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Reviewed: Doctor Who – Ascension of the Cybermen

This is not a desperately easy episode to review. The Chris Chibnall / Jodie Whittaker era of Doctor Who has been a polarising one, generally producing strong reactions among fans: there are them as loves it, them as loathes it, and them as goes as far as to commit to a final verdict of “meh”. I’ve said before – probably ad nauseam for those who are kind enough to read my occasional and sporadic ravings – that Doctor Who fans are not generally fans of every single period of the programme’s history. Some are, and good luck to them. I confess I belong to the group who like most Who, bar some chunks of the Eighties, and who really don’t like the current era of the show. At all. Not even a little teensy bit.

Sorry. I quite liked The Woman Who Fell to Earth; otherwise, I think the last two seasons have been among the worst the series has had to offer in its history. Some commentators have seen an improvement this year; I’m afraid I haven’t. I still think it’s rotten.

Ascension of the Cybermen is not a desperately easy episode to review, then, because it’s difficult to analyse something that has so little substance. It has many of Chibnall’s hallmarks: a parade of set pieces, a narrative that jumps between different locations, a lot of shouty and noisy spectacle (Chibnall does not do “subtle”), a new stack of cardboard characters, and a lot of borrowing from previous stories. At least the Mighty Mallet of Message was not smashed over our heads this week, though it’s hard to see where it could have been swung this time. I suppose we could have been exhorted not to seek to upgrade our internal organs or to replace our brains with computers without good reason.

Okay, the Irish bits were good. The new Cybermen design is excellent. Ian McElhinney was good (loved him as Granda Joe in Derry Girls – if you want to see some superlatively good TV and haven’t caught it yet, do check it out on All 4). The effects were superb.


So what? There just wasn’t enough there to redeem the episode. Legions of dormant Cybermen stowed away in a huge spaceship have been done before, and better, in Earthshock. The last surviving outpost of the human race has been done before, and better, in Utopia. The resurrection of the remnants of the Cyber-race has been done before, and better, in The Tomb of the Cybermen. The action sequences were brash and noisy. The characters – or character place-holders – did not react as real human beings would to carnage, death, and threatened violation. Instead, they zoosh on to the next explosion without so much as looking over their shoulders.

On this last point: I’ve been re-watching Blake’s 7 (not my favourite series) recently; browsing the Internet to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, I came across a clip of Gareth Thomas on the not very late lamented Pebble Mill at One. This is what he said:

“Doing science fiction is very like doing farce, in one area only. It’s real people in an unreal situation. As long as you make the people real, it doesn’t matter whether you put them on Cygnus Alpha or Pebble Mill. If they’re real people, then it works. You can be doing Shakespeare or Terry Nation, it doesn’t matter.”

If they’re real people, then it works. And if they’re not, conversely, it doesn’t. It is no longer drama; it is a series of visual set pieces. A good actor like Ian McElhinney can fill in a sketched character to make him believable; this is part of the actor’s craft. You have to take a script and build the character up from the lines and the situation, until you have a believable person. The script will only take you so far. If you have a good writer, it’s much easier. What you cannot do is just learn some lines off a page and then shout them. Or mumble them. Or recite them while frowning or pretending to be out of breath. You have to find the emotional truth of a character. Good directors can help actors to build their performances. And a good director does not just worry about what a programme looks like; a good director worries about how effectively his cast realises the people in the drama. Nuff said on this point.

Then, of course, there’s that CyberBorg bloke. Half of his face is human (didn’t they do that before with the clockword robot in Deep Breath?). The CyberBorg bloke is a very shouty man. He is ever so cross. He stomps and snarls and shouts. He is supposed to be a new type of Cyberman but he isn’t really much like a Cyberman at all, is he? I thought Cybermen were supposed to be emotionless. Wouldn’t the other Cybermen consider him an inferior, because he still has what they used to regard as “certain weaknesses”? “Come to Mondas and you will have no need of eee-motions. Oh hang on, they’re jolly good, aren’t they? Forget all that and let’s all follow the rusty shouty geezer.” Crash, stomp, snarl.

