*****TARDIS-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!******
The Season 12 finale of Doctor Who has arrived, and it’s basically a Page One rewrite of all Doctor Who lore, from 1963 on up. Everything you thought you knew of the Time Lords and Gallifrey are no longer what they seem. As a longtime fan of the show, I’m not entirely sure if I’m down with this massive Chris Chibnall-written retcon, but before we get into that, here’s a recap of last week’s episode:
Now, onto the specifics of Episode 12.10, “The Timeless Children”, directed by Jamie Magnus-Stone:
Picking up from last week’s cliffhanger, the Master (Sacha Dwahan) arrives through the portal and offers to take the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) on a tour of their destroyed home world of Gallifrey, which the Master destroyed out of spite. The Doctor, under duress, reluctantly agrees to accompany him, leaving Ko Sharmus (Ian McElhinney), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Ethan (Matt Carver) at the other side of the Boundary, on the shoreline.
The Cyberman carrier has arrived at the planet, and Ko Sharmus rummages through his few remaining weapons to arm Ryan and Ethan, as the aged general vows to turn the two young men into guerrilla soldiers in order to fight the soon-arriving Cybermen.
Aboard the Cybercarrier, Yaz (Mandip Gill), Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ravio (Julie Graham), Yedlarmi (Alex Austin) and Bescat (Rhiannon Clements) beat a hasty retreat from the control room as the Cybermen retake their vessel. Bescat is killed, and the group is forced to leave her behind (once again, Chibnall’s excess of characters only serve as little more than future redshirts).
Finding momentary hiding in corner of the ship, Graham comes up with a plan to evacuate the vessel, which is now hovering over the planet, using hollowed-out Cyberman armor from dormant Cybermen. The scene also affords Yaz and Graham a lovely moment as he calls her the bravest person he knows (Doctor included); saying she is a credit to the entire human race. Worrying he was out of line, she jokingly (through tears) tells him ‘he’s not so bad’ either.
They group implements Graham’s plan, wearing Cyber armor just long enough to fool the Lone Cyberman Ashad (Patrick O’Shane) who nearly sniffs them out, but is called away on more urgent business. Clad in their Cyber armor, they manage to escape the ship as the Cybermen launch troops to the surface of the Boundary planet…
On the other side of the Boundary, on the shattered remains of Gallifrey, the Master tells the Doctor how much he enjoyed destroying their homeworld. He also wants to show her the shattered remains of the Gallifreyan capital, the Citadel.
Deep in the Citadel, they make their way into the chamber of the Panopticon, where the Gallifreyans used to monitor the universe. They also make their way to the Chamber of the Matrix; the repository of all knowledge and memory of Gallifreyans throughout time. Being the Master, he hacked into it, and learned of a shocking secret. All of Time Lord history has been a lie. The Master surrounds the Doctor in a forcefield as he tells her the true story of Time Lord history…
Many centuries before, there was a lone woman explorer named Tecteun (Seylan Baxter) from a race called the Shobogans from an ‘obscure little planet’ called Gallifrey. These Shobogans were Gallifrey’s original native humanoid race, before the Time Lords.
Traveling to a remote world in a relatively primitive starship, Tecteun found the Boundary at the edge of the galaxy, on a planet with a large monument pointing skyward. There, she saw a small child, seemingly alone. Feeling natural sympathy for the little girl, Tecteun took her back to Gallifrey and raised her as her own (a Moses story by any other name…very original, Chris Chibnall). One day, while playing with other children, the child fell from a tall precipice (just like Brendon in “Ascension of the Cybermen”). Believing the girl to be dead, Tecteun was astonished to see the child glow and ‘regenerate’ into a whole new body… this was the first ever regeneration seen on the planet Gallifrey.
Tecteun immediately hits upon the idea of harnessing her immortal space Moses-baby’s regenerative ability for the benefit of her people. Testing a DNA formula on herself, she experiences regeneration, and eventually the formula is passed on to an elite class of Gallifreyans, who now designate themselves as “Time Lords” (pompous much, yeah?). A limit of 12 regenerations were created as an artificial limit to their potentially limitless lifespans.
Eventually the new DNA becomes part of their being, and these self-proclaimed guardians of the universe master time travel, and become what they became. The original “timeless child” went on to live many lives, including a life in 20th century Ireland as Brendon the cop (Evan McCabe) before being involuntarily reset as a young child once again… the ‘beginning’ of her life anew as a Gallifreyan.
The Doctor’s former identities were completely erased, with only fragments of random memories as Brendon (courtesy of Tecteun, sending those memories beyond the erasure), and no memories of her life (lives) as Ruth or any of her other prior incarnations. The Doctor is the Timeless Child. Her mind is blown…
On the Boundary world, the Cybermen are met with explosives and weapons fire from Ko Sharmus, Ryan and Ethan as their guerrilla tactics seem to be working. Ryan destroys an entire platoon with a tossed explosive, but soon the Cybermen capture Ethan and threaten him with execution unless the others surrender.
