it by trying to cut his brain out and stick it in a Cyberman…
After than special segue into the opening credits at the episode’s start, we get an equally special bookend in the end titles at the close. For the first time since The Woman Who Fell to Earth we get to hear Segun Akinola’s take on the musical bridge known to fans, slightly erroneously, as the Middle Eight. It’s a part of the theme that’s often held back for special occasions and the climax of Ascension of the Cybermen certainly qualifies.
Doctor Who Series 12 concludes at the earlier time of 6.50pm next Sunday with The Timeless Children
In the epic and emotional series finale, the Cybermen are on the march. As the last remaining humans are ruthlessly hunted down, Graham, Ryan and Yaz face a terrifying fight to survive. Civilisations fall. Others rise anew. Lies are exposed, truths are revealed, battles are fought, and for the Doctor — trapped and alone — nothing will ever be the same again.
Series 12 stars Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Bradley Walsh (Graham), Mandip Gill (Yaz) and Tosin Cole (Ryan), with Chris Chibnall as Showrunner and Matt Strevens Executive Producing. Ascension of the Cybermen guest stars Sacha Dhawan (The Master), Patrick O’Kane (Ashad), Julie Graham (Ravio), Patrick O’Kane (Ashad), and Nicholas Briggs (Voice of the Cybermen). It’s written by Chris Chibnall, and directed by Jamie Magnus Stone (Spyfall Part One, Praxeus, Ascension of the Cybermen)