Let’s start with the big-picture stuff. The Timeless Children was fun to watch, but more than that: fascinating. It’s full of interesting ideas, and they all pretty much make sense. The rewriting of Time Lord history accords well with what we have come to learn of that race’s mendacious tendencies, and the Doctor’s discovery of her own pre-Hartnell history makes perfect sense.
The Master’s role is crucial, his plan truly horrible; the Irish policeman’s story from last week plays into the big reveal in a perfectly cromulent way; and the reappearance of Ruth Clayton from Fugitive of the Judoon was welcome and not overcooked. I particularly liked how everything she said was reflecting back to the Doctor things she already knew.
And there were lots of extra little touches to enjoy, too. The dawning realisation of the Doctor’s line “She’s clever. I‘m clever. We’re all clever!”. The Master’s annoyance on realising he should have said “somebody needs to cut you down to size” before minaturizing the lone cybermen. The not-really-relevant but fun visual echo of old Ben Kenobi edging around the tractor-beam control column to avoid being seen by stormtroopers back in Episode IV. Oh, and of course the non-reappearance of Captain Jack.
All of which makes this the most satisfying and coherent season finalé at least since Series 10’s World Enough And Time/The Doctor Falls, and probably since Matt Smith’s The Wedding of River Song, back in Series 6. This is not at all what I expected when I reluctantly started watching this series, more out of duty than anything, after the train-wreck of Series 11’s climax.
And yet and yet and yet.
It bugs me, it can’t help but bug me, that crucial plot points went so completely unexplained. How did the Doctor and co. get off the expoding cyber-ship and into the Citadel? Why was the Death Particle, initially able to destroy all organic life, downgraded when convenient to only destroying the organic life on a single planet? Why was there a handy TARDIS waiting around for the Doctor to use, and how was she able to get into it?
And, less important in plot terms but crucial for the series’ pretensions to being (among other things) serious drama: Graham’s heartfelt speech to Yaz would have been genuinely moving, were it not that nothing that Yaz has done in this series or the last justified it. She’s been no more or less outstanding than Ryan, or than Graham himself. It would have worked beautifully as the capstone to a real arc for Yaz; but in the complete absence of such an arc, it fell disappointingly flat. A climax in search of a build-up.
Still, all this is relatively small potatoes when put alongside how much did work.
As we come to the end of series 12, I count three or four really good episodes (maybe Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, Fugitive of the Judoon, Can You Hear Me?, maybe Ascension of the Cybermen, and The Timeless Children), which is three or four times as many as series 11 (giving half a mark each to Rosa and Demons of the Punjab). And only two real stinkers (Orphan 55 and Praxeus), which admittedly is two more than I would like but again a big step forward from series 11.
So am I sold on the Chibnall/Whittaker Doctor Who? Well, no, not completely. I think the present series only looks as good as it does following on from such a weak one, and it’s still nowhere near the level of even the weakest Tennant or Smith seasons. But it’s recognisably an attempt to do Doctor Who and to work with proper ideas that have meanings and consequences. Whittaker is still, I am afraid, the weakest of all the New Who doctors, with a limited range and little sense of gravity, and Chibnall is still by far the weakest of the three show-runners. But for all that, I enjoyed this enough that I expect to watch the next series (and will go back and retro-review Resolution, the 2019 New Year special some time.)
What should change for series 13? Sadly, my answers are the same they were at the end of series 12: a better show-runner would be nice; since we know we won’t get that, then at least less Chibnall involvement in the writing. A better Doctor would be nice, but we won’t get that, either. And failing these changes, pruning down the cast of companions would really help. I’ve not been able to avoid seeing rumours that Tosin Cole (Ryan) or Bradley Walsh (Graham) might be leaving Doctor Who; it’s not their fault, but I’d welcome either going, or even both. It might leave Yaz enough space to go back and earn that speech from Graham.