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Doctor Who: The Timeless Children (Review)

Note: This is a very quick review, as I’m currently in the midst of the Dublin International Film Festival. I may come back and expand it in a few weeks when I have time. Or I might not.

The Timeless Children certainly offers some earth-shattering (or Earthshock-ing) revelations about the larger mythos of Doctor Who.

There is something slightly surreal in all of this. When Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, showrunner Russell T. Davies shrewdly made the decision to strip back a lot of the show’s internal mythology. He did this by removing Gallifrey, by confirming in The End of the World that the Doctor watched his home planet die. This was a sane and practical choice, given that so many Gallifrey-based stories (notably The Arc of Infinity or The Ultimate Foe) count among some of the worst stories in the series. When Steven Moffat resurrected Gallifrey in Hell Bent, he consciously avoided a Gallifrey-based continuity-fest.

As such, there was perhaps some logic in Chris Chibnall’s decision to destroy Gallifrey once again in Spyfall, Part II. The season premiere closed with the revelation that the Master had massacred his own people, reducing Gallifrey to rubble yet again. While hardly the most elegant of narrative choices, feeling like a clumsy and desperate reversion to the Davies era status quo of “the Last of the Time Lords”, it was at least defensible as an effort to push the show away from the lure of monotonous and suffocating continuity that Gallifrey represented. Gallifrey offered an origin for the Doctor, a way of making the Doctor mythic.

So there’s something slightly perverse in the way that The Timeless Children manages to do a mythology-heavy continuity-rewriting mythos-building Gallifrey-based story even after the destruction of Gallifrey. It seems like the worst of all possible worlds, a story unfolding in the wake of a holocaust consisting largely of stilted exposition that offers unnecessary and overly elaborate explanations for things that don’t really need explanation in the first place. The Timeless Children is a mess of an episode, but at least it’s a loud and ambitious mess. That has to count for something.

The big headline in fan response to The Timeless Children is going to be the way in which it rewrites the internal history of Doctor Who. This means that any discussion of the episode has to start there, which is mildly frustrating since continuity rewrites are not a story of themselves. They are embellishments on a story. They are part of a story. They are not the whole of the story. However, The Timeless Children is structured in such a way that these continuity rewrites end up being the entirety of the episode and an essential part of any discussion of it.

Most obviously, Chibnall finally feels like he’s taking proper ownership of Doctor Who, that he is driving it like he owns it. This is undeniably a good thing. The worst thing that a show like Doctor Who could be is safe and generic. Indeed, the biggest problem with the Chibnall era is how safe and generic it generally feels, most obviously in its refusal to tackle big themes and ideas, notably settling for “maybe we shouldn’t destroy the planet” as the grand unifying thematic statement of episodes like Orphan 55 and Praxeus. At the very least, The Timeless Children offers a strong, distinctive narrative vision of Chibnall’s Doctor Who.

The revelations themselves are a mixed bag. Within the context of The Timeless Children as an episode of television, the biggest problem is that the revelations are delivered as mountains of exposition and flashbacks within the Matrix. The storytelling is rather dull and generic. Again, Chibnall has never been as good at exposition as Davies or Moffat. It’s interesting to wonder how much more dynamic and playful these revelations would have been if written by Davies and Moffat, with Davies’ gift for lyrical prose or Moffat’s ability to demonstrate through dialogue.

The flashbacks and lore sequences in The Timeless Children just stop the episode dead. They are compelling to those fans invested in the core mythology of Doctor Who, who get excited at the revival series’ first mention of “the Shebogans” or “the Panopticon”, as if those words have value of themselves. It is interesting to wonder how these sequences played to casual audiences, the kinds of viewers that Doctor Who needs to survive in its Sunday evening time slot. The delivery mechanism for the changes is almost absurdly alien.

In a broader sense, there is something frustrating in the extent to which The Timeless Children centres the mythology of Gallifrey around the Doctor. It recalls the ambitions of the Cartmel Masterplan to make the Doctor “far more than just another Time Lord”, revealing that an earlier incarnation stood at the heart of Gallifreyian history. To a certain extent, this is inevitable. The Doctor is the protagonist of Doctor Who. Protagonists exert a strong gravity on the stories in which they exist. As those stories gather momentum, they build mythology, and that gravity works slowly on those mythologies.

It seems inevitable that some version of Doctor Who would put the Doctor at the heart of Gallifreyian culture, and so it’s hard to be too critical of The Timeless Children for finally pulling the trigger. After all, one could feel that pull during the Davies and Moffat eras as well. Davies was the showrunner who made the Doctor “the Oncoming Storm” and “fire and ice and rage … like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun.” While Moffat made a point to push back against the more extreme elements of that characterisation, he still suggested that the Doctor was the origin of the noun “doctor.”

