In the tenth and final episode of the twelfth series of Doctor Who, The Doctor finally learns the truth. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of genocide, imperialism, body horror.
So, as a whole, I definitely liked this, and I also reserve my full feelings on this for any eventual explanation of things. I suspect that the special that follows this deals with some of what was left unsaid or unexplained here? But we’ll get more into the potential future for Doctor Who later. I wanted to start this review of the finale with the companions. While I greatly appreciated the emotional story given to us in “Can You Hear Me?”–an episode that actually affected the subplots of this finale, too!–I do think series 12 felt light on companions, even if they were around a lot of the time. They mostly reacted to the plot versus driving it forward. On the one hand, I understand why, especially with such Doctor-heavy storytelling that was going on here. The Doctor still is keeping so many secrets about herself and her home from her companions, so much of the action surrounding the Timeless Child and the mystery version of The Doctor had to occur outside the presence of the companions.
Still, there were two really neat things that happened in this finale that I wanted to call attention to. For what it’s worth, I thought the story and the acting sold the slow devastation the three companions experienced as they realized that The Doctor really was going to sacrifice herself. IT WAS VERY CRUSHING, OKAY. However, what actually stood out to me were the two callbacks to the events of “Can You Hear Me?” As I said in the previous review, it was satisfying to see Yaz and Graham begin to learn from the Doctor and imitate her when she wasn’t around. That’s highlighted here again as Graham comes up with the brilliant (but harrowing) plan to use the Cybersuits to avoid detection and save the others down on the planet where the Boundary was. Both Yaz and Graham are thrown into this nightmare scenario, and despite the terrible odds, they don’t give up.
And lord, does it lead to an incredible scene. Well, also a really scary scene? Because I started worrying about whether or not these people would make it out of this scenario. Here’s one of the wonderful benefits of not ever being spoiled: I DON’T ACTUALLY KNOW WHO SURVIVES AN EPISODE OR A SEASON. And this was a very big, very thrilling season finale, and I wondered if Graham was telling Yaz how much he admired her because something awful was about to happen. LOOK. COMPANIONS HAVE DIED BEFORE. And it was around the Cybermen, too??? It’s not like it was completely out of the realm of possibility! Since I now know that’s not the case, then the scene reads differently to me, and it acts as a wonderful demonstration of how much these characters have grown since they first met one another. But I also can’t ignore how meaningful this had to be for Yaz to hear. Being told that she is unafraid? That she doesn’t give up? After we learned what we learned in “Can You Hear Me?”, this felt so beautiful!!! HELP ME!!!
It’s a much smaller moment, but Ryan fighting off the Cybermen with that bomb and worrying that he was a terrible shot was another great callback to the same episode. Do I want more? Sure. Even if “Can You Hear Me?” wasn’t perfect, it was a much richer experience because we got to see more of the companions’ internal lives, and I hope we get more of that in series 13.
So, I’ve said this at least a couple times before, but I don’t have an emotional attachment to Doctor Who canon. In the past ten years of watching this show (seriously, I watched “Rose” in December of 2010, which genuinely feels like a lifetime ago), I learned all of the NEW canon first, found out firsthand how some of the Classic canon got changed or retconned, and then watched as even the newer stuff got re-molded and re-formed as the show went on. (I feel like there’s a lot of stuff in series 6 and 7 that I barely remember, but definitely confused me.) So: I’m fine with this show changing canon to fit new stories and to play with what we’ve “known.”
I say that knowing full well that is possible that some folks might hate this twist, which completely reinvents the origin of the Time Lords. Actually, now that I say that, I must confess that I’m not even sure I know much about what is canon here. I think the basic knowledge, though, is all that’s needed to understand why this is so upsetting: the Time Lords became the Time Lords through theft.
Because they used to be the Shobogans until an explorer found the Timeless Child, the unknown figure at the center of this entire story. Well, unknown in the sense that we have no idea what species that child is; all we know is that after countless regenerations, they ended up being The Doctor.
Which means that The Doctor isn’t even a Time Lord. They’re a species we’ve never met, who crossed over the mysterious Boundary from another galaxy. “The Timeless Children” doesn’t bother explaining much of this, but I didn’t need it to. I get the sense that either the special that follows this OR series 13 is going to address this canon-shattering revelation.
Instead, this episode focuses on emotions: How does The Master feel knowing this information? How does The Doctor deal with such a disturbing reveal about who they are? In this context, I was absolutely delighted by what this episode did. At no point do we see The Master as a hero, and they’re clearly the villain the whole time. However, The Master’s anger isn’t really challenged. Hell, I bet The Doctor deeply understood the sense of betrayal and rage that he felt! She clearly goes though some form of it, too.
This works because the show doesn’t try to portray this reveal as a noble thing, even if the other Time Lords saw it as one. No, the casual cruelty of what Tecteun did is on full display here. That’s why the title is what it is. Yes, each of these iterations was all part of the same person, but ALL OF THEM WERE CHILDREN. Tecteun experimented on children until EACH OF THEM DIED AND REGENERATED. The script isn’t detailed on whether these deaths were due to “natural” causes or were forced by Tecteun, but does it matter? I don’t think it does. Because years and years and years passed while Tecteun kept that child on her ship, all until she discovered the secret of regeneration. And then she gave it to herself.
