It’s been several days now since The Timeless Children debuted, and with that time comes a calming of nerves and a cooling of heads. But the sad truth is that no amount of calmed nerves or cool heads will change the fact that that whatever you think of it’s “Everything you know is a lie!” reveal, the most recent season of Doctor Who has concluded with a pretty poor piece of storytelling.
It’s got big and exciting moments, of course, but doesn’t do a good job giving them an organic structure that works either as an episode or as a continuation of the episodes that built up to it. The big mythos-altering reveal takes up a huge amount of the episode’s runtime, and is delivered in just about the least natural and least interesting way one could come up with: as a giant, forced, exposition-dump. The Master literally ties the Doctor up and just straight-up tells her the show’s new status quo: the Time Lords stole the ability to regenerate from an alien space baby they adopted, killing the child multiple times in the process, and then wiped that child’s memory so he / she wouldn’t know it. That child–the so-called Timeless Child–then came to call itself the Doctor (or it already had, potentially…see below) and went on to have all the adventures we’ve been watching for the last 50+ years, believing himself to be an ordinary Time Lord.
Some of this is shown with some pretty visual aids, courtesy of the Matrix, which contains the sum total of all Time Lord knowledge and experience (remember that, because it will be important), but the most salient bits–the Doctor’s identity–are presented with no evidence at all, except for the Master’s word. Yet after a bit of hand-wringing, the Doctor seems to accept this as gospel (the plot does not provide her with an opportunity for any other sort of response), which is the same sort of storytelling cheat that the show used to convince us that the Ruth-Doctor is from the Doctor’s past: there’s plenty of reasons to dispute both assertions, but because the Doctor believes it, the audience realizes that it is supposed to as well. And so we do.
What all this means is that the big reveal does not really function as part of a meaningful story in any way–it’s just a thing unto itself. And that’s how it’s been treated all along, even in the episode’s promotions–like a twist to sell the story rather than to serve the story. Opportunities to build tension are tossed away–for example, in the first part of the story, Ascension of the Cybermen, there are these odd scenes which appear to take place in Ireland, but in reality are meant to be an illusory “cover-up” of the whole Timeless Child backstory. In a more skillfully crafted script, this could have been quite a cool revelation, and we the audience would have had the experience of watching the Ireland scenes, wondering what is happening, slowly coming to understand the events, and then getting hit with the revelation that Brendan is a stand-in for an early early version of the Doctor. Even if you didn’t like the twist, it would have at least been interesting to watch.
As it is, when we get all the Ireland stuff in one episode, and then get the explanation late into the following episode, so the effect isn’t so much, “Wow! I get it! What a revelation!” but more like, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that stuff, but luckily the story reminded me and I was able to stop having that question niggling at the back of my mind.” Not nearly as cool of an impact.
Also jettisoned from the episode is the whole Cybermen story that the show had been building up over the last couple of episodes. I was actually quite enjoying that plot, with the fanatical and troubled Lone Cybermen and his agenda, and the question of where the surviving humans were escaping to. Rather than any of that being developed here, it is reduced and even squished to death by the Master’s tissue compression weapon. Indeed, when the Master arrives into the story (at the conclusion of Ascension of the Cybermen), he sort of infects it and completely takes it over, kind of like he did to Tremas of Traken or that poor ambulance guy in 1996 TV movie. Suddenly, all the personality associated with the storyline is gone, to be replaced by the Master’s particular brand of prancing lunacy. This is enjoyable to a degree (Sasha Dhawan is pretty good at it), but it’s disappointing when a promising storyline is lost because of it, especially when his main deal here is to just show up in a manner that is abrupt and unexplained, having decided it was time for the Doctor to find out the truth.
Actually, if you look at the Master over the season, I guess he didn’t just decide to tell the Doctor the truth. First, he decided to throw out a hint about it just before he blew her up on an airplane. But when he failed to kill her, he decided to outright lie about it, just before trying to kill her again via Nazis. When that failed, he decided to leave her a little recorded message telling her a bit more, and promising that one day he’d come back, yes one day he’d come back, and until then there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Finally, he turns up from wherever and and tells the Doctor the secret, at great length and for no particular purpose except that he’s mean.
