Yes, I'm typing this up and posting it in the middle of the night because…well, that should be obvious to anyone who's seen the episode.
Let's just slap a big old SPOILER WARNING right at the beginning of this post, shall we? I don't really think I can do a “Quick and Spoiler-Free Review” section this time around. “The Timeless Children” is a little too complex for that.
I have to confess, I was dreading this episode. Series 12 has been a pretty fun ride, overall, but I knew that Chris Chibnall was planning to do something fairly huge involving Doctor Who canon, and I was very nervous about his ability to pull it off. So I kept my expectations low.
Fortunately, those expectations were exceeded, in the end. But they weren't exactly blown out of the water. What I thought was going to happen, happened. In fact, my blog posts about the Timeless Child and the Fugitive Doctor turned out to have a number of fairly accurate guesses in them…though that may be a strike against Chibnall's writing skills rather than a sign of my clairvoyance.
While “The Timeless Children” was teased as being full of surprises, I doubt I'm the only person who wasn't particularly surprised by the big twist of the story. I was surprised by the execution, which made this canon bombshell less off-putting (to me, anyway) than I had expected.
However, we're going to start with the episode's problems, so brace yourself. Nerdy Whovian stodginess incoming.
What I Didn't Like
The thing I disliked most about this episode actually had nothing to do with the Timeless Child reveal–it was the resolution of the Cyber-threat. When the Master revealed that he had deliberately left the Death-Particle-armed corpse of Ashad for the Doctor to find, I was relieved, since it would have been really stupid for him to have just accidentally forgotten to sweep up a whopping deus ex machina. (This does not, however, change the fact that the Death Particle was a thoroughly ridiculous deus ex machina, right down to the extremely unimaginative name. Sorry, Chibnall, but that was entry-level sci-fi writing on your part, and unworthy of better material you've contributed to the show.)
Anyway, in that moment, it looked like we might actually get some kind of twist ending. After all, there was no way that anyone could conveniently sacrifice themselves to save the Doctor, since that TARDIS had already flown away with all the expendable humans insi–
Oh, drat, one of them escaped. And naturally, it was the most predictable option of them all; the old soldier whose demise was telegraphed almost from the moment he appeared on screen in “Ascension of the Cybermen”. Another very weak bit of writing from Chibnall here.
And now, we come to all the issues with the Timeless Child. The first and foremost of these is the one that fans have been concerned about ever since the Ruth Doctor reveal: William Hartnell is now not canonically the First Doctor anymore. Many will, understandably, perceive this as an insult to Hartnell's legacy.
Personally, I'm ambivalent regarding this, though I'm not saying I think everyone else should be. I've heard people point out that Hartnell was very proud of having been the First Doctor, and I'm sure this is true. But technically speaking, was he proud of being the first person to portray the Doctor, or the first Doctor within the show's canonical timeline? That's a little more ambiguous. So I don't think we can really speak on Hartnell's behalf with regard to this topic. That said, while I wouldn't say that the tone of this episode was overtly disrespectful to established canon, I do think it would have done better to address the subject of the First Doctor (as in the Hartnell Doctor, since the numbering has now gone kablooey) more directly within this episode.
Oh, don't worry, I've got lots more nitpicks. Time to break out the bullet points.
- Zero mention of Susan Foreman. She really should have come up at some point.
- Also no mention of Rassilon and Omega. Why dream up a completely new character in Tecteun when Rassilon could just as easily have been the adoptive parent of the Timeless Child? Especially since he was always credited as the inventor of regeneration anyway.
- Chibnall didn't need to invent a new black ops division for Gallifrey. Gallifrey already has one: the Celestial Intervention Agency. Maybe the Division was a forerunner to the CIA, but it would have been nice for this issue to be addressed.
- Apparently, the Morbius Doctors are being used as justification for the Timeless Child within canon, and I'm aware that they were intended to be past incarnations of the Doctor within the context of that particular story at the time, but they've been interpreted as incarnations of Morbius for a very long while now. I don't feel that they're enough of a foundation to base something this huge on. However, side note: the existence of the Curator is actually a very good piece of evidence for the Timeless Child reveal.
- Yes, yes, memory wipes, secret divisions, I get it…but honestly, if the Doctor has had that many lives, and if the Fugitive was only one of her other selves that went zipping around the universe on missions, it still causes continuity problems. Why has the Doctor only encountered one of her forgotten selves recently, if there are that many of them? For that matter, why have none of the other long-lived, well-traveled characters in the Whoniverse bumped into them? Time and space aren't that big.
- What actually happened in “The Time of the Doctor”, and are we ever going to find out the answer to that question? Did the Time Lords impose the regeneration limit on the First Doctor when they erased the memories of his previous selves? Or was the whole central conflict of that story a complete lie? Because if so, it's a pretty clumsy and distasteful retcon. “Here, let's shoot glittery stuff at him so he thinks he's got another regeneration cycle even though he doesn't need one.” Seriously?
