Doctor Who: The Timeless Children

"Brace yourself. This is going to hurt."

So, nothing controversial there, then...

So many spoilers below the jump.

This is probably going to rattle on a bit, and I apologize in advance. I can only say that there's a lot to process here and beg your indulgence.

The Big Twist/Retcon:

The Doctor is 'The Timeless Child,' who fell through a mysterious void as a small child back at the beginning of time, and had a mysterious power to regenerate which led to that ability being harvested from her and given to all Time Lords. She (occasionally he) worked for a faction of the Time Lords who believed in intervening in the universe called 'The Division,' but eventually wanted to escape from working for them and hid herself on Earth as Ruth. Later, she (or possibly he) was eventually returned to Gallifrey somehow and rebooted as the first Doctor, as played by William Hartnell. We all up to speed now?



It's hard to know where to even start with this one, so let's start with an essential truth about Doctor Who, the TV show. It's been going on a long time. And at various intervals it's radically changed itself in such a way that the current fanbase completely freaked out about it.

This isn't a criticism of the fanbase or a comment on the validity of the freakouts. It's just an observation.

What I'm saying is, while I actively avoid seeing any online reaction to these episodes before I write my review, I can with certainty tell you that a large percentage of the fanbase is in complete rage meltdown over this episode. I can also tell you specifically why they feel that way. If I'm being honest with myself, when I was a bit younger I would have 100% been one of them. Again, not a criticism, just an observation that my perspective has mellowed a bit over the years.

It's worth asking ourselves at this point what exactly it means to be a passionate fan of a show, because that's at the heart of what we're talking about. It's at the heart of what I would have hated about this episode's revelations as recently as ten years ago. Being a fan of something like Doctor Who has a strong component of being simultaneously fiercely protective and reflexively proprietorial about it. Simply put, you want it to be perfect, and you want it to be more yours than it is anyone else's. That's the exact thing that fans of the original series had to grapple with when the show found its new international fame under the Tennant and Smith years. We resented the fans that came new to the show, because we had spent so many years defending the show as 'ours.'  Sharing it with newcomers felt like being forced to share part of your own personal identity with people who hadn't 'earned it.'

Another factor is that there are a number of TV shows and films that tend to inspire their fans to adopt the values of the show/film as part of their own moral makeup. Doctor Who is one, Star Trek is another, Star Wars yet another. We take the lessons they teach and make them the core of our worldview.  Lead with optimism. Don't give in to cynicism. Explore and learn, instead of conquering. Stand up for what's right and don't give in to the idea that the ends justify the means. These are all positive messages. And given that these properties were often first encountered and embraced by young people who felt ostracized, excluded, or left out, it's easy to see how anything that appears to be undermining the show would be perceived as an attack on an essential, core part of who we are as a person.

A fundamental change to the 'truth' of a show almost always feels like an attack on who you are as a person, to a passionate fan of the material.

That's not a shortcoming, or a criticism of anyone who feels that way. That's just an essential truth about how we relate to media.

So, with all that said, it might be helpful to briefly mention two previous instances of what's more or less this exact same thing. The first one came in 1996, when the Paul McGann TV movie went out of its way to mention that the Doctor was 'Half-human. On my mother's side.' Now, this was just barely pre-internet, so the outrage wasn't as immediately available and couldn't get as tribal, but believe me – it was a thing. And I was absolutely on the 'this has ruined the show' side of the debate. Anyone who's upset about this week's revelation can possibly take a bit of solace from how thoroughly we've thrown that particular revelation out. But it is technically still in the canon.

The second, and more relevant example, happened back in 1976 in 'The Deadly Assassin.' Fans were livid at the time because the Time Lords as shown were absolutely nothing like anytime we'd seen them before. They were petty, and flawed, and bureaucratic. They weren't the monk-like all powerful mystics we'd always seen before. And everyone hated it. These days, 'Deadly Assassin' is usually hailed as one of the best stories ever, because it pretty much is – as a story in and of itself. It was written by Robert Holmes, who couldn't write a bland character if he tried, and if you hadn't cared about the continuity of the show when it aired you would have enjoyed a well paced and clever script (albeit one that's let down a lot by the fourth episode and the special effect budget, but you can't have everything).

Chibnall clearly has 'Deadly Assassin' on his mind in this script, as he references it at least a dozen times. The Shobogans, the Panopticon chamber, and so many more. It's clear what he's doing, he's underlining all the instances in which there's an established, canon argument to be made that his big twist had always been the case and we just hadn't had it revealed yet. Wondered who those Shobogens were that got a quick mention? Oh, they were Gallifrey's original species, left behind by the self-augmented ones that rechristened themselves 'Time Lords.'  Those other faces we saw in 'Brain of Morbius?' Well, actually, maybe we should give a quick explanation of that one...