Through all this, the Doctor is reduced almost completely to a spectator in her own show. Jodie Whittaker does her level best, but all she gets to do is wring her hands and let out a few “No’s!” about it all, and that’s about it. This briefly shifts as we enter the third act of the story, where she gets chided by a hallucinatory (or possibly Matrix-created) visit from the Ruth-Doctor, and then decides she can escape the Matrix by overloading it with her memories. Because apparently the Doctor has more memories–even though many of them are currently lost or suppressed–then can be handled by the sum total of all Time Lord knowledge and experience, even though this already includes all the Doctor’s memories. Sigh. Really, this bit is here it seems so the production team could include in accompanying flashbacks images of the so-called “Morbius-Doctors”, a brief bit of on-screen evidence that the Doctor may have had more incarnations prior to the First Doctor, which until now had been largely ignored and repeatedly contradicted. But not any more! That stuff is canon now, baby!
After she escapes, the Doctor gets all decisive decides to sacrifice herself and her principles in order to kill the Master and his Time Lord Cybermen with the current stories deux ex machina–a particle that conveniently wipes out all organic life on a planet. She commandingly tells her companions to not follow her and goes off to meet her destiny. Once there, she freezes up, but then we get the episode’s real twist, which is that there is another guy who had been in a few scenes who is the story’s real deus ex machina. He shows up and takes the death particle and activates it. The Doctor’s hesitation turns out not to really have anything to do with her principles, because she just lets this happen and runs away. The Master and the Cybermen also just sort of stand around while this is going on–they shoot him but only after he’s got the thing in his hands. The whole sequence is terribly written and paced, and really only serve to give the story a quick and convenient ending at the expense of the Doctor losing the only flicker of agency she’s had in the whole finale.
Under Russell T. Davies, the Doctor once spent almost an entirely different season finale imprisoned (and reduced to a withered CGI bird-looking creature), but in that case, at least it turned out that he was just waiting for his plan to take affect. Under Steven Moffat, the Doctor once discovered a series-altering secret by someone just turning up and telling him, but at least in that case it was just a quick moment. Under Chris Chibnall, we have the worst of all possible worlds.
Now, it’s hard to dissect The Timeless Children without talking a lot about its big reveal, simply because so much of the run-time is devoted to its telling.
Online discusses about the season (at least, the online conversations that I noticed, awkwardly listened to, often hurriedly wandered past, or occasionally even participated in) included a lot of to-ing and fro-ing about whether or not Doctor Who can be considered to have a “canon”, what it means to deliberately break established continuity, and whether any of this matters in the long run.
I would argue (and have argued) that Doctor Who does in fact have a “canon”, but that it’s made up only of most of what we’ve seen on TV, and nothing else. Indeed, talking about canon is not really the point, because that’s a term that implies you are trying to figure out whether you can count Big Finish audio dramas, stageplays, comic strips, novels and unofficial direct-to-video specials as being “official”. Clearly, no major television show is going to force itself to be beholden to any of that (even if they occasionally pick up on ideas they like), so we’re never going to lock it in as “canonical,” leaving it up to each person in the audience to decide what they want to personally include as official (which, frankly, is what we all do whatever the BBC or anyone else tells us).
So really, that’s not what we’re talking about with Chris Chibnall’s story twists in the current series. What is really a concern to some is whether the show is violating established continuity or not–especially established continuity that has been reinforced multiple times. I can only presume that people who argue that there is “no canon” aren’t actually suggesting the show has no established continuity, or that no continuity or prior on-screen events matter at all. Like, I assume that if the show were to suddenly introduce the Daleks as creatures that the Doctor had never met before, or if we found out that the Doctor had been going on all these adventures because he was secretly following the Time Lord’s orders, that pretty much everyone would be like, “Hey, that’s not consistent with what I’ve seen in the show before,” and would be looking for some sort of explanation.
So, does The Timeless Children mess around with established continuity? Well, heck yeah, it does! But mostly, it does so knowingly, and offers its surprises in such a fashion as to recognize that the Doctor herself is legitimately confused by the revelations. So in that sense, it doesn’t actually violate anything (or at least not many things), it just brings out some major new discoveries about the Doctor’s life and origins.
However, the move does change what is the perceived and assumed continuity of the show. For decades now, the Doctor has been clearly established as a Time Lord from Gallifrey, and we’ve been given very little (almost none, if you only count what’s on-screen) evidence to suggest otherwise. The character acts like he believes it, all the other characters act like they believe it, and the audience has been led to believe it. So even though this doesn’t technically change continuity, it does majorly change who the attentive audience perceives the character to be, which of course is why all this is such a big adjustment for many of us.
