Timestamp #301: Ascension of the Cybermen & The Timeless Children

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Doctor Who: Ascension of the Cybermen
Doctor Who: The Timeless Children
(2 episodes, s12e09-10, 2020)

Timestamp 301 Ascension Timeless Children

The story that broke so many fans.

Ascension of the Cybermen

In the depths of space, Ashad speaks of the Cybermen. The mechanical menace has finally been defeated after winning a billion battles, and after a reign of terror, the empire has fallen. But that which is dead can live again in the hands of a believer.

The adventure plays out in two stories: One follows our heroes on a refugee planet in the far future, and the other follows a mysterious man named Brendan in Ireland.

Brendan’s Tale—

In mid-twentieth century Ireland, a man named Patrick finds a baby in the middle of the road. He takes the baby home to his wife Meg, and together they report the incident to the Garda police. With no leads, they couple decides to take care of him until the parents are found. After a year, they adopt the boy and name him Brendan.

Brendan grows up, attends school, and learns to farm. He applies to join the Gardaí and is welcomed into the police force by the sergeant who met him as a baby. While on duty one day, Brendan chases a thief named Michael near a cliff. Michael pulls a revolver and forces Brendan toward the cliff. Brendan is shot and falls to his death, but by some miracle, he springs back to life.

Brendan attributes it to luck, but everyone else is confused and afraid. Nevertheless, Brendan is awarded with a commendation. Many years later, Brendan retires from the Gardaí and is faced by his father and his sergeant, both of whom have not aged. They take him to the back office where he is strapped into a chair and has his memory wiped while he screams.

The Refugees’ Tale—

The Doctor, Graham, Ryan, and Yaz follow Shelley‘s coordinates to a planet in the far future. The Doctor parks a half mile out and breaks the news of humanity’s near extinction at the hands of the Cybermen. They find the last remaining human settlement comprised of seven surviving humans. The travelers arrive just in time to help establish a defense against the arriving Cyberman fleet.

With the help of Feekat, Ravio, Ethan, Yedlarmi, Fuskle, and Bescot, Team TARDIS gets to work: Graham sets up a neural inhibitor system that can restore Cyberman emotions; Yaz builds a particle projector to attack the automatons with gold dust; and Ryan establishes a forcefield. Unfortunately, a swarm of Cyberdrone heads arrive and destroy the gadgets. They also kill Fuskle and an older woman.

The drones leave and the Doctor orders the survivors to escape in their ship. She tells her companions to join them since the TARDIS is too far away. She promises to find them after she holds off the invading force. As the humans escape, Ashad confronts the Doctor with two additional drones. The drones pursue the companions to the ship, and Ryan is left behind with Feekat and Ethan as the rickety craft takes off.

The Doctor prepares a grenade as Ethan distracts Ashad. Ashad calls Ethan’s bluff and kills Feekat, then tells Ethan to carry his message of the Cybermen’s power. The Doctor uses her grenade and runs with Ethan and Ryan to the nearby Cyberfighters. The group hotwires Ashad’s ship and rockets into space.

The refugees aboard the gravraft limp toward Ko Sharmus and a phenomenon known as the Boundary, which can teleport people to random locations in the universe. On the Cyberfighter, Ethan also sets course for Ko Sharmus. Ethan talks about his upbringing and lessons about destroying cyber tech. Ashad makes contact and threatens to destroy humanity, even if it costs him his imperfect life. He believes that he was chosen to resurrect the Cybermen, and the death of everything is harbored within him.

The gravraft’s systems fail, leaving the ship on emergency power. A series of collisions prompt Yaz to look outside and find a Cyberman graveyard. A ship sits dormant in the debris and Graham convinces the survivors to use their remaining power to board it. They succeed, but as the ship powers up around them, Ashad and his guards arrive in a Cyberfighter.

The Doctor’s craft arrives at Ko Shamus. The planet has a single temporary settlement, and Ko Shamus is the elderly man who maintains it. He is stunned to see living humans and explains that he helps survivors pass through the Boundary. He fled with a handful of others, but as the word spread, more survivors sought sanctuary.

