Contains major spoilers and scattershot speculation
So, that happened. Now the only questions that remain are exactly what did happen, where did it all came from, and what it means for the future. And does the final outcome live up to the pre-broadcast hype that ‘everything changes’?
Certainly you could hardly get more night and day than this year’s run of episodes compared with its season 11 predecessor. When Chris Chibnall took over the reins of the show, the declared intention was to make Doctor Who open and accessible to all once again. It planned to do so by doing away with the disconcertingly convoluted timey-wimey plots spanning one or more seasons, dispensing with recurring characters, adversaries and monsters, and cutting out the relentless deep-dives into the series history that had hallmarked Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner. While well-intentioned, the end result was somewhat divisive with many fans unhappy with season 11’s sudden change of direction, leaving them feeling that the approach had resulted in a run of disconnected and fragmented episodes that lacked dramatic heft. Whether they were right in this verdict or not, the question today is whether this adverse fan response to season 11 resulted in a major rethink in approach by Chibnall and his production team, or whether it was always the plan all along to go down this entirely different road in 2020. I suspect it’ll be a long time before we know the truth of the matter either way.
What’s beyond doubt is that this series has gone all-in on bringing back familiar characters and monsters and complex plotting, and most of all using the series’ own continuity to a degree that even Moffat would likely have baulked at. The season finale leaned heavily for inspiration on three seminal stories from the 1970s, and on the never-realised plans for the show that were cut off by the series being cancelled (or: never actually renewed) at the end of 1989. Let’s take each of these influences in turn.
Perhaps the biggest foundation stone for “The Timeless Children” is the 1976 serial “The Deadly Assassin”. It was the first extended visit the show ever made to the Doctor’s home world of Gallfrey, and introduced the structure of Time Lord society as well as key locations such as the Citadel and Panopticon, not to mention the virtual reality of the Matrix (eight years before William Gibson used the same name for his central cyberspace concept in Neuromancer, and two decades before The Matrix films ran with it in 1999). Here we’re reacquainted to all those places, albeit in ruins as the Master (Sacha Dhawan) proudly shows off his destructive handiwork to the shocked Doctor (Jodie Whittaker). We’re even reminded of the existence of the Shabogan, the indigenous life form of the planet before the Time Lords, first name-checked in “The Deadly Assassin” and given somewhat more prominence (albeit as the ‘Outsiders’) in the 1978 follow-up “The Invasion of Time”, but thereafter covered more in spin-off prose than on screen. The exact nature of the relationship between the Shabogan and the Time Lords has always been rather hazy, and this week’s story dealt with it head-on. It’s hard to believe that there was a large group of fans out there desperately clamouring for this obscure issue to be addressed, but then again you never can tell.
The other story that “The Timeless Children” directly references is “Brain of Morbius”. At the time this was just one of a run of superior gothic horror-inspired stories at the height of Tom Baker’s success in the title role. Significantly it includes a now-notorious scene in which the Doctor and renegade Time Lord Morbius conduct a mental duel to the death. Behind them is a screen that charts who is winning by depicting their previous incarnations, with pictures of Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell duly making their expected appearances. After that are a number of unfamiliar faces; in fact, photographs of members of the production team including producer Philip Hinchcliffe, writers Robert Holmes and Robert Banks Stewart, and directors Christopher Barry, Douglas Camfield and Graeme Harper. These were retrospectively brushed aside by fans as being depictions of Morbius’ former selves, but the explicit intention of the producers at the time was to hint that the Doctor had worn many different faces before the officially acknowledged canonical ‘first’ embodied by Hartnell. This idea has been embraced by Chibnall and is the heart of his script for “The Timeless Children” – and lest you think it’s just a coincidence, note the prominence of a number of the ‘Morbius Doctors’ in the memory burst of stock footage (very effectively accompanied by the main theme music playing on the soundtrack) that the Doctor uses to break free of her psychic entrapment in the Matrix.
All of this is in support of a major overhaul of the series’ central canon. And yet even here, the moment had been prepared for, the central idea behind it put in place over 30 years ago. The classic show’s final script editor Andrew Cartmel had been keen to restore some of the magic to the character of the Doctor, who he thought had lost his mystique after his origins had been laid bare in successive stories including the aforementioned “The Deadly Assassin” and “The Invasion of Time”. Cartmel therefore planted the seeds of a revision to Gallifrey history in which alongside established iconic characters such as Rassilon and Omega there was also an ‘Other’ figure, one that played a crucial but unacknowledged role in the founding of Time Lord society. The implication was that this would turn out to be the Doctor, who would therefore be revealed as being much older and more significant than he had ever previously appeared – not just an ‘ordinary’ Time Lord after all, but something much greater.
This is essentially what we got in the big reveal of “The Timeless Children”: far from being just a Time Lord, or the last of the Time Lords, or even the Time Lord Victorious, the Doctor is also effectively the first of the Time Lords. She’s older than all of them, effectively the mother of the race through the incorporation of her regenerative DNA into the genetic make-up of all those who followed – presumably a splice that’s also responsible for the Time Lords’ distinctive biological pattern and trademark two hearts as well. It’s the idea that he owes a key piece of his own biological existence to the Doctor which proves to be the final straw for the Master. Never all that stable in the first place, this new awareness that something deep inside him is from the Doctor tips him completely over the edge and the reason why he wipes out his home world.