Counting down to one, Ryan and Ko Sharmus hear weapons fire… which is from Yaz, Graham and the others, who’ve landed on the planet in their Cyber armor. They’ve killed Ethan’s would-be executioners.
Meanwhile the massive Cybercarrier vessel itself has piloted its way through the Boundary and lands atop the remains of the Gallifrey Citadel. Cyberman Ashad greets the Master, who proposes not merely an alliance, but a combined new race…using Cybermen armor with well-preserved Gallifreyan corpses, who would become a new, immortal Cyber-TimeLord army. For once, the Cybermen would be truly unstoppable. Ashad warms up to this idea, and agrees to an alliance with the Master.
The Master, of course, double-crosses Ashad and shrinks him down using his Tissue Compression Eliminator (which we’ve seen before); this device turns living beings into tiny action figures (coming soon to a toy store near you). Upon shrinking Ashad, the Cyberium which has inhabited his body flees, and comes into the Master… thus infusing him with the entire knowledge of the Cyberman race. Meanwhile, Ashad’s tiny shrunken figure still has the dreaded ‘Death Particle’ in its chest as a fallback option. Shrunken, but still active (why the Master didn’t simply take tiny-Ashad and his tiny-Death Particle with him is yet another plot hole in an episode plagued with them…).
With the Cyberium inside of him, the Master unveils his new creation to a horrified Doctor; the new immortal Cyber-TimeLords, who regenerate after they’re killed, but maintain their exterior armor.
On the other side of the Boundary, the TARDIS fam and the human survivors contemplate violating the Doctor’s orders and going after her by stepping through the massive portal into Gallifrey (humans are forbidden to set foot on Gallifrey). Yaz, ever the cop, goes first…the others soon follow. General Ko Sharmus wants one last battle to fight.
The Doctor is alone in an existential void, when she encounters the “Ruth-Doctor” (Jo Martin), the previously unknown version of herself she first met in “Fugitive of the Judoon.” The exhausted Doctor is ready to give up, admitting that she doesn’t know how to defeat the Master, and that she’s unable to reconcile her newly discovered past with her present. Ruth-Doctor tells her, “Have you ever been limited by who you were before?” That was just the pep talk the Doctor needed. Ruth-Doctor tells the Doctor that seeing all of this from the Matrix has blown her mind… so how about returning the favor?
With that bit of self-advice, the Doctor reconnects to the Matrix and floods it with the entirety of her being; all of her past selves, her experiences, all of it. The Matrix overloads, and the Doctor collapses.
Yaz, Graham, Ryan and the other survivors arrive in the Matrix chamber and find the Doctor passed out. Coming around, the Doctor is pleased but surprised to see her friends in the chamber with her (“No humans allowed on Gallifrey,” she gently scolds). Ravio tells the Doctor of a Cyberman legend regarding “the Death Particle” and how it could be used to destroy all biological life. Between that and the Master’s new immortal Cyberman army, the Doctor decides to use her team to plant explosives and destroy what remains of the Citadel.
As they set their explosives, Doctor finds the tiny Ashad doll and learns that its shrunken Death Particle is still intact. She then links with the Master’s mind to find him, and she does. She challenges him to a final round to the death, “You and me, in the Matrix chamber in one hour!”
The explosives are somehow prematurely ignited, and the Doctor yells at her team, “RUN!” She then rushes them all into an intact TARDIS, which she then uses to send them back to 21st century Earth for safety as she meets the Master…alone.
Facing the Master in the Matrix with her thumb poised on a plunger to activate the Death Particle, she is interrupted by Ko Sharmus, who offers to take her place, as part of his redemption; he was the one who fled with the Cyberium to the past…but didn’t hide it well enough to avoid its recapture by the Cybermen. Now, he is a dying old man, and wants redemption. Reluctantly she agrees, and gives him the plunger… after everyone escapes, he uses the plunger. The Citadel, the immortal army of Cybermen and (presumably?) the Master as well, are all destroyed in a blue-white ball of energy.
The Doctor finds another TARDIS to take her back to the human survivor’s colony world, where her original TARDIS remains. The TARDIS fam and the human survivors arrive on 21st century Earth to begin a new life, but Yaz worries about the Doctor…
Finding herself back in her old TARDIS (“home sweet home”), the Doctor prepares to join the others when she is interrupted by a klaxon. Somehow (?) Judoon police materialize aboard her TARDIS (thought it was impenetrable) and arrest her for the warrant as recited in “Fugitive of the Judoon.” She is last seen in a Judoon cell on a remote prison asteroid.
The “Timeless Chid’s” Report Card.
There’s a lot to unpack in this extra-length finale.
The action-adventure aspect of the episode works well enough, even if it is a bit repetitive of other ’throw-in-the-kitchen-sink’ Doctor Who finales. There are also a few nice character moments as well; some are overt, like the moment between Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) aboard the Cybercarrier. Other moments are more subtle, such as the Doctor gently scolding her fam when they come to rescue her (“humans aren’t allowed on Gallifrey”); she sounds like a cat lover trying to herd a few errant kittens…
Ryan (Tosin Cole), who has virtually nothing to do in the entire episode, is allowed one scene where he tosses a basketball-sized explosive into a Cybermen platoon. It’s nice, but it feels tacked on to make us remember that the two-dimensional Ryan still exists at all.