Oh well. The new Cyber-designs are good. The Cybermen are essentially Sixties monsters; that’s when they were done best, and it’s notable that Russell T Davies looked to the Sixties versions, not the Eighties ones, when he revived them. I really like the ones in Moonbase and Tomb; while they’re dated and you couldn’t use them now, that death mask and the simplicity of the design conveys superbly that these were once men and women: dehumanised, reduced to walking, machine-enhanced corpses. The human face is whittled down to its barest essentials: two dots and a straight line. They are ex-humans, unhumans. The Invasion ones were superb, too. But the unhumans got progressively more human and emotional in Revenge (where the Cyberleader might as well have been chomping on a cigar as he barked out his orders), and in the Earthshock-style Cybermen. Complicating the design, adding detail rather than reducing it, lessens the impact of the dehumanising; it implies they’re enhanced, not diminished, versions of humanity. (And am I the only person to mourn the loss of the chest unit?) Shouty Borg-bloke is far too human. And noisy. One of the things that made the Sixties Cybermen so effective was their stillness, their silence. (Look at them again in Tomb and The Invasion. The stiller and quieter they are, the more they terrify.) Worlds away from what we have now.

Here’s another thought. The black and white seasons were billed as “An Adventure in Space and Time”. Not, you will note, “An Action Adventure in Space and Time”. The advances in effects technology and the bigger budget means you can now have action-adventure sequences, which were rare (and occasionally risible) in classic Who. But they can be a snare if they’re used as a substitute for drama, rather than an enhancement of it. 15 minutes of pretty bangs and flashes, kapow kapow you’re dead blamma blamma blamma zoosh there go a load of disembodied Cyber-heads, is an easy option for a poor writer; writing that kind of stuff requires less skill than creating convincing people. (For evidence that you can do both, see the climax of The Invasion.)

Lots of people like this sort of thing but it’s much easier to write than the more thoughtful drama of, say, most of the Pertwees or the Hinchcliffe stories. But Chibnall is not a thoughtful writer; he can only really manage a very broad brush and he paints in primary colours. The action sequences of this episode were full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Actually, that quotation begins, “It is a tale told by an idiot”, but I won’t explore that because it would be most unkind.)

We’re coming to the end of the second Whittaker season, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to bore you with some observations on the state of Doctor Who under its not-so-new showrunner and leading actor.

I’ll skip over the companions quickly. Graham’s pretty good, though he’s had less to do this season and consequently one of the better aspects of the current programme has been diminished. Yaz and Ryan are – well, Yaz and Ryan are Yaz and Ryan. Neither Ms Gill nor Mr Cole are sufficiently accomplished actors to lift their characters from the page. (Actually, I wonder if anyone could.) The current TARDIS crew are… let’s put it this way: if you could imagine a scenario where Peter Cushing’s Doctor was accompanied by Dodo and Adric, I’d sooner watch them than this bunch. Unlike previous companions, they worship the Doctor with an uncritical adoration and adulation which she simply neither merits nor deserves.

And so to the central performance. And it is a performance, I fear; I just do not believe in Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor as a person. I’ve tried – and I can’t.

Various commentators on the DWC have had a bit of a field day here. We’ve not always been very kind (and no, neither have I). We’ve variously called the “Doc” a daffy primary school teacher, a CBBC presenter, Bubble from Absolutely Fabulous, or the kind of irritating person you might meet at a party who immediately proclaims, “Oh, I’m crackers, me!”

More seriously, the performance of the central actor is a major impediment to the improvement of the quality of the programme.

NuWho has latched on to the eccentricity of the Doctor, to a much greater extent than the original series did. And this eccentricity – which should be one characteristic among many – became much more foregrounded, and it has now grown to the extent that it has come to define the character. Today, the Doctor is an eccentric… and that’s about it.

In classic Who, the Doctor’s eccentricity was part of him – but you can also say that it a) stemmed from his charisma, and b) was part of that charisma. Because the Doctor is an alien, hundreds of years old (or thousands, in the case of Pertwee), incomparably superior intellectually to anyone human, and, as Barry Letts put it, a strongly moral personality, he is going to come across as eccentric to those who met him. That does not mean the Doctor is silly or daffy. Similarly, an aspect of his charisma means that his presence in a situation inevitably leads to his dominating it – which can make him appear a bit of an oddball. If you have a group of people and a stranger comes among them, takes charge, tells them what to do, and occasionally can be rather crotchety or insensitive in handling them, because his focus is on the bigger picture – well, that’s eccentric behaviour because most people just don’t do that. It is not the same as being daft, daffy, or silly.

I don’t think it can be over-stated that this “eccentricity” is just one aspect of the character – and it’s often not even in the foreground but in the background, especially in classic Who. Moreover, the eccentricity is to a large extent an expression of the Doctor’s alienness, his oddness – his otherness. It is integral to the character but it does not define it.

