The Timeless Children is 90% satisfying

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.


15 responses to “The Timeless Children is 90% satisfying

  1. Maarten Daalder

    The biggest problem I had with the season finale is that the Doctor abandoned a completely new Tardis on some random planet. They were talking, this is as if you bought a puppy from the animal shelter and then to go to the nearest forest and tie it to a tree. Couldn’t she have parked the new Tardis inside The Tardis? Surely they could make it work, atleast both Tardises would have some company whenever the Doctor decides to leave the Tardis stranded for another adventure.

  2. That certainly was an unsatisfactory loose end — though they made some effort to tie to up by emphasizing that the chameleon circuit was working and that the Doctor had left it in unobtrusive tree form. Still, I think if that’s the biggest problem you had with The Timeless Children, that suggests it did a lot more right than most of the 13th Doctor episodes!

  3. Two reasons why I thought this was terrible…

    David Whitaker once wrote “the less said about the Doctor the better. It’s his constant air of mystery that makes him what he is.” But subsequent writers couldn’t resist, and they picked away and away at that air of mystery like horderves at a buffet. Finally they’d realise they’d left their lead character naked with an awkward expression and his/her hands over his/her bits.

    So their solution became to blow in a new air of mystery. Like Russian dolls, there could always be a new thing underneath. Yes, we learnt more about Gallifrey than we really should. But what if..? And this is the ultimate in that, in that it claims the Doctor was never a Time Lord in the first place but some strange being mysterious even to them.

    Then admits, even within the same story this supposedly game-changing revelation happened, the best thing the Doctor can do is ignore it, and carry on just as she was. “Does it matter?” Let’s hope not.

    And the whole thing about if the Doctor releases the death particle she’s Doing Just What The Master Wants And Is Becoming Like Him. But it is okay for a minor character to do it, as he’s only around for a couple of episodes anyway. It’s typical Chibnall. Stitch together some cliches we’re so familiar with they just kind of wash over us, and we don’t stop to notice they don’t fit together in any way.

  4. Ah, Gavin, I genuinely love that you disagree with almost everything I ever say about Doctor Who! It keeps it interesting. (I also love that you have started up the Hartnell thread on your blog again.)

    On your second point, I do agree. The Doctor’s bringing the Death Particle bomb to the Master and then not going through with it felt like a re-run of Doctor Chris’s “Killer or coward” moment back in The Parting of the Ways, and having an NPC turn up to do the dirty deed in his place felt cheap. It essentially shows the Doctor to have a Ritual Purity approach to morality: so long as she doesn’t touch any of the Icky Stuff, she can stay pure; having other people do it is OK. Whereas I think most people would agree that it’s morally much more coherent to say that allowing someone else to do her dirty work for her is essentially ethically equivalent to doing it herself — just as hiring a hitman is classified as homicide. It invites the rather unattractive accusation that what’s really going on here is personal gutlessness on the Doctor’s part: she doesn’t mind the Master and all the Time-Lord cybermen being annihilated, she just doesn’t want to get caught in the blast. Hmm. “Coward, any day”.

    On your first point, though, I don’t agree. I just can’t feel as puritanical about this kind of thing as a proper Doctor Who fan ought to. I see the universe as a sandbox to play in, not a Platonic ideal to be preserved. Yes, let shake up the Doctor’s identity and the Time Lords’ origin — just so long as it’s done in a way that is inherently interesting, and I think that here, it is. The idea that the Doctor could get through 57 years of continuity with no-one impairing the sense of mystery seems wholly unrealistic, anyway.

  5. Yeah, I’m generally with you on this – it was generally fun, a bit incoherent and seeded lots of new possible story threads, which is all you could ask for in a season finale really.

    I just still had a problem with the Doctor being fine with genocide; it wasn’t that e.g. the Bad Wolf ‘fixed’ everything or e.g. that Clara talked them out of it, or even that she found a solution*, it was that random character that we had no investment in turned up and offered to push the button instead. I might just about have been willing to buy into it if it had been, say, Graham who had done so (I thought that was what was being set up) but not this way.

    *’Villa’ had ever-so-carefully set up the idea that the Doctor managed to ‘talk’ the Cyberium out of the host; I was fully expecting that to be the get out here and was very disappointed when it wasn’t.

    My other bugbear is the one that has applied throughout the series – that the Doctor and the companions have, too often, been in entirely different and sometimes dangerously unrelated stories. It came to a head in this one, where a whole episode and a half of the threesome in a tense Cyberman story was rendered entirely redundant in a few seconds by the Master. The Doctor hadn’t been remotely involved in that bit of the story and you could have cut it entirely with no real impact.

    (Oh, and what was all that nonsense in Ireland about? Was the Doctor supposed to have been ‘seeing’ those visions of an unknown life? If so, why wasn’t that seeded throughout the series, since Chibnall knew where he was heading and it would have created a lovely diversion for us to speculate about. As it was, in retrospect it felt like he didn’t have enough story to fill a two-parter (but too much for a single episode) and padded it out.)

  6. Scurra, those are two excellent ideas! Graham as the button-pusher would at least have prevented the resolution from being so cheap; and the Doctor talking the cyberium out would have been even better. If only Chibnall had thought to ask you!