The human colonists remain largely superfluous to the story, but served as occasional canon fodder and foot soldiers. The only memorable one of the bunch would be Ko-Sharmus (Ian McElhinney), who at least has a backstory. The climax with the Doctor locked up by the Judoon was a somewhat underwhelming way to close out the season, but it least it offers a bit of levity.
One can almost admire the sheer gall of Chris Chibnall to essentially rewrite all of Doctor Who lore (!); his new retcon of the Doctor’s past does allow a lot more wiggle room for different incarnations of the Doctor, including the future Valeyard (“Trial of a Time Lord”) and all of those jumbled pre-First Doctor faces (seen in “Brain of Morbius”), but it arguably creates as many issues as it solves. One of the biggest bugs for me is that the Doctor is no longer Gallifreyan, which is as core to his identity as Mr. Spock being half-Vulcan. I don’t know what the mass fandom reaction will be to this new continuity, but personally I’m not yet in love with the notion.
It doesn’t explain how the Doctor got a ‘new’ set of lives just before he turned into Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, when Clara begged the Time Lords to help him in “The Time of the Doctor.” Turns out he didn’t need their help. So what was up with that little light show the Time Lords put on, allowing Clara to believe the dying Doctor was ‘granted’ a new set of lives? Was it just part of their elaborate pretense? Kind of undercuts the urgency and drama out right of Clara Oswald’s heartfelt plea, not to mention that Clara saw all of the Doctor’s prior incarnations in his timeline…yet she never saw Brendon, or Ruth Doctor.
Speaking of which…
I’m also left a mite confused regarding Jo Martin’s “Ruth Doctor.” Don’t get me wrong; I loved Martin’s portrayal. In fact, I wished she had been the first female Doctor after seeing her in action with “Fugitive of the Judoon.” However, if the Judoon were after an earlier incarnation of the Doctor centuries prior, why didn’t they arrest the 10th Doctor when they encountered him on the Moon in “Smith and Jones”? And if the Ruth/Doctor lived before Hartnell, just how did her TARDIS also get ‘stuck’ as a mid-20th century London police box? Wasn’t that particular TARDIS, with its faulty chameleon circuit, the same TARDIS first stolen by Hartnell’s Doctor prior to “The Unearthly Child” (see: “The Name of the Doctor”)? Did Ruth’s Doctor also steal that exact same TARDIS (faulty chameleon circuit and all), only to return it and steal it yet again? These aren’t minor quibbles…it’s sloppy writing.
With all of the possibilities for the identity of the Timeless Child, it feels like Chris Chibnall chose the path of least resistance, as well as the least interesting path. The Doctor as a sort of Gallifreyan Jesus, whose ‘blood’ grants immortality to those who partake. It could’ve been a priceless opportunity to bring back a newly regenerated Susan Foreman; perhaps she could’ve been the Doctor’s adopted granddaughter who only thought she was Gallifreyan, and was perhaps given her ‘grandfather’s’ genetic ability to regenerate in order to save her life as a young child. This newfound ability could’ve fundamentally altered her into a ‘timeless child’ who can now never die due to some unusual trait of her own DNA (unknown to Susan, of course). She was already “The Unearthly Child”… why not make her a “Timeless Child” as well?
Or the Timeless Child could’ve been some as-yet-unseen Doctor from a multiverse of Doctors in parallel timelines (2009’s “Star Trek” soft-reboot approach…using a new parallel timeline without undoing the original). These parallel Doctors would regenerate differently (regeneration is still random) but they would still ‘feel’ as if they are the same character; they’d still be connected to one another.
We’ve already seen the “floaty-glowy Jesus-Doctor” (an online name I once read given to Tennant’s revived Doctor) in“Last of the Time Lords”, when the Doctor was resurrected by happy thoughts (yes, that happened). That resolution was corny enough, but “The Timeless Children” took it a major step further.
So now, as it stands, the Doctor is no longer Gallifreyan, but rather an alien “timeless child” who was taken and genetically mined for her regenerative ability in order to propel a mediocre species of space-traveling humanoids (“Shobogans”) into a self-named race of pompous arses called the Time Lords. Given how much war and strife the Time Lords have brought to the universe through their ‘benign’ interventions (the CyberWar, the Time War, etc) I’m wondering if this was a race worthy of such longevity…?
Oops. Hope that last sentence didn’t sound too much like the Master just now…
On the surface, “The Timeless Children” is a nice enough adventure story, with the Doctor, Master and Cybermen all at play, giving us some nice character moments, but its new additions to Doctor Who’s backstory just went down like a garlic-seasoned rock for me. It’s as though showrunner Chris Chibnall was thumbing his nose at 57 years of Doctor Who lore, undoing the legacy of so many who’ve carefully added to that lore over the decades, including so many are no longer with us, such as the recently deceased Terrance Dicks. I admire Chibnall’s audacity, but I just wish that his uneven writing skills warranted it.