REVIEW: “Doctor Who” S12E10 – The Timeless Children

1210Finales are hard to pull off. Especially ones that have as much ground to cover as this one did. Where we last left off, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Ethan (one of the human survivors of the CyberWar, played by Matt Carver) were standing in front of the Boundary, a mysterious gateway between worlds/galaxies guarded by Ko Sharmus (Ian McElhinney), face-to-face with the Master (Sacha Dhawan) who is ready to explain what terrible secret he learned about the Time Lords caused him to destroy the planet. Meanwhile, Graham (Bradley Walsh), Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ravio (Julie Graham), and Yedlarmi (Alex Austin) were trapped on the CyberShip with Ashad/The Lone Cyberman (Patrick O’Kane) and the rest of his Cybermen Army, headed directly toward Ko Sharmus’s planet. With that in mind, The Timeless Children had a lot to tie up: it needed to reveal the secret behind the Timeless Child; it needed to reveal what Ashad’s plan was and how he would be defeated; it needed to reveal who Brendan (Evan McCabe), the mysterious man shown throughout last week’s episode, fit into everything and how the Ruth Doctor (Jo Martin) fit in with the established history of the Doctor; and, most of all, it had to be a good episode. Did The Timeless Child succeed at all of this? Yes and no. It featured a lot of answers that opened the doors to even more mysteries. It uprooted everything we thought we knew about the show before somewhat-disappointingly reverting to the usual status quo. It’s solid, but its ideas need more exploration to really land. (Full spoilers ahead!)

Season 12, Episode 10: The Timeless Children (written by Chris Chibnall, directed by Jamie Magnus Stone)
In the epic and emotional series finale, the Cybermen are on the march. As the last remaining humans are ruthlessly hunted down, Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Yaz (Mandip Gill) face a terrifying fight to survive. Civilisations fall. Others rise anew. Lies are exposed, truths are revealed, battles are fought, and for the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) — trapped and alone — nothing will ever be the same again.

I have some mixed thoughts about this episode. It’s certainly not a bad one, but I can’t really tell how good it is, either. There are a lot of good ideas, but it feels like they’re not explored to their fullest here and I’m not sure I believe that the show will ever fully explore them. The Timeless Child is another of those episodes that are hard to talk about. In all honestly, there’s not a whole lot that happens in the episode. It’s more about the big plot reveals than actual things happening. The bulk of the episode revolves around the Doctor learning about the Timeless Child – more specifically that she is the Timeless Child. Everything else is kind of icing. Sure, The Master is trying to strike a deal with the Cybermen to utilize the Cyberium and Ashad’s death particle (some small particle that can literally kill all organic life) but it sort of doesn’t matter. It’s clear that this episode has one goal: reveal the answers to most (but definitely not all) of the season’s unanswered questions. As a result, everyone and everything else gets shunted to the side, though that’s not entirely a problem.

Before I talk about the problems, I wanna talk about what worked for me. Firstly, the episode had a lot of great visuals. As usual, Jamie Magnus Stone does an excellent job directing this episode. While The Timeless Child features fewer action sequences than Ascension of the Cybermen, the few that it does have are executed very well. Stone has a good eye for grounding action scenes in the experiences of the characters performing the actions, demonstrated perfectly in the scene where Ryan successfully blows up a squadron of Cybermen. But aside from the action, this episode features many sequences inside the Matrix – a sort of virtual reality repository of all Time Lord knowledge. In these scenes, the Master shows the Doctor the history of the Timeless Child. These scenes grant Stone the opportunity to deliver some trippy images. Though not quite as trippy as some of the nightmare scenes in Can You Hear Me, Stone’s depiction of the Matrix feels every bit as surreal as you’d hope it would be and it’s definitely a highlight, visually. Equally good are the performances from all of the actors. While it’s definitely the Doctor and Master show, everyone involved in the episode gives a very solid performance and that’s always a joy to see.

