Doctor Who #1016: The Timeless Children

"This is going to hurt."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Mar.1 2020.

IN THIS ONE... The Master reveals the truth about the nature of Gallifrey and of the Doctor herself.

REVIEW: I know everyone is chomping at the bit for discussion on the episode's big revelations, but these have to be supported by a story, even if the Doctor is momentarily taken out of it. Unfortunately, that story is severely hamstrung by the Big Arc Reveals the episode has to deliver, and in that way, it's a little like Fugitive of the Judoon (it even pulls the trick of taking characters out so they can do Big Arc Things, while the others muddle on). I suppose the biggest problem in that respect is that the Lone Cyberman, which we've been told is important (Jack doesn't return, so his role in this is odd), is replaced by the Master. Its plan is made fun of, his big nasty weapon of mass destruction stolen (two of them, in fact), the Cyber-army repurposed as cool-collared CyberMasters, and it feels like a bit of a waste. If this were just run-of-the-mill Cybermen, it might have worked, but Chibnall went out of his way to create a very distinct Cyberman, with its own plan and surrounding mysteries, built him up as an A-level threat, only to have his other villain swoop in and make it about himself. There is absolutely no surprise in the ancient Ko Sharmus taking the Doctor's place in the final sacrifice, and the end result isn't as much of a game changer as it might seem. The Time Lords have never been a big part of the show, especially in the new era, so who cares if Gallifrey is a dead world. We don't see the Master getting disintegrated so he survived, I'm sure. I don't think it's a big deal, and if the Jo Martin Doctor's Time Lords could intersect with Jodie's timeline, they could again. And probably should, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'm also a little mystified about how much Chibnall has pushed the foreshadowing button on one or another companion's departure/death during the season, then didn't complete the circuit in any way. In this very episode, Graham and Yaz have a heartfelt talk that, given how desparate the situation is, should have led to someone's death. He may be trying to surprise, but only manages to frustrate. Some critics were quick to point out that Graham telling Yaz how taken he is with her accomplishments belies the fact that she's been sorely underused since they all joined the TARDIS Fam. They've all had their moments, but they've been comparatively sparse. So what's he on about? Another mangled follow-up is the whole Brandan thing. Turns out, it's a dream in which the secret history of the Timeless Child is redressed as the story of a baby found in 20th-Century Ireland. The Doctor says she's had this dream, but the sequences shown in Ascension of the Cybermen absolutely do not connect to her in that way, or in ANY way. They are just presented as if they are happening, somewhere. Being the mystery most people I talked to wanted solved at the end of that previous episode, it's a little underwhelming to have it explained away like that.

So the plot, not so much. Like Fugitive of the Judoon, will the big reveals be enough to smooth things over. Exciting in principle, I'm not sure they matter much. Whovian nerds may feel a thrill to have a couple of old questions answered - the Shobogans are another name for Gallifreyans (who are not Time Lords), the faces we see in The Brain of Morbius are old incarnations of the Doctor pre-Hartnell - but others, just as nerdy, might just roll their eyes and call it fanwank. The answers here might even explain the 7th Doctor's role as the Other, apparently at the birth of the Time Lord civilization, and whatever Lady Peinforte was going on about in Silver Nemesis. That answer? That the Timeless Child WAS the Doctor, a child found near an interdimensional doorway, raised on Gallifrey, and having exhibited the ability of unlimited regeneration, experimented upon to extract the secret of that ability. The Shobogan elite made themselves Time Lords, the child became Jo Martin who dubbed herself the Doctor and worked for the super-secret Division (if the CIA is Starfleet Intelligence, the Division is Section 31, to cross streams for a second) until, for whatever reason, she was mindwiped, force-regenerated into a child, a child who would go on to become the Doctor again (see Theories for an outstanding issue here). This is only as good as what Chibnall plans to do with it. Bring in other past selves (the original Doctor seems not to have been stuck at 12 regenerations)? Regen the Time Lord race back to life? Continue to use the Jo Martin Doctor and her time frame to explore what events were so secret or dangerous they had to be removed from the Matrix and the Doctor "rebooted"? Have her visit that other dimension or be visited by her actual people? Because at this point, I don't really believe that moment where she's "destroyed" by the knowledge. The Jo Martin Doctor appears as a fragment of her mind to teach her a lesson I don't think she really needed to learn - that these revelations change nothing, that she is still herself, and that indeed, she is just the sum total of more than she knows. Momentary weakness and confusion, then she does as we always knew she would. It's the kind of forced psychological breakdown I expect from CW superhero shows and that make me grown every time.

