Warning: Contains Spoilers! BIG Spoilers!
John Lennon is quoted as having once said: “There are no problems, only solutions.” Alas, if one were to apply that quote to The Timeless Children, it would have to be amended to: “There are no solutions, only problems.” For there are problems with this story. Many, many problems… and it’s difficult to know where to begin. I suppose, for the sake of clarity – for we must be clear in these matters – it is best to begin as I always begin, with a précis of the episode.
The Doctor travels through the Boundary with the Master to the ruins of Gallifrey’s Capitol City, then almost immediately allows him to trap her in a force field, where he forces her to watch the scenes from the Matrix that he found out about their home planet (a bit like a conspiracy nut who insists that you watch ‘documentaries’ on YouTube). In the past, you could only access the Matrix via an elaborate headset or through one of 7 mystical doors, but now it seems any Time Lord can just pop in and out at will as easily as going to the corner shop. Blimey, that’d have made The Deadly Assassin a bit easier! See, there was this Shobogan, one of Gallifrey’s indigenous population, who found this abandoned baby while out on her space bicycle and… wait a minute, this is that Irish bloke from last week, isn’t it?
No, it’s the Doctor. Or so the Master claims and though she’s been accusing him of lying right up to this point, the Doctor seems content to accept it. Seems that she was originally the timeless child from another civilisation whose DNA was synthesised to give the Gallifreyans the ability to regenerate and allow them in the fullness of time to become the Time Lords. Yes, he did it. He went there. Chris Chibnall reinvented the origins of the Doctor and the Time Lords and, in doing so, made a lot of old school fans very, very upset. Am I upset? Nah, not unduly; it’s no more epoch-making a revelation than the Cartmel era’s hints that the Doctor was a founder of Time Lord society or the TV movie’s half-human shocker. Doctor Who is a robust series and it can survive just about anything; even as you read this, there are fan authors sitting in dark basements retconning the living hell out of this story!
Meanwhile, Graham, Yaz and those other people (whatever they were called, it doesn’t really matter because they’re pretty much ciphers from here on in) escape from the Cyber ship using a cunning ruse. When Graham suggested they dress up in Cyberman armour, I had to smile; this made me think of Ian climbing inside a Dalek way back in The Daleks (that’s what it’s called, don’t argue). Surely we’d get some Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150ad Robomen style tomfoolery, right? Right? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But no; any comedy value is kept to a minimum because this has got to be DARK. You can’t be taken seriously unless you’re DARK… so it’s back to the Master, who’s about to tell us how he harvested the corpses of the Time Lords he slaughtered. Sleep tight, kids.
Yes, having arbitrarily destroyed Ashad the lone Cyberman with his tissue compression eliminator when he brought a ship full of Cybermen through the boundary to Gallifrey, the Master now plans to use the corpses of the Time Lords to create an army of Cyber-Time Lords who can regenerate at will. How will their regenerative powers still work after they’re dead? Shut up, you’re not supposed to ask that question! In the classic series, this would probably have been a madcap scheme of the Master’s which he explained to the Doctor, but this is the new series and you have to SHOW everything; hence the Master parades out some frankly ridiculous-looking Cyber-Time Lords in high metal collars and velvet capes that he has managed to single-handedly design and manufacture in the space of a couple of hours. Honestly, they’re very, very silly and the story could have done without them. We could just have had regular Cybermen with the powers of Time Lords, of course, but you know the Master – he likes his armies to drezzzzzz for the occasion.
The Doctor has a flashback of all her different regenerations, which comes across like fan fiction at its most blatantly self-indulgent and is accompanied by the Doctor Who theme. This is the first time that the theme in totum has been used as a piece of incidental music and I can see why because it really made me cringe. Sorry, I know some people said it sent shivers down their spine but I just didn’t feel it. She sees the Ruth Doctor in the Matrix too, but she seems to have as little idea of what’s going on as she does – so that’s helpful, thanks for that. After almost an entire episode of just standing about looking drowsy, the Doctor eventually gets her arse into gear and runs off after the Master. In a single feature-length episode, you could probably get away with the Doctor being in a state of torpor for so long, but when that inactivity is taking up about two thirds of a whole episode, albeit an unusually long one, it starts to noticeably drag.
