Doctor Who – Season 12 Episode 10
“The Timeless Children”
Doctor Who concludes its current season with a promise to alter everything The Doctor thought she knew about herself.
Canon is a difficult thing in long running properties. What is and isn’t canon is an endless source of debate among fans and writers revealing things that could disrupt what people perceive to be true provokes strong reactions, both positive and negative from the audience. I’ll get to what I thought of the potentially canon altering revelations in this episode after covering the less meaty parts.
In terms of plot, this episode is fairly standard season finale stuff with hopeless situations and the promise of everything ending if the problem isn’t resolved. The Cybermen making their way to Gallifrey should have been a really big deal and The Doctor did treat it as if it were something to be feared but ultimately it didn’t feel any more significant than any other hopeless situation the show has created before. The Master does mention that Ashad was the first Cyberman to set foot on Gallifrey but beyond that they could have been anywhere.
Ashad’s plan to wipe out all organic life in the universe and cast off anything organic and become truly cybernetic is at least a plan but a fairly underwhelming one all things considered. The Master amusingly calls him out on his plan for how dull it actually is as it basically amounts to turning the Cybermen into a race of robots. He thinks that they can do better and has what he feels to be a better idea. Unfortunately Ashad isn’t around to hear it as The Master shrinks him which removes him from the equation entirely.
This is a significant misstep as it offers no closure on Ashad’s character. The execution was problematic but he was an interesting character with plenty that could have been explored. His worship of the Cyberium and his feelings of inadequacy caused by not being a complete Cyberman were interesting traits that ultimately go unresolved once The Master disposes of him. The plan may not have been all that interesting but his commitment to it was and the way he placed himself as the one to bring a new beginning to the Cybermen made him unstoppably focused on what he wanted to achieve. There was no reasoning with him because he had a devout belief that what he was doing was the right thing but none of that matters when he is little more than a means to an end for The Master to put his plan in place.
Combining the Cybermen with Time Lords is a fairly ridiculous idea that wouldn’t be out of place in fan fiction. I don’t mean to use fan fiction in a negative way as there are lots of great examples of fan productions out there but this is definitely under the umbrella of bad fan fiction. The army of Cybermen wearing robes with ornate metal collars is a hilarious image and the notion that they become invincible through combining their armour with the ability to regenerate just isn’t true. If you blew a Cyberman to pieces -as happens in this very episode- then they would likely find it difficult to regenerate and even if they could then the armour would be utterly destroyed therefore rendering it useless. It isn’t mentioned if The Master would upgrade their armour with some sort of made up metallic material that can’t be destroyed though that doesn’t seem to be the case as he looked as if he was going to upgrade the existing Cybermen with the Time Lord DNA so there appears to be no difference to the armour. It’s something that probably sounded cool when writing the episode without paying any attention to how ridiculous it would come across.
As with many situations on Doctor Who, there is a simple one shot solution that can end the threat once and for all. In this case it takes the form of a magical particle capable of wiping out all life on a planet. It simply needs to be triggered and all like on Gallifrey is wiped out in an instant. Fortunately that amounts to The Master and the entire Cyberman army so it’s a very tidy solution that wraps everything up nicely. How this plays out isn’t interesting or surprising with The Doctor all set to sacrifice herself for the good of the universe only to be stopped by someone at the last second so that she can escape to. The self sacrificing substitute is Ko Sharmus though it’s fairly meaningless as there was never enough time to properly define who he was or what his connection to the situation was. He mentions being part of a resistance unit that sent the Cyberium back through time and space and being due some punishment for not sending it back far enough. Does this mean he’s Gallifreyan or is he simply a Human resisting the Cybermen? It’s unclear though it is suggested he knows a lot more about what’s going on than anyone else. There’s no time to address any of these questions as his sacrifice likely ends him. I mentioned in my review of the previous episode that he was introduced too late in the story and this episode does nothing with him. It’s such a waste of Ian McElhinney who is routinely excellent in roles that he takes on.
The massive explosion that wipes out the entirety of the threat is played out on this show by this point and fails to be effective because of how meaningless it really is. Audiences know by now that The Master and the Cybermen will be back eventually so there’s no real point ending an appearance with a plot device designed to end them once and for all. They’ll return and there will either be a ridiculous explanation as to why that’s possible or no explanation at all. It’s just not necessary at this point. Even The Doctor resolving to sacrifice herself is played out because it always ends the same way; with her deciding against it when the moment comes to press the button. It’s consistent characterisation for sure but is there any point even going through these motions? It’s tired and bereft of tension because I just find myself impatiently waiting for The Doctor to back down rather than being on the proverbial edge of my proverbial seat waiting to see if she will actually do it this time.