There is some sense that Chibnall is going to go after the cool stuff that escaped this Pandora's Box with that cliffhanger, which has Jodie's Doctor forced to serve a sentence meant (I assume) for Jo Martin's. I love a good prison story. So it may be that The Timeless Children is just a small part of a larger puzzle, and will only increase in watchability as time moves forward. It may not be fair to require it to be equal to the hype surrounding it, but "nothing will ever be the same" is overreaching, I think. Nothing's changed, really, because the revelations are just about the past, and an erased past at that. It makes the point that it doesn't change the Doctor, and whatever is destroyed here has been destroyed in the past and made a miraculous return.

A quick note on the casting of the Timeless Child... The Doctor started life as a girl of color, which is not a problem per se (it may or may not be one of those things Chibnal has designed "to make fandom lose its mind"), but it does retroactively mean the Doctor was white-washed and for the longest time, male-washed. We can lay that at the Time Lords' feet, and in their culture wouldn't necessarily be a political act, but it feels a little weird in today's context. Honestly, I'm ambivalent about the whole thing. If Chibnall wanted to be topical and progressive - as has been the vibe all season - the Time Lords should have exploited a whole race of "timeless children" for their regeneration power, but her adoptive mother conducting the experiments on a single child, and the integration of that child into the new society and her blossoming (at least twice) into the Doctor who remembers none of it anyway... I don't think it resonates with the way the Colonial World has exploited and re-historied Natives and minorities through the ages.

The elephant in the room at the end of this episode is the massive coincidence of having a person who was once the Doctor become the Doctor again (seeing as it's what Barbara and Ian called him erroneously) and the question of why Jo Martin's TARDIS looked like a police box, when that has a definite origin in the Hartnell era. We can No-Prize this, surely. They may have mind-wiped the Doctor, but it doesn't change his nature. It makes him difficult at the Academy, and eventually compels him to choose a TARDIS, quite possibly HIS OWN TARDIS from before (we know it was already old when he pinched it). Perhaps the police box motif was a favorite of the Jo Martin Doctor, and it remembered that shape. It took that shape again when the Doctor landed it in 1963 London even though it's not an exact match for the surroundings (what's a police box doing in a junkyard, we seem to have forgotten to ask), and then "breaks down", probably knowingly, to stay in that shape. Maybe it's been signaling its old friend all these centuries to remember what's been forgotten. (She might have said something in The Doctor's Wife, but the concept of sequence is so confusing.)

Another mystery that might be solved using the Timeless Child revelation is the whole question of the Hybrid that was a Time Lord bogeyman and of interest to the Daleks. Did anyone really buy the explanation that it was "Me" because of that alien patch? That it was Me and Clara? The Doctor and Clara even though they're two people. Well now we find out they depowered the original Doctor so he would have only 12 regenerations. How? Could hybridization have been the means? How about genetically splicing him with a human being? That's right, it would make the Doctor the Hybrid of legend (all that's left of the story of the Timeless Child, long erased from the Matrix) AND coincidentally the half-human of the TV Movie? Step too far? One thing we can't say of The Timeless Children is that it didn't make us think!

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - It looks gorgeous, a lot happens and is revealed, and it will likely be important down the line (certainly opens up avenues for extracanonical stories), but if it didn't have those big reveals and brain-blowing questions, I would only consider it a Medium. The Cyberman plot is made to serve a different master (ha!) and it's far from the game-changer it purports to be.


daft said...

Well, Chibnall certainly answered the question of whether he's a fan or creative first. ;D

Anything that re-frames the Timelord mythology is certainly welcomed here, whether they're the celestial beings of the Troughton era, or the quarrelling, fusty academics of the Deadly Assassin, or whatever they were supposed to be in the Nu-Hu era, they've never been a vivid, vital presence onscreen. As fans we obviously want to know more, but when we're presented with the reality we want their uncomfortable presence to go away as swiftly as possible, because they've never lived up to the hype. In an RPG adventure I ran a while back I'd posited that they'd simply stolen the technology from an even more ancient, now extinct race and passed it off as their own technology, so in a roundabout fashion, that's pretty much what has happened here, undercutting their lofty exalted status. I'm not a fan of the 'chosen one' style narrative elevation of the Doctor, but I can't deny that it finally gives some context to the Master's ongoing passive-aggressiveness. I also like the addition of The Division for the same basic reasons as listed above. Every time now that the Timelords call upon the Doctor for help, it provides for an additional layer of intrigue as to whether it's actually in her best interests or not.

I liked the inclusion of the Brain of Morbius Doctors for entirely different reasons to most, those stridently advocating that anything that undermines Hartnell status as the original doctor have long since ignored that particular scene, I'm sure it's inclusion was a big, personal F.U. moment for Chibnall. :) Any long running series has any number of contradictions within it, why anyone would waste precious time coming up with elaborate fixes, or even whole wilderness years novels, always seemed like a ridiculous level of pedantry to me. I look forward to Philip Hinchcliffe next Big Finish series, move aside TOM. And slightly lament that we didn't get to see Douglas Camfield Doctor in ACTION!