But now? It’s come to be almost the sole characteristic of the Doctor.

Today, the Doctor is eccentric because she is eccentric – not because it stems from her otherness or alienness. It’s become an end in itself: it does not point to her being alien; it points to her being daft. And then almost every synonym for “eccentric” has been thrown into the mix. So the Doctor is now (primarily or even solely) kooky, klutzy, krazee, wacky, goofy, funny, nutty, bonkers, loveable (ugh), far-out – and, for many viewers as a consequence – irritating, silly, and even stupid.

Jodie Whittaker cannot resist the temptation to deliver the vast majority of her lines with a bright, breathless, wide-eyed enthusiasm, no matter what the dramatic or emotional context of the scene requires. The constant machine-gun delivery has become very wearying to this viewer. As one newspaper reviewer put it (I forget who; I think it was in The Independent), she always sounds as though she’s just run up three flights of stairs.

It works, occasionally. It works when the scene demands it (yet it usually doesn’t). It is totally wrong when she’s faced with death, suffering or tragedy. The Doctor may be an alien but the Doctor has feelings; the Doctor may have been brash in the past but he was defined by his compassion, his empathy, his kindness. Jodie’s being wacky in almost every situation, not reacting with compassion or concern, produces the unintended consequence that her Doctor has no empathy. Despite her trumpeted proclamations to the contrary, there is very little evidence that this Doctor is a kindly or benevolent person. She has no emotional intelligence whatsoever. It doubtless was not intended, but the consequence of the performance means that the Doctor has become a self-obsessed, self-righteous oddball, detached from and emotionally immune to the suffering of others, and therefore both immoral and unlikeable.

A performance, not a person. And, in the main, a one-note performance, too. Where she does (occasionally) try to vary things, it’s not very convincing. Tom Baker gave the Doctor a brooding introspection; when Jodie tries this, it comes across as simple petulance. The Doctor’s insatiable intellectual curiosity has gone, because her Doctor simply does not come across as very bright (even though she says she is). She is certainly emotionally illiterate. The moral outrage of Troughton and Pertwee has been replaced by a bland (though an unintended) impenetrable and thoroughly insensitive cheeriness.

In the past, we’ve often shielded Jodie Whittaker herself from criticism. It isn’t her, we said; it’s the fault of the poor writing – it’s the fault of the directors for not giving her the necessary direction. I don’t wish to be unkind, but I think we now have to admit that it is also the fault of the actor. She simply did not do her homework. She does not, and did not, know who the Doctor is.

She did not look at the performances of her predecessors – with the exception of David Tennant (the breathless enthusiasm thing comes over as a pale imitation of the Tenth Doctor). Matt Smith and Colin Baker studied their predecessors carefully. Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker didn’t need to because they knew how they were going to play the part and drew strongly on their own personalities to make the Doctor a living and breathing reality. And yet, despite her successes in other roles – Jodie Whittaker is a good actress, after all – she seems to have made no real attempt to find out who the Doctor is before she started filming. And her performance hasn’t developed, broadened or deepened. It is a superficial and surface characterisation. The Doctor no longer has any depth, subtlety, or even any real personality. The Doctor is no longer believable. (And DWC readers should note that there are Jodie fans behind-the-scenes and we’ve got an article coming up examining her growing into the part – but this is my opinion, and to me, she doesn’t fit.)

In sum, I’m afraid it has to be admitted that she is simply miscast.

No, I’m not being sexist. No, I don’t think only a man can play the Doctor properly. But if we accept the idea (which I’m fine with) that we needed a woman for the Thirteenth Doctor, I just can’t believe that any of the other producers or showrunners would have held extensive auditions and then discovered, after careful and prolonged consideration, that the best person for the part was Jodie Whittaker. Sorry: I just can’t.

For much of its history, Doctor Who was one of the best, most imaginative, and most compelling programmes on television. It certainly isn’t now. It is a very, very pale imitation of what it used to be – 40, 50, or even 10 or fewer years ago. It does need new writers; it does need a new showrunner; it does need the final burying of the Mighty Mallet of Message.

And it also needs a new Doctor – of whatever gender or ethnicity – because Jodie Whittaker is not right for the part.

Simon Danes

Reviewed: Doctor Who – Ascension of the Cybermen

by Simon Danes time to read: 11 min
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