As with the previous episode, this one is overly busy which doesn’t leave a lot of time to develop the companions or the others that got swept up in the situation. A character dies at the beginning of the episode but there’s no real impact to it because no effort was made to develop her before she was killed. It’s also quickly forgotten and followed up by the rest of them inexplicably staying alive despite the insurmountable odds. It really is a good thing that the Cybermen went to the Stormtrooper school of aiming because otherwise the characters wouldn’t have stood a chance against them.
There is some attempt to develop the characters in one way or another. Ryan gets to score a basket when he throws a large bomb in the middle of a group of Cybermen therefore proving that he’s not a hopeless shot when it really counts. I wouldn’t quite call this the resolution to an arc but it counts as a hero moment for Ryan at least even if nothing else in the episode develops his character in any meaningful way. This is part of the problem when the episode is event based; the characters suffer and those events become meaningless.
Graham and Yaz continue to be engaging characters despite how little the episodes allow them to develop. The actors do a lot to elevate the material they’re given to create moments that work on the surface even if there’s nothing to back them up. There’s a really good scene where Graham clearly has doubts about the survivability of their current situation and takes the time to tell Yaz how impressed he is by her. He commends her for being fearless despite not having the knowledge or resources of The Doctor and even calls her the best person he has ever known. Her more understated response where she tells him that he’s “not such a bad Human” adds a brief yet welcome piece of levity to dial down the intensity of Graham opening up. It’s a well performed scene that would have meant so much more had more time been spent developing Yaz as a character. Being told that Graham thinks she’s the best person he’s ever known is one thing but if there had been some evidence of him forming that opinion over the course of the last two seasons it would have been far more meaningful.
Yaz has the potential to be the strongest of the current crop of companions and perhaps achieve classic status when compared to other companions. She stands out by being ambitious and assertive; she also challenges The Doctor’s instructions and fearlessly takes charge in crisis situations. One thing that remains consistent is that she can never learn enough and she doesn’t accept anything she’s told at face value. With more attention she could be truly excellent as she could make for a compelling foil for The Doctor while also being immensely useful. There’s a reason she’s part of the group alone on the Cyberman carrier ship and she is the first one to step through the wormhole while everyone else deliberates over how dangerous it might be. The shallow approach to character development is really frustrating when there’s so much potential in the characters that never has the time to be realised.
The Doctor’s return to Gallifrey is certainly a mixed bag in terms of how it plays out. Jodie Whittaker gives an excellent performance as The Doctor reacting to everything she learns and Sacha Dhawan remains a really good Master. He balances the maniacal supervillain persona with the sinister brilliance really well and is an intimidating presence. Sometimes he is a little too over the top which distracts from the menace that is supposed to come across but such instances are rare.
Outside of his bizarre plan to create Time Lord Cybermen for reasons that are never made clear, his main purpose is to turn The Doctor’s world upside down by revealing that everything she thought she knew about herself and her species was a lie. To do this he tells the story of The Timeless Child; a young lost child found by an explorer from ancient Gallifrey named Tecteun (Seylan Baxter). She takes in the child and raises it as her own before eventually discovering that the child is able to regenerate so she runs extensive experiments in order to learn why she is able to do that. Eventually she does and decides to make it part of the Gallifreyan genome which comes with a decision to rename the species Time Lords. For some reason the decision is made to limit the regenerations to 12 and then the information is buried to be forgotten.
It turns out that The Doctor has been the Timeless Child all along which means that much of what she considers to be her life is a lie. She has had many lives before the one she remembers as her first life and her DNA is inside every Time Lord who ever lived. In some ways this is a game changing reveal as it essentially makes the Doctor a God within Time Lord mythology. She is responsible for something that defines them and has had all knowledge of that ripped away from her in favour of thinking she’s just another Time Lord.
In other ways it changes nothing as every memory she has of the lives she has lived are still accurate. The major difference is that the William Hartnell Doctor wasn’t her first life. Every adventure chronicled in almost 60 years of history happened pretty much as depicted so very little has actually been changed. It does give her something to come to terms with and she has to reconsider everything she thought she knew about the Time Lord race. She also has to deal with the fact that she isn’t actually from Gallifrey; she’s from an unknown planet with a native species that can also regenerate so I suspect there will be a future plot where she tries to track down her actual origin in order to understand where she came from and figure out what that means for her.