In the 1975 story, 'The Brain of Morbius,' the Doctor engages in a mindbending contest with the rebuilt body of an evil Timelord named Morbius. What this amounted to in practice was a series of still photos of the previous Doctors being shown as Morbius 'forced him back along his own timeline.' The interesting hitch being that after the picture of William Hartnell we were treated to another six or so different faces intended to be 'earlier Doctors.'  In reality these were actually most of the production crew having a bit of fun dressing up as their version of 'The Doctor' and pretending to be incarnations who had existed before William Hartnell. This was clearly just them having a bit of fun. The whole 'only twelve regenerations' rule hadn't been made up yet for another year, and nobody ever bothered to claim that William Hartnell was the first incarnation until 'The Five Doctors,' nearly a decade later.

Continuity was a very different beast back when television was unrepeatable and home video wasn't a thing.

What I'm saying is that it's not a coincidence that Chibnall included that cutaway to the face montage from 'Brain of Morbius' in this episode's big reveal. He was very clearly saying, 'look, there's a precedent for this.' Similarly, the Doctor has not one but two separate conversations toward the end of this episode about why we shouldn't get worked up about this reveal. Doctor Ruth says, 'When have you ever been defined by what you were before?' And she's not wrong. The Doctor says to the Master, 'You haven't made me less, you've made me more,' and that's also not wrong. Everything we already knew about the Doctor is still true. There's just a bit more before that that we didn't know about. I'm OK with that.  But I totally get it if you're not.

One of my main disappointments with series 11 was that nothing in it felt particularly significant. Not that smaller scale stories are bad, it just all felt so lightweight that I never really engaged on a deeper level. That is not a criticism of series 12, regardless of how you feel about the twist. They went for it in a big way, knowing that a substantial part of the fanbase would hate it, and I can't help but respect that.

Look, it all comes back to something I mentioned previously about concept versus execution. I'm absolutely certain that a lot of people hate the concept that this episode is built around. But it was executed well.

Not to say that there aren't a few things that I think are genuine problems with it. Establishing Doctors before William Hartnell feels disrespectful to him. A great deal of the show's success rests on his shoulders, and I think a lot of the backlash against this episode is going to come under this particular complaint. I get it. I don't really disagree. But we all know that regardless of what's going on in the fictional narrative, none of that can change what happened in the narrative of reality, and in that he's definitely the First Doctor without whom the show wouldn't have made it.

Ruth's TARDIS being a Police Box doesn't entirely make sense, since we're led to believe that it only got stuck in that shape in 'An Unearthly Child.'  That complaint is a little pedantic, and they could probably write around it if they felt the need to bother, but it still exists.

I was disappointed that the new Master's existence wasn't related to the 'unknown Doctor's' existence. But we have a lot of precedent for the Master being definitively killed off and then coming back without any real explanation, so that wasn't a huge problem for me.

In other facets of the episode – the Cybermen continue to be scarier than they've been in a long time, and I absolutely adore the new take on the classic 'Earthshock' model. The 'Death Particle' kind of comes out of nowhere, but it's functional enough as a plot device. I think it was a mistake to kill off a villain as interesting as Ashad that early in the episode, particularly as there's so much we still don't know about him. And the Master giving the corpse of Gallifrey to the Cybermen feels both properly obscene and in keeping with the kind of plot the Master would make.

A lot of good stuff here. All of which is going to be lost beneath the debate over the big retcon, which is a shame.



Bits and Pieces:

-- There's still a sizable gap between the Ruth Doctor and whatever happens to get the Doctor's life rebooted on Gallifrey. I would happily watch more adventures of Jo Martin's Doctor in any format.

-- Graham and Yaz don't usually get a lot of time to bond, and their scene together here was beautiful. Graham's speech about why Yaz is a hero might be my favorite thing he's ever done.

-- I'm probably in the minority, but I really liked the explanation of what that whole Brendan plotline was about last week. It was a thin veneer painted over the Doctor's actual remaining fragmented memories of the early times. I like that they didn't overexplain it.

-- Back in the 80s, Andrew Cartmel had a thing called 'The Cartmel Masterplan' which was devised to restore the mystery about who exactly the Doctor was. It never got to play out on screen, and the ultimate answers given were a little stupid, but Lungbarrow is still a pretty good book and worth checking out. I feel like Chibnall had that same goal and actually succeeded in it.

