Sunday, 1 March 2020

WHO REVIEW: 12-10 - The Timeless Children

So, has the whole of Doctor Who canon been blown open, irrevocably altered for ever so that nothing will be the same again?

Well, no, but it has been played with, enriched, and spun around. The thing is, Doctor Who has never really had a canon, per se. There's no specific, official edict as to what "counts," what is apocryphal, and what we should take as part of the "truth" of the story. Pretty much everyone agrees that if it's on TV, it's a part of "real" Doctor Who, although some still-angry fans refuse to accept anything since 2005, or even 1996. Even if we ignore the hundreds of books, audios, comic strips, video games, stage plays and sweet cigarette cards, there are still over eight hundred episodes broadcast over fifty-six-and-a-third years. The Doctor Who backstory has been rewritten and added to so many times it's barely coherent as it is.


In fact, the revelation that the Doctor is the Timeless Child makes it easier to accept the bits that clash. Any version of the Doctor, pretty much, can exist somewhere in the Doctor's timeline. With apparently limitless regenerations, we can include the Doctor Ruth (aka Doc Martin), Merlin, the Curator, Nick Scovell, whoever you like, as somewhere in the Doctor's past and future. 

I kind of love this. It's hard, as a fan steeped in the lore, to accept a whole new element of backstory, but we've had similar revelations in the past. How does the Doctor being half-human in the TV movie fit with anything? Why was the War Doctor never even glimpsed before his sudden reveal in "The Name of the Doctor"? Retcons are part and parcel of the series. If the Doctor is the Timeless Child, there are more questions than answers, but they're interesting questions. If the Doctor isn't originally Gallifreyan, where are they from? How many lives have they had? Just why is the TARDIS  police box anyway? Has it always been the same TARDIS? Was the gifting of extra regenerations on Trenzalore just a fakeout?

There are elements that bother me, it's true. I'm all in favour of the Doctor having incarnations that aren't male or white, but the Doctor was a white British guy for so long that it seemed that this was the default form, and that they were finally breaking away from that. Now we find out they started female and black, with a major incarnation of that type travelling through space and time long before the Doctor we recognise as the first. As much as I love the final, concrete confirmation that the faces in The Brain of Morbius were the Doctor after all (because of course they bloody were), is there some reason the Doctor spent at least twenty-one regenerations as a white bloke?

I do dislike the idea that the Doctor was the Doctor before Hartnell, not because it's somehow disrespectful to Hartnell - he'll always be the First Doctor, nothing can change that - but because that Doctor's story showed him learning to become the Doctor we know. There's an important evolution for the character being ignored otherwise. It's not earlier incarnations that bother me, but that they were already being the Doctor, not Theta Sigma or whatever. However, we seem to have confirmation that the Doctor was returned to childhood by the Time Lords when their memory was wiped, and had to start again, so that story can still have weight and value even if there were pre-Hartnell Doctors. And anyway, maybe they were all bastards. They did work for the shifty Time Lord "Division" after all.

Another thing that bothers me is how extra special the Doctor's being made again. Chibnall's Who seemed to be moving away from the idea that the Doctor was a godlike figure woven through the fabric of the universe and back to being some old traveller just doing their best. This episode makes them the most important Time Lord of all, and basically immortal to boot. It's not like this is the first time the show's done something like this - the old Cartmel Masterplan hints, the Other in the books, the rampant mythologising of the character in the late Moffat years - but it's still something I'm not a massive fan of. I like it when the Doctor's just some bloke (or bird) wandering about, getting caught up in stuff and acting the hero because it's the right thing to do.

Nonetheless,  Doctor Who has had endless rebirth written into its very makeup since 1966, since that groundbreaking first regeneration. Different conceptions of the character can co-exist. This has formally built the immortality of the character into the show itself, and it's a gift to fans who want it all to count. Peter Cushing? Another incarnation with a dodgy chameleon arch, naturally. Rowan Atkinson? Just the ninth incarnation of that particular run of regenerations. You favourite Doctor, invented for your own fanfic? Absolutely part of the story, somewhere, somewhen. The Doctor has truly become unbound.