What is a problem is the episode’s structure; it’s really weird and disjointed. It’s split between two plotlines: the humans trying to survive the Cybermen and the Master trying to show the Doctor all there is to show about the Timeless Child. Obviously, the latter plotline is far more interesting than the former and it proved rather frustrating every time the show would cut from one to the other. Every time the show cut away from the Master/Doctor plotline, it lost a good chunk of steam and nothing that was going on with the companions and the Cybermen proved interesting enough to justify cutting away from the Master and the Doctor. Everything with the companions was just your normal “we have to survive the Cybermen” stuff and it just wasn’t super interesting. Even Ashad, who had been such a menacing threat in the previous two episodes, gets completely shoved aside after a few minutes of screen time, getting shrunk by the Master as part of his grand plan. Sure, Graham and Yaz got some nice moments early on, but the bulk of the cast in the episode very quickly faded into the background and proved to be more of a distraction than an enjoyment.

What was an enjoyment (or, at least, mostly an enjoyment) was everything involving the Master and the Doctor. While many of their scenes feel exposition-heavy and lean a bit too hard into talking instead of showing, they’re easily the highlights of the episode. As I said earlier, the visuals inside the Matrix were suitably trippy but more importantly, Dhawan and Whittaker’s performances were unbelievably impressive. Their story is clearly the one Chibnall wanted to focus on during the episode and the two of them are given a lot of material to play with. While I’m still not sure Chibnall entirely has a grasp on The Master, especially one set after Missy’s redemption arc, it’s hard to deny how electric Sacha Dhawan is in the role. He brings this really deep melancholy to the character that feels really appropriate, given everything he’s learned. And in this episode, that melancholy borders on suicidal anger as we get to see how hurt he is by the reveal that one of he is literally made from some of the Doctor’s DNA. As he says in the episode, the Doctor always acted like they were special so it’s infuriating for that to prove correct. Their relationship and the way they both push each other to their extremes ranks among the most interesting parts of this episode, even if the Master’s actual plan (to use the Cyberium as a way of turning all the dead Time Lord bodies into Cybermen who can regenerate) feels even more half-baked than usual. I’ll take some silliness if I can get some really meaty emotions and this episode is full of emotion.

All of which brings us to the big reveal about the Timeless Child. I’ll give Chibnall this: he managed to explain a whole lot without actually explaining much. We have a new story for the creation of Gallifrey – Tecteun (Seylan Baxter), one of the earliest Gallifreyan scientists and space explorers, found the Boundary on her space travels. Underneath the boundary was an abandoned little girl. Tecteun adopted the little girl and brought her back to Gallifrey. Soon, the girl suffered an accident – falling off of a cliff and seemingly dying – only to regenerate out of nowhere, being the first person on Gallifrey to do so. Tecteun then dedicated her life to understanding how this child was able to regenerate, eventually managing to isolate the part of the child’s DNA that caused this regeneration, extract it, and implant it into the DNA of the Gallifreyan elite, thus creating the Time Lords. The identity of this child? None other than the Doctor, herself, proving that the Doctor is not actually a native Gallifreyan. (A quick note, it’s revealed here that all that stuff with Brendan was basically just some weird filtered memories left (presumably) by Tecteun to help the Doctor piece together the truth of her life.)

To be clear, none of these reveals or “lore changes” bother me. In fact, I think a lot of them are really interesting. Chibnall has succeeded in adding some new mysteries to the character of the Doctor while also clarifying a bit more about her past. There’s something really exciting about all the possibilities this reveal opens up for the Doctor. We could see any number of previous, unseen Doctors appear at any time. We could learn more about the Doctor’s time with the Division. There is so much that could be done and it’s intensely exciting. Where I think all of this falls flat is that it feels like it doesn’t matter. While there’s something empowering about the Doctor deciding that her past doesn’t define her, from a narrative point of view, it sort of undercuts the weight of the reveal. If learning this information isn’t going to matter or change things at all, then why bother? Yeah, there are literally untold numbers of pre-Hartnell incarnations of the Doctor wandering around the universe, but what are the odds the show will really touch on any of those besides the Ruth Doctor – whose part in all of this is left frustratingly ambiguous, as is everything with Gat and this mysterious Division. I’m hoping those latter things will be touched on in future stories (especially given that this year’s holiday special will have to deal with how the Doctor escapes from the Judoon, who are only after her for Ruth/Division-related reasons).