    Agree, too, that the companions have often been in very separate threads from the Doctor. I see that as a symptom of the broader problem that there are just too darned many of them (which I admit I do bang on about): there just isn’t enough for them to do when all three are with the Doctor, hence the need to keep breaking the group up.

    (I wouldn’t quite say that Yaz and Graham’s thread, or Ryan’s, was rendered meaningless by the Master, though: they had to stay alive even to get to that point.)

    I disagree entirely on the Ireland thread, though. I thought that was beautiful and relevant and worked really well. In case you didn’t get it, the Doctor was seeing her own early life, as the child who appeared from nowhere, was adopted, joined The Division and eventually had his memory wiped — all of it warped into a form that she wouldn’t understand. I thought that was one of the most effective parts of the whole two-parter.

  7. Suppose I was to suddenly reveal that my name isn’t Gavin, as I’ve always used in our comments, but Arbuthnot. Would you think “how interesting”, or “I’m fascinated to discover what exciting new comments Gavin will leave me now he is Arbuthnot”? Or would it be “I suppose I should make some effort to call him Arbuthnot now”?

    About the only direction I could see this taken in, other than forgotten about, is continuity porn. And as, thankfully, they’re not likely to go down that route I don’t see it takes us anywhere. It’s a revelation for the sake of a revelation.

    Coming soon on my blog – ‘The Sensorites’. Possibly against my own better judgement.



  8. Well, Gavin, rather more is at stake here than someone’s name — the label they use for themselves. My sense of who you are is formed by your writing, not by your use of the name “Gavin”. If your name became Arbuthnot, I would just have a period of disconnection where I had to keep remembering “Oh, yes, that’s the chap who used to be Gavin”, but my sense of who you are would not be fundamentally different — at all.

    Suppose instead you found that you had been adopted. That would be rather more of a surprise to you, I imagine, and could shake your sense of self — as I believe it often does with kids making this discovery for the first time.

    But in the Doctor’s case, it’s more than that: it’s not just that her biological parents are not who she thought, it’s that she is literally from a different species — albeit that the species she thought she belonged to shared much of her genetic material. (Aside: weird how every life-form in the universe turns out to be based on DNA, huh? But I suppose no weirder than that half of them look exactly like humans.)

    So this is potentially a big change, and one with significant psychological ramifications; which is why the Doctor’s choice not to let it be a game-changer was an important, and in retrospect even moving, part of the story. “Have you ever been limited by who you were before?”, asks Ruth (or, rather, the Doctor’s memory of Ruth). “Ah”, she replies, “Now, that does sound like me talking.” Which of course it literally is. The Doctor chooses to find the essence of herself not in a history that she knew nothing about and, crucially, can do nothing about; but in the choices she makes now. That is a courageous, correct and morally sound position to take. And I do wonder how many adopted kids who had been feeling insecure about themselves will take some strength from it.

    None of which is to say that this was executed particularly brilliantly, of course. Dramatically, it’s a duff decision that the Doctor makes that choice more or less immeditately after discovering her own backstory, robbing the decision of much of its power. It would have been much better if she had learned about the timeless child earlier in the episode, and some time to doubt herself before coming to her realisation. As with every Chibnall episode, it’s always easy to see ways it could have been made better without much effort.

    But I think the heart of it was spot on.

  9. “So this is potentially a big change, and one with significant psychological ramifications; which is why the Doctor’s choice not to let it be a game-changer was an important…”

    Mike I think you’re saying both that this is a significant shake-up the the Doctor’s identity, which has changed the series, and that the important thing about it is that it didn’t change anything.

    (I may actually change my name to Arbuthnot. It has a ring to it…)

  10. No; I am saying that the circumstances themselves have the quality of being a game-changer; but that the Doctor’s choice is not to allow it to be so. In doing this — deciding not the let circumstances define her — I think she is both being very Doctorish (much more so than in most of her run) and providing and excellent example to viewers.

  11. Well I still say to-mar-ter.

  12. No, no!

    It’s not a matter of seeing the same thing from two different angles. It’s the difference between “This happened but it’s no big deal” and “This happened and it’s a huge deal; but my decision is not to let it define me”. Doesn’t that, honestly, sound to you like a fundamentally different thing?

  13. Pingback: I suppose I ought to watch the Doctor Who new year special | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  14. Where do you go from here? One of the best parts of watching Doctor Who is reading these reviews after. Has Series 13 happen yet? I am not in the loop anymore.

    In retrospect I didn’t like the retcon here about Doctor not being the Doctor and Hartnell not being the first. Instead of moving forwards they are retconning stuff. Felt more like doubling down on Doctor being female: He was female to BEGIN with and had female incarnations even before Hartnell.

    But all of that doesn’t bug me as much as making Doctor somehow special, a unique entity that isn’t really a Time Lord. Before, he was special because of his actions and choices; Master is a foil of what he could have became if he made different choices. But now he is special because of his birthright or bloodline or origins. This detracts from the character imo.

  15. I agree with pretty much all of that, Wilson. I had my reservations about a female Doctor, and they have not really been assuaged by the last few years of by some distance the weakest episodes since the 2005 revival. I’m not saying it can’t be done well; but I am saying it hasn’t been done well.

    Following from the season that ended with The Timeless Children is a short season called “Flux”. I have watched, I think, one and a half episodes of it before running out of momentum. I will probably go back and catch up at some point, but more from duty than for entertainment.

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