It’s certainly a lot for her to take in and Jodie Whittaker plays the gravity of the reveal really well. There is a brief time where she’s shaken to the very core of her being as she thinks that everything she thought she was has been a lie. A manifestation of Ruth appears to her to deal with it. She asks if she has ever been limited by who she was before which causes her to take a step back and consider who she believes she is now which means that where she came from or what was done to her in the past doesn’t actually define her now because her actions are what’s important. The Ruth manifestation tells her that people need “The Doctor” as an indication that this is the part of her identity that matters. It’s the name she chose for herself and a code of conduct she lives by every day of her life so it’s important that she realises the new information doesn’t invalidate anything she’s accomplished in her long life. This is enough to give her the strength to escape as she fully commits to the person she is now rather than anything that came before. It ties into an earlier conversation where the companions stated that who she is in the here and now is the important thing.
The moment where she expresses her pride in her own identity by forcing her way out of the Matrix by subjecting it to the memories of everything she has accomplished in the life she identifies with is a satisfying self realisation moment that in theory clears up the doubt around who she is. There’s a message in there about actions being the defining factor rather than the circumstances of your birth though the episode isn’t really interested in exploring that. I do find it interesting that The Doctor’s realisation essentially confirms that none of the information revealed to her actually matters in the long run because The Doctor will continue to be an adventurer in time and space who acts a certain way and lives by certain values. All this episode has really done is revise history in a way that doesn’t impact the show in any significant way.
Nothing is really done with the information other than a brief moment of self doubt on The Doctor’s part. The Master’s reason for destroying Gallifrey and killing the Time Lords was because he couldn’t bear the thought of having a part of The Doctor in his DNA. He hates the fact that this has always been part of him and rests at the core of his very identity. I can’t speak much for the classic era of the show but it certainly contradicts The Master/Doctor relationship in the modern era. They are adversaries certainly and The Master does like to boast about hating The Doctor but there has always been a great deal of respect between them. The Missy incarnation in particular was very close to The Doctor and even the John Simm version enjoyed toying with the iterations of The Doctor that he encountered. It’s a constant game that The Master enjoys playing but he doesn’t hate The Doctor as their former friendship is very much at the root of their relationship. People will argue that this current version of The Master may be different but I don’t get that impression and The Master is along the same lines as The Doctor with regenerations providing personality changes while the fundamentals of who they are remain intact.
Once again this is an example of writing something because it seems profound without actually thinking it through. Was there ever going to be an answer to the mystery teased earlier in the season that would be completely satisfactory? Probably not but suggesting that The Master committed genocide because he hates the idea of part of The Doctor being part of him makes no sense. The lie also doesn’t seem significant enough to cause such an extreme reaction. I would think The Master would be impressed that genetic experimentation was used to improve a species whether that was his own or not. The whole thing is just silly and doesn’t live up to the hype of changing everything on a fundamental level.
Another big problem is that nothing is really done with this information once it’s out there. The episode itself seems to exist for this reveal to take place rather than making it part of the story. It is interesting fodder for future stories where The Doctor could explore her origins and the show can build out the mythology by having her find where she came from but in the here and now there’s no purpose to the reveal. Basically Chibnall is making changes for the sake of making changes which is never good because they feel bereft of purpose.
It was also done in a fairly uninteresting way. It was essentially a glorified powerpoint presentation delivered by The Master who told it like a bedtime story. This does add a fairytale quality to it which feels very Doctor Who but it’s not all that interesting to watch because it is just information being delivered with a backdrop to illustrate it which means we’ve spent two whole episodes building up to exposition. Exposition instead of plot is never a good way to go though the scenes are carried by the performances. There are a few head scratching moments such as revealing that the mysterious Brendan plot from the previous episode was a cover-up designed to make the origin of the Time Lords appear unimportant so that it wouldn’t be accessed but also wouldn’t be deleted. I fail to see what the point of that was other than having an out of context mystery to make audiences wonder what’s going on. That’s part of the problem with this era of Doctor Who; things are done because they might provoke a reaction from the audience rather than actually making sense in the context of the plot.