-- Was that rift thing that the Timeless Child fell through the same as the one the refugees were heading toward? It was similar enough that it felt weird that it didn't get mentioned.

-- The set for the Matrix room that the Doctor and the Master had their conversation in was a lovely nod to the set design from 'Deadly Assassin.'  So much so that I don't know why they didn't say it was the Panopticon, instead of specifying it was the next room over.

-- Phillip Hinchcliff and Robert Holmes are both canonically official Doctors now. That's reason enough to embrace this episode in my book.

-- Am I mistaken, or did all of future humanity get killed off while we were focused on other things?

-- I'm not sure how I felt about the Cyber-Timelord cowls. Were they beautiful or ridiculous? I honestly don't know.

-- Sacha Dhawan got all the best lines in this one. As you'll see in the quotes section.

-- If the next episode isn't until at least New Year, I could have lived without such an overt cliffhanger.

-- 'Live Great Lives' was a direct callback to the very best moment of the Eccleston era.

-- I feel like it should have been harder to clean out a cyber suit to use as a costume. And that if you did so the lasers shouldn't work. But it was shot atmospherically enough, and the reveal later done well enough, that I didn't mind it.



Quotes:

The Master: "Good luck, humans."

Ko Sharmus: "You can be a pacifist tomorrow. Today you have to survive."

The Master: "Whoa, you look rough. Or is that a choice? Don’t mean to conversion shame you."

The Master: "Promise I’ll roll out the red carpet. It’s red because it’s drenched in the blood of our people."

Yaz: "That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me. You’re not such a bad human either."
Graham: "Not so… is that it? I’ve just said all those lovely things about you and that’s all you give me? You’re not such a bad human?"
Yaz: "Mate, I’m from Yorkshire. That’s a love letter."

Doctor: "Why would you give Gallifrey to the Cybermen?"
Master: "You’re about to have much bigger things to think about."


I'm sure I'm in the minority, but I really respect what they tried to do here, and they executed it well. I'm not going to tell anybody that being upset about the upending of Doctor Who mythos is wrong, I totally get why people are going to feel that way. But personally, I'd rather think about the interesting implications than feel attacked by it.

I can't even give this a score, it's just too big an idea to be expressed numerically. You're either going to hate it for what it ends up saying, or be interested in it by how it says it. It's as simple as that.

Neither response, for the record, is wrong.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

11 comments:

Ida said...

This is an episode that hits you more the longer you sit on it, I think. I was excited while I was watching it. To a reasonable level. A couple of hours later my head was realing with revelation after revelation. A day later, I was amazed to discover just how neatly it fits into the continuity, it answers more questions that it raises. And it does raise a lot of them. Watching Classic who alongside the new series (up to season 18 now!) definitely adds more appreciation to me to the storytelling Chinball was trying to pull off in here. Now, the episode seems pretty much perfect, with only a minor blemish - I don't feel I quite get why Master finding out the where Time Lords got their regenerative abilities from caused him to spiral off quite so deep. I can headcanon it away (boy, can I headcanon it away, with such a fertile ground), but it feels like there is still more to the story, so much he hasn't told us.

Aaaaah, I still want to scream about the episode, but a lot of it is going to be incoherent. I can't wait to watch it five more times, alongside with the rest of the season, even rewatching season 11, just to get the full impact. Chinball is definitely not a sprinter, he is a marathoner. I do feel like it would have been hard to pull off as big of an impact with this season without the previous, because it was necessary to establish the ground level before it is possible to recontextualize it. I am shivering at the thought of what he is going to do next season. Next episode is such a long time away...

With the TARDIS, a fun way of thinking about it is that the Doctor always steals (is stolen by) the same ship. And the TARDIS constantly breaks her chameleon circuit on the first journey to the same default appearance. When Ruth was eventually recaptured, the circuit got "fixed", but in An Unearthly Child, TARDIS used the first opportunity she got to put herself back exactly as she likes it.

There haven't been a lot of negativity about the episode in the main tag of tumblr. There are so so many headcanons flying around, so many people just absorbing what has happened, bubbling at the surface, and trying to connect it to all the lore, with all the gifs to support various theories. Reddit, on the other hand... yeesh, one can barely say anything positive without being downvoted into obscurity. I'm just going to steer clear of it for a while.

migmit said...

Ruth's TARDIS being a police box might be harder to write around — I remember in the very first episode Hartnell wonders why it's NOW stuck as a police box — thus implying it wasn't previously.
And another problem: when Clara went into the Doctor's timeline, there was no mention of his previous regenerations. They later discussed his regeneration history, explaining why 11 is the last one, and it's pretty clear Clara did not see more.
But overall, it's a nice season finale, not as good IMHO as the previous episode, but still good. Jodie firmly established herself as my second favorite Doctor (sorry, but no, not the first place), and I don't really understand what people are complaining about.