She created the Time Lords. She gave birth to the entire system that we’ve known on this show, and for what it’s worth, I think this story actually explains so much of Time Lord society and philosophy. At least in New Who, I’ve gotten the sense that the Time Lords were assholes. I know that’s a simplistic way of viewing them, but The Doctor has always had an antagonistic relationship with them. Yet even what I know of Classic Who is what The Master spells out in this episode: The Doctor was always different. Their origin story–stealing a TARDIS and running away from their home–fits so perfectly within this new canon. The Doctor had no conscious awareness that they’d been experimented on for decades; they had no idea that they were put into The Division, forced to live out entire lifetimes, and then had those lifetimes erased from them!
It makes this both a macro-horror–it is a pretty damning example of imperialism or even cultural appropriation made literal–and a micro-nightmare. Because Time Lords count on their past regenerations to build wisdom. To survive. To be who they are!!! And the Time Lords who were part of The Division STOLE THOSE LIVES. It’s theft of the individual and the whole all at the same time.
The Master’s anger is understandable. He was lied to his entire life. The Time Lords stole their legacy. But there’s another angle here that “The Timeless Children” explores. I’ve generally read The Master as The Doctor’s foil, but also as Time Lord philosophy taken to a terrible extreme. The Master has been a character willing to wield power for their own end and their own end only. Is that all that incompatible with the Time Lords we see in this new past? Not really! But The Master is also someone full of resentment of The Doctor. What would be more crushing than finding out that you literally could not exist without The Doctor? You might be a Time Lord, but even that is entirely dependent on The Doctor’s existence. Of course that would eat The master up inside! And so, I viewed all of his actions through that lens. He delights in cruelty because it’s all he knows anymore. And after what he learned about the Time Lords, he wanted to burn it all to the ground rather than let the Time Lords live one more second.
Purely from a design perspective, I fucking LOVED the CyberMasters. And god, WHAT A FUCKED UP IDEA. The Master destroyed Gallifrey in a rage after learning the truth of their origins. But he saved the bodies of the Time Lords he killed so he could utilize them alongside his plan to combine them with Cybermen to create the perfect army: A PERPETUALLY REGENERATING FORCE! (Or maybe they were limited by 12 regenerations? Or maybe not. Yet even with that limitation, they’d still be a nightmare.) It’s a corruption of both groups, combined for maximum, total destruction.
But that speaks to the core difference between The Doctor and The Master. As this story careens to its horrible climactic scene, every possible solution withers away until one remains: The Death Particle. Hidden within Ashad (but otherwise unexplained), it’s a means of eradicating all organic life on a single planet. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a situation like this on Doctor Who, and it’s honestly a trope that’s probably familiar to a lot of us. There’s something that must be detonated or activated but can only be done by hand or in person. So someone has to sacrifice their life to save the day!
The Doctor takes that upon herself. Look, I got worried here, too! I don’t know if Thirteen’s run is over yet! Or if there is more! So not knowing spoilers also works against my emotional well-being sometimes!!! I say that even though I guessed correctly that Ko Sharmus would sacrifice himself. But what was more important here was seeing The Doctor brought to that point. Would she use the Death Particle on all the CyberMasters AND The Master? Would that be against her own personal morality, or would she do it to save the rest of the galaxy? And the truth is that she couldn’t bring herself to do it! Like The Master, there really was a moment there when I thought she was going to press that trigger. And while Ko Sharmus has a somewhat interesting reason for sacrificing himself, I actually really wanted to know more about the group that found the Cyberium and sent it into the past. But actually… that’s a good segue to move on to one last part.
The Future of The Doctor
I think I’ve established in many reviews across many projects that I don’t need things answered for me. I love pieces of future stories left behind in the past. This episode definitely ties up a lot of the arc introduced in “Spyfall.” But there’s so much more to explore! What was the point of The Division beyond intervening in time? Why intervene where they did? Why was all of that erased? How did the Time Lords of The Division manage to make The Doctor into a child? Because we know The Doctor grew up on Gallifrey! There is very important canon attached to that!
We know from The Master’s summary that The Doctor’s memories post-The Division are all real, and I have no reason to think The Master lied about any of that. The truth was painful enough, and The Master wanted to hurt her. The Matrix provided him with everything he needed.
Still, I would like to know more. Most of what I needed resolved in series 12 was addressed, but there is one awkward element of this all. Who the hell is Jo Martin’s version of The Doctor? They’re an adult, so… after The Timeless Child grew up? Before the Doctor we know as the First Doctor? Why don’t we know anything else?
That Doctor serves only one purpose here: to provide Thirteen with advice. Which has an uncomfortable connotation that I don’t think anyone considered or did on purpose, but I couldn’t ignore that this was a Black woman showing up not to get any character development for herself but to assist someone else. Again, I don’t know what Chris Chibnall and company are planning for this character. I assume we’ll see her again, and I also think this episode was already crowded as it was. How would it have felt if we’d had another subplot jammed into it?
Anyway, just a thought. I want to see more of this past of The Doctor. Maybe that’s why she was arrested by the Judoon in the final moments of “The Timeless Children.” Maybe it’s coming in the future. This series has been a lot of fun and also deeply stressful, but I’ve also enjoyed it. I NEED MORE! What about Captain Jack Harkness? I kind of expected him to be in this as well. ANYWAY: I am sure many of you have thoughts on this huge change to canon, so I’m turning it over to y’all. LET’S DISCUSS.
As a reminder, the next review marks the start of me watching Steven Universe Future! I hope you’ll join me.
The video for “The Timeless Children” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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