Full spoilers follow for the Doctor Who Season 12 finale, “The Timeless Children.”
After weeks of hype, speculation, and plenty of use of terms like “game-changer” and “epic” and “you better prepare yourselves, we’re not kidding,” the oversized Season 12 finale of Doctor Who, “The Timeless Children,” most definitely delivered. It was, without a doubt, one of the most consequential and seismic events in the whole of the show’s 57-year history, cutting deep into the mythological heart of the central character’s origins as well as the foundation for all previous lore ever presented about the Doctor’s home world, Gallifrey, the Time Lords, and much more besides.
At one point, the Master (played with absolutely infectious glee by Sacha Dhawan) revels in, as he puts it, having “broken” the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker, wrapping up her second season in the role) with the knowledge of her true past. Surely the renegade in the dapper purple outfit would have been even more delighted if he had only seen beyond the fourth wall and realized he’d done more than that…
…he’d also broken Doctor Who history wide open, re-energizing (dare I say regenerating?) the show with so much potential for future exploration of these explosive revelations. It will take weeks, months, maybe even years to process everything that this one episode dropped on its viewers, and more stories in the distant future that will alter, augment, or even annihilate what showrunner Chris Chibnall had the audacity to accomplish here. But for now, if you’re like me and reeling (in a good way, make no mistake) from what we just found out, let’s break it down and sort through what we know and what still remains a mystery. And if you’re one of those fans that believes this has fundamentally destroyed Doctor Who or ruined your childhood, it might be worth reminding you that the show you love is and has always been, at its core, about change. And boy, did it change tonight!
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Who is Tecteun and the Timeless Child?
In this episode, while the rest of the TARDIS team ally with future humans to fight back a horde of Cyber Warriors and the No-Longer Lone Cyberman (Patrick O’Kane), the Master takes the Doctor on a magical journey into the Matrix, a virtual information storage system still existing in the ruins of the Citadel of the Time Lords on Gallifrey. There the evil renegade reveals that the Doctor actually has a secret past as an extra-dimensional “Timeless Child” brought to Gallifrey by an explorer, Tecteun (Seylan Baxter), that then spent years trying to figure out how the alien being was able to naturally regenerate at death and take many different forms.
Eventually, Tecteun distilled that genetic secret, and the Time Lord society we know was formed; in addition, many unknown incarnations of the Timeless Child/Doctor went to work for the Division, a mysterious Gallifreyan organization that interfered in time while the public Time Lord policy claimed to be one of strict non-intervention. Oh, and the Lone Cyberman has a Death Particle with which he intends to wipe out all organic life, and the Master plots to merge Cyber-technology with dead Time Lord bodies to create a zombie army of Cyber-Time Lords that endlessly regenerate.
Got all that? Good.
The Morbius Doctors and the Celestial Intervention Agency Return
There are a number of deep cuts and direct references to swaths of Who history in this; it could be argued (and I will anyway) that this episode does an amazing job of tying many bits of Who lore together into this one big revelatory story. For one thing, we revisit the Matrix, the Time Lord repository of all knowledge and a sort of alternate universe of its own that the Doctor has been in before, and at the mercy of a previous Master too.
The Division itself, that secret organization created to interfere in history and that apparently employed pre-Hartnell incarnations of the Timeless Child/Doctor, may very well be a predecessor of the CIA…no, not that one, the Celestial Intervention Agency, which previously reared its manipulative head from time to time in the old days. We also learn more about the Shobogans, referred to here as the indigenous lifeform on Gallifrey, but previously referred to in disparaging terms by Time Lords in older stories, and also seen as living a rougher life outside the Citadel. Now we know that some of the Shobogans became the Time Lords, leaving the rest of their kind to suffer single and far less luxurious lifetimes. If there’s one thing that does remain consistent with Who history in this story, by the way, it’s that overall, the Time Lords are jerks.
One of this episode’s most mind-blowing moments of fanwank continuity splicing gone mad – and I love them for it – is that during the Doctor’s attempt to bust out of the Matrix, we glimpse all of the Doctor’s past incarnations…including a few mysterious faces seen only once before in the classic story, “The Brain of Morbius.” Back then, they were seen as part of a mental duel between the Doctor and another renegade Time Lord, and although the production team intended them to be pre-Hartnell Doctors, later fan arguing rationalized them as being other incarnations of Morbius. This episode seems to be suggesting that at long last, the so-called “Morbius Doctors” have now been canonized as originally intended, pre-Hartnell lives of our favorite Time Lord.