- The Fugitive Doctor's TARDIS being a police box is a pretty significant plot hole. It wouldn't be too hard to explain it away, but for the moment, it's an issue. Also, for that matter, what about the TARDIS? Was Ruth's TARDIS the same one as the Doctor's current TARDIS? Was the whole story of the Doctor stealing an apparently random TARDIS from Gallifrey–which we have actually seen on screen–yet another lie?
- If the Judoon have been after the Doctor for this long based on things her forgotten selves have done, why is this only coming up now, and why were there no hints to it in the Doctor's previous brushes with the Judoon?
- What about River Song's regenerations? This reveal would appear to clash to some degree with the explanation of her Time Lord biology.
I have other, less canon-specific concerns about the big reveal, but I'll save them for the end of this post.
Before moving on, however, there's one more thing I want to address–the Master. I was very impressed with Sacha Dhawan's performance in the role, as always…but I think the jarring shift between Missy and the current Master is starting to become a problem. I'm fine with not knowing exactly how Missy survived and regenerated; that's not the point. It's the total lack of references to Missy's arc that I have an issue with. The scenes between the Doctor and the Master in The Timeless Children were electric, but, it simply made no sense for the Doctor not to bring up the fact that Missy came very close to redemption. Also, the Master's actions in this story disregard Missy's final turn to the light completely. At the end, she didn't hate the Doctor anymore. As a matter of fact, while Missy's previous self clearly despised the Doctor, I don't think Missy ever really did. All she wanted was to rekindle the friendship between them. The current Master's rage and hatred toward the Doctor, based, we are given to understand, on the fact that the Master thought the Doctor viewed himself as superior, doesn't mesh with Missy's arc at all, and even clashes with the character arcs of previous Masters.
Ultimately, while I do think Dhawan is excellent as the Master, I still feel that the writing and characterization behind Missy are better. Missy, in my opinion, is the quintessential Master. Watching another writer and actor try to do more with the character recently has made me realize that for the first time. Steven Moffat perfectly unpacked the complex relationship between the Doctor and the Master, gave the Master more character depth than he or she had ever had, and even gave him and her an essentially perfect ending. The writing behind Sacha Dhawan's Master merely retreads old ground from the John Simm incarnation, even though Dhawan gives the role his all.
What I Liked
This may have been Jodie Whittaker's finest hour as the Doctor yet. This script challenged her emotional range more than any previous episode, and she rose to the challenge expertly. She took all the best elements of her performance in the previous two episodes and turned it all up to a new level, being more Doctor-ish than ever. I do feel that Series 12 has finally given Whittaker a chance to prove that she was an excellent choice to play the first female Doctor (in our timeline, anyway). Jo Martin did a phenomenal job as the Doctor in her brief scenes as well. If we don't get full, proper stories with her as the Doctor at some point in the future, it really will be a crying shame. I want this incarnation's personality and intriguing backstory to be explored in depth.
While I may have issues with the writing of the current Master, I have nothing but praise for his acting in the role. Off-screen, he has clearly shown in his interaction with fans that he cares about the significance of the role, and that shows in his performance. He came across as genuinely frightening here, and even managed to sell the scene of Ashad's demise without it seeming particularly anti-climactic. In the end, while Ashad never really lost his menace, the Master came across as the more dangerous of the two, and it made sense for him to win in the end…even if that win was pretty darn easy and slightly hilarious.
The subplot of the companions' battle against the Cybermen wasn't nearly as gripping as the Gallifrey scenes, but they all still did a great job in this story…even if it's now past time for one of them to get killed off and free up some space in the TARDIS. Tosin Cole in particular deserves props for running the full gamut of emotions this week. (Yes, I know that Ryan's dyspraxia is now a distant memory, but apparently we have no choice but to let that go at this point. *shrug*)
So, what's good about the Timeless Child reveal? Potentially, a lot of things, depending on how it's unpacked once Series 13 finally airs next year. It may generate some exciting, long-running new story arcs for the show. It may allow expanded media like audio dramas to tell a wealth of new stories about Doctors we never knew. It could finally put the regeneration limit issue to rest, preventing future showrunners from having to contrive a new regeneration cycle for the Doctor every thirteen lifetimes.
As I said before, the execution of this plot twist was actually a pleasant surprise. Many who correctly guessed the outcome of the Timeless Child arc had surmised that Chibnall would use this opportunity to somehow blame the patriarchy for the Doctor having regenerated into a man over a dozen times in a row. Fortunately, there weren't any overt political messages in this story. Granted, the very first version of the Doctor appears to have been female…but how are we to know for sure that this was the first Doctor? I think the gender issue is pretty much moot at this point.
