The Chibnall Master Plan is born in an almost poetic balance of myth-making and meditations on the show’s very nature
And so we come to it at last. The series finale of the twelfth series of Doctor Who (or, alternatively, the thirty-eighth series) has been and gone. It was a story that promised to change everything forever. Again. But despite both the eagerness of some to have their minds blown with yet more shocking revelations, and the horror of those clutching their big leather-bound Doctor Who Canon to their chests, there was always going to be some question over whether The Timeless Children lived up to the hype.
And, in truth, no matter how many twists and turns you add to the Doctor’s story, the river of her life will flow on regardless. The Doctor invented the TARDIS themselves, until they didn’t. Their ‘renewal’ into a new face and body was a function of the TARDIS, until it wasn’t. Hartnell and Troughton were playing just the latest in a line of Doctors, until they weren’t, and then were again, and then weren’t again, and then… I dunno, maybe they weren’t? They could ‘live forever barring accidents’ until they could only regenerate twelves times. Until they broke all the rules by regenerating into Peter Capaldi. Until, well… until tonight.
The only true constancy in Doctor Who’s sprawling continuity has been its ability to re-write itself
The Doctor was a pioneer among their own people, then a rank nobody who had barely passed their exams at a second attempt, then ‘more than just a Time Lord’, then ‘the Last of the Time Lords’, then ‘the Man Who Won the Time War,’ and then ‘the Hybrid fated to stand in Gallifrey’s ruins’. (Actually don’t hold Blogtor Who to that last one. He’s still a little confused about it.)
The Time Lords themselves have been god like beings of supreme indifference to the rest of the universe who gained their powers through the genius of Omega. And then fussy civil servant types largely ignorant of their own past, but pretty sure it had to do with that nice Rassilon chap. They’ve been heroic protectors of the universe against the likes of the Rachnoss and the Great Vampires, and also monsters who used to abduct sentient beings as pawns in their blood sports. And the noble good guys in the Last Great Time War against the Daleks. But the very same Time Lords plotted to wipe out all life in the universe so they alone could ascend to a higher plane of existence.
The Timeless Children doesn’t rewrite history. Not one line. But it does add a mysterious and exciting new sequel.
Nothing Chris Chibnall has done re-writes one jot of that. It does however add some significant new strands to the tapestry of Doctor Who’s lore. It pains Blogtor Who to admit that it was long, long ago that we watched the McCoy Era, when then script editor Andrew Cartmel began to feed into the stories the idea that the Doctor was ‘more than just a Time Lord.’ That they were in fact as old, if not older, than the entire Time Lord civilization and played a pivotal part in the creation of Time Lord society. His intent was to blow away the cobwebs of detail and history that had grown up around the character and restore the mystery. But the problem always stood – if you reveal a new history for the Doctor, you’ve just replaced one set of details with another.
The Timeless Children deftly addresses this by making the Doctor a mystery to herself. She knows that she’s older than she thought, and she knows she’s not from Gallifrey. She knows that she’s a foundling, once which was used by the fledgling Time Lord race as a genetic template for their own future generations. But she doesn’t know where she came from. She doesn’t know what world was on the other side of that boundary. She doesn’t know who her people are, where they are, or if they still exist. Or is she one of a kind? It’s all a mystery.
More than just shocks and change for the sake of it, we also get a thoughtful dialogue about the nature of the show and character
Against all this is balanced a wonderfully judged meditation on the nature of Doctor Who as a program, and the Doctor themselves. Even as it builds this new mysterious extension to the existing mythology, Chibnall’s script is keenly aware that some members of fandom will be already reaching for their pens to write planning objections. For them, there’s a reassuring hand to remind them that ultimately it doesn’t matter. Nothing we know has been lost. And none of the 851 episodes from the past 57 years have been unwritten. But it’s more than that. The Doctor is still the Doctor. Nothing about that has changed. Still never cruel. Still never cowardly. They’ll never give in and they’ll never give up.
Last week in Ascension of the Cybermen, one of the biggest mysteries was exactly how the story of Brendan played into things. Running in parallel to the Doctor’s quest to protect the last humans in this part of the universe from Ashad’s Cyber-zealotry, it never revealed its hand or how it was connected to everything else. We followed Brendan’s life through the 20th century from abandoned baby to retiring Garda and got only questions. Why is he apparently immortal ala Captain Jack? Why does he age but not his father or superior officer? What are they doing to him in the final scene? And, from Blogtor Who’s perspective as an Irish Doctor Who fan, were they really going to take the first story set in Ireland in fifty-seven years (Fifty. Seven. Years.) and reveal it to have all been a dream sequence of elaborate simulation?
Yes. Yes they would. Typical.
The big surprise here is exactly how those scenes related to the action last episode. They were literal flashbacks the Doctor was having at those points in Ascension of the Cybermen. A coded re-telling of the story of the Timeless Child. It’s a level of cunning in story-telling even Steven Moffat would surely applaud – actually exposing the entire plot to the audience without them even realizing.