In a recent post I suggested three guiding questions to help us determine whether any new big reveal like this poses a continuity problem that needs addressing. (Bear in mind here that all I mean by “addressing” is “thinking about by worried fans”.)
1. Does it violate established continuity?
2. Is it important to the show moving forward?
3. Is it stupid?
Let’s quickly examine what we learn in The Timeless Children along these lings.
What we learn: The Doctor is not a Gallifreyan Time Lord–she / he was alien baby from an unknown dimension or universe who was found on some other planet by an early Gallifreyan and adopted. She turned out to have an ability to regenerate (apparently naturally) and was then experimented on so that regeneration could given to some Gallifreyans. This, along with the discovery of Time Travel (not detailed here), allowed the Time Lords to develop as an elite class on their world. These experiments caused the Doctor to regenerate many times. Later, the Doctor (it’s unknown if he or she were called such at this time) went on missions for the Time Lords, or perhaps just some particular Time Lords. At some point, it appears that he was forcibly turned back into a child, with his memories erased, where he grew up and lived the life that he knows as his first incarnation.
1. Does it violate established continuity?
Mostly, no, at least not technically speaking. This is because of the reasons mentioned above–the Doctor does not remember his life prior to that which we know as the First Doctor, so there’s no reason he would have mentioned it. Presumably, most of the Time Lords don’t know about it either, so they also would not have mentioned it either.
I’ve heard it said that Clara should have become aware of the Doctor’s earlier lives when she jumped into his time stream in The Name of the Doctor, but that’s easily explained–she didn’t even see the War Doctor during most of that trip, an incarnation the Doctor remembered but purposely repressed. It’s simple enough to imagine that the pre-First Doctor lives of the Doctor were even more “out of reach” for her.
Still, there are some continuity issues that could be considered. First of all, the show pretty clearly implies that the child who grew up to be the Doctor was not subject to the Time Lord’s 12-regeneration limit–that limitation was “inserted” into the Time Lords when they were given their regeneration ability in the first place. But the Doctor pretty clearly had a 12-regeneration limit, or at least certainly believed he did. However, we haven’t learned anything about how the Doctor’s memory was erased or how he was turned back into a child–presumably it wouldn’t be that hard, whenever that does get revealed, to include within it something about the Doctor receiving the limitation at that point.
Secondly, there is the question of the so-called Ruth-Doctor. The show does not answer the question of who she is, but there is plenty to imply that she is one of the Doctor’s multitude of incarnations that preceded the First Doctor. First of all, her TARDIS interior appears to be “Gallifreyan default style”. Second, the Judoon show up looking for the Doctor and referring to it as a “cold case”–presumably meaning leftover from the past when they were trying to capture the Ruth-Doctor. Third, the Ruth-Doctor had obviously been going on missions for the Time Lords, similar to Doctor in his / her pre-First Doctor versions. Finally, in a show that has already confirmed that the Doctor had a whole bunch of unknown incarnations, it seems ludicrous to imagine that Ruth-Doctor is going to turn out to be a completely different sort of unknown incarnation.
Anyway, this all leaves open the question of Ruth-Doctor’s TARDIS, which according to “established continuity” should not be stuck yet in the shape of a police box (as that apparently happened after the First Doctor had been traveling with Susan for a while). But, since that hasn’t been explicitly revealed yet, it’s a bit unfair to say it “breaks continuity” at this point. I figure it probably does, but we’ll just save the complaints for later.
There are also references in earlier episodes of the show to the fact that the Time Lord’s regenerative abilities have to do with prolonged exposure to the time vortex, and that it was because of her conception aboard the TARDIS that River Song was able to regenerate. This can also be glossed over in a number of ways–maybe exposure to the vortex is still something to do with the Doctor’s ability to regenerate, maybe it’s all part of the Time Lord’s burying of the past, maybe exposure to the vortex is necessary to activate the genetic insertion of regeneration in a Time Lord’s cells, maybe River Song’s regeneration ability was somehow “awoken” by what the Silence did to her, maybe, maybe, maybe.
2. Is it important to the show moving forward?
Certainly yes, at least to some degree.