As for this series, if I'd had the choice of female Doctors, there probably would have been a long line of British Actresses in front of Jodie, but I can't deny that she's certainly grown into the role this season. From the commentary online, people want her to be more active and central to proceedings, there's a certain joy in seeing someone hold court doctor-style, but it can end up becoming a bit one note. I like that she's been given a little bit of character work to be getting on with instead, a bit like the First Doctor actually.

The companions have been pretty poorly serviced again this season, three is just too many, there's a reason Carole Ann Ford moved on from her role fifty years ago, will they never learn. Even with two companions, invariably the writers' pick a favourite to service.

Chibnall was far from my personal pick for showrunner, give me Toby Whithouse any day, but he's certainly a more interesting prospect than some of the other likely suspects, but I've always found his writing workmanlike. He's certainly improved his pacing skills this season, his 'travelogue' addition to his standard storytelling techniques has added a certain spice to the mix, but there are still heavy exposition moments like between the Doctor and Master in the Matrix. I'm also slightly dismayed that he's quietly stepped away from his general approach towards the last series (realistic villains/low status doctor) towards a more American genre style approach favoured latterly by Moffat. For better or worse I always like to see a singular vision up on screen. You get the feeling he's naively trying to mollify the people who were outspoken about his tenure from the very start.

Siskoid said...

And those people may well include his BBC masters, for all we know.

Yes, three has proven too many. It need not have been, but the writing hasn't been able to make it work. Watch for a whittling down of the cast in the next series (that's as far as I'll go with spoilers, but announcements have been made).

daft said...

Given the bounce in last series ratings, I doubt there would have been too much commentary coming from the BBC Execs, maybe from BBC Studios, concerned about potential harm to merchandising sales. I get the feeling in any event that DW was merely the inducement to get Chibnall across to the BBC, hoping he'd sooner or later get around to creating a follow-up popular detective show to Broadchurch. You know, real drama. ;)

I was surprised when online stories started filtering through that the companions weren't entirely done yet. If we are to take it on face value, it kind of suggests that Yaz sticks around. Perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that she never quite got a fair go, the first time around. ;)

Surely, it means there will be a quite awkward scene when the Doctor confronts them admitting that she's not quite dead, and that she let Ko Sharmus take the fall because he absolutely insisted. :P Along with the near complete devastation of the human race in the future, the extinction of Gallifrey, and you'd have to start wondering whether the noble rhetoric quite matches the actual reality. :|

Anonymous said...

I could do without the revelation that the Doctor is somehow not a normal Time Lord. The problem in my head is that we don't know what other abilities the Timeless Child might have that ordinary Time Lords don't, and that becomes a hat that writers can unwisely pull rabbits out of.

My head-canon on the whole thing is:

1) the Timeless Child is an augmented human being;

2) the Gallifreyans are likewise human beings but they forgot their history;

3) the number of regenerations is lockable / unlockable, not just on the Doctor but on all Gallifreyans.

LiamKav said...

To pick just one thing out of the many talking points... One thing I've noticed is that while Chibs has made an admirable attempt to make the show more diverse, inclusive, and, yes, "woke", he doesn't realise the extra effort that comes with that. So many situations keep saying the wrong thing. We need Yaz to clear a street, but she gets ignored. Don't worry though, an old white guy is here to do it! The Master is now a non-white guy, so let's use racism against him! And now we decide to fit an abused background on to the Doctor right when she's being played by a woman for the first time.

A lot of problems with talking about this story is that fans aren't arguing with each other so much as arguing with things they think the other fans are saying. So for me, I didn't like it, but not because of the revelations. I worry about the show looking inwards. As one wag put on Twitter, finally with these revelations Chibs has expanded the scope of a show that, until now, was limited to only the whole of time and space.

Further thoughts might follow when I don't have to type on my phone. 😀

LiamKav said...

One other thing... People have been talking about how this hurts the mythology of the Timelords as both a good and bad thing, but the Time Lords have always been portrayed as extremely dodgy. I can 100% believe that they appropriated regeneration from another race, but it's not an exciting revelation because it doesn't change anything, both for us and also how the Doctor views them.

"In all my travelling throughout the universe I have battled against evil, against power mad conspirators. I should have stayed here. The oldest civilisation: decadent, degenerate, and rotten to the core. Power mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans... Cybermen, they're still in the nursery compared to us. Ten million years of absolute power. That's what it takes to be really corrupt."


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