Doctor Who: The Timeless Children Review

Also, Doctor Who in a quarry. A totally original setting, that.

It’s time to wrap up the season — and give my final rankings of all the episodes — with The Timeless Children. Warning: Spoilers lurk within.

Before I start, it’s traditional for me to offer up some spoiler space to the gods.

Or, to be more accurate, some spoiler space to those who may have clicked on this review before seeing The Timeless Children. My reviews don’t hold back on the spoilers, and this episode, more than any other this season is packed full of lots of details I simply can’t dance around for the sake of avoiding spoilers. So if you go past the YouTube video, I’m taking it as consent to get fully spoilery.

Well… that was a hell of a ride. I can very much see The Timeless Children splitting fandom far more than anything else that Chris Chibnall has attempted during his time as Doctor Who showrunner, because he certainly didn’t hold back in terms of rewriting some key parts of the TV show canon.

Also, Doctor Who in a quarry. A totally original setting, that.
Also, Doctor Who in a quarry. A totally original setting, that.

I’m leaving the book/audio/videogame/etc canon out of this equation, mind you, although I did write up something of a side thought on some obscure callbacks over at Gizmodo in the episode.

But if The Timeless Children is going to split fandom firmly down the “It was superb” and “It was irredeemable rubbish” lines — and I can already hear the rumbling of a million different fan opinions clashing as I write this — then I guess I should make my position clear on the big moves in this episode, which ultimately are ones that affect The Doctor herself.

I’m OK with them. There are some structural issues with this episode that I wasn’t entirely satisfied with, but if your ire is raised around the more central role that The Doctor now plays in Time Lord history, I don’t quite see it, for two very simple reasons.

Firstly, there’s the fact that The Master clearly has control of The Matrix, and, as we’ve seen before that means that he can flat out lie. Future writers could retcon the whole idea so fast it would make Alpha Centauri’s eye spin, but I don’t think they’ll do that.

It's not every megalomaniac that can pull off an outfit with purple socks, but The Master makes it work.
It’s not every megalomaniac that can pull off an outfit with purple socks, but The Master makes it work. Mostly because of the Tissue Compression Eliminator in his pocket. Would you argue with him?

Instead, I think it rests on the discussion that the Doctor has with Doctor Ruth, and the realisation that finding out something about your past does not in fact define who you are in the future. Are there stories of The Doctor that even she doesn’t know about? Sure, it creates that possibility, but in the exact same moment it makes it clear that it doesn’t entirely matter in terms of the person that The Doctor has chosen to actually be.

So, with that out of the way, it turns out that the actual episode itself follows a very simple structure. The Doctor and The Master head to Gallifrey through the mysterious Boundary, which I could have sworn was meant to open to a different place every time last episode but now seems stuck on the Citadel, while Ryan, Graham and Yaz deal with — and don’t deal with — the incoming Cyber-invasion.

Ashad had big plans for the elimination of all organic life. Sadly, he came up short.
Ashad had big plans for the elimination of all organic life. Sadly, he came up short.

Half-converted Cyberman Ashad ends up basically being the Master’s pawn, both figuratively and literally once he’s shrunk down to size, and I’m a little surprised that the Cyberium didn’t warn him about The Master. If nothing else, they crossed paths in The Five Doctors, although I guess there’s an argument that the Cybermen in that story weren’t able to transmit anything back to central cybercontrol while they were stuck in the Death Zone.

"Strike a pose, there's nothing to it, vogue, vogue, vogue... I mean DELETE DELETE DELETE! Damn! Can I have another go?"
“Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it, Vogue, Vogue, Vogue… I mean DELETE DELETE DELETE! Damn! Can I have another go?”

Sascha Dhawan is really growing on me as The Master too, although the strong focus this story gives him does show a few cracks in his performance. Possibly dialling back the John Simm-style cackling a little — which worked very well for Simm but doesn’t come off as quite so creepy when Dhawan does it — and he’d be truly excellent. It’s certainly believable that he’d be royally pissed off discovering that he’s essentially part “Doctor”, given how the bond between them has always been based on how he’s the absolute opposite of the Doctor.

It also probably hurts knowing that he’s got 12 regenerations only — though he has skipped through that a few times — but The Doctor appears to be effectively immortal as far as we can tell.

"And then... you'll love this... he says 'But Doctor, I AM Pagliacci!"
“And then… you’ll love this… he says ‘But Doctor, I AM Pagliacci!”

And ultimately it’s Jodie Whittaker’s performance, aided by Jo Martin’s surprise reappearance that makes this episode work. Whittaker’s acting choices are very subtle here, moving from anger at The Master through to realisation and ultimately acceptance, and I’m here all day for that kind of quality acting. I could be slightly miffed that the “everything you know is a lie” turns out to be “The Gallifreyans got their regeneration powers from elsewhere”, but ultimately I’m not, and a lot of that comes down to how well Jodie Whittaker handles the Doctor’s acceptance of her backstory here.

"And now, the final 'Master' stroke of my evil plan: You shall be trapped in leftover parts of the Top Of The Pops set FOR ETERNITY!"
“And now, the final ‘Master’ stroke of my evil plan: You shall be trapped in leftover parts of the Top Of The Pops set FOR ETERNITY!”

Which is not to say that there aren’t problems with the story.

I totally and absolutely cannot understand why Ashad can come literally eye to eye with humans hiding in Cyber-suits and not realise that they’re human. Sure, it’s a nice jump scare moment in itself, but it doesn’t stand up to any kind of logical scrutiny.