Graham, Yaz, and the refugees explore the Cyberman war carrier. They reactivate it and decide to use the ship as a mobile settlement to rescue what’s left of humanity. Graham and Ravio explore the rest of the ship and discover millions of dormant, battle-ready drones of a new design. The pair runs from Ashad, returning to the control center as the team continues to Ko Shamus despite the threat. Meanwhile, Ashad begins the ascension with his new army.

The Doctor, Ryan, and Ethan investigate the Boundary. It manifests as a rippling sheet of purple energy. As the carrier approaches the planet, Yaz calls the Doctor and explains the situation. The awakened Cybermen rampage through the ship and the Doctor urges the humans to evacuate. Unfortunately, they are trapped.

Then the two stories come together as the Boundary clears.

Through the portal, the Doctor sees the Citadel of Gallifrey. The Master leaps through the Boundary and tells the Doctor that everything is about to change… forever.

The Timeless Children

The Master forces the Doctor to join him in Gallifrey. If she doesn’t, he will kill the humans. As she crosses the Boundary, the Cyberman carrier arrives at the planet. Once on Gallifrey, the Master gloats about burning Gallifery to the ground and then takes the Doctor on a tour of the ruins.

On the carrier, the humans hide in a storage area after Bescot is killed. Graham develops a plan to use Cyberman suits as disguises. The team sets to work removing the biological remains and disconnecting the neural nets. Meanwhile, Ko Sharmus shows Ryan and Ethan his limited weapons supply.

In the Citadel, the Master is notified that the Cybermen have reached the Boundary. He invites Ashad to join him on Gallifrey and to leave some Cybermen behind to destroy Ko Sharmus, Ethan, and Ryan.

Graham and Yaz take a moment to talk about what happens if they don’t survive. He is quite proud of her and impressed by her resolve. With a tear in her eye, she jokes that he’s not so bad either. As their team puts the plan into motion, Ashad is alerted to their presence. Ashad searches for the humans but cannot find them in their disguises, and he gives up when the ship enters the Boundary.

The Doctor questions why the Master would surrender Gallifrey to the Cybermen. He deflects, directing her to the Matrix instead. He is driven by an unbelievable truth that he discovered in Gallifrey’s history, and he traps the Doctor in a paralysis field so he can share that truth with her. He sends her deep into the Matrix with a promise that it will hurt.

The Master presents a history of Gallifrey. In the time before the Time Lords, the Shobogans were the native population of the planet. An explorer named Tecteun found a gateway on another planet, with an orphaned child at its base. Tecteun and the child explored the cosmos before returning to Gallifrey, where she ran experiments trying to determine where the child came from. One day, the child fell off a cliff, but instead of dying, the child regenerated.

This was the first time regeneration happened on Gallifrey.

On Ko Sharmus’s planet, the humans wage war on the Cybermen. Ryan takes out several with a basketball-shaped bomb, but the drones keep marching. Meanwhile, the carrier literally lands on the Citadel. Ashad meets with the Master and introduces the Death Particle, a device created by the Cyberium to wipe out all organic life. Ashad has purged the new Cybermen of organic components in preparation for his takeover of the universe, but the Master offers an alternative to fully robotic life. He accompanies Ashad while his consciousness remains with the Doctor.

The Doctor’s story continues as Tecteun experiments on the child, forcing the child to regenerate time and again. Finally, Tecteun cracks the mystery and injects herself with the solution. Tecteun regenerates. With this new technology, Time Lord civilization exploded with the Timeless Child at its core, limiting each individual to twelve regenerations.

The Doctor asks what happened to the Timeless Child. The Master tells her that she is that child.

Meanwhile, Ko Sharmus, Ethan, and Ryan continue their guerilla campaign. They take out several drones, but Ethan is eventually captured. He is almost executed, but Graham’s team destroys the execution squad. Ryan is surprised to see his friends.

Ashad and the Master arrive in the Cybermen storage bays. The Master uses his Tissue Compress Eliminator to kill Ashad and release the Cyberium. He absorbs the Cyberium and pockets Ashad to keep the Death Particle nearby.

The Doctor awakens on a vast green landscape. She struggles with the revelations but the Master promises his story is true. He continues the story with Tecteun and the child becoming part of a secret group called the Division. Despite the Time Lord philosophy of non-interference, the group intervenes in time when necessary. The vision flashes in parallel with Brendan’s story, then stops altogether because the files were redacted. It is impossible to tell how much was lost, but what remains was encoded with a perception filter that looks like Brendan’s story.