A weak finale with some strong work from the actors that isn’t enough to disguise the fact that changes are made for the sake of making changes and nothing that happens has any real impact. The episode is fairly standard season finale stuff with an unwinnable situation that can be easily solved in the end. Anything that is supposed to be significant isn’t all that important and there’s too much going on for any of it to have any real impact. Ashad was an interesting if poorly used villain who is completely sidelined here in an anticlimactic moment that resolves nothing about him. He’s easily defeated and discarded as if he were never important in the first place. The Time Lord and Cybermen combination is the stuff of bad fan fiction that might seem cool on the surface but makes no sense when any thought was put into it. None of the companions develop in any meaningful way with their strongest moments only serving as a reminder of how poorly developed they are. Yaz being told she’s the best person Graham has ever known is meaningless because nothing has ever suggested that he was forming that opinion about her. I do think Yaz has the potential to be up there with the best of companions because of her general approach but no effort is being put into allowing her to become that. Ryan manages to drop a bomb in the right place as a callback to some basketball insecurity that you’d be forgiven for forgetting about. The Master/Cybermen threat is dealt with with an easy plot device that can end all life on a planet. As usual The Doctor is all set to make the sacrifice before being stopped at the last minute. Ko Sharmus was another character who didn’t have any time to forge any sort of identity therefore rendering his sacrifice meaningless. There was no tension to the moment prior to this as The Doctor always backs down from these situations so there was nothing to suggest this would be any different.
The reveal of the origins of the Time Lords and their ability to regenerate is both game changing and meaningless. It’s game changing in the sense that The Doctor had many lives before the one she remembers as her first but it’s meaningless in that it doesn’t change any of the lives that the show has chronicles. A visit from a manifestation of Ruth reminds her that who she is in the here and now is what’s important which renews her self confidence and allows her to escape. Ultimately the reveal is meaningless because it has nothing to do with the plot of the episode. It’s delivered through well acted exposition which means the last two episodes have been building up to exposition designed to tease future stories. It may be interesting to see The Doctor fixated on where she actually came from and working to learn more about her origins but that’s not what this story is so none of it really matters. The Master’s decision to destroy Gallifrey and kill the Time Lords being motivated by hatred of the idea that part of The Doctor had been a fundamental part of him all this time makes no sense either. At no point in the modern era of Doctor Who -this era included- has The Master appeared to hate The Doctor. They are adversaries but there has always been a mutual respect between them that comes from the foundational friendship they once shared. That hasn’t changed with this iteration of The Master so it doesn’t really makes sense that he would react to learning this information in such a way. Once again, things are written because they sound profound but make no sense when analysed.
- strong acting from much of the cast
- individual scenes that work on their own merits
- The Master’s plan making no sense
- the Time Lord/Cybermen combination being the stuff of bad fan fiction
- Ashad being completely sidelined and easily defeated with no resolution to his character
- continued poor characterisation of the companions and various guest characters
- a poor simple plot device resolution to the large scale threat
- spending two episodes building up to little more than exposition
- the change to The Doctor’s origins having no purpose other than to make the change
- The Master’s motivation to destroy Gallifrey not tracking with his established character
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User Review( votes)
The very end of this episode confirms that some sort of holiday special -be it Christmas or New Year- is on its way featuring the Daleks. This episode ends with The Doctor imprisoned by the Judoon for being a fugitive. How they managed to transport into the TARDIS and abduct her is anyone’s guess though I doubt it will be explained. Maybe she’ll escape her prison sentence when the Daleks attack the prison for some reason; there’s not enough information to go on at this point.
As for what could happen next in terms of future stories there’s a lot of potential there. We know that Captain Jack is still out there somewhere so he could factor into a future story quite easily, exactly when in the now far extended life of The Doctor Ruth fits in remains unknown so this can be the focus of an episode or collection of episodes. I suspect The Doctor will be seeking her true origins and trying to learn what happened to the species she is actually a member off though there’s an equal chance this will turn out to be an elaborate deception and it’ll turn out that The Doctor isn’t actually The Timeless Child.
At the moment I’m in two minds over whether I’ll continue to cover this show as I’m finding it quite frustrating to watch at the moment. I tend to look for the positives when reviewing a show and much of what has been going on this season has been good but I don’t feel that I’ve especially enjoyed many of the episodes. My frustrations stem from the clear potential the show has to develop characters that are interesting enough to do things with while consistently failing to actually do anything interesting with them. Entire episodes go by where the companions act as little more than a sounding board for The Doctor. Adding various guest characters to most of the episodes doesn’t help with this as they become equally shallow while stealing time that could be better spent on the companions. Whether to continue coverage is a decision I need to make over the next few months so you’ll either see a review of “Revolution of the Daleks” or you won’t. If anyone is interested in taking over coverage of Doctor Who then please do get in touch.
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