TheShadowKnows said...

"I don't feel I quite get why Master finding out the where Time Lords got their regenerative abilities from caused him to spiral off quite so deep."

What I took from his ranting was that he was psychotically jealous to find out that the Doctor really was "special" (and also that part of him came from the Doctor) and more or less torched Gallifrey in a fit of pique. It had nothing to do with any moral outrage at what the Time Lords had done (as some of his remarks in the second episode of the season seemed to imply) - not surprisingly, since a) the Master probably doesn't do moral outrage and b) nothing the Time Lords did in this case seemed particularly heinous to me (the Time Lords did many much worse things that we already knew about).

Katie Hart - Pinterest Manager said...

(Part 1) I applaud Chibnall for trying something new, but to be honest, these new revelations connect to only a few bits of past lore while driving a bulldozer over the rest. It's like he's trying so hard to be clever that he doesn't care what effect his changes have on the show's history or future.

What I don't like about the changes:

1. They ruin past significant moments. River giving up her regenerations to save the Doctor. The Time Lords granting the Doctor more regenerations. Gallifrey being saved only to be destroyed again.

2. Way too many coincidences need to occur to make things actually work logically. The Timeless Child just happens to have almost the same physiology as the Shobogens, down to the two hearts, and/or the gene splicing alters them enough that there is almost no difference between them, enough that the Doctor can have children and grandchildren? The TARDIS gets stuck as a police box for both Ruth and Hartnell? The Doctor chooses the name the Doctor twice? In all the years traveling in time and space, the pre-Hartnell Doctor NEVER met any of the Doctors we know until Fugitive of the Judoon? If River Song's DNA wasn't altered to be more like the Time Lords by being conceived in the Time Vortex (and then further altered), how was she able to regenerate? (It took Tecteun a lifetime to unlock the genetic secret with the Doctor there to experiment on.)

3. It undermines the Doctor as a character. What made the Doctor different from the Time Lords was his/her compassion and willingness to interfere with history to set things right. Now the Doctor's "difference" is a genetic rather than a moral one. It plays to all the troupes of a "chosen one" instead of the ordinary person who made the choice to be different. People were always complaining about the companions being made "too special" during RTD and Moffat's runs, now Chibnall's done the same thing to the Doctor, who was already special and unique enough.

Katie Hart - Pinterest Manager said...

(Part 2) I don't absolutely hate all of the changes. I like Doctor-centric episodes, and having more history to explore is cool. But there's a way to add without taking away, which unfortunately Chibnall doesn't seem to be able to do. Moffat did that very well, particularly with the 50th anniversary (Gallifrey saved without taking away the emotional impact of its loss on 9, 10, and 11) and the Name of the Doctor (sending Clara back through the Doctor's timeline to protect his past - which is another bit that contradicts this new Timeless Child reveal in that neither Clara nor the Doctor see the vast hidden past).

The Master resenting the Doctor even more due to finding this out makes sense. The CyberMasters do not. How did he kill them in such a way that they were unable to regenerate - but able to regenerate later on? While their look was cool, when did the Master have time to build them?

And other things to question - (previous episode) why did the Doctor try to stop the Cybermen when there were only a dozen humans left? Is Gallifrey now gone for good? The Doctor backing down from using the Death Particle had shades of 9 in "The Parting of the Ways" - but then is completely undermined by her letting Ko Sharmus do the deed.

In my option, this was a neat idea that was poorly executed. Sure, Chibnall pulls in some classic Who as justification for his twist - but he stomps all over the RTD and Moffat eras, which is when the majority of the fan base right now found the show. It would be interesting to see a poll, judging reactions to this twist based on which era fans found the show.

It's like Chibnall saw all of the past "big reveals" and just wanted to one-up them. The Doctor is half-human? No, he/she is an entirely different race! The Doctor has a hidden regeneration? No, there are an unlimited number of them! Gallifrey was saved during the Time War? No, now let's wipe out every living thing on the planet so it can never come back! The Time Lords gifted the Doctor more regenerations? No, he didn't need them! The Time Lords erased the secrets of time travel from the Doctor's mind? No, they erased his/her entire memory of dozens of past lives.

Where does the show go from here? It's hard to see that Chibnall can top this as far as twists go, but at least there's a lot of mystery to unravel for the new series. This series was far better than series 11, but still very lacking compared to past series. I can hope that the next one continues to improve (if Chibnall can actually learn to have a moral to a story without hitting people over the head with preachiness), but I still feel like the show won't be really good until we get someone else in charge.

sunbunny said...