Series 12 has pushed the fam to breaking point and The Timeless Children is their toughest test yet
Not all the ongoing plot lines this years have been as seismic, of course. We’ve also had ongoing hints of the growing uncertainty of Yaz and Ryan, in particular, about life in the TARDIS. And the Doctor’s own slight alienation from her own companions as she struggles to be completely honest with them about just how much of a burden she’s been carrying. We’ve learned that Ryan is still struggling with what he saw on Orphan 55, and worries that the longer he spends with the Doctor the harder it will be to pick up the pieces of normal life afterwards. And Yaz, always the most intuitive of the fam, has been quick to pick up of the Doctor’s ‘mardy moods’ and secrecy and to resent them.
And with Tosin Cole, at least, already lined up for the lead role in AMC’s 61st Street next year, the series finale threatened to make or break the fam forever.
Ultimately, the Doctor and her friends are left stronger than ever. If not a little lost.
In the final event everyone comes out of The Timeless Children alive. Phew. Though it does play with our nerves a little by giving Graham and Yaz in particular some lovely speeches about far they’ve come. It’s another clever way in which Chibnall uses the audience’s knowledge of narrative tropes against themselves. Seeing Gallifrey for themselves also seems to bond the fam to the Doctor and they perhaps understand her behaviour this year better than before. While she seems to finally understand just how deep and sincere their commitment to her is. And that that commitment is to her real self, angst and moods and all, not just the happy-go-lucky girl she originally presented herself as.
But none of this would matter very much unless plugged in to a decent story. And again, The Timeless Children bears the weight of paying out on the cheque written by earlier episodes. Ascension of the Cybermen was a nerve shredding, pulse thumping, marathon of danger and menace. While most modern Doctor Who stories utilize one or other of the two main strands of the show’s DNA – action and scares – the fearsome new legions of Cybermen, along with Patrick O’Kane’s glowering presence as Ashad, made for a rare perfect fusion of the two. It was always going to difficult to sustain over the second half. Especially with Gallifrey, the Master, and the Timeless Child all thrown into the mix together.
The Master and Ashad make for a diabolical duo in a beautifully directed episode
For a story that carries such heavy consequences and stark subject matter, it’s remarkable how light and fun it so often feels. It’s not afraid to admit to its own more ridiculous aspects while never undercutting the drama. For example, when Ashad, the great Cyber-zealot, finally reveals his grand design it’s… well, it’s a little naff. But that doesn’t matter at all when the script and Sacha Dhawan’s performance conspire with us to wink at that. The Master’s hang dog disappointment (“… robots”) is a terrific moment. Meanwhile, the Master’s own plot involving the Cyber-Masters feels like a sick joke. But that’s exactly what the villainous Time Lord intends. And the almost mocking robes and collars of their design is quite deliberate on his part.
There’s also something wonderful about how out of his depth Ashad is. As soon as he walks into the same room as the Master, it’s a battle between a grim fixation on a single idea and a smirking, free-wheeling ability to rewrite plans on the fly. And there’s never any doubt who’s going to win, even as Ashad is so cluelessly confident in his own destiny. And, after an episode of setting up just how lethal the Lone Cyberman is, it manages not to undermine him but instead makes the Master seem more dangerous than ever before.
More than ever, Doctor Who is left with its most fundamental question – ‘Where next?’
We leave the companions in a situation with shades of The Doctor Falls. They’re safe but believing the Doctor’s dead. Meanwhile, the Doctor is a prisoner of Judoon Captain Pol-Kon-Don, based on crimes she doesn’t even remember committing. It’s a nice return of the Davies Era “What? What?! WHAT?!” but it feels like a very temporary problem. It’s confirmed that the entire cast is back for this Winter’s special, Revolution of the Daleks. And it’s hard to believe it won’t see them all back together within the first five minutes. And when it does, they’ll be a little different perhaps. Yaz, Graham and Ryan have grown in confidence and determination lately and in The Timeless Children more than ever.
The Timeless Children seems certain to take its place alongside the likes of The Deadly Assassin and The Day of the Doctor as one of the Doctor Who stories. Some will embrace it immediately and some, no doubt, will hate it as a matter of principle. Yet more will need to leave it a while to fully sink in.
In time The Timeless Children will become yet another bit of Doctor Who history. For now, it’s exciting and fertile new ground
But we’ve been there before with Doctor Who many times before. It’s difficult to appreciate these days just how controversial the aforementioned Deadly Assassin was for many years. And then, decades later, some were unhappy with The End of Time for depicting Rassilon (first mentioned in Deadly Assassin) as a villain rather than a hero. The Timeless Child is now part of the rich tapestry of the Doctor Who universe. And to future generations of Doctor Who fans, they’ll be as much a part of the natural order as The War Games, Planet of the Spiders or The Time of the Doctor.
For now, let’s just call it thrilling, new, scary and funny. In other words, let’s call it Doctor Who.
Doctor Who will return this winter in Revolution of the Daleks
Doctor Who stars Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Bradley Walsh (Graham), Mandip Gill (Yaz) and Tosin Cole (Ryan), with Chris Chibnall as Showrunner and Matt Strevens Executive Producing.