Still, even allowing for the fact that Doctor Who was probably always going to tell a story like this, it doesn’t make the result any less cliché. It also doesn’t prevent it from stripping away one of the core aspects of the character, that the Doctor exists apart from organising systems and structures. The Doctor has always been an outsider. The character’s anonymity is more than just a running joke, it’s an acknowledgement of that status. They could be anyone. They can be anyone. The Timeless Children breaks this. Even if the Doctor is still an anonymous “foundling”, they are origin of the show’s internal time travel mythology.

Indeed, it is perhaps very revealing that it was Chris Chibnall who turned the Doctor into the root of Gallifreyian culture, the First of the Time Lords. The Chibnall era has a much greater deference to authority than earlier iterations of the show. The Chibnall era is more firmly pro-establishment than any era since the Barry Letts era, when – to quote Paul Cornell – the show exiled the Doctor to Earth and made him a Tory.” After all, this is the era of the show that had the Doctor assert in Kerblam! that “the systems aren’t the problem.”

Even within The Timeless Children, it’s notable how much the show invests in Graham’s praise of Yaz. “I think you are such an impressive young woman,” Graham tells the young police officer. “You ain’t got a time machine or a sonic, but you’re never afraid and you’re never beaten.” He assures her, “You’re doing your family proud, you really are. In fact you’re doing the whole human race proud.” Similarly, the Master retroactively reveals that the Brendan sequences from Ascension of the Cybermen are the Doctor processing her new reality, inferring that she sees herself as a police officer.

(This respect for authority and the establishment can be seen in countless other ways throughout the Chibnall era, from the fact that the climax of The Haunting of Villa Diodati doesn’t hinge of Percy Shelley’s importance as a human being but instead his value as “a great man” through to the way in which the show celebrates aggressive police officer Jake in Praxeus. Indeed, the Doctor seems much more invested in the idea of the arc of history and the importance of history as recorded than previous incarnations, her anarchist streak toned down in stories like Rosa or The Witchfinders.)

With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that the Chibnall era would position the Doctor as the source of ultimate authority for the Time Lords, to make her the most important person in the show’s fictional universe by the most generic measurements of “importance” within the Chibnall era. The Davies and Moffat eras tended to celebrate the mundane, to argue that characters like Rose or Clara were important not because of who they were or where they came from, but because of what they did when given the chance. Chibnall makes the Doctor’s importance rooted in her role in Gallifrey’s history. It feels very cynical.

That said, there are some aspects of the revelations that do work relatively well. Most obviously, it’s nice to have preconceived notions of continuity blown out of the water. Doctor Who is a fifty-odd-year-old show about a time-travelling alien. It should be actively hostile to the idea of “accepted wisdom” and “canon”, and so it’s great to see a genuinely seismic revelation that actively challenges some of the show’s own “fixed points in continuity.” More than that, The Timeless Children shrewdly and retroactively folds the diversity of the Chibnall era back into the show’s history, in a way that is commendable and worth celebrating.

More than that, it seems designed to deliberately provoke those sorts of fans who are particularly upset by the perceived “wokeness” of Doctor Who, and who insist that the show is dead to them because it now stars a woman. The Timeless Children may be a bunch of confusing nonsense to casual viewers, but to those very angry online fans, it is inescapable. It weaponises their gatekeeping and fixation on continuity against them, rewriting the show in a way that actively takes ownership of the series away from them. Chibnall deserves genuine praise and recognition for that choice.

However, enough about the revelation. What about the episode itself? This gets at the real problem with The Timeless Children. The episode really isn’t much more than the continuity revelation. That is a problem. That is a very serious narrative problem, particularly when the revelation is only really a big deal to the kind of fans who have an emotional attachment to the idea of William Hartnell as the First Doctor” rather than to the reality of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi or Jodie Whittaker as their First Doctor.” (There is an important distinction there.)

The Timeless Children contains arguably the biggest rewrite of Doctor Who continuity since The Deadly Assassin. The episode knows this, and repeatedly draws attention to it. The Master even specifically references the plot of The Deadly Assassin is a nice little continuity nod that might even work as a bit of silly exposition to casual viewers. In short, The Timeless Children does the sort of stuff people angrily accused Moffat of doing, but which he always made a point to stop short of.

This gets at the big issue with The Timeless Children from a narrative perspective. Despite the stir that it created within fandom for challenging the very underpinnings of the show’s continuity, rewriting continuity isn’t what made The Deadly Assassin great. In fact, The Deadly Assassin didn’t rewrite continuity for its own sake. It rewrote continuity to serve the story that it was telling. The Deadly Assassin was a great story first, and a grenade at the heart of the series’ continuity second. Indeed, one suspects that even writer Robert Holmes didn’t anticipate the ticking time bomb The Deadly Assassin had created.

