Doctor Who review: The Timeless Children

Let me tell you a story. A long time ago, back in the dawn of history, long before the UK left the EU, way, way back, almost beyond living memory, back in 2018, a man was scorned. He lead a TV show he was passionate about, had been his whole life. And with care and dedication and the utmost consideration for all people, he released the show on the world. And he was mocked. “Boring,” they told him, “pedestrian” also, it was “slow” and “too safe”, and “seemed intent on ignoring the whole history of the show.” This man sat alone with hurt and pain in his heart, and slowly a madness grew. It started in his chest. So violent were the beats, that almost, he could feel the double pulse racing through him. It spread out, and reached his eyes and he began to laugh. No timid, self conscious laugh this, but a true roar, echoing down the street; doors were locked and curtains drawn as he cried out, “I’ll show them! I will show them all! They claimed the War Doctor was huge, the Gods of Ragnarok revolutionary, they claimed that everything changed with the Deadly Assassin. The fools! Those wretched souls know NOTHING! I will make their world BURN!!!”

And thus, the Timeless Children were born.

And, by Rassilon, wasn’t it fun? And the joy of that episode was really very much part of how good it was for me. This, and the previous few stories, had such a glorious blend of darkness, danger, epic grandeur, and unashamed silliness. And that, in part, was down to another glorious performance from Sacha Dhawan. I think something that the whole of the post-2005 series has got right is in using the Master fully as a trickster. The Master is beloved by so many fans, but Ainley in particular falls foul of an inability to decide whether the Master should be played as a comedy villain from a melodrama or the most dangerous and evil man in the universe. The new series has no qualms on making him both.

Walking through the Citadel, you get such a sense of their shared history, the restrained glee of the Master as he anticipates the journey he’ll take her on; the Doctor’s combined frustration at her plight, her fear for her friends, her anguish at the destruction of the world she had fought to save, and her eagerness to learn what her oldest friend has in store for her. And then, that quietly restrained performance from the Master is replaced as all that pent up mania bursts out as he gets to reveal all he knows in precisely the manner he chooses. And that only built to its own ridiculous crescendo with the Cyber-Time-Lords. Because, as much as they were utterly ludicrous, bringing me to tears of laughter, they were completely in character for the Master. The Master has, for so long, been so much about showmanship. Everything is there to impress (and arguably, its one person in particular who he is desperate to impress). This is absolutely the same person who, not that long ago, built a massive Cyberarmy just for the Doctor (which, in itself, could be seen as a natural progression from the relationship we see far back to the Colony in Space, when the Master offers the Doctor his super weapon, so that the two of them can rule the universe benevolently). So, yes, these was less menacing than funny, but set on the ruins of Gallifrey, it felt far more real and potentially destructive than John Simm’s “No, I’m the Master” moment in the series 4 finale.

There has always been something delightful in their relationship, throughout all their incarnations, and you could really see that in Dhawan’s performance. Resentment and malice mingled with something that seems very much akin to friendship or even love. All the shippers can eat their hearts out.

The “revelation” scenes with the Master could have seemed too much, could easily have been lengthy scenes of exposition interrupted by occasional explosions of outrage and denial, had it not been for the very well placed Cybermen/companion action scenes. And here, the stakes felt big. Given all the build up to this story, the barely veiled hints of the danger the companions were going to face, the references to past tragedy, I wouldn’t have been surprised had someone not come out of this story alive. Ryan, in particular, looked in especial danger throughout, and had he been cut down following that celebratory cry when he blows up a Cybertroop, it would definitely driven home the division between the fun loving ‘fam’ and the reality they found themselves in. Last week, we saw the Doctor herself out of her depth – all her plans fail, and she really, really should not have brought her companions to the middle of a battlefield.

Of course, given the amount that was taking place in this story, there would have been no way for the episode to have actually been able to sustain a companion death and given them their due, but until it was obvious quite how big the Master’s reveal was, it felt like a real possibility. And she did abandon all her companions in a battle scene while she went off to pursue some domestic issues with her best enemy.

The strength of Chibnall’s writing was once again revealed in these sections though. The action was blended with beautifully delivered lighthearted, comic moments (such as Graham getting his ‘hat’ stuck) and what I would be happy putting down as one of the most heartfelt conversations I’ve seen in the show, the one between Graham and Yaz. These moments, kept the ebb and flow of the episode running between the ‘dramatic’ Doctor and the Master scenes and, once again, built that sense of danger and tension. That could well have been Graham’s pre-death speech.

Ultimately, though, the cyber plot was brought to an untimely halt by the Master. I did really like the way this played out, because we actually saw the companions relatively effectively overcoming the Cybermen. In a different story, we would then have had them working with the Doctor to win the day. But then the Master takes over and cuts off the head, the Lone Cybermen, who had so far seemed unassailable, was no more. And suddenly everything is about him (and his pent-up, childhood Doctor obsession… do you think he’s ever considered therapy? Probably actually. He almost certainly has a small box full of his old therapists).