Also, it's worth pointing out that established canon (sort of) won the day, in the end, since the Doctor used her existing memories as a weapon against the Matrix. Theories and leaks never revealed the full story of “The Timeless Children”. This episode was bashed long in advance as a coordinated attack on established Doctor Who canon, but an unbiased evaluation of the plot doesn't really back that up, in my opinion. To those determined to loathe the finale in advance, Chibnall was set to be the episode's meta-textual villain, savaging canon and destroying the Doctor's very identity. However, the context reveals, ironically, that this was the Master's plan within the story itself. The Timeless Child was never intended to be something the Doctor would be thrilled about. There was no moment of her saying, “Ah, brilliant, I started out as a girl! I'm so glad all those white blokes were just a phase.” No, she was devastated to think that the past she remembered might now have no value. The point of the story was her realizing that her forgotten lives changed nothing about who she truly is, or the people she has been before; and that's the message viewers were meant to take away from it as well. It could be argued that this was a problematic premise, but at least the intent behind it wasn't malicious.
I think I understand what Chris Chibnall is trying to do with “The Timeless Children”, in the same way that I understand what Rian Johnson was trying to do with “The Last Jedi”.
And no, that's not necessarily a good thing.
Johnson wanted to expand Star Wars canon beyond the Skywalkers. Chibnall apparently wants to expand Doctor Who canon beyond the Doctor's fourteen previously-established lives, both in the past and in the future.
A large and vocal contingent of fans rejected Johnson's vision for the Star Wars franchise. The same may happen with Chibnall's vision for Doctor Who. As always, only time will tell, and it's far too early to be sure yet. The fan reaction at this early stage to “The Timeless Children” seems split down the middle to me. Series 13 is definitely going to happen (probably in fall 2021), not to mention the holiday special “Revolution of the Daleks” this year…but how will the show's already-tepid ratings fare in the wake of this finale? I don't know.
At the heart of Doctor Who is a question…a question which, we were once told, must never be answered. Steven Moffat did reveal some pretty huge events in the Doctor's past and future, but he tiptoed around some of the core mysteries of the show, which occasionally led to disappointment. The Hybrid arc is a good example of that. However, Moffat should be applauded for always leaving wiggle room for fans to make up their own minds with regard to the past…for example, when it came to issues like the Doctor potentially being half-human.
Chris Chibnall has taken a different approach, opting to give us not only a new origin for Gallifrey itself, but an answer to the very question “Doctor who?” It could be argued that after the very disappointing Series 11, he hasn't earned the right to do something that bold. It could also be argued that no one should ever really try to answer that question in any way, since it risks harming the mystery that makes the show work in the first place.
On the other hand, the answers we've gotten do lead to a myriad of new questions, so from a different point of view, the mysteries of Doctor Who have only been expanded, not diminished. In fact, the Doctor's origin is now more mysterious than it's ever been–we don't even know what she is or where she came from. In a way, Chibnall has put the “Who” back into the Doctor.
I believe that the problem with The Last Jedi wasn't Rian Johnson's vision for Star Wars, but how he carried out that vision. Chris Chibnall, unfortunately, has similar problems as the Doctor Who showrunner. If we hadn't gotten a politics-laden, poorly-scripted Series 11, followed by a couple of more recent missteps like “Orphan 55”, there wouldn't have been nearly so many people eager to crow over the destruction of Doctor Who this week. Yes, those commentators are often incorrect in their approach, trying to dictate what Who fans should and shouldn't be free to enjoy. But they wouldn't even be paying attention to Doctor Who in the first place if Chibnall hadn't gone out of his way to jump aboard the woke train back in 2018 when it was (briefly) trendy to make everything about politics. That was a huge mistake that hurt the show badly, and it was a great disservice to the cast and crew Chibnall was responsible for as showrunner–Jodie Whittaker in particular.
I have yet to write a full review of Doctor Who Series 12, but at the moment, I feel regretful that it wasn't handled differently. “Spyfall” should have been the Series 11 finale–or better yet, the premiere. The gap year in 2019 should never have happened; it lost a great deal of momentum for the program at the worst possible time. And now, Chibnall has attempted to pull off one of the most staggering events in the show's history right after a series of bad decisions.
Will Doctor Who still go on to thrive in spite of that? I don't know. I hope so. For my part, I don't see the Timeless Child reveal as an insult or an inherently bad decision. I believe it was well-meant, and I think it has a lot of potential. And I must admit, the idea of lots of unknown Doctors whose lives have yet to be explored is exciting to me, in theory.
But at the end of the day, the point of Doctor Who isn't canon, or regeneration limits, or Gallifreyan history. It's a madman–or woman–in a box, helping people to be the best versions of themselves. And before the credits rolled, this flawed and terrifyingly risky episode still took the time to remind us of that. No matter what secrets she's learned about her past, the Doctor is still the person who never fails, lifetime after lifetime, to pull us out of the rush of everyday adult life and remind us of the wonder in the universe. As the Fourth Doctor once said, “There's no point in being grown up if you can't be childish sometimes.”
Maybe we always knew the Doctor was the Timeless Child, after all.
Your thoughts on the finale? Share away. I want to hear from you. Let's support each other in this hour of whatever-the-heck-it-is.