The Deadly Assassin didn’t introduce the thirteen-regeneration limit wasn’t because Holmes thought that the limit was a good idea of itself. Indeed, the introduction of the limit was clearly reverse-engineered from the narrative requirement that the story open with the death of a Time Lord, something that was impossible without imposing the limit. Holmes picked thirteen arbitrarily, most likely because he never imagined the show would actually reach the point where it had recast its lead twelve times. (At the point The Deadly Assassin aired in the fourteen season of Doctor Who, the show had only recast three times.)

Indeed, this logic also underpins a lot of Moffat’s bigger and bolder choices, choices that have historically frustrated fans who demand “epic” stories from Doctor Who. Like Holmes, Moffat tended to make the show’s mythology serve its more intimate moments. When Moffat gently fudged the regeneration count in The Time of the Doctor, it was to serve the story being told; the story required the Doctor’s decision to live his life in a single place had to mean something, and so his ability to regenerate had to be taken off the table for that to have narrative weight.

However, Hell Bent might be the most obvious point of comparison. It is, after all, the last televised Doctor Who story to be built around Gallifrey. Certain fans objected to Hell Bent‘s lack of interest in Gallifreyian politics or mythology, missing the point that the reintroduction of Gallifrey was largely just backdrop for the actual story being told about the relationship between the Doctor and Clara. Hell Bent argued that the story of the ending of the Doctor and Clara’s friendship was more important than continuity fetishism, and so the inclusion and marginalisation of Gallifrey was a feature of the story rather than a flaw.

There is no small irony in the fact that The Timeless Children seems almost tailor-made for those fans who hated Hell Bent because it wasn’t suitably “epic.” In response, The Timeless Children is nothing but “epic.” It is the sort of hollow continuity fetishism that Hell Bent so pointedly rejected. It is the weaker and less interesting story that Hell Bent rejected, being allowed to finally take centre stage. Much like Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker retroactively emphasised the ambition and cleverness of Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, The Timeless Children retroactively vindicates Hell Bent.

The Timeless Children puts the cart of continuity before the horse of its own narrative. There are undoubtedly great stories to be told with the revelations in The Timeless Children, whether within the show itself or in the myriad spin-off media or even during the tenure of showrunners that will follow. The biggest single issue with The Timeless Children is that it doesn’t feel like a great story that needed that continuity revision. It feels like a continuity revision that needed a story, and never really found one so much as clumsily cobbled one together.

It feels like the only point of The Timeless Children is the continuity rewriting itself. That’s the entire purpose of the episode. The story is reverse-engineered from a desire to make these changes, rather than the changes flowing from the story. It wants to position itself as a twenty-first century answer to The Deadly Assassin, but ultimately feels like a cynical inversion of it. It feels closer to the sort of hollow continuity-driven fan service of something like War of the Daleks, albeit with a continuity that the episode itself is willing into being.

There are a number of very obvious problems with this from a narrative point of view. One of the abiding and enduring criticisms of the Thirteenth Doctor has concerned her passivity, which is an issue with the first female iteration of the character. The Thirteenth Doctor has largely been defined by a lack of narrative agency, and difficulty asserting control of her own narrative – as demonstrated by her impotence against Ilin in The Ghost Monument and Robertson in Arachnids in the U.K. More to the point, the Thirteenth Doctor is more invested in preserving the status quo than doing the right thing.

The twelfth season has made an effort to change this somewhat, affording the character a bit more motivation and dynamism. The Doctor clearly has a life on her own, implied to be visiting Gallifrey on her own in episodes like Fugitive of the Judoon and embarks on her own adventure in Syria in Can You Hear Me? More than that, the finale makes a point to emphasise the Doctor’s dynamism and agency. After Ashad recovers the Cyberium in The Haunting of Villa Diodati, the Thirteenth Doctor proactively decides to chase him into the future and stop him, setting in motion Ascension of the Cybermen.

This makes the use of the Thirteenth Doctor in The Timeless Children all the more frustrating. The Thirteenth Doctor spends the bulk of the episode literally paralysed, in a manner that visually evokes the holding cell from the opening of Superman, just on a BBC budget. The Thirteenth Doctor is rendered a literal captive audience for the Master, who proceeds to deliver reams of exposition at her while she just stands there and processes the information. There is perhaps a pointed commentary here on the experience of watching The Timeless Children.

Indeed, the Master is arguably the protagonist of The Timeless Children. He is the most dynamic character, the one who has the greatest impact of the unfolding plot. In fact, it’s notable that the Master is the only character in The Timeless Children to have a meaningful interaction with both Ashad and Ko Sharmus, and he is allowed the agency of being both in the Matrix with the Doctor and scheming with the Cybermen at the same time. This has the consequence of making the Thirteenth Doctor a passenger in her own show. (There is also something questionable in making this iteration an abuse survivor.)

To be entirely fair, there is good stuff here. The episode manages to justify a lot of this with the simple conversation between the Thirteenth Doctor and Ruth!Doctor in the Matrix, which comes close to offering a relatable metaphorical framework for this continuity rewrite. “Have you ever been limited by who you were before?” Ruth!Doctor demands, effectively offering a variant on the Eleventh Doctor’s “regeneration as personal reinvention” speech in The Time of the Doctor. There is something to be said for The Timeless Children as a story about the importance of a character pushing beyond history.