Eventually, the Doctor realises that the only way she can stop the Master from taking his evil plan into the universe is with some kind of killer isotope thing retained within the shrunken body of Ashad. So she tapes a Comet Miniature of the Lone Cyberman to a bomb and is about to sacrifice herself in order to stop the Master when Ko Sharmus (remember him?) turns up to take her place. Hands up everyone who thought that Ko Sharmus was going to be the Timeless Child? Or Rassillon? Or anyone that would have added some kind of dramatic twist to the story? But no, he’s just a bloke with a bee up his kilt about the Cybermen. So, Ko Sharmus blows up the Cybermen and the Master while the Doctor and her (extended) fam escape in a variety of handy TARDIS’s that happen to be hanging about the place. And Captain Jack…? Well, he wasn’t in this episode.
The fam and the displaced survivors of the human race return to Earth and the Doctor traces her own TARDIS back to the far future. She’s sitting in her console room gathering her thoughts when, ZAP! A squadron of Judoon transmat into the TARDIS (can you do that?) and place her under arrest for crimes against continuity (or something). The last we see of the Doctor is her gazing forlornly out into space from the window of some kind of giant Space Alcatraz, like Sapphire and Steel only with more CGI. ‘Doctor Who will return,’ we are reliably informed; ‘in Revolution of the Daleks!’ That’s a Christmas (or New Year) special apparently, which was sprung on us when we were all expecting to wait another 18 months for the next episode of Doctor Who. I’d like to think that it would continue on and answer some of the questions left hanging by The Timeless Children, but from past experience of Christmas Specials, I suspect this is probably not the case.
So, that was the climax of Season 12 and I have to be honest and say that it was a bit of a let-down. In his eagerness to emulate the work of Russell T. Davies, Chris Chibnall seems to have unfortunately emulated The Sound of Drums, the previous bearer of the ‘Worst Season Climax’ title, which similarly followed a strong Part 1 with a Part 2 that went seriously off the rails. I’m not going to judge the episode on the revelations about the Doctor’s past, because we don’t honestly know if that particular story has ended yet; but I will judge on the fact that it promised so much that it simply did not deliver. I was expecting to see Jack, who didn’t appear. I was expecting to see Ruth, who only appeared as an unsatisfying cameo. I definitely think that there are still answers to be had from the former; he famously said in Fugitive of the Judoon, “They sent this thing back through time,” but I still don’t know if that referred to the Cyberium, Ashad or the Timeless Child. I’m hoping that we get to see Jack in the next season, or even better, the Christmas Special.
I’m gonna be controversial here and say that I hope this is the last we see of the Master. This is no criticism of Sacha Dhawan, who’s a great actor and does excellent work with what he’s given but I’ve never really liked the way the Master has been developed in the new series. Ever since Last of the Time Lords, all of the showrunners have been intent on turning him into the Joker; a demented force of nature who’s so crazy you don’t know what he’s going to do next. For God’s sake, they’ve even started dressing him like the Joker and I was wondering why that scene of him encouraging the Doctor to take his life was so familiar, until I realised that it’s a direct rip from The Dark Knight! Besides the fact that the ‘mad clown’ villain is a hoary old cliché in modern film and TV, I don’t really think that the idea of a baddie who’s evil because he’s mentally ill sits comfortably with Doctor Who; especially not when the series has been trying so sincerely to raise awareness of mental illness in this particular run of stories.
Now, I’ll give Chris Chibnall the benefit of the doubt; his predecessor left holes like a Swiss cheese all over the Doctor Who universe which, despite endless opportunities, he never saw fit to resolve. Chibnall has at least another year as showrunner and he can set this straight, answer some of these new questions and leave the series in the condition in which he found it. On the whole, Season 12 was a quantum leap ahead of Season 11, but when it stumbled, it fell HARD. The Timeless Children was a very disappointing end to a strong run of episodes, too tied up in its own cleverness to give a decent amount of action to its regulars and almost sweeping its guest characters under the rug. I can’t help drawing comparisons with the end of the third series, The Sound of Drums; there, like here, you had a really strong series capped off with an over-indulgent, ill-plotted and disappointing finale, but RTD managed to pull it round for the fourth season. I’m hoping that Chris Chibnall can pull a similar trick here because Season 12 had a lot going for it and Jodie Whittaker is a great Doctor with, for the most part, a great TARDIS crew (though it could do with being smaller). More like Fugitive of the Judoon and The Haunting of Villa Diadata, less like Orphan 55 and The Timeless Children, and I think you could have a winning formula for Doctor 13 in Season 13. Let’s try and make that a lucky number, eh?