The Master wonders how many lives the Doctor has lived.

As the Doctor revives from her experience, the physical version of the Master reveals that he kept the corpses of every Time Lord he killed. He has combined the power of regeneration with the durability of the Cybermen.

He has created CyberMasters – festooned in Time Lord regalia and armed with the power of regeneration – and he leads them into a conquest of the universe. Meanwhile, the human survivors cross the Boundary and arrive on Gallifrey.

The Doctor’s mind swims in the Matrix’s redacted void when the Fugitive Doctor appears. The Thirteenth Doctor wonders about her life before their First, but the Fugitive Doctor tells her it doesn’t matter. They’ve never been limited by who they were before, and the Thirteenth Doctor has the power to stop the Master now. But first, she must harness the power of the Timeless Child to overload the Matrix. She unleashes the memories of the Doctor into the Matrix and blows out the paralysis field.

She comes to and finds her companions and the human survivors standing over her. The humans explain their plan to destroy the carrier, and the Doctor devises a plan to use the Death Particle to destroy the CyberMasters. The humans place explosive charges throughout the ship while Team TARDIS tracks down the Master. They find Ashad’s miniaturized form and the Death Particle, and the Doctor telepathically offers one last meeting with the Master in the Citadel.

Unfortunately, the bombs are activated early, so everyone has to run. The ship is destroyed as the Doctor ushers everyone into a TARDIS. She asks Ko Sharmus for a bomb – it only has a hand detonator – and explains her plan to unleash the Death Particle on Gallifrey. She sets the TARDIS for the twenty-first century and sends the humans to Earth.

The Doctor returns to the Matrix Chamber on her suicide mission. There she finds the Master and his CyberMasters. The Master goads her but the Doctor doesn’t fall for it. His revelations have strengthened her. She pulls out the bomb and mini-Ashad, but before she can pull the trigger, Ko Sharmus arrives. He sent the Cyberium into the past, and he takes the detonator as his penance for not hiding it well enough. As the Doctor runs for a TARDIS, the CyberMasters shoot Ko Sharmus and he detonates the Death Particle.

The new Cyber-Empire is dead.

The humans arrive on Earth and their TARDIS disguises itself as a house. The Doctor materializes on the refugee planet near her own TARDIS, and the TARDIS she used to get there disguises itself as a tree. Unfortunately for her, three Judoon materialize inside the TARDIS and arrest the Doctor, finally closing the cold case on the fugitive.

The Doctor is taken to a maximum security prison to serve a life sentence, and her companions have no idea if she survived.

It’s the most controversial story in modern Doctor Who history… and I like it just as much now as I did when it first aired.

I understand the complaints. Fans of most major sci-fi franchises don’t like to see things meddled with. From Star Trek to Doctor Who, the complaints remind me of the oft-memed scene from The Incredibles 2: “I don’t know that way. Why would they change math? Math is math. Math. Is. Math!”

But… here’s the reality check. Doctor Who has never been consistent with continuity, and there are several extensive parody lists on Reddit about how changes in the franchise have “ruined the show forever”. Yet, somehow, the franchise continues on even under periodic threat of cancellation (in various definitions of the word).

Of the complaints I have seen regarding the Timeless Child revelation:

  • “This change disrespects William Hartnell.” How? Show your work. Because his stories still exist (even in telesnap form) and are even being preserved in high-definition format. If anything disrespects the legacy of William Hartnell’s work on Doctor Who, it’s how “An Unearthly Child” won’t be available because of Stef Coburn’s efforts. Otherwise, Hartnell’s legacy as the First Doctor remains intact.
  • “This change removes the mystery from the Doctor.” If so, please explain the history of the pre-Hartnell incarnations. Because all I see is massive story potential for the Doctor’s time with the Division and the implications of whether or not the Time Lords deserve to come back at all. We already knew they were arrogant and self-righteous, but now we get some context behind the regeneration limit. I also look at the events of The Time of the Doctor and how the Time Lords view the Doctor with a different lens, especially after thirteen incarnations risked their lives to save Gallifrey from utter destruction. Those Time Lords either gave the Doctor another set of regenerations or unlocked the Timeless Child’s potential that they had previously tried to stifle, allowing the Doctor to be who they truly are. In the end, the mystery is still there, effectively fulfilling the so-called “Cartmel Masterplan.”
  • “The Morbius Doctors aren’t real.” To the contrary, it was Philip Hinchcliffe’s intention that they were previous incarnations. The dialogue is also pretty clear: “Back! Back to your beginning!” followed by the eight faces. What happens on the television screen is part of the official continuity unless retconned later, and showrunner intentions fall into that same category for me. Showrunners are in charge of the show’s legacy while they hold the reins. Fans don’t have that responsibility. Philip Hinchcliffe has even seemed amused that fans ignored the obvious in  Morbius but readily attached themselves to the regeneration limits a mere four stories later.
  • “The Timeless Child isn’t canon.” We’ve already covered that. Unless retconned later, what happens on the screen during the show is official continuity.

Boiling it down, fans just don’t like the change. While that’s their prerogative, it’s also a personal choice. I don’t agree with that choice, but I respect it. We all need to remember that fan opinion is not continuity.

That said, it’s not all puppy dogs and marshmallows for me. I do have issues with the revelation.

First, is it even true? The revelation is provided by the Master, the man who massacred his entire civilization and is known for lying. Even if he is telling the Doctor the truth, is it based on his own interpolation of redacted events? Even with the Doctor having lives before the First Doctor, could the Timeless Child be someone else? Say, Susan, for example?

Imagine that storytelling potential. Taking Susan away from Gallifrey to protect her and remove some leverage from the Time Lords. Especially considering that Chris Chibnall’s screenplay suggests that the Time Lords who join Tecteun at the dawn of their society could be Rassilon and Omega.


TECTEUN walking down a corridor — at the far end, two Gallifreyan figures (with the collars up) in silhouette. We can assume these might be Rassilon and Omega.

I’d buy that. It would be a stronger story, leave some room for future work, and make the Doctor a bit more vulnerable in the future. It also provides a dramatic reason for the Time Lords to return. Note that the script says “assume” and that these characters were not credited on screen, so we can’t verify that it’s true.

As far as what happened to the Time Lords? I don’t like it. It feels disgusting, which makes it work dramatically. The fact that I physically recoiled from seeing Cybermen that can regenerate tells me that the Master is a villain of the highest order. While Missy had a path to redemption during Series 10, I don’t think this incarnation has a path back. He’s a monster.

I had a similar feeling toward Tecteun and her experimentation on the Timeless Child. She literally killed several incarnations of the child to unlock the secrets of regeneration for her own selfish desires. Yuck.

I also don’t like how the Timeless Child revelation was handled from a writing and production standpoint. The entire sequence with the Doctor in the Matrix was handled in a “tell don’t show” manner. I think it would have been better for the Doctor to experience Brendan’s story in A Christmas Carol format, then have the Master fill in the blanks in a much shorter manner. Having Brendan’s story in Ascension of the Cybermen was more confusing and probably made viewers more defensive from the start. A little rebalancing between the two episodes would have worked wonders.

Otherwise, I liked the balance of action and drama in this pair of episodes. The Doctor doesn’t have all the answers and has to figure things out with us. The companions get a huge chunk of the spotlight, and everyone has to use their wits and smarts to save the day. And Yaz getting some dues was a great thing to see.

In terms of franchise lore, there wasn’t much in terms of callbacks aside from what has already been mentioned. The Timeless Children does have the most extensive use of archive footage in Doctor Who at the time of airing. It’s also the first time clips from William Hartnell’s and Patrick Troughton’s eras were shown in full color.

It also features the first on-screen female-to-male regeneration.

Finally, for something to chew on, this adventure fulfills several elements of the Series Nine Hybrid prophecy: A hybrid creature (the Master and the Cyberium) stood over the ruins of Gallifrey and unraveled the Web of Time (the Master hacked into the Matrix and revealed the Timeless Child secret), and broke a billion billion hearts to heal its own (the slaughter of the Time Lords).

Probably not Chibnall’s intent, but a nice parallel nonetheless.

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

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