After all, it is possible – in the broadest sorts of terms – to read the Thirteenth Doctor’s confrontation of these revelations about herself as a metaphor for any number of relatable circumstances. “You’ve given me the gift of myself,” the Doctor chides the Master. “I contain multitudes more than I ever thought or knew.” It’s a fundamentally empowering narrative, one that could very easily be applied to an individual coming to terms with any number of buried or hidden sides of themselves – coming out of the closet, acknowledging that they are trans, even reconciling with their parents. This is laudable and commendable.

However, The Timeless Children puts a lot of weight on that one sequence in an otherwise overstuffed episode. The storytelling in The Timeless Children frankly isn’t very good. It’s a mess. It’s unstructured. It’s internally contradictory. It isn’t really about anything more than exposition. The scenes between the Doctor and the Master are largely exposition dumps, with the live-action flashbacks feeling like a less creative way of visualising that than those employed in Can You Hear Me? More than that, the emphasis on the continuity revelations means that the last two weeks have been nothing more than building up to exposition.

The degree to which the actual plot of The Timeless Children is meaningless is obvious once the focus shifts beyond the Doctor and the Master. This is most obvious with Ashad. The Haunting of the Villa Diodati and Ascension of the Cybermen spent two episodes building up the character as an antagonist, only for him to effectively get trumped by the return of the Master on the sorting algorithm of evil. He ultimately becomes a red herring that the audience spent an hour-and-a-half with. After all that, as the Master acknowledges, Ashad doesn’t even get a proper death pun.

Indeed, the use of the Cybermen often seems like something of a punchline, like a less self-aware riff on their use in Doomsday and their status as the monsters that Doctor Who uses when the Daleks have too much narrative weight. The Master offers Ashad the opportunity to conquer Gallifrey. “Do what so many of your predecessors fantasised about,” he goads. However, it’s a line that trades on a history that has never existed. The Daleks might want to conquer Gallifrey, but the Cybermen have always operated at a much lower plain of the show’s internal mythology.

Indeed, one of the biggest laughs of the episode comes at the Thirteenth Doctor’s indignation at the Master’s plan to surrender the planet to the Cybermen. “Why would you give Gallifrey to the Cybermen?” she demands, with Whittaker reading the line as if almost insulted. Maybe it would make sense for the Master to surrender Gallifrey to the Daleks. Hell, even the Sontarans tried to invade it before. However, handing Gallifrey to the Cybermen is just adding insult to the injury of genocide. It is never entirely clear that the episode is in on the joke, as that would mean conceding Ascension of the Cybermen was largely pointless.

To be fair, The Timeless Children does offer a tweak of Cybermen mythology much like it tweaks the Doctor’s mythology, and makes a point to openly and roundly mock it. “My new Cyberwarriors are purged of organic components,” Ashad boasts. “We shall rise to full automation, driven by the intelligence of the Cyberium.” The Cybermen apparently plan to move beyond conversion, embracing “the final ascension to full mechanisation.” The Master finds this inherently absurd. “Any idiot can make themselves into a robot,” he laughs. “It’s not special.” It takes everything that makes the Cybermen unique, and strips it out.

The irony is quite pointed. The Timeless Children strips out a lot of the more interesting aspects of the show’s mythology, replacing it with a generic “chosen one” and “secret origin” narrative. The Master is quite right to laugh at Ashad’s scheme to turn the Cybermen into generic robots, given Doctor Who has enough generic robots. However, The Timeless Children seems to miss that the revelations of the Doctor’s past turn her into a more generic science-fiction protagonist, like the revelation of Rey’s parentage in The Rise of Skywalker. (The Master’s “take my hand” is itself an allusion to the Star Wars sequel trilogy.)

This is also apparent with Ko Sharmus. Sharmus was introduced as an important character in Ascension of the Cybermen, which was largely about the ambiguity around whether he might be “the Timeless Child” or Brendan. However, once he has served his function as red herring, he becomes nothing more than a dull exposition machine who serves to facilitate action sequences that might be intercut with the mythology stuff. It is notable that Sharmus only gets any actual development in his final scene, revealing his entire motivation and backstory mere seconds before offering himself as a noble sacrifice.

“My journey ends here,” Sharmus boasts, despite the fact that the audience first heard about his journey only a few lines of exposition earlier. It is a very clumsy and very lazy approach to storytelling, and it leads to the sense that everything except the “Timeless Child” stuff is really just about moving pieces around the board to create the illusion of movement around the stuff that the episode deems “important.” It is incredibly and depressingly disheartening, a reminder of how unimportant characterisation and development have become.