All that rambling, and I've not actually addressed the episode itself. It's part two, so it's always going to be a little disappointing, and the actual storyline set up in part one was massively overshadowed by the big revelation. While I enjoyed the trip through Gallifrey's murky past in the Matrix, it was incredibly exposition heavy. Thankfully, Sacha Dhawan's Master manages to make even exposition bombs entertaining. There are bits of Simm and Gomez in there, both in the writing and the performance, but Dhawan's gift is in balancing the sinister and the over-the-top perfectly. One thing that worked really well for me was the Master's reasons for going off the rails again and wiping out the Time Lords. Given the blood on his hands and the gleeful trail of destruction he's left across the universe, it was hard to see how anything the Time Lord's could have done could have snapped him like that. Turns out, it's just because there's a bit of the Doctor in him, and he hates that. The Time Lords showed him that the Doctor was special, and he's jealous, and that's totally in character.

The Cybermen are kind of wasted in part two. Ashad's mad rambling plan is revealed to be just that, but again, I rather love it. His desire to make the Cybermen purely mechanical is both a complete reversal of what makes them such an effective concept, but also a logical endpoint of their philosophy. I love that the Master just says, "What, you want to be robots?" and points out how rubbish that is. Then simply cuts down Ashad with no flair whatsoever (it really was stupid of the guy to admit that he'd need killing to release the Cyberium). The Master basically stepped into a Cyberman story and took it over. The Cyber-Masters, as I think we're calling them, are a fun idea, and having the Master create his own Cyber army out of the Time Lords is in line with his ambitions. It's logistically flawed - how were they able to regenerate if he'd killed them dead before, and what's to stop them being vapourised or whatever? - but it's a fun escalation of the story's threat. They also look completely ridiculous, but in exactly the right way.

All the fam got great material to work with, and I was surprised to see them all make it through alive. The little heart-to-heart between Graham and Yaz was gorgeous. Pretending to be Cybermen was ridiculous, especially considering all the scooping out they'd have to do, but given that the series' second serial ever had Ian climbing into a Dalek casing and doing a staccato voice to facilitate a prison break, it's hardly out of keeping with Doctor Who's rigid approach to plotting. I find it ahrd to believe that Ryan is a better shot than any of the Cybermen. The guest cast became almost completely forgettable, excepting Ian McElhinney as Ko Sharmus, who brought a lot of war weary charisma to the role. I was disappointed, at first, that he turned out to be just some guy, but on reflection, this was pretty perfect. If he'd turned out to be yet another Doctor and regenerated into Jo Martin, or something, it would have been too much.

What was the point of the Ireland stuff, though? Such a fascinating part of the first episode, this part reveals it was all just a filter for the Doctor's experiences as a youngster. Given that none of it was real, it makes it all seem rather pointless. I was hoping for something more impactful from that storyline. It might had made more impact if we'd had any indication that the Doctor was experiencing these visions before, or if they'd been seeded earlier in the season, as Dr. Ruth was. As it is, they're rather a damp squib.

In the end, making the Doctor the Timeless Child was the most obvious thing that could have happened, but perhaps the only thing that could have made the build-up and mystery worthwhile. Everything else in the episode, entertaining as it was, was secondary to this revelation. Given that it has the built-in get-out clause of being told by the Master, whose words are always suspect, it remains to be seen how much impact it will have in the long term.

For now, though, Doctor Who's had a major shake-up, but not one that will stop the adventures carrying on. "Revolution of the Daleks" - a lovely old school title - is up next, for Christmas or New Year's, and the fam will have to get back in their house-shaped TARDIS and rescue the Doc. That couldn't be Shada, could it?

Further thoughts:

I don't know why, but the Doctor apparently dying of old age on Trenzalore in the original timeline really is bothering me. Maybe because he thought he had run out regenerations, he didn't regenerate, like a subconscious refusal to regenerate? And the Time Lords' little blast simply triggered the regeneration for him?

The Valeyard makes less sense than ever now.

The numbering of the Doctors is pretty meaningless in universe now, but it's still valid when referring to the series' leads. Taking everything into consideration, the Whittaker incarnation is the Doctor's thirtieth regeneration at least. (Seven childhood incarnations seen, so at least six regenerations before they even left Gallifrey, eight Morbius incarnations, fifteen seen on the actual series proper, including two regenerations for Tennant, and the Jo Martin version.)

What happened to the Doctor along the way to make them so bad at regeneration? As a kid they seem to regenerate without any bother whatsoever, whereas these days it takes them a full story and a bout of amnesia to get through it.

How does Rassilon factor into all of this? Is Tacteun an earlier version of him, or did he come along and take all the credit? And is the Division the same thing as the Celestial Intervention Agency?

I feel like we're supposed to think that Tecteun is somehow noble for giving the hidden memories to the Doctor, but that's after she repeatedly murdered them over and over again for science. That's some pretty serious villainy there.

Um, are humans just extinct in the future now?

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