"Ascension of the Cybermen" is the ninth episode of the twelfth series of Doctor Who. It is either the first part of a two-part episode, of the second part of a three-part episode, with a trilogy of episodes with unified action and themes, but with a shift in emphasis. It first aired on February 23, 2020.
The episode starts by showing the life of Brendan, a foundling in early 20th century Ireland, who is adopted by a kindly, childless couple. The episode shows scenes from Brendan's life interspersed with the main plot of the episode. And yes, this confused me, and at the end of the episode I misguessed the purpose of the scenes. But back in our main plot, The Doctor and companion have showed up in the aftermath of the "cyberwar", when Cybermen and humanity have nearly annihilated each other. A small group of seven normal humans is hiding out, and the Doctor wants to protect them as they flee to wherever the rest of humanity is hiding. This fails spectacularly, and the Doctor, companions and surviving humans end up fleeing, powerlessly, to a rallying point for refugees in two separate groups. Both groups are fleeing in stolen Cybermen ships, and the episode makes it clear how fragile and endangered everyone is. And when we finally come to safety, the episode ends with an even more dramatic twist, as a totally unexpected character is introduced.
What I found most remarkable about this episode is how quickly it deconstructs the basic premise and development of most Doctor Who episode. The Doctor solves problems with wit, intellect and humane values, and no matter what the crisis, there is always time for personal connection. And in just the first ten minutes of this episode, we are given instead a realistic portrayal of what would happen: bringing a crew of ragtag misfits using jury-rigged tools to fight a horde of genocidal robots using advanced war technology just doesn't work, and neither does talking about feelings or cleverness. This episode is one of the few Doctor Who episodes where I felt just how squishy humans are. There are two things that surprised me about this: first, much of the Chris Chibnall/Jodie Whittaker Doctor Who has been oriented towards younger people, with episodes that gently taught moral lessons---so it was unexpected to see it show such a raw version of what war is like (although perhaps that is another message?). The second thing that surprised me is that this episode made the Cybermen look scary. As a Doctor Who fan, I find myself wondering why the show is so enamored of the Daleks and the Cybermen, enemies whose costumes and concepts were generated by the exigencies of the shows 1960s beginnings, but are continued decades later. Usually I find the Cybermen a bit silly, but this episode made them scary.
The main thing I got from this episode is just how raw and risky it felt, compared to recent Doctor Who. The surrealistic interludes with Brendan were just an aspect of that. But the next episode would take things even further, as basic aspects of the framework of Doctor Who would be rewritten in The Timeless Children.