This becomes especially depressing when the nature of the Brendan sequences from Ascension of the Cybermen is revealed. Those glitches of Ireland you keep seeing,” the Master goads. “Those images that were buried deep in the Matrix. Tecteun put a visual filter over it so that noone who watched it would find it remarkable.” That is Chibnall taking a bit of broad shot at the period dramas that air on Sundays around Doctor Who, insisting “that noone who watched [them] would find [them] remarkable.” Ascension of the Cybermen is an argument that Earthshock is inherently superior to Call the Midwife.

This is disheartening, as so much of what has made the revival of Doctor Who so engaging has been a love of television outside of the sort of military science-fiction fetishism of Earthshock. Russell T. Davies would send Doctor Who colliding into soap operas with episodes like Rose, while Steven Moffat would collapse it into sitcoms with episodes like Listen. These were ways of welcoming non-cult viewers into Doctor Who. In that context, dismissing the rest of Sunday evening television as boring and without merit seems mean-spirited and deliberately alienating of mass audiences.

The self-sacrifice of Ko Sharmus is also frustratingly thematically. The episode builds to the classic “Doctor with a weapon of mass destruction” climax that drove stories like The Parting of the Ways and The Day of the Doctor, with the Doctor threatening to use the “death particle” to wipe out Gallifrey. However, she is ultimately unable to do it. It is a moment very consciously riffing on the “coward, every time” ending of The Parting of the Ways. Like the ending of The Haunting of Villa Diodati, the episode comes within inches of pushing the Thirteenth Doctor’s ardent pacifism into the realm of genuine tragedy.

The arrival of Ko Sharmus to save the day undercuts this character beat. At least the arrival of Rose in The Parting of the Ways carried the weight of having the companion take control of the narrative. Instead, The Timeless Children treats the Doctor’s pacifism as a plot problem to be resolved rather than a character beat to be explored. So there just happens to be a one-shot guest character who will happily step into that role so the episode can have a suitably bombastic finale and the Thirteenth Doctor can keep her hands clean. It’s a clumsy bit of storytelling.

The other series regulars also suffer. Jodie Whittaker is the only series regular who is actually useful to the plot. The companions are inessential that Chibnall has nothing to do but finally give Graham and Yaz a proper scene together, after two years of traveling together. While Davies and Moffat were fond of dialogue-driven scenes as an end of themselves, treating them as the nexus of drama, the Chibnall era has largely been about avoiding such scenes, right down to the frantic crosscutting of the opening of The Woman Who Fell to Earth.

To be clear, the scene between Graham and Yaz is lovely. It is also long overdue. More than that, it’s telling the scene arrives here with no build-up or seeding. It is a scene in the season finale that doesn’t pay anything off in a meaningful sense. It could be cut from the episode and nothing with be lost. The audience would not even realise that it was missing, outside of a continued frustration about the lack of any meaningful interaction between these two leads. By the logic of the Chibnall era, the script had nothing else to do but “dialogue scene” – something which seems to always be the last option in Chibnall’s storytelling.

However, this problem is most obvious with Ryan. The character gets a big hero moment using his coordination to throw a bomb that kills a bunch of marching Cybermen. This is very much pay-off to his introduction in Spyfall, Part I playing basketball. In terms of basic storytelling mechanics, it is a welcome example of set-up and pay-off, even if it’s admittedly a bit clunky and cheesy. However, this is completely undercut by the fact that it accomplishes nothing. Ryan’s pride becomes a punchline. There are more Cybermen marching. “There are always more,” Ko Sharmus states. Ryan’s victory means absolutely nothing to the story.

As with a lot of the Chibnall era, The Timeless Children gestures at ideas that it lacks the courage or clarity to properly articulate. As with Ascension of the Cybermen, it often feels like The Timeless Children might be on the cusp of saying something actually meaningful about contemporary Britain, but retreats at every possible opportunity. Ascension of the Cybermen was somewhat ambiguous about whether Ashad’s “Cyber Empire” should be read as a cautionary tale about the resurgent nationalism of Brexit Britain, but The Timeless Children confirms it’s an allegory for ISIS, even turning Ashad into a suicide bomber.

The Time Lords have always been a metaphor for the upper classes of British society, particularly in stories like The Deadly Assassin and Shada. As such, a story about how the entirety of Time Lord culture is built upon a noble lie should be pointed in an era where Britain has embraced a particularly toxic form of nationalism. “Our founding parents wanted a noble creation myth for the Time Lords, that we were born to rule,” the Master tells the Doctor, suggesting that the Time Lords were defined by the arrogance of Empire. It ultimately reveals that power was derived from experimentation on a “refugee from another realm.”

However, The Timeless Children stops short of actually committing to this commentary. It stops short of condemning Time Lord culture outright. More to the point, it stops short of doing something truly unsettling, like suggesting that a culture literally built on the image of the Doctor is an imperial power. The Timeless Children avoids exploring the reality of a culture declaring themselves the curators of time and the architects of history. Indeed, stories like Genesis of the Daleks and The End of Time, Part II are more barbed in their portrayals of what the Time Lords actually are than these earth-shattering revelations.