But as for the rest of these ideas? I doubt they’ll end up mattering that much. They already don’t seem to matter that much by the episode’s end. I don’t see Gallifrey’s newly revealed history having any major impact on the show. The Time Lords have always been pretty lousy and this doesn’t really change that – especially since Gallifrey is still destroyed. Nor do I think the Doctor learning she’s the Timeless Child will have much of an impact on her character. And that’s a problem I’ve actually had with this season in general – none of the big reveals having much of an impact on the characters. In Fugitive of the Judoon, the 13th Doctor learns she has an earlier incarnation she doesn’t remember. And then in the next two episodes, she doesn’t really talk or think about this at all. It doesn’t seem to have had any impact on her. And that seems really unlikely. So, in that context, why should we think the reveals in this episode will be treated any differently next season? It’s clear that Chibnall wants to stick to a 90’s-style hybrid of episodic and serialized TV where there are ongoing arcs that are only mentioned in certain episodes and are completely ignored in others. And given how quick The Timeless Children reset itself to the normal status quo, I just don’t see the show being too concerned with exploring these ideas much further, which is a huge shame considering how interesting they are. It makes the whole thing seem pointless. If you’re not actually gonna use these reveals to change anything, then why bother? It undercut the whole thing for a bit and was a real bummer considering how much I liked these ideas.

On the whole, The Timeless Child is a weird beast. On the one hand, it’s definitely an explosive finale that does a pretty solid job at bringing the themes and plots of this season toward some kind of conclusion. It introduces a lot of remarkably intriguing ideas into the lore of the show while managing to maintain some sense of mystery for the title character. It features some impressive visuals and some emotional performances. But all of this is undercut a bit by the show’s ever-present need to never veer far from its status quo. It’s introduced these wonderful elements and then immediately discarded them as nothing that’s all that important. On the one hand, that’s empowering but on the other hand, it’s a bit frustrating for all of this build-up to result in a reveal that will likely be mostly ignored. I’d love to be wrong, and if I am wrong it would certainly improve my feelings toward this episode. But I just have a gut feeling that this won’t actually be that monumental in the long run, and that totally undercuts the effectiveness of these reveals. All that aside, it’s still a good episode and a solid finale. I’m sure it’ll prove extremely divisive and I wonder how it’ll play with a more casual fan versus how it plays with a hardcore one. On the whole, this season has been a step up from the previous one, with a more cohesive throughline and a finale that actually feels somewhat climactic. I’m eager to see what, if anything, the show does with any of this in the future. And I’m certainly excited to see how the upcoming Holiday Special resolves this cliffhanger.

4 out of 5 wands.

6 comments

  1. I wish the retcon had been delivered as well as Jo Swinson’s Doctor, instead of through dull exposition. I also wish the story had been worthwhile in it’s own right…mashing up two old favourites instantly invoked memories of the awful Dalek/human hybrid, and it’s just not an interesting threat. There was a time when it was enough for the TARDIS crew’s lives to be at risk, but lately it seems the Doctor won’t get out of bed for anything less than a planetary extinction event.
    I did like Cyber-conversion being treated as a truly horrific fate by the humans, but this theme was explored much better with Bill in The Doctor Falls. And the cast were all great, of course. Just wish they had better material to work with.

    Like

    1. I hear you. The Cybermen aspect of this episode wasn’t super interesting to me either. Which is a shame because I felt like Ashad HAD been really interesting and then was just tossed aside.

      Like

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