And so Chibnall, having egregiously whiffed the one-part finale structure (no shame in it, nobody else has ever made that work save for Moffat who cheated by having Heaven Sent work as a sort of first part), decides to fall back on a proven structure. This is not always a balm for Chibnall, who often seems to struggle with understanding how and why tropes work, instead simply faithfully repeating them shorn of key bits of context like a man in an increasingly bizarre quest to demonstrate how Searle’s Chinese room thought experiment might work in practice. Ascension of the Cybermen plays into that tendency, certainly. But there are relatively few misplaced steps compared to other Chibnall efforts. And this isn’t entirely because Chibnall is playing on easy mode. Yes, the basic structure pioneered by Moffat and Davies—a sense of mounting tension leading to a story-breaking reveal—is one of the easier ones to get to work, with the real challenge being in the back half. But Chibnall declines to go with the sort of zero frills monster runaround that he could have, instead interleaving the seemingly entirely disconnected story of Brendan the cop.
This is, to Chibnall’s credit, a very Moffat move in which the tension is “wait, what kind of story am I watching?” And the decision to go with no reveal about it, leaving it as an incongruous detail to be connected later, is unexpected and probably the most interesting thing ever to happen in a Chibnall script. The answer is probably going to disappoint—I’ll put my bet on “he’s a timeless child” and not on something Cybermen-related, but that’s a next week discussion. This week, his presence made the story weirder, less predictable, and far more interesting.
Unfortunately once you get past him, were into pretty bog standard Chibnall filler. The promotional material stressed the guest role of Ravio as a super-competent fighter against the Cybermen. It sounds cool. But tell me honestly: are you 100% confident you can remember which of the disposable supporting cast she is? (Remembering which actress plays her is cheating.) Can you actually name another secondary character? I can’t. One of them had really buggy eyes. That’s about all I remember. Yaz and Graham get to do the Doctoring for a bit, which is a nice touch. But mostly, this is frighteningly generic Cybermen doing frightfully generic Cybermen things. (The moment of peak bathos, for me, was when they uncover some boxy-head classic models of Cybermen and attempt to, with a straight face, suggest that these were always the “warrior” caste of Cybermen. Past that, we’ve got, what? A lot of action scenes so adamantly no nonsense that Eric Saward would blanche and add a few jokes? A ranting cult leader Cyberman whose final fate (full conversion that strips him of his “unique” qualities) couldn’t be more clearly telegraphed? None of it is objectionable, but none of it is interesting.
The real problem, though, is the ending. It’s not just the aggressive non-shock of the Master being back. (And bragging preposterously about making a good entrance. Honey, you used to ride down on a parasol like a homicidal Mary Poppins, or pull off an increasingly ludicrous series of latex prosthetics. Teleporting in as soon as Segun Akinola begins the “the cliffhanger is coming” crescendo is not impressive.) It’s the fact that the entire episode is spent getting to the exact place we all knew it had to end as soon as its second part was announced as The Timeless Children. There’s not even a cool reveal tying Gallifrey lore to the Cybermen. It’s just “ooh, a magic portal to the thing this story is actually about.” It’s one of the worst instances yet of Chibnall’s absurd spoilerphobia existing mostly to cover the fact that he hasn’t got anything worth spoiling.
As I said earlier, the structure of “part one of a two-part season finale” is forgiving. Often, these episodes are the thrilling, watchable pleasures of their stories, leading into lumpy, flawed masterpieces of actual finales. And while this was by no means wretchedly flawed, it’s difficult to imagine it being that. If Chibnall performs as expected, with a half-baked mess of a finale, nothing in this will compel watching it anyway. If he pulls out a shocker and nails the finale, this will be the disposable fifty minutes of hype leading into it. Neither outcome feels like a triumph.