Instead, The Timeless Children suggests that when the Time Lords did something distasteful, it was not a matter of official policy. It was not a reflection of their core identity. Instead, it was the work of a secret cabal known as “the Division.” The flashbacks make this clear, “The policy of the Time Lords is clear. Strict non-intervention in other worlds and times.” There is none of the self-serving rhetoric that justifies foreign intervention by imperial powers. After all, the British Empire didn’t operate in shadows. The sun never set upon it.

The Timeless Children doesn’t suggest a fundamental rot at the heart of Time Lord society, merely the vague possibility of corruption. “However, policy and reality sometimes diverge,” the lecturer explains. “The Division does not exist. The Division does not have operatives. We are not even here.” It is a secret history. The Timeless Children makes this clear by presenting the Master as a monster for dismantling Time Lord culture, most obviously by wedding the dismantling of such power to the act of genocide and then by building an army of Cyber Time Lords. The Timeless Children rejects any real criticism of Gallifrey as corrupt.

“And now, we shall conquer everything,” the Master boasts, establishing himself as a different sort of monster than the Time Lords. He broke the rules. He is inherently evil. Again, there’s a real sense of the Chibnall era adamantly insisting that “the systems aren’t the problem”, as the Time Lords establishing themselves as masters of time and immortality using stolen knowledge isn’t a problem, but it only becomes a problem when the Master and the Cybermen threaten to exploit that power for their own ends.

There is also something a little unsettling on the emphasis that The Timeless Children places on the idea of the Doctor’s genetic purity. The revelations in The Timeless Children position the Doctor outside Gallifrey, but also its heart. The Doctor is simultaneously no longer a Time Lord, but also the most Time Lord. The Doctor is the entire basis of Time Lord civilisation. (The exposition marathon notably glosses over how the Time Lords mastered time travel, but the narrative infers it might also be connected to the discoveries related to “the Timeless Child.”)

Doctor Who has typically framed its narrative as the story of an aristocrat who ran away, abandoning the decadence and trappings of a civilisation in decline. However, The Timeless Children pushes this idea in a bolder and more uncomfortable direction, suggesting that the Doctor is literally the genetic template for the entire Time Lord species. She is the purest Time Lord, by the way that the Daleks measure purity. All of a sudden, the accusations leveled by the Daleks in Dalek and Into the Dalek carry a lot more weight.

The issue is compounded by the way in which The Timeless Children leans into this. The Master’s evil plan hinges on perverting the Doctor’s purity. “I have broken you and created a new race,” he boasts. The Cyber Time Lords are monstrous not because they plan to conquer time, but because they are an aberration and a grotesque parody of the Doctor’s genetic purity. (It’s strange that resurrecting the skeletons of an entire species is not enough to make the Master’s Cyberconversion monstrous of itself.) It builds to an moment where the Doctor asserts to the first South East Asian Master, “I am so much more than you.”

Given that the obvious point of comparison for The Timeless Children is Hell Bent, it is interesting to contrast it with the other team-up between the Master and the Cybermen. Death in Heaven also featured the Master creating an army of Cybermen out of the dead, something monstrous and grotesque. However, it also marked the culmination of a season-long arc that explored the ethical issues inherent in modern military service, in differentiating between the way in which state-sanctioned violence operated and the responsibility owed to individual service men.

More to the point, there was something genuinely provocative about Death in Heaven. The Master created an army of zombie sldiers on the eve of Remembrance Sunday – on the centenary of the First World War. Doctor Who told a story about the weaponisation of dead soldiers followed almost directly by The Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance. Given the importance of Remembrance to the United Kingdom – where an Irish celebrity declining to wear a poppy is a controversy – that was a breathtakingly ambitious piece of storytelling. It is far, far bolder than anything that The Timeless Children attempts.

The Timeless Children is a story of sound and fury. And everybody know what that signifies.

16 Responses

  1. The thing I’m finding hard to deal with is that there are a lot of people, especially non white people, who loves the revelations because it means that they can see themselves in the Doctor. One person said that it as an adopted child it resonated with them hugely.

    And yet, I found it all meh. I like the Gallifrey/British history comparisons, and I don’t really mind one way or the other about the Doctor having other lives. I just thought the story was dull, continuity for continuities sake. “The Timeless Exposition” as one wag on Twitter put it.

    So I don’t want to erase the joy of people embracing the new diversity, especially as a white man. But I also can’t pretend that “The Doctor is super special and also was a secret agent” is in any way an angle that I like.