Equally baffling; I get why The Master goads The Doctor with the Death Particle and the bomb simply to see if she’ll use it, because it’s an exceptionally Master way of looking at the world.

I don’t get for a second how and why he simply allows Ko Sharmus to walk in and grab the exact same weapon from the Doctor, let her escape and only THEN think to perhaps shoot him? One blast from the tissue compression eliminator as he’s coming in down the stairs and the Master wins without exception.

Still, this was a fun ride, and that’s what I want out of Doctor Who. Well, that and no more episodes like Orphan 55, anyway.

Random thoughts and observations (there will be a few of these)

  • I wasn’t the only one who thought Ko Sharmus would turn out to be Tecteun in a later regeneration, was I?
  • OK, Chibnall, you got me. I didn’t think for a second that Brendan the Irish Cop was in fact The Doctor. Nicely played.
  • Ryan’s callback moment with the bomb was nicely handled, although the sudden appearance of extra Cybermen behind him felt cheap.
  • I do have a problem with the Doctor accepting Ko Sharmus’ sacrifice, but not for the reasons you might think. If the Death Particle (silly name, but I can let that go) goes off, all organic life on Gallifrey goes with it. The Master has an unknown quantity of still-living Gallifreyans on ice, waiting for Cyber-conversion — it’s not just the 12 or so we see in the chamber with him — which means she’s allowing them all to be killed. Again.
  • Mind you, Chibnall makes it quite explicitly clear that The Master survives this anyway because we hear him escaping.
  • Ko Sharmus spent years sending folks — the last of humanity fleeing the Cybermen — through the Boundary to what we now seem to know was Gallifrey. What happened to them all?
  • I am very partial to the new regular Cyberman designs. Great callbacks to the classic Doctor Who versions without looking too plastic. I’m not quite so keen on the Cyber Time Lords with their metal collars.
  • How the HELL did Captain Jack know about Ashad the Cyberman in the first place? And at what point in the timeframe was he actually from?
  • By my count, there are at least three TARDISes on Earth right now — the house one that Yaz, Ryan and Graham return in, the tree one that the Doctor travels in and then the good old type 40. What’s going to happen to them while The Doctor is in prison? (Yeah, I know, she’s not staying there or anything, but still, that’s a lot of time travel technology just sitting around on an underdeveloped planet!)
  • Am I the only one who thinks that Graham got the short end of the character stick this season? His role has either been as straight comic relief — and to be fair, Bradley Walsh carries that well — or to provide narrative hooks to keep the plot moving along.
  • Speaking of Graham, I can’t be the only one that thought “Hang on, they’re all a different height and weight — how will they all fit into Cybersuits anyway” when his “brilliant” plan of wearing Cybermen was mooted.
  • Our two new space refugees are going to have a HELL of a culture shock stepping back into 21st Century Earth. Either that or they’ll “invent” space travel a few centuries early and rake in all the loot.
  • The Doctor really needs to set up a better teleport lock from within the TARDIS to stop intruders. In one sense, it’s her own fault she’s in Judoon jail. Hey, that’s quite fun to say…

"Graham, aren't we different sizes? How is your middle aged midriff bulge going to fit into Cyberarmour anyway?" "Can we just go back to me saying how wonderful you are?" "Yeah, OK."
“Graham, aren’t we different sizes? How is your middle aged midriff bulge going to fit into Cyber armour anyway?”
“Can we just go back to me saying how wonderful you are?”
“Yeah, OK.”

And until we get Revolution Of The Daleks at either Christmas or New Year’s Day, that’s it for Doctor Who in 2020. Which means it’s time for me to make some hard decisions about the rankings of every episode of this season. As a reminder, you can click on the link for any story to read my thoughts on that particular episode, written week by week as the series progressed.

Here goes…

Rank the episodes of Season 12 of Doctor Who!

  1. Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror
  2. The Haunting Of Villa Diodati
  3. The Timeless Children
  4. Ascension of The Cybermen
  5. Fugitive Of The Judoon
  6. Can You Hear Me?
  7. Spyfall Part Two
  8. Spyfall Part One
  9. Praxeus
  10. Orphan 55

Yep, I changed around my order quite a bit once the entire season was said and done. The Timeless Children was fun, but it wasn’t quite as enjoyable as The Haunting Of Villa Diodati, even though that story effectively serves as the first part of the finale 3 part sequence.

However, that means that they all interlock, and in doing so, I’ve got to judge them by the qualities that bind them. What that means is that Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror jumps up in the rankings to take top spot, ahead of the 3 parter season finale in the order that I think it works best. No, that’s not the order you should watch them in. That would be deeply confusing.

That also slightly shifts everything else in the field down, although overall it’s remarkably close between almost all the stories this season.

Well, except for Orphan 55. Let us never speak of it again.

Next time: Revolution Of The Daleks. At some point in the future. Our future, that is, not The Doctor’s. Although maybe it’s both.

Images: BBC

Author: Alex

Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning Australian technology writer, former editor at Gizmodo, CNET, GameSpot, ZDNet, PC Mag, APC, Finder and as a contributor to the ABC, SMH, AFR, Courier Mail, GadgetGuy, PC & Tech Authority, Atomic and many more. He's been writing professionally since 1998, and his passions include technology, social issues, education, retro gaming and professional wrestling.

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