TheShadowKnows - I read it similarly, like the Master was angry that everything HE was came from HER.

I find it interesting that Chibs made the "original" Doctor (although who knows at this point) female. Up yours, misogynist fanboys.

I've had some time to sit with this one and I don't like it although I'm less angry about it than I was. I'm not an OG fan but I can imagine this is how some of y'all felt when RTD killed off the entirety of Gallifrey offscreen.

Chibs and Jodie better stay on, I don't think this revelation can be adequately addressed in one special.

The Cyber Lords were both beautiful and ridiculous I think.

Nonei said...

My main issue with the episode was the death particle. We're told that "gallifrey is dead" and the time lords are all killed... but we only ever see the main city. And we know that not everyone on gallifrey is a time lord. But the "death particle" will somehow kill all cellular Lee on an entire planet. What about the survivors? The doc is just fine with possibly killing any survivors? Is not like she checked the entire planet. I don't buy that. Now if they had gotten on their ship and then she released the death particle on the ship and threw the ship in a star or something...

Anomaly21 said...

So I found 'Ascension' to be a filler episode by the end of which we knew almost nothing more than we had prior, and decided to comment on both parts here instead- and then I saw 'The Timeless Children'...
For me Sacha Dhawan as the Master saved the episode and made both a more entertaining and well acted protagonist than 13/Jodie ever could!
I also liked the guest stars Ravio, Yedlarmi and Ko Sharmus and cared about their fates as with a few other guests this series; although I feel Series 11 had both more quantity and quality in guests, but no 'must see' main/regular like the new Master in S12.
As for the rest...the main 'retcon' is a clich├ęd, dubious and far fetched/confusing idea for a backstory, plus damaging to numerous previous episodes and performances. Too many plot holes/questionable twists to list and others in these comments and the Internet have explained them better than my own post-viewing notes did!
So not the worst episode thanks to the non-'Fam' cast(Graham prob had the best moments this ep) and always nice to see Time Lords/ Gallifrey; 4/10 for me.

Anomaly21 said...

Looking forward to the holiday special(lol at the Tennant-style Judoon Cold Case cliffhanger!) and excited to see Tosin Cole/Ryan and Bradley Walsh/Graham's exits. Kinda wish Mandip Gill/Yaz was leaving too for a third resolved character arc/clean sweep for S13 but is usually interesting to see characters carry over and develop.
Really hope S13 has changes/a new companion or eventually Doctor! I'm glad people are complaining about this episode/era's story and Doctor problems and are free to discuss the show/their fandom and hope the BBC will listen. I think Jodie has had a few good episodes and scenes but doesn't have anything more to offer the role and would have preferred she left after 2 series.
Only 1 series would be unfair to anyone, although personally feel Eccleston was more convincing in just 1 than Jodie.
Then again to be honest i still don't believe Jodie is the Doctor of 1963-2017 even now...i actually kinda like her and think this is Jodie Whittaker's best and consistent performance/ character, but just not the Doctor(more like a Curse Of Fatal Death/Hurt/Cushing. Mcgann and Roberts/Chang Lee/Grace/the Movie are great!*hides*). Wish she'd been a companion, she definitely would've ranked ok and above some others!
Anyway, thank you for your coverage of Series 12 and hope to see you again for Series 13 of Doctor Who!#neverstopwatching

Sam Smith said...

For a series thats been going on this long nitpicking is kinda pointless, and it's just as easy to headcanon this as filling plot holes vs creating them. One I never really bought was the timelords being able/willing to give the Doctor more regenerations, but I can understand it if they were the first timelord. One thing that saddens me is to see the doctor choosing every heroic decision they've made because it's the right thing to do, to the implication that the doctor was always meant for greatness. I know that can be argued in a literal sense, but metatextually it leans on a lazy and harmful trope.

Lee said...

Mikey, thank you for your deep dive into why fans turn on the very fandoms they (claim to?) love.  It's always baffled me how people can get so invested in something, only to 180 and become its biggest critic.  I've seen it happen first hand with my kids.  Harry Potter, Star Wars, Sherlock, Supernatural ... Shows that continue for so long almost HAVE to throw a curve ball at us now and then to keep things fresh.  It sometimes seems a long running show has two options: 1) stay the same and become boring or 2) upset the cart now and then and explore some new stuff.  If you love a fandom, trust in its creators and enjoy the ride.  If you don't, move to another; there are PLENTY.  There's way too much anger in the world today to get so worked up by the direction your "makebelieve" world is going.  Find joy or move on.