    • Yep. I hope I properly get at that balance in the review. I also think there’s a lot of value in the Ruth/Thirteen interaction, about reconciling with parts of yourself that you never realised were there. I suspect (hope) that those sequences might mean a lot to young gay or trans (or even adopted or just alienated) kids out there watching the show, because the show is for them. I also genuinely adore how it wrests the show from the hands of people who insist that the Thirteenth Doctor is an abheration, and writes that diversity into the show’s history.

      At the same time, it’s very “Star Wars”, which the two-parter repeatedly acknowledges with Ko-Sharmus-as-Obi-Wan-and-Luke and the Master-as-Kylo-Ren. A chosen one. A destiny. A fate. A secret history with the Doctor at the centre. It requires a fundamental reworking of who the Doctor is, making her the most important person in the history of the universe. Which is never really what she has been, even when she played cards with the minister or hung around with the establishment in a green velvet jacket.

      • Even the fabled Other who VNA diehards ramble on so much about (yeah, those people suck amirite?! *crickets chirp*) was never really “the most important person in the universe.”

        The sum total of what we know of him was basically “Uh he existed with Rassilon and Omega, and vaguely had some very loose connection to the whole thing.” And that’s even considering the revelations that Lungbarrow gives us.

        I really did love that scene between Ruth and Thirteen, because it
        felt like a giant middle finger to the whole “XYZ is bad because it doesn’t fit with a single line from 15:53 in Part Four of The Brinklestein of Finklestein, therefore I hope Chibnall dies!” crowd.

        As I always say, the idea of one single, hard-and-fast canon is bullshit. Let people pick and choose what they regard as “canon.”

        Incidentally, this also applies to the revelations in this episode. If you really don’t agree with them, feel free to disregard them. But be prepared to accept the fact that some people might critique that standpoint, and that’s OK.

        I mean, there is a point where it just devolves into finger-pointing and accusations of being a fake fan, but it’s not as if the anti-Chibnall crowd is really averse to that sort of behaviour anyway. Treat others like you would want to be treated and all that.

    • Thank you for giving me something to like about this episode. The point about wresting the show away from gatekeepers who hate the ‘woke’ era we are in now is a very good one and I’m glad it has been done. Similarly, diversifying the character early on and allowing anyone to see themselves in the Doctor is fantastic.

      However, I dislike just how important and central this episode makes the Doctor to the Time Lords. One of the things I was genuinely liking about the Chibnall era was that, with the reintroduction of the Celestials and even the Judoon (or other powers in the universe like the Stenza), the universe of Doctor Who was slowly being made bigger and less dependent on the Doctor. With this… I don’t know, it feels to me like it makes everything smaller. Worse, how does this lead to future stories? This revelation is all about the Doctor’s past and I don’t think that will open up many storytelling opportunities for the current or future Doctors. Not ones that won’t explain too much and lose any mystique that has been built up. I hope I am wrong and I’m so glad that many people online seem to be loving the story and its implications. I just prefer developments rather than retcons.

      I must admit though, something quite nice is that this story seems to lean into the idea that the Missy regeneration follows this Master at some point. The Dhawan Master has clearly only just found out that the Doctor started her lives as a little girl. Missy’s words in the Magician’s Apprentice seem to indicate that she knew and is a lot more settled about the idea. I’m sure it’s not deliberate but it’s a take on the character’s history I like. So I’m going to stick with it until it’s actively contradicted.

  2. So here’s a question…

    If the Time Lords and their ability to regenerate are the result of splicing themselves with The Doctor’s DNA, how were Amy and Rory able to have a Time Lord daughter with the ability to regenerate?

    • That one actually makes a reasonable amount of sense by the weird internal logic of the show.

      The Master’s exposition-athon suggests that the secret of regeneration is tied to the secret of time travel. (The Timeless Child was sent through “a gateway” which looks like it could easily be tied to “the vortex” or “the untethered schism.” The Shebogans built themselves the Citadel and and “discovered the ability to travel through time as well as space” in short order – keep in mind Tecteun was the planet’s first space explorer.)

      It’s entirely possible, if one cares about explaining that sort of thing, to argue that exposure to the vortex is tied to the genetic traits taken from the Doctor. Maybe the Doctor’s trip through “the gateway” granted her regenerative power, and maybe that gateway is tied to the vortex. This would also help ensure that River isn’t actually related directly to the Doctor, because that would be icky.

      It’s all nonsense, of course, but it’s far from the biggest issue with the continuity revisions.

      • Also, I think this quote from A Good Man Goes to War is quite relevant:
        Vastra: “You’ve told me about your people. *They became what they did through prolonged exposure to the Time Vortex. The Untempered Schism.*”

        So, even though Vastra is hardly the David Attenborough of Time Lord biology, that seems like pretty firm confirmation, nearly nine years, two Doctors, six seasons, and a whole producer ago, that there’s some relationship between time travel and regeneration.

        And that’s just going by what’s on-screen and not taking into account any of the Rassilon, Omega and Other stuff, because I readily concede that most ordinary people… don’t care. Nor do I think they should to be a “real fan” or anything.

