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The Unlikely Validation of Steven Moffat’s “Doctor Who” by Chris Chibnall…

To be entirely fair, the twelfth season of Doctor Who offers a marked improvement over the eleventh. It has a lot more enthusiasm and ambition, a stronger sense of ownership, and a higher baseline of competence.

Still, watching the twelfth season is a surreal experience. On the most basic of levels, the season does not contain a single episode as good as either of the eleventh season’s standouts, Demons of the Punjab or It Takes You Away. The best episode of the season is Fugitive of the Judoon, which is not so much an episode as a forty-odd minute teaser. The second best episode of the season hinges its climax on the moral argument that Percy Shelley’s life is worth more than millions in the future because he’s a “great man of history.” As such, it is a fundamentally flawed season.

At the same time, there is something interesting in the season’s relationship to the Moffat era. Every era of Doctor Who has an interesting relationship with the one that preceded it. The Third Doctor’s status as an establishment figure was best read as a reaction against the Second Doctor as a wandering hobo, with the Fourth Doctor’s bohemian sensibilities itself a reaction against that. Indeed, specific stories with the Hinchcliffe era seem to exist as plays upon (or critiques of) the Letts era, most notably Terror of the Zygons.

The Moffat era was no stranger to this, involving itself in an evolving conversation with the Davies era. The fifth season adhered religiously to the structure that Davies had employed for each of his four seasons, while later seasons would become structurally ambitious. The entirety of the ninth season seemed to be built outwards from Journey’s End, from the return of Davros and resurrection of Skaro in The Magician’s Apprentice to the reframing of the Doctor’s memory wipe of companion in Hell Bent. Moffat even affectionately named the “good Dalek” in Into the Dalek as “Rusty” in honour of Russell T. Davies.

As such, it is no surprise that the Chibnall era should have something to say about the Moffat era. To be fair, historical episodes like Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror or The Witchfinders, along with attempts to ground the series in the companions’ domestic lives in Arachnids in the U.K. and Can You Hear Me?, suggest a stronger affinity for the Davies era. Still, the decision to open the twelfth season with a two-parter globe-trotting adventure (that morphs into a time-hopping adventure) in Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II feels consciously indebted to Moffat’s sixth season opener The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon.

The most striking aspect of the twelfth season’s relationship to the work of Steven Moffat is how its season premiere and finale feel like long-delayed set-ups to punchlines that Moffat delivered years ago. In particular, Spyfall, Part II feels like the premise of Let’s Kill Hitler played depressingly straight, and The Timeless Children is essentially the sort of notionally “epic” continuity-fest that Hell Bent so studiously avoided. There’s something incredibly depressing in this, a sense that the Chibnall era not only missed the point of Let’s Kill Hitler and Hell Bent, but is committed to being the kind of stories that they so roundly mocked.

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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.

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