Now that I've had some time to ruminate on “The Timeless Children” and its implications for Doctor Who as a whole, I'm ready to share my overall thoughts on Series 12.
Before we start, SPOILER WARNING: I'm going to be diving into huge spoilers for Series 12 right from the get-go, so don't read on if you're not caught up on the show.
Also, I want to make it clear that I am not a confirmed Chibnall-hater attempting to drum up outrage clicks. My previous Series 12 posts and reviews will bear out that I have taken every opportunity to praise this season of the show when it got something right (and it did get a number of things right). I've frequently encouraged those who abandoned the show in 2018 to give it another chance this year. There were even various aspects of “The Timeless Children” that I liked. But the season as a whole has failed to deliver on its promises to viewers, and I have to honestly address the fact that in the end, I don't consider Series 12 to have been a success.
Welcome to the Chibnall Masterplan. That appears to be the best way to describe the current era of Doctor Who. From the start, his intention has been to make some enormous changes to the status quo of the franchise, and now, we see his true vision for the show unfolding.
Do we like it? The reaction of the fanbase seems to be divided right down the middle. A lot of fans love the Doctor's new Timeless Child origin, while others see it as a massive affront to canon that has broken the show completely.
Either way, we really didn't need a super-divisive new twist on the show. Not after a plunge in ratings thanks to a lukewarm Series 11 and a lengthy drought of Doctor Who TV content.
I want to be careful in ascribing motives to Chibnall that he hasn't openly expressed, but I think it's fairly obvious that he believed Doctor Who needed to be “fixed”. He wouldn't have made so many sweeping changes from day one otherwise. The question is, did it need fixing?
Though Series 10 of Doctor Who may be my personal favorite season of the show, its ratings were pretty bad. Even some of the things that many fans liked about the late Moffat era may have contributed to that: an older and darker incarnation of the Doctor, intricate continuity, etc. So yes, an argument could have been made at the time that big changes were needed.
The casting of Jodie Whittaker turned out to be very successful, in and of itself. Since Whittaker's portrayal of the Doctor echoed David Tennant in many ways, with the first two episodes of Series 11, the stage was set for a return to Doctor Who's golden age. The scripts weren't the best the show had ever featured, but they were still promising.
Then the politics started, and it all went downhill. Two or three better episodes weren't enough to offset the incredibly boring finale. The New Year's special “Resolution” was an improvement in many ways, but the Who-less year following it caused any momentum it might have generated to sputter and die.
The Thirteenth Doctor herself was not a failure, but her first series definitely was.
“Spyfall” gave hope to all the Who fans watching the show. Apparently, Chibnall had listened. Past continuity was finally back in play, and the stakes had risen to previous heights once more.
Except, I don't think Chibnall actually did listen. His comments in interviews support this theory. I think his intention was for Series 11 to be continuity-free to give the new cast a chance to settle in, so that he could execute his true vision for the show.
It's clear at this point what Chibnall's primary, long-term goals were upon taking the reins from Steven Moffat. Destroy Gallifrey again. Make the Master wholly evil again. Shroud the Doctor's origins and precise number of lives in mystery again.
It's that word “again” that's the issue here. The Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who is over. The Steven Moffat era is over. Each had strengths and weaknesses. Each was, in the end, brilliant in different ways. Neither is repeatable. What Doctor Who needed, post-Series-10, was somebody to build on its foundations and take it to a higher level.
But that's not what Chibnall has done. In fact, he's done precisely the opposite.
I don't agree that “The Timeless Children” has broken Doctor Who. Thanks to all the erased memories and hazy explanations, it hasn't actually changed anything for the show…and that is precisely the problem.
What are we left with at the end of Series 12? It's not a way forward; it's a way back. Back into a new past Chibnall is writing for the show, rather than a new future. The Time Lords are dead once more–really, really dead–so there's no way new episodes can build on the planet's return in “The Day of the Doctor”. All the show can do now is retread old ground from the Tenth and Eleventh's Doctor's era, with the Doctor as the Last of the Time Lords. The Master is alive (yes, still alive, don't bother thinking otherwise) and back to the utterly vicious, angry persona of his John Simm incarnation, so Missy's character arc is now irrelevant. The Doctor's existing memories may still have value to her, but her goal now is to delve into her unknown past, so she can't move on from all the character growth she experienced in her previous incarnation.
“The Timeless Children” was billed as the moment that would alter everything for the show, permanently. But all it's really done is regress the show back to a previous status quo for no good reason. As for the alleged “new canon”, what difference does it actually make? Yes, in theory, it's cool that there are lots of unknown Doctors out there, but here's the problem–there are already lots of unknown Doctors out there. FUTURE Doctors. The concept of countless unknown Doctors roaming the universe is nothing new for Doctor Who fans. Plus, future Doctors actually matter, since their memories presumably won't get erased. What reason do we have to care about past incarnations of the Doctor whose memories may never be recovered? They add nothing to the Doctor's character development, even now that she knows they exist. This is actually the central message of “The Timeless Children”…the Doctor is still the Doctor, and always will be, so none of her past selves really matter. Whatever secrets the Doctor may find out about her past from this point forward, I don't see how they can have any true relevance for her character arc. Those other Doctors may as well be different characters entirely. They're not her, and they never will be her. They can't, since their future has already been written.