  3. So here’s a question…

    If the Time Lords and their ability to regenerate are the result of splicing themselves with The Doctor’s DNA. How were Amy and Rory able to have a Time Lord daughter with the ability to regenerate?

  4. All I can say is: Hartnell Will Always Be First!

    Fuck this show.

    • Well, Hartnell will always be the first actor to play the Doctor until we invent a time machine that allows us to… I don’t know… reshoot the show.

      Beyond that, it really doesn’t matter too much.

      • Yeah, that’s the thing I don’t really.care about. I mean, if you want to be picky, Troughton is 100% closer to what we now consider important characteristics of “The Doctor” than Hartnell ever was.

  5. Wow, this episode almost made me like Death in Heaven. Almost.

    Needless to say, though, this didn’t even come close to World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls. What a jam-packed, masterful finale that was.

    The retcon is pointless, and adds nothing of value to the show. Sacha Dawan was pretty great at hamming it up as the Master. Other than that, a complete mess. As per usual.

  6. Honestly, I think this retcon breaks the show for me. I can never think about The Doctor like that. She/he was always just an idiot in a box. Even if he was lately treated as a more powerful figure it was only because of his own actions. He/she simply chose to make a difference and wasn’t really that special. Making her a ‘chosen one’ sort of character just doesn’t work for me.

    • I absolutely despise the change, and would rather it hadn’t happened. I don’t know if even Darren could say anything to soften me to it. It goes against the very point of the character.

    • Being honest, it’ll likely just be ignored or brushed aside by some later iteration. As Moffat points out, The Armageddon Factor gave the Doctor a name and The TV Movie made him half-human, but later iterations just brushed that aside and got past them as the silly ideas they were. I think Doctor Who is resilient enough to withstand that sort of shock to the system.

  7. Commending Moffat about airing his finale shortly before the centenary celebration seems like a somewhat unfair commendation, considering Moffat has, especially in recent interviews, made it rather clear that he had no say in the BBC’s programming decisions for Doctor Who (as a matter of fact, even the idea of splitting seasons six and seven didn’t come from him).

    There is a lot of ironic poetry to the fact that, after deriving the resolution to the cliffhanger of “Spyfall, Part I” from “The Curse of Fatal Death” that Chibnall now kind of based the resolution of the Brendan arc of his own 2018 april fools joke.

    To even add to that irony, I think it’s rather funny that Chibnall’s best writing for Doctor Who, said Brendan arc, is used by him as a reason to argue that Doctor Who is a better show than other shows on TV, even his very own Broadchurch (which is great, by the way). And, on a side note, the whole twist around Brendan’s story seems to be somewhat of a plot hole (not that those matter, anyways, but it just adds even more irony, which, you know, makes this one of the most unawarly ironic stories I’ve ever seen): Considering the Matrix is a Time Lord data base, storing the lifes, the memories of said *Time Lords*, wouldn’t the memories of some random Irish police officer stand out very much?

    With Ko Sharmus, I see a lot of lost potential: His sacrifice could be made a lot more meaningful by having him actually being Tecteun. It would give the set-up of the chameleon arc a few episodes earlier a fitting resolution, would solidify the Ko-Sharmus-as-Obi-Wan-arc, and also bind together the two somewhat unrelated plots of the Cybermen and the revelations of the Timeless Child.

    Another thing that seems interesting to me that this story seems to think the Timelord Cybermen (or CyberMasters, I guess) are a big and very clever thing. It already had been a throwaway idea at the beginning of “The Doctor Falls”.

    Still, there are good things I can say about this story: I do think there is a stronger sense of some kind of theme than in most of Chibnall’s scripts: “The Doctor is the embodiment of optimism, the Master the embodiment of pessimism, and optimism will always win in the end”, firmly set up by Graham refering to the old question if the glass if half full of half empty earlier, and neatly summarized in the end by the Doctor herself: “I contain multitudes. More than I ever thought or knew. You want me to be scared of it. Because you’re scared of everything. But I am so much more than you.” (One can argue that the “so much more than you” comment is a somewhat inadequate racist insult, like argued here, but considering that the Doctor didn’t actually give the Master to the Nazis in “Spyfall, Part II” because of his ethnicity, but much rather “revealing” him to be a British spy [which reveals another disgusting angle on the Noor Inyat Khan arc of that episode, an arc that is spectaculary misjudged and disgusting and cannot and should not be defeated in any way], I do think that Chibnall probably wrote most episodes before casting the Master, with him writing the idea of the Master’s perception filter into the episode later, having to accomodate for the casting, which doesn’t make it any less ill-judged in “Spyfall, Part II”, but feels like it lifts the burden of “The Timeless Child” [that was one hell of a sentence {“You might say that is one hell of a sentence, but personally, I think that is one hell of a (somewhat wasted, to be honest) train of thought”}].)

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