In contrast, far from destroying the Doctor, the revelations actually empower her: she is still the person she always was, but now there is much more to her than even she knew or believed. While it’s a great moment of self-actualisation for the Doctor, the introduction of genetic modification can’t help but lend a slightly unsettling undercurrent of eugenics under the surface of what’s being said. She proclaims herself to be so much more than the Master, meaning on a purely personal level, but it’s a boast that is given an accidental racial edge to it by the ethnically diverse nature of the casting of the main roles, making it a little uncomfortable to watch. I’m sure it’s not intended in that way at all – Chibnall and his team have been extremely sensitive to such issues to date, almost to a fault – but it’s something that nags at the back of one’s mind as the episode plays out. Maybe this sense of hubris is indeed a facet of the Doctor’s new elevated status that will be picked up on in the future.
For now, though, what this episode’s revelations do manage to achieve successfully is to restore the Doctor to being a genuinely ‘mysterious alien’ whose true origins we – and even the Doctor herself – know nothing about. It also changes the Doctor’s own physical nature since she appears to have unlimited incarnations available, unlike the rest of the Time Lords who have been artificially capped at just 12. It’s a much more imaginative approach to the problem of the show’s unprecedented longevity than the one that Moffat came up with in “The Time of the Doctor”, which I always thought was a disappointingly pedestrian solution to the problem of the Doctor having effectively reached end-of-life status back in 2013.
But at the same time it’s a stretch to say that ‘everything changes’ as a result of the episode, as everything that had already been established in canon essentially remains in place. It’s still entirely true to call the Doctor a Time Lord, for example – although perhaps the Time Lord might be closer to the reality. We don’t have to throw away all our reference books quite yet, although inevitably some fans won’t be happy with this latest turn of events and I’ve already heard grumbling along the lines that it’s somehow ‘disrespectful’ to the memory of William Hartnell to imply that he is no longer ‘the First Doctor’ but was preceded by unknown countless others. That seems like a petty and naive objection; no one is going to forget the huge debt that Doctor Who owes to Hartnell as the man who originated the role.
In any case, fandom has been girding itself for this revelation ever since the “Fugitive of the Judoon” where it was soon deduced that the Ruth-Doctor was a hitherto unknown incarnation preceding Hartnell. That theory is implicitly confirmed here, but even though Jo Martin makes the expected ‘surprise’ return this week she does so only as a manifestation of the current Doctor’s psyche. It means she can offer no new information to clear up the main problem fans had with her introduction vis-à-vis how she can be in possession of a Tardis disguised as a London police box, when it only took that form after the First Doctor stole it and hid away in a junk yard in “An Unearthly Child”? Counter theories have arisen that she might better fit into a different gap in the Doctor’s timeline between the Troughton and Pertwee incarnations when she might have been recruited to the clandestine Division that carried out covert interventions in galactic affairs specifically forbidden by Time Lord laws (presumably a darker precursor of the Celestial Intervention Agency also introduced in “The Deadly Assassin”).
However this is resolved, it’s an example of how for every answer or revelation we get in “The Timeless Children”, it immediately spawns another four of five questions that we want to discuss. I can see it taking a few years before we’re anywhere near a consensus on the repercussions of what we’ve seen this season. And that’s generally a good thing, because any long-running series needs to be jostled out of its status quo from time to time if it’s to continue to be a living, breathing thing of the future and not a dead, dusty museum relic. Meanwhile to its credit the story does offer entirely reasonable explanations for last week’s odd, seemingly inconsistent behaviour of the Cyberman and the mirky role of the Cyberium that I groused about in my previous review. There’s even a fairly decent explanation of those jarring Ireland cutaway sequences (they are a fictionalised ‘patch’ in the Matrix offering seemingly innocuous content that at the same time alludes to what it conceals about the history of the Timeless Child.) However a number of other issues, such as why the Boundary keeps opening up at Gallifrey or how the Master decimated the planet while still keeping the bodies of the Time Lords handily available in stasis, are left hanging.
As for how it fared as a piece of television entertainment, I’d say that the 65-minute extended episode was largely a success and certainly a match for the first part a week ago, if not to the exemplary standard of “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” before that. Having already played its biggest shock cards in earlier episodes and now needing to focus on paying off those plot points in a responsible manner, it also wasn’t able to achieve the same dramatic punch as “Spyfall” or “Fugitive of the Judoon” did.
One of the problems with this episode is that there are an awful lot of one-on-one talkie sequences where characters are having to sit down and tell each other things at great length. With all due respect to Whittaker who does fine work here herself, most of those scenes are comprehensively stolen by Dhawan’s Master. I found his performance to be absolutely magnificent and a match for anyone who has ever been in the show. It was the sort of quixotic, volatile display that I simply couldn’t take my eyes off for even one second of every scene he was in. Even though he’s entirely over the top, the portrayal is always grounded by a darkness that makes him feel incredibly dangerous and disturbed. Perhaps the most effective moment for the character is when he attacks the Lone Cyberman (Patrick O’Kane) not knowing whether this will result in the release of a deadly pathogen that will unquestionably kill him at the same time. His evident disappointment when he finds out that it hasn’t, meaning he’s got to carry on, makes plain an earnest death wish which is shocking and yet at the same time still relatable, showing him to be simultaneously a monster and a damaged little boy.
