For the past two years I have repeatedly made one observation about the current lead writer for Doctor Who. He is following in the footsteps of two of the finest writers in the world and the fact remains that he is not only not in the same league, but has another league in between his league and their league. This will inevitably affect the direction and quality of the programme. The lack of sheer poetry in Chibnall's dialogue, when compared with his predecessors is evident, but not, in the end, too damaging. Critically, however, Chibnall still exhibits a lack of care when it comes to resolving plots, something that was of particular concern when before watching "Ascension of the Cybermen"/"The Timeless Children", because it builds on the revelations of "Fugitive of the Judoon" to form the greatest reformatting of Doctor Who's mythology since The Deadly Assassin, if not "An Unearthly Child" itself.
The driving force is the reintroduction of the Cybermen – bold, considering that the two previous Cyberman stories were the best ones ever made, in my opinion. We see the return of the memorable Ashad, the tortured half-convert from the previous story, who is now the leader. Again, as with the two Moffat Cyber-stories, we have the Master thrown into the mix as well. We are also given the concept of a fugitive remnant of humans fighting extinction. These form a strong framework to hang the story on, which is a good thing, as there is some of the lack of attention to detail that has cropped up before. The characterisation of the remnant humans are sketchy, the Death Particle is a pound shop version of the Daleks' Reality Bomb that is dropped into the plot a bit too conveniently. Critically, we are never sure what the actual Ascension of the Cybermen is – the aspect that seems to point the way to it, the image of the awakened Cybermen made to scream by Ashad's lieutenants is memorable, but unexplained. Most critically, we have the portrayal of our leading lady. The characterisation raises some big issues, most notably the fact that the Doctor is willing to cut a moral Gordian Knot by allowing someone else to sacrifice himself.
And yet , while there are issues with how Chibnall writes the character, he also sets out to rewrite the Doctor's history and that of the Time Lords; and the ideas and de- and remythologisation work well. The new origin story for the Time Lords manages to be memorable, disturbing, and, crucially (and in the best possible way) raises more questions than answers. In revealing more about the Doctor's past, we are left with a figure as mysterious as the one in the junkyard in Totters' Lane. As one of the many people who know what the final revelations of the Cartmel Masterplan were, Chris Chibnall's bombshell is a considerable improvement over what would have been revealed in Sylvester McCoy's fourth season. The, at first, entirely disconnected story of Brendan the Irish policemen shows Chibnall reaching for a Moffat level of conceptual ingenuity – and succeeding to a very welcome degree!
The story is realised with epic flourish, with flotillas of attacking cyberdrones and warping battle cruisers materialising on an immaculately shot battlefield location. The supporting actors make their hastily written characters really work – Julie Graham's character Ravio, realising that she is on the planet where her race originated on is a surprisingly powerful scene. The fam are as utterly delightful as ever, with Ryan finally making the shot that he missed and a wonderful scene between Graham and Yas, showing the difference between Cockney and Yorkshire 'sharing'. The more proactive role that Yas has been taking of late, is wonderful, improving the fam's chemistry, no end. Patrick O'Kane spits venom again as Ashad and his ultimate destruction is unexpectedly sudden. At this point we must address one thing – the Cybermasters. The design is ridiculous, bordering on the New Paradigm Daleks, especially when compared with the other Cyberman designs in the story. It would have helped no end for the Doctor to have pointed out how silly they look.
Sacha Dhawan effectively shows the pain and fury of his new-found relationship between the Master and his best Enemy. The enemy in question, the Timeless Child is a huge task for Jodie Whittaker as an actress and she is more than up to the challenge. After a memorable pep-talk from her unknown former-self, we are treated to the magnificent sequence where the Doctor blows the matrix with her memories, realised magnificently as a drop beat to the Doctor Who theme music. The Doctor is still with us, bigger and more magnificent than ever before.
Chibnall, as I've said before is a lesser writer than his predecessors. Yet, despite its faults, "Ascension of the Cybermen"/"The Timeless Children" show him increasing his reach by striving to be better than anyone thought he could be. He fails, of course, but what we are left with is a very good story, although not the classic that the Chibnall era has been lacking, so far. I look forward to what's coming next.
NEXT: "Revolution of the Daleks"