I have to take a break from the bigger mythological stuff to once more heap praise upon Sacha Dhawan for his pitch-perfect performance as the Master, and offer kudos for the script that he was entrusted to bring to life. This episode may have had some of the most emotionally satisfying interactions between the Doctor and the Master we’ve ever seen, resonating powerfully with similar stories that reach back through Michelle Gomez and John Simm’s incarnations all the way to Roger Delgado, and absolutely capturing the mixture of love and hate that drives their eternal feud.
That this relationship has now been augmented by new revelations that essentially let the Master know the Doctor was special, but even worse, the reason for his very existence as a Time Lord, only increases the tragedy and thrill of their endless struggle to be the last renegade standing. Here’s to many more years of these two failing to put it all to rest (and an extra tip of the hat to the Master for once more contriving to create a race with the beautifully designed clockwork-like Cyber-Time Lords; this time, he truly is a Zombie Master!).
Sidenote: While we’re shouting out performances, a brief additional round of applause for the team of Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Graham (Bradley Walsh), for my money one of the best TARDIS teams in history, but one that has not necessarily been as well served in many stories. This time, however, they all have wonderful moments that highlight how far they’ve come while traveling with the Doctor, emotionally resonant scenes that pay off long-standing character arcs, and it’s a joy knowing we still have them all around for at least one more adventure.
Questions That Still Need Answers in Season 13
While we don’t exactly find out how the Brendan vision from last week fits into all this, we can surmise that it was a cloaked version of events (disguised in that way to hide them in the Matrix) that were happening over and over again for the poor Timeless Child/Doctor as she was mind-wiped and regenerated while serving as an agent of the Division.
We also aren’t certain why Ruth was hiding on Earth as a human, but again, we can suppose that she attempted to escape her work with the Division at one point, only to eventually be recaptured and mind-wiped yet again (she would have to have been, or else we would never get to Hartnell’s Doctor and the history of classic Doctor Who that we already know).
And there are indeed plenty of additional unanswered questions, including where all the other humans escaping from the Cyber Wars went (not, apparently, Gallifrey), how the Boundary works, and of course, where the Timeless Child came from in the first place. But then again, it wasn’t until the end of Patrick Troughton’s run as the Second Doctor that we ever heard the words “Time Lords,” so it takes, well, time. And hey, wait a minute – what was the whole deal with the Kasaavin from the beginning of Season 12? So yes, lots left to explore; here’s hoping we do!
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What Did “The Timeless Children” Actually Change?
Really? Not much at all in terms of ongoing storytelling and the usual weekly adventures. But it does add so much more mystery and potential storytelling to the Doctor’s past – once again, the Doctor is a strange figure from an unknown distant world with an origin that is lost to history (for now) – but as for who the Doctor is as a person, and her dedication to justice and helping the innocent and traveling with hope, that’s all right where it’s always been. And to be fair, this is not the first time that a grander past has been suggested for the Doctor – everything from the “Cartmel Masterplan” (referring to the show’s script editor from 1987-1989) and the idea of “The Other” in the 1990s New Adventures novels attempted to expand upon the Doctor’s origins.
What’s Next? Revolution of the Daleks and the 60th Anniversary
Well, there is that 60th anniversary looming in 2023, and it’s very likely that Chibnall and Whittaker will be saying farewell at that time. So will we get an epic special that includes ancient Gallifrey, the Division, tons of previously unseen Doctors, and a threat to all of time and space? It’s a distinct possibility.
I can’t wait! Oh, and get ready for the 2020/2021 Christmas or New Year’s special (exact date to be announced), “Revolution of the Daleks,” with the whole fam throwing down against the Doctor’s greatest foes! Here’s what Chibnall has to say about that: “We can’t leave the Doctor there! On that cliffhanger! Well, we did. But rest assured, the Doctor and her friends will be back for a one-off extended special around Christmas and New Year. (I don’t know when they’re going to put it on yet, otherwise we’d tell you!). There will be Daleks. There will be exterminations. Thrills, laughter, tears. You know. The usual. See you at the end of the year.”
As for me, I have to lie down for a while. Whew!
Find Arnold T. Blumberg on Twitter at @DoctoroftheDead.
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