O’Kane continues to be highly effective as the chief Cyber threat, making the sudden downsizing of his role midway through the episode all the more shocking as one would have hoped to see a little more of him in the future. As for the rest of the guest cast, the human survivors we met last week – Ravio (Julie Graham), Yedlami (Alex Austin), Ethan (Matt Carver) and Bescat (Rhiannon Clements) – barely get a line of dialogue between them and might as well not have been present at all. Faring slightly better is grizzled war veteran Ko Sharmus (Ian McElhinney) delighting in having one last chance to blow some things up before he dies, and looking rather like Alec Guinness prowling around the Death Star as he does so. The character’s ethos that “you can be a pacifist tomorrow; today you have to survive” is also a nice corrective to the Doctor’s increasing tendency to be aggressively anti-violence. It’s a relatively newly-acquired trait that goes back to the early days of the 2005 reboot, but which has picked up more pace in the last three or four series to the point where the Doctor has become overtly rude and dismissive to entirely honourable military figures, and recently refusing to allow her companions to even pick up a gun. While admirable, it can also lbe a bit stifling in a show that was originally formulated to be a cheerful action-adventure romp. In this respect Ko Sharmus is a bad influence on Ryan (Tosin Cole) who gets to tote a laser blaster and show off his “Spyfall”-acquired basketball skills by accurately throwing a bomb to wipe out an entire Cyber execution squad.
Talking of the regular cast, there’s also a lovely scene between Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Yaz (Mandeep Gill) in which he tells her how proud and admiring he is of the person she has become since they started their travels. Graham’s primary connection in the series has traditionally been with his step-grandson, so to see this shared moment between him and Yaz is actually a beautiful touch (as is his dismayed reaction when her response is so short if no less heartfelt!) It’s almost as though Chibnall is apologising to the character and actress for not giving her nearly enough quality material to work with, at least not until the most recent three or four episodes. Even so, Yaz’ character is perhaps even more keenly evoked in the sequence where the team are debating whether or not to cross the Boundary and travel to Gallifrey, and Graham asks who will go first? The jump cut to Yaz already three-quarters of the way across is both a nice sight gag, and at the same time a perfect display of who Yaz is as a person.
Another scene that could have been inadvertently funny – actually, very silly if done wrongly – is the moment when the team follows Graham’s suggestion to hide in suits of Cyber armour. Some fans might dismiss this very idea as ludicrous, but it’s only following a precedent laid down by Ian Chesterton in a 1964 episode of the very first Dalek story, and director Jamie Magnus Stone orchestrates a nerve-wracking face-off between the faux Cybermen and Ashad that is one of the tensest moments of the entire episode.
Otherwise, though, the adventures of Graham, Yaz and Ryan (and the other tagalong humans) are there to inject some much-needed relief moments of action and excitement into the proceedings, which otherwise are very dialogue- and exposition-heavy. There is also come excellent CGI FX on show here which must have consumed a large proportion of the episode’s budget, with the destruction of the Cybercarrier and its collapse onto the remains of the Citadel particularly effective and among the best the show has achieved, establishing this story as a classy work of grand space opera. However the final scenes where the Doctor has to decide whether to press the button on a doomsday weapon did feel rather too like the events of “The Day of the Doctor”, and her decision not to become like the ones she despises rather too akin to the resolution to a similar dilemma faced by the Ninth Doctor in his final outing. That she eventually outsources the task to a willing third party and quickly legs it to safety herself frankly doesn’t really cast her in a great light.
Regardless of this the episode is a solid success, although ‘everything changes’ remains something of an overstatement. We also don’t get the satisfying sense of end-of-season closure we were expecting – we are no nearer learning whether Ryan, Yaz and Graham will be staying with the Doctor in season 13, for example. But maybe that will prove to be the purpose of the now-confirmed Christmas/New Year festive special “Revolution of the Daleks”. Instead, here we get a very Russell T Davies-style coda to the season finale in which the Doctor, alone in the Tardis, is suddenly interrupted (“What? What?! WHAT?!”) by a platoon of Judoon (in the orbit of the Moon, perhaps?) arresting her for unspecified crimes and misdemeanours by one of her newly acknowledged pre-incarnations, and placed in a high security detention facility that arguably bears a passing resemblance to the notorious Time Lord prison world called Shada.
It’s not, of course. That would be daft. The show would never delve into its most obscure, arcane past continuity to revive geek-obsessive details like that, now would it?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Photos: © BBC
Doctor Who S12 episode 10 originally aired on BBC One on Sunday March 1 2020 at 6:55pm, and available thereafter on BBC iPlayer for 11 months. DVD and Blu-ray boxsets of the full season will be released on April 20.