In my opinion, the Timeless Child arc is not brilliant or game-changing. It's actually just as weak and lacking in stakes as the T'zim Sha story arc of Series 11, though the Timeless Child arc seemed to be far better until it was revealed in its entirety. On the bright side, I don't think there's any need for fans to say the show is broken now–continuity-wise, the show is exactly in the same place it was in 2018, especially since anyone who writes for the franchise from here on out is perfectly free to ignore “The Timeless Children” as much as they please. In fact, it wouldn't be very difficult for a future showrunner to erase the events of the episode completely if they wanted to.
The worst thing about Doctor Who Series 12 is that Chibnall's writing and showrunning ultimately squander a lot of great stuff. Jodie Whittaker, Sacha Dhawan, and even the companions and guest cast delivered stellar performances this year. The scripts were better, on the whole, with the glaring exception of “Orphan 55”. Jo Martin did a superb job in her few scenes as the Doctor. Captain Jack made a welcome return.
However, Chris Chibnall failed to use any of these things to their best advantage. Jodie Whittaker didn't really get a chance to show off her full acting range until the very last episodes of this series. Sacha Dhawan is amazing as the Master, but he's let down by the fact that Chibnall never connects the dots between Missy's vital character arc and the Dhawan Master's very different persona. There are still far too many companions, which makes it nearly impossible for guest stars to make an impression. The better scripts are overshadowed by problems with the overall arc. Jo Martin's Doctor feels superfluous because she's from a forgotten past, instead of being a future Doctor, which she really should have been. And Captain Jack's brief, awkward inclusion in Series 12 feels more like an ill-fated attempt to manipulate fans into returning to the show and accepting Chibnall's more controversial decisions than a genuine effort to make long-time viewers happy.
There were so many opportunities for Series 12 to be a success, but they were all sacrificed for the sake of what Chris Chibnall apparently thought was a bold and exciting new twist for the show…a twist which is actually a big nothing-burger.
Is it really that hard to actually build on Doctor Who's past and move forward? I don't see why. Stories with a restored and active Gallifrey could have been fascinating. A new Master who progressed down Missy's path of redemption as some kind of antiheroic figure could have been fascinating…then again, leaving Missy's ending intact would have been just fine as well. And if Jo Martin had turned out to be a future Doctor who lost her memories in some sort of impending cataclysm, it would have probably left fans across the board eager for Series 13.
Retconning “secrets” into the past of Doctor Who is not progress. True, Moffat used this tactic once when he created the War Doctor, but as a means to an important and worthwhile end–namely, making up for the fact that Christopher Eccleston refused to return for the 50th anniversary special. It feels like Chibnall is just trying to give us the War Doctor on steroids here, and it comes across as pandering and meaningless, especially since none of the “reveals” mesh seamlessly with past continuity.
Having seen two full series of his work, I've come to the conclusion that Chris Chibnall is simply not a very good Doctor Who writer or showrunner. He has some genuine skills in certain areas, and not all of his ideas are terrible. It's possible that even the Timeless Child concept could have worked if it had been handled differently. But he just doesn't seem to be up to the task of tying a whole season of Doctor Who together into a meaningful, satisfying whole. The average quality of Series 12 isn't fantastic or terrible. Like Series 11, it's just “meh”. I still think Series 11 is worse than 12, but 12 is the second-worst, followed by Series 3…and Series 3 is much better than Series 12.
I want more of Jodie Whittaker (and Jo Martin) as the Doctor. But I think the smartest thing for the BBC to do at this point would be to let Chibnall go and allow a more skilled showrunner to use the parts of Series 11 and 12 that did work and throw away the parts that didn't. The Chibnall Masterplan isn't really masterful at all. I think it's headed for worse failures than we saw this year, especially since Chibnall doesn't seem to be paying much heed to the full range of fan reactions.
I'm not going to stop watching Doctor Who. For now, anyway. But I'm not really sticking around because I have much interest in the new story arcs Chibnall has created. It's more because I am invested in the Thirteenth Doctor as a character, and because there were some genuine bright spots in this latest season, like “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”. Plus, I am hoping that the Jo Martin Doctor gets more screentime down the line, and I'd like to see Jack meet Thirteen.
However, while I have spoken out in the past against actual trolls who are determined to hate the show and to tell other fans that they're not supposed to like it either, I can't blame anyone for bidding Doctor Who goodbye at this point. The overall quality of the show is certainly lacking enough to justify that. At least we can always take comfort in the fact that every past era of the show we may miss is continued in Big Finish audio dramas in some form. (I will finally be releasing a guide to Big Finish audios later this week, after promising to write a post on the topic for over a year–sorry for the wait.)
The best I can say about Chibnall's Not-So-Master-Plan is that it did make an effort to not compromise the heart of Doctor Who, which lies in the core values and raison d'etre of the Doctor herself. “The Timeless Children” makes it very clear that these did not change. But as I said before, the problem is that while “The Timeless Children” purports to change the show in a variety of other ways, it actually doesn't do that, nor does it give viewers who have lost interest in the show a compelling enough reason to return. For the sake of the franchise as a whole, I hope that Chibnall either leaves soon or starts swallowing his pride and listening to audience feedback, because I'm not sure Doctor Who can survive another year like this.