‘The Timeless Children’ fulfils season 12 of Doctor Who’s remit of injecting the show’s mythology into proceedings, but with all this strange retconning does it take it too far?
After last week’s ‘Ascension of the Cybermen’ left us with a tantalising cliff-hanger that involved both Gallifrey and The Master’s return, we knew we were in for one big homecoming episode. The only problem is, as The Doctor steps through ‘the boundary’ to her homeworld, she’s met with the same destruction that landed with a thud back in ‘Spyfall: Part Two’. Gallifrey is destroyed. The citadel is nothing but smashed glass and burning rubble, whilst the planet’s inhabitants lay dead offscreen. Back when we were glimpsed this apocalyptic idea I assumed Chibnall would offer explanation for this other than ‘The Master did it’ and whilst there’s some effort as to the why, we’re never fully told how one Time Lord managed to essentially commit mass genocide of his own people.
Not that it’s out of character for Sacha Dhawan, of course. His interpretation of The Master continued to be the hammiest pantomime performance of the lot. He shakes with excitement at every single thought and bubbles under the skin, so much so that it’s very often exhausting. All of this erratic energy never manages to translate into threat, and instead his empty promises of ‘everything you knew was a lie’ and ‘this is going to hurt’ end up feeling like vague bad-guy moustache-twirling catchphrases designed to promote him as The Doctor’s nemesis. He forces The Doctor to enter ‘the matrix’ of Gallifrey – an archive of the planet – so that she can see the birth of the Time Lords.
What follows is essentially Gallifrey 101, but now with Chris Chibnall’s changes to the established lore. The Gallifrey natives Shobogans were led by their space explorer Tecteun (Seylan Baxter) into the stars, where she had found a ‘timeless child’ with the infinite capability to regenerate their body. Over countless years and various lives of the child, Tecteun was able to extract what gave the child this ability, and grafted it into the Shobogans, creating the Time Lords. This fairytale-like presentation presented by Dhawan’s Master works well as a new allegory, with director Jamie Magnus Stone suitably opting for sweeping visuals and compact close-ups to disguise any limits of production. As for the revelatory statement when The Master reveals that The Doctor is the ‘timeless child’? Well…that wasn’t particularly difficult to see coming.
Even in the first instance of the name being used back in ‘The Ghost Monument’, it felt as though the name was always directed towards the show’s protagonist. But this retconning of Gallifrey, destroying Rassilon’s importance and tampering with the foundations of the show leaves me with the greatest unease. As it’s revealed the story of Irish policemen Brendan from last week was just snippets of one of The Doctor’s past lives, erased by the Time Lord’s organisation ‘The Division’ in order to enlist her to complete tasks in the past, I wondered how much of this actually impacts the show itself. Yes, it explains Jo Martin’s previously-unknown incarnation of the character (slightly) and allows her to have a nice little cameo, but The Doctor’s always been an outcast on Gallifrey… so what’s the difference now?
My problem with this whole reveal is that it feels like it’s deliberately trying to shake up the status quo in order to mask the fact that there’s no real story going on. Jodie Whittaker is essentially given nothing to do for the entire episode, and spends most of it in begrudging silence. Doctor Who was entirely built upon the fact that The Doctor was a genius who always had a plan, and yet here she’s just going through the motions. As Ryan and Ko Sharmus fight off a fleet of Cybermen we’re treated to a brief reprieve with some action and tension, whilst Graham, Yaz and company escape the cyber-carrier by hiding in cyber-armour. With all the teasers and promotions that this episode was going to be devastating, I was expecting one of the companion trio to die. Before escaping the cyber-carrier, Chibnall treats us to another welcome moment of pathos as Bradley Walsh delivers a heartfelt appreciation of Yaz. Mandip Gill (possibly the most developed character this whole season) offers a traditional Yorkshire response, but it’s a moment that you need to savour in a finale that’s otherwise devoid of this kind of emotion.
Back on Gallifrey The Master tricks intimidating cyber-leader Ashad (Patrick O’Kane) into bringing his fleet to the fallen planet whilst The Doctor is stuck inside the matrix. This isn’t the first time The Master’s decided to team up with the metal men, it appears he has a soft spot in his cold heart(s) for them. Though when Ashad lets slip that he has a Death Particle (something that can wipe out all life on a planet) embedded in his chest, The Master kills him instantly with his tissue compression eliminator and… essentially turns him into an action figure. Then the dead Cyberium, the still silly-looking silver goo that contains all secrets to Cyberman life is transferred into The Master, and he uses this newfound knowledge to create a fleet of twelve Cyber-Lords – Cybermen built with the biological parts of the Time Lords he’s killed. In theory, this allows the fleet the possibility to regenerate, creating an invincible and unstoppable force that would allow The Master that all-powerful feeling he so longs for.
Whilst this element of the narrative feels like something The Master would do (after all, he did it with the Toclafane), it’s still quite the stance to go from saving Gallifrey and the Time Lords in ‘Day of the Doctor’ to wiping them out and turning their remains into Cybermen here. The Doctor escapes the matrix by flooding it with memories of her past regenerations (all otherwise-unexplained incarnations of the character are now canon, it seems) and is greeted by the sight of her enemy’s fleet. And it has to be said… they do look pretty cool. Gallifreyan markings across the royal-displays of the Time Lord headpieces, confined to a Cyberman.
The fam however make their way through ‘the boundary’ to Gallifrey, and regroup with The Doctor after The Master escapes to begin his universal takeover. Whilst she’s happy to see them, she puts her foot down and displays dominance by programming another TARDIS from the supply to take them back to Earth. Whilst Yaz puts up a fight, Tosin Cole’s Ryan knows it’s for the best and holds her back. Oh, and the other human survivors from the previous episode are still around (at least those who haven’t succumbed to being Cyberman fodder anyway).
The Doctor calls The Master for a final showdown, with Ashad’s miniature body strapped to a bomb – she’s going to take him and his invincible army down with her. But of course, she can’t do it. She can’t destroy whatever spec of life Gallifrey may still have on it, which is why Ko Sharmus suddenly appears and offers to sacrifice himself instead. Then… the two have a lengthy discussion over it in front of The Master and his troop of Cyber-Lords, all of whom just stand in silence whilst the two talk about killing them. It’s a logistical nightmare and Segun Akinola tries to create some form of tension within his sweeping score but it can’t disguise the fact that each new plot development negates the one before. Everything feels like a deus ex machina and is the epitome of ‘and then this happened, and then this happened’. Thanks to some brisk dialogue from Dhawan’s Master however, it’s clear that the Cyber-Lords escape with him so hopefully we get an actual showdown with them in the future.
The fam is sent back to Earth in a TARDIS disguised as a house (brilliant) and believe The Doctor to have gone down with Gallifrey, when really she’s hitched a ride back to her own TARDIS using one disguised as a tree (again, brilliant). But before she can reunite with her friends, the alarms go off and a platoon of Judoon imprison her in an asteroid prison. What for? We don’t know. But we’ll surely find out (and swiftly!) for ‘Revolution of the Daleks’ the next festive special! Oh boy, I can’t wait for the whole prison aspect of the plot to be dealt with in the first thirty seconds!
‘The Timeless Children’ fully encompasses everything that has bugged me throughout this entire season of Doctor Who. As a finale it works better than last season’s ‘The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos’, but that’s only because of the iconography and mythology involved. The base narrative still leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s unclear whether Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor will ever get to have her own defining moment. Because for now, much like the character, it feels as though the show is imprisoned.