Ascension of the Cybermen is the penultimate episode in New Who’s twelfth series; it follows directly on from the previous episode, the Gothic/Romantic Haunting of Villa Diodati, which I reviewed some weeks ago. The Doctor and her fam travel to the far future to try and stop the half-Cyberman Ashad from reawakening the Cyber army and destroying the human race, but they’ve failed before they’ve even started: in the future they reach there are just seven humans left. Their one hope is to reach the Boundary, a place that will transport them to a random point in the universe where the Cybermen cannot follow.
In my review of Villa Diodati I hypothesised that Ashad in that episode is acting as a locus for anxieties about radicalised white supremacists, a cyborg colonised by technology and hateful ideology. If that’s the case, then what we see in Ascension of the Cybermen is the nihilism that ultimately lies behind such ideology: “the death of everything is within me”, says Ashad, a line that we won’t discover the full significance of until the next episode, but the point for now is that he stands for homogenisation, the destruction of everything that is not Cyberman.
The apocalyptic future the Doctor travels to in this episode, the run-down buildings, glitchy tech and spacefields littered with dead robots, caps off a series that’s been full of images of apocalypse – the monster-haunted nuclear wasteland of Orphan 55, the plastic-crazed birds of Praxeus, the god-razed planets of Can You Hear Me? – all tapping into the sense of fear and hopelessness liberals around the world are feeling right now. The Doctor in this episode finds herself helpless to undo her decision in Villa Diodati – to return the Cyberium to Ashad in exchange for the life of the poet Percy Shelley – and protect what remains of humanity against the reckless hate of the Cyber army: her gadgets, things which might have facilitated the denouement of another episode, fail in the first assault on the human refugee camp; the Cybermen pick off the people she’s supposed to be protecting, their numbers dwindling even further. The scientific rationality represented by her gadgets just doesn’t work against white supremacy and the alt-right; fear and panic reign, the refugee humans fleeing even as the Doctor warns them not to. It’s of course traditional for penultimate episodes, or the first parts of two-parters, to end in despair; we as viewers want to see how the characters will convert that despair into triumph, how they will climb out of this particular slough of despond. So it’s not particularly surprising or novel that Ascension of the Cybermen seeks to evoke despair. It’s just that it so precisely mirrors the tenor of despair we are all feeling right now about the direction the world is going in politically. (This episode was broadcast in February and filmed probably late last year, long before coronavirus was A Thing.)
(Nor will the next episode be particularly hopeful. But that’s a post for next week.)