So here we get to the meat of the episode. Because, in the end, this was all about the big reveal. Narratively, I think it works very well. It fid feel a little like Captain Marvel in many ways: She had her traumatic ordeal of coming to terms with who she is and was, the way that she had always been exploited and belittled by those about her, and, just when it appears that she’s overwhelmed by it all, she uses her newfound knowledge to blow the system. She is bigger than the Matrix and those who built it. A lifetime of fighting against what her people stood for finally comes to fruition. Her realisation was beautifully done and they did it with a highly effective use of the theme tune (a horribly self-indulgent decision, but surely one that only the most cynical of fans could fail to smile at). And if the story’s resolution felt a little overplayed and obvious (clearly the old man was going to take the fall for her, it’s what they always do) it was worth it for the Master’s reaction to her indecision.

However, this does all leave us with many questions. And questions can be good. But I’m not perfectly certain about all of them or whether we are going to get a satisfactory resolution for them.

Firstly, was it really necessary to bring Gallifrey back just to destroy it utterly again? Particularly given the still very recent stories about the Time Lords where Capaldi’s Doctor has left the still war-beaten society to nurse its wounds but without the presence of the old dictator. I’m not given to the complaint by some fans about how Chibnall seems gleefully to be undermining everything in Moffat’s legacy, but this one feels a little close to the mark. It’s the one thing that feels narratively unsettled with the recent past, and I hope there is more to it than we’ve seen in this story. (Quite apart from anything else, as much as the Master doesn’t necessarily need a rational explanation for anything he does, I’m still not certain that what the early Time Lords did to the Timeless child justifies the wiping out of the current generation who clearly had nothing to do with it). If we are going to see more Gallifrey/Time Lord stories in the near future, with perhaps a second Gallifrey or Gallifreyan refugees trying to rebuild, or something like that, then I’ll put my complaints to one side. If this is intended to be the End of the Time Lords, it feels a little flat. (Particularly as the reveal about the Doctor being tied up with the origin of the race only really makes any sense narratively if there’s still a race to be tied up in the origin of).

Secondly, the Timeless Child rewriting of mythos itself: I have no problem whatsoever with messing around with what some fans laughably call established canon. I know it’s not to everyone’s tastes, but I certainly remember watching the 7th Doctor stories and then absorbing the New Adventures and loving the overly grandiose, dark secrets of the Doctor and the Time Lords. The Doctor has, for me, always been Time’s Champion and had some kind of antagonistic relationship with the founders of Gallifrey. This new story seems to supplant Rassilon’s full place as the essential creator of the Time Lords (as typically explored in most of the wider media), although I’ve seen plenty of speculation about Tektaon being Rassilon, which would be a fascinating concept in itself, but either way, why not? But, while that idea sits fine with my adolescent fanish myth making, I’ve never been wholly convinced by attempts to make such ideas concrete in the show. The Lonely God motif is one of my biggest problems with the post-2005 show. I’ve always seen the Doctor as the awkward misfit who couldn’t quite fit in with the society they grew up in and decided to run away; who, in all honesty, wasn’t quite clever or powerful enough to be successful if they’d remained (they only scraped a pass at the academy) and, instead, sets out and finds themselves at home in the universe. That worked for me. And I do wonder what the narrative purpose of switching that around is. What end does it serve? Because, while I’m gleefully excited for all the new stories we’ll get from Big Finish about infinite other Doctors (after all, the Unbound range is FANTASTIC!), it does appear that Chibnall was also very keen to confirm both narratives. For all that their DNA is tied up in the origins of the Time Lords, the Doctor is keen to emphasise that nothing has really changed. She remains the awkward little misfit. Exploited as a child by a series of brilliant proto-Time Lords, brilliant in their own unconventional way, but still helpless and probably not to be trusted to be in charge of anything long term (a planet, a group of naive humans, anything). Which, is great. But then, why do it at all? Everything has changed, the Doctor Who universe has blown out of all proportions. Chibnall literally takes the canon, as recorded meticulously in the files of the Time Lords, the TARDIS Index files, and in the heads of numerous hard core fans, and blows it up. But also, apparently, nothing has changed.

Again, perhaps we’ll get some narrative reason next season? Or maybe this was just Chibnall extending what Moffat did and making sure that some unscrupulous show runner in the future can’t suddenly kill the Doctor finally at the end of their incarnations. I’m very happy with the general sense of anarchy and glee Master Chibnall has here. But I do hope Chibnall’s plan has marginally more focus than the Master’s.

The final scene was nicely on point and brought us right back to show we know and love. Companions saved, not knowing how the Doctor faired, and the Doctor caught in a ridiculous moment by the ludicrous rhinos and trapped in a prison for life. Is it the storm cage? Is it Shada? Who knows, but all we know for certain is she’ll escape next episode, meet the Daleks, and they’ll be plenty more moments of glee. Who knows? Maybe Captain Jack will return. Or perhaps River Song.

All in all, this was an incredibly strong season from start to finish. Loved every moment of it. Can’t wait for the next one.