❉ It’s the end of Series 12 of Doctor Who and nothing will ever be the same again.
“Are you suffering comfortably?”
Many moons ago in 1986, Doctor Who’s executive producer Chris Chibnall, then a rather serious young man, appeared on the BBC magazine programme Open Air and stated that he wasn’t that impressed with that year’s series of Doctor Who, the fourteen episode comeback season The Trial of a Time Lord, which lent heavily on the mythology of the Doctor’s race, the Time Lords. Rather ironic that thirty plus years later, Chibnall delivers a season finale that, surely, must have included the Time Lord equivalent of the kitchen sink.
The Matrix, repository of all Time Lord knowledge has a hidden secret, namely that Shoboogan space explorer Tecteun (Seylan Baxter) discovers an alien being, christened the Timeless Child, which can regenerate into new bodies when she dies.This DNA gift is stolen by Tecteun to create Time Lords, a time-travelling society who develop a black ops organisation called The Division, which interferes in the timelines of other civilizations. Meanwhile, in the present, the Master (Sacha Dhawan) merges with the Cyberium, the repository of all Cyberman data, creates Cybermen/Time Lord hybrids and prepares to release a virulent chemical weapon known as the Death Particle. And then the real biggy:
THE DOCTOR IS THE TIMELESS CHILD AND HAD MULTIPLE LIVES BEFORE WHAT SHE THOUGHT WAS HER FIRST REGENERATION.
She worked for The Division on covert missions and, in the Matrix, the record of those assignments was deleted – and wiped from her memory – but a surviving remnant was disguised (neatly explaining the seemingly random 1950s Ireland sequences in Ascension of the Cybermen), which were transmitted into the Doctor’s mind. To cap all that, Jo Martin’s Doctor from Fugitive of the Judoon turned up to have a motivational chat with Jodie’s Doctor in the Matrix.
With that much backstory (or, less charitably in some quarters, ‘fan wank’), it’s no wonder the Doctor hardly seemed to be in The Timeless Children. Again, that’s rather ironic as the story offered such game-changing revelations about her.
Also making the story unusually structured was the amount of screen time given over to Dhawan’s Master, present in both the flesh and as the Doctor’s virtual tour guide around her hidden history in the Matrix. Look at this one way and Jodie’s Doctor appears marginalised by her arch enemy, but in another light this focus on the Master emphasised how dangerous and perhaps superior to her this incarnation was. I could watch Dhawan’s deliciously entertaining interpretation of the character all day; the addition of a death wish and his angst-ridden admission to the Doctor – “All I am is somehow because of you… I can’t bear that” – giving him considerable depth to work with. When the Doctor did finally enter the fray, there was a real, ominous frisson in her invitation to the Master, “You and me. Matrix Chamber. One last time.” It was bit of a shame, then, that her final confrontation with the him – trying to tempt her to release the Death Particle so she would “Become me” – riffed rather closely to the similar scene between the Twelfth Doctor and Missy at the end of Death in Heaven (2014). Brilliantly played by both actors, though.
On the lower peaks of this mountain of narrative importance, Graham, Yaz and Ryan enjoyed some well directed and well mounted action scenes as they evaded and blew up Cybermen. It was good to see the old ‘hide in a Dalek casing’ ploy applied to the cyborgs, the scene of Ashad (Patrick O’Kane) staring through Cybermen faceplates hiding human eyes well directed, tense and genuinely chilling, even if it didn’t really make sense: linked with the Cyberium, the sum of all Cybermen knowledge, surely he would have known that Graham, Yaz and co. were fakers? (It was also a shame that Ashad disappeared from the story early on, although it was clear from his first meeting with the Master that the latter would run rings think him). And, yes, for once Ryan was given something interesting and exciting to do. The scene where Cybermen appeared on a ridge behind him while he celebrated really made me think his number might have been up. But no…
The supporting cast of rebels given so little to do that they hardly registered at all, although Ravio (Julie Graham) and Yedlarmi (Alex Austin) emerging from a TARDIS disguised as a detached house was a nice touch and nicely played. The sacrifice of Ko Sharmus (Ian McElhinney) explained who sent the Cyberium back in time in The Haunting of Villa Diodati, as well as providing the Doctor with a convenient way out of her stand-off with the Master – she couldn’t bring herself to release the Death Particle, shades of Christopher Eccleston’s The Parting of the Ways (2005) – and a satisfyingly large explosion.
If all that wasn’t enough, the season ends with the Doctor locked up by the Judoon (still looking for her after the events in Gloucester in Fugitive of the Judoon?) in a prison in space.
There’s so much going on in The Timeless Children that I still haven’t processed it properly. Undeniably, Chris Chibnall and his team really have turned creative somersaults to make this year’s season finale leave a lasting impression. This last episode is so ambitious in production terms, as well as it’s iconoclastic approach to the history of the series, that it’s quite staggering – and reassuring – to see how far this series of Doctor Who has come from the seriously lacklustre The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, the concluding episode to Jodie’s first series. The Timeless Children looks bloody great, too, but as to whether it completely works as a piece of drama and a reinvention of Doctor Who… it’s too early to tell.
One thing’s for sure – now, more than ever, the title character really is Doctor Who?
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.