I mean, it doesn’t alter the fundamental facts of the show–the basic premise that a casual viewer would become acquainted with by watching a couple of episodes. That could be summarized by saying that the Doctor is a wanderer in Time and Space, who has had many incarnations, who often has one or more traveling companions, who fights monsters and injustice wherever he or she finds it…all that is the same.
But still, just consider the shear number of times that the Doctor has spouted off something like, “I’m a Time-Lord, I’m 904 years old, from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kastaberous…” blah blah blah. The idea of being a Time Lord has been a big part of the Doctor’s identity for a long time (something he’s talked about regularly for nearly fifty years), and I guess all that has changed. And unless Chris Chibnall is really out of his mind, the pursuit of her real origins is going to be part of the Doctor’s story in the next season or two. So for sure, yes, it matters to the show.
3. Is it stupid?
Well this, of course, is completely subjective, but for my money I’d argue that yes, it is.
I’ve said before that I’m not really crazy about anything that “de-thrones” William Hartnell as the First Doctor (or for that matter, Patrick Troughton to Paul McGann as the second to eighth Doctors). I don’t think giving the Doctor some sort of weird special identity, as opposed to being part of an elite race who pushed against the stagnation around him, actually helps the character or the story at all. And where some argue that this move adds much needed mystery back into the show, I’d like to say that the Time Lords were introduced in 1969 and developed a bit in 1976, and there’s been plenty of mystery since then, especially in the modern era. Remember the Time War? River Song? Harold Saxon? The cracks in the universe? Missy and the nethersphere? Lots and lots of mystery, and none of them felt that the only way to do that was to upheave the Doctor’s whole backstory.
But that is all my personal preferences, of course–some people don’t care about the First Doctor staying the First Doctor, they don’t have the same view as to the Doctor’s “core identity”, and they like the mystery.
More important I think is the execution of the twist–this is where the stupidity of something is often found. Things like the revelation of the War Doctor could have been stupid, but it wasn’t, because the story that came out of it was well told and added to the character and his universe.
Part of the problem in this case is that the reveal hasn’t been fully executed yet, except for the reveal itself, and that was done pretty lamely.
So so far, all we’ve got is a big backstory-shaking twist which was just sort of plopped on us, with no real development or processing, and no prospect of any follow up until Christmas at earliest. This is on top of other twists from earlier in the season, about the Ruth-Doctor and about the destruction of Gallifrey, none of which have been developed, explained or processed in any meaningful way. It gives the whole run of episodes a frustrating and unsatisfying aftertaste, even if some of the individual episodes were pretty good.
I think actually it’s the destruction of the Time Lords that I find the most annoying. We spent all the time between 2005-2013 with them destroyed as part of a legitimately fascinating story which culminated in its return in the epic Day of the Doctor. Since then the show has been wisely cautious about using them extensively, so it’s irritating to have them just dismissively tossed away like this, with so little being developed, such as how they were done away with, or even why. Was it all just so we could have regenerating Cybermen?
Because why would learning the Time Lords had used the Doctor to give themselves all regeneration abilities make the Master so incensed that he’d want to kill them all? That’s certainly what is implied when the Master first brings it all up, and it was almost the only clue the show gave us in advance about the Timeless Child at all. You’d think the Doctor being tortured like that would make the Master happy. Maybe he’d hate the Doctor more to think he owed her something for his identity, but not the Time Lords.
Indeed, it would have made a lot more sense if the Master had turned out to be the Timeless Child. Then he would have had a legitimate reason to suddenly hate the Time Lords so much. But that could not be, because then we couldn’t say things like “Everything you know is a lie!” (a line that should be banned from pop culture for a decade or two, if ever there was one) or have an opportunity to officialize pet theories like the Morbius Doctors.
But, it’s true, the story is not over. Maybe after whatever festive special we get at the end of the year, and after the third Chibnall-Whittaker season is over nearly a year after that, it will all come together and feel like part of an adventure of grand proportions and satisfying scope. Maybe the richness of the drama and the depth of the science fiction ideas involved will make me easily forgive the jarring continuity elements and the narrative clumsiness we’ve had so far, and to inscribe the Timeless Child as one of Doctor Who‘s great feats of epic entertainment, alongside the Last Great Time War, Silence will Fall, and most of Tom Baker’s first couple of years on the show.
If that’s the case, I will gladly come back here and eat some major humble pie. In fact, I will have two slices, and I will love it. I will celebrate it.