By Devan Coggan
February 23, 2020 at 09:11 PM EST
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Ben Blackall/BBC Studios/BBC America

If last week’s episode, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati,” was all about how deadly a single Cyberman can be, this week showcased the full might of an entire Cyber army. “Ascension of the Cybermen,” part one of the two-part season finale, finds the Doctor scrambling to clean up the mess she made back in 19th-century Switzerland, as the half-faced, fully-unhinged Ashad threatens to lead his army to a universe-altering victory.

From the moment the Doctor, Yaz, Graham, and Ryan touch down on a futuristic alien planet, searching for human refugees in the wake of the devastating Cyber War, it’s a race for survival. Even for a show that regularly features an above-average amount of running, the Doctor and her friends spend most of “Ascension” dashing from place to place: There’s running across a charred battlefield, running from an impending Cyberman invasion, running in spaceships, running on foot, running to find a mysterious planet that actually turns out to be a person.

Our heroes arrive as prepared as possible — it’s fun to watch Graham expertly explain Cyber-rebelling tech like he’s been doing this since childhood — but they’re no match for the army that follows them in hot pursuit. (At one point, a swarm of floating Cyberman heads-slash-drones descend upon them, and although these levitating heads were meant to instill fear in the audience, it just felt like an oddly silly moment in an otherwise serious episode.)

Our fam is soon separated in the chaos, as Graham and Yaz escape in a ship with the surviving human refugees. Low on power and drifting through space, they board an abandoned Cyber carrier ship that they find floating in the remains of a great battle. Even though the Doctor isn’t there to guide them, it’s clear that her influence remains: Yaz and Graham immediately take charge, poking around in the bowels of the Cyber ship without fear and reassuring their fellow passengers. Yaz has always been curious by nature, but it’s especially delightful to see how Graham has grown into a plucky action-hero. A massive spaceship carrying millions of relentless robot soldiers is a long way from Sheffield, but Yaz and Graham decide to face this new challenge with the tenacity and optimism they’ve learned from the Doctor.

Speaking of the Doctor, she and Ryan wind up on a ship of their own, nicking Ashad’s personal craft with one of the other humans. Ashad is predictably not pleased. Now that we’ve spent two episodes with the murderous metallic man, I think it’s safe to say that he’s one of the most interesting and terrifying villains of Jodie Whittaker’s era. (He’s certainly a far cry from last season’s big bad, the Tooth Fairy wannabe Tim Shaw.) Cyberman storylines have always leaned into body horror, and Ashad is a twisted sight — dead flesh hooked into wires and machines, skin cold and pale but eyes glinting with hate. True Cybermen may be stripped of all emotion, but Ashad is powered by it, simmering with a xenocidal rage. He’s both righteous fury and crippling self-loathing, and as one of the human refugees puts it, he’s the Cyberman who can make other Cybermen scream.

The only glint of hope as the Cyber War rages on is something called Ko Sharmus, a whisper among the human survivors. Ko Sharmus turns out not to be a place but a person (Ian McElhinney), who’s been watching over a mysterious portal. It’s said that the portal is a gateway to another universe, one that the Cybermen can’t touch, but as the Doctor investigates, she discovers that it’s something far more familiar: a gateway to her homeworld of Gallifrey.

She’s pondering how the Timelords could be involved in all of this when another mystery steps through the gate: Sacha Dhawan’s Master, all gleaming grin and swagger. Whatever’s happening, it’s much, much bigger than the Cyber War and raises even more questions about the Master, Gallifrey, and the much-teased Timeless Child.

It’s a captivating cliffhanger, but what makes “Ascension” memorable is a much quieter, stranger plot, woven throughout all the Cyber shenanigans. As the Doctor and her friends are running around space, we follow a young man named Brendan (Evan McCabe), as he’s found abandoned as a baby in a small Irish village and adopted by a seemingly picture-perfect couple. He grows up to be a small-town police officer, an ordinary life marked only by a few strange events — like when a criminal chase results in him being shot and pushed off a cliff, only to survive his injuries completely unharmed. He eventually ages and retires from the force, which is when his adoptive dad and police force boss (seemingly unaged) wipe his memory with an odd device.

So who is Brendan, and how is this mild-mannered Irish police officer connected to intergalactic events? Is the device at the end of the episode early Cyberman tech? Or is it a chameleon arch, like the one we saw Ruth use earlier this season to hide her Timelord identity? For a penultimate episode, “Ascension” seems to be asking all the right questions. Now it’s up to next week’s season finale to hopefully give us some answers.

TARDIS log notes:

  • I know that when you’re running from a homicidal robot army, your brain isn’t always thinking logically, but the Doctor sure seemed quick to abandon the TARDIS on a random, war-torn alien planet. You’d think by now she’d have learned to park it a little closer to the action so she can make a quick getaway as needed, instead of having to hotwire a Cyber ship warp drive.
  • There’s a moment where the Doctor tells Yaz, Graham, and Ryan to run, leaving her to face Ashad alone. It’s the angriest we’ve ever seen Whittaker’s Doctor, and her fury shocks her companions into silence. The 13th Doctor has spent most of her adventures trying to stand as a beacon of hope and positivity, a quirkier, kinder figure after Peter Capaldi’s colder 12th Doctor. It’s clear that the Cybermen are awakening centuries of bitterness and rage, and it’s moments like these where Whittaker makes you feel just how ancient the Doctor really is.
  • Showrunner Chris Chibnall recently confirmed to EW that he’ll definitely be returning for another season, teasing some “very big, ambitious plans.” Whittaker has also said that she’s back on board, too, so if there are still a few unanswered questions after next week’s finale, we may see them explored further in lucky season 13.

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