After last week’s cobbled together chaotic opener, “The Timeless Children” continues Season 12’s trend of two-part continuations which aren’t really two-part stories. With the arrival of The Master on the scene, the Cybermen and their Cyberprophet are relegated to disposable henchmen as the real master plan, Chibnall’s master plan, takes centre stage and he sets out to carve his name forever in the scrolls of Rassilon.
With the Cybermen closing in, the Doctor finds herself with no alternative but to abandon herFam and follow her fellow Time Lord through the rift and into the ruins of Gallifrey. Or, at least, the Capital. While the Master may make grandiose claims that he’s killed all the Time Lords and laid waste to the planet, the only proof he offers is the site of one ruined city. That’s like claiming you’ve destroyed the Earth and killed all humans by showing the smouldering ruins of Swindon.
Even then, the Master contradicts himself by saying that he destroyed the infrastructure, but kept the bodies on ice – bodies that later demonstrate the ability to regenerate – so the door’s more than left open for the Time Lords to be wholly revived later. Likewise, the Master hasn’t destroyed the Matrix either, so there’s a lot of wiggle room in the Master’s claim of genocide. No mention is made of what’s happened to the Eye Of Harmony. We learn all this thanks to Chibnall’s decision to saddle Dhawan’s Master with the same guilelessly expository approach to dialogue as he’s given the Doctor.
Structurally, the episode works much better than last week (although it absolutely does not stick the landing of the incongruous Brendan subplot from last week) and, despite a few faults, the underlying plot of the Master bringing the Cybermen to Gallifrey with the intention of creating a new hybrid race is a good one, and a great Doctor Who season finale (not the first time the invasion of Gallifrey has provided the setting for one either). Yes, there are a few clunky moments, a lot of posturing and not much atmosphere despite some pretty good production design but the core story is sound.
While the Doctor’s off reminiscing in the Master’s Ted Talk on the True History of the Gallifrey Gang, there’s time to catch up on her hapless companions, particularly Graham, Yaz and the other human survivors, trapped on the Cyber Carrier and apparently at the mercy of Ashad and his Cyber army or at least they are until Graham has a bright idea. I’m not sure Cybermen really work like suits of armour but it makes for some fun if clichéd scenes later on so I won’t complain too much although the scene with Ashad opening the various pods is so Looney Tunes, I half expected Graham to leap out and start filing Ashad’s nails while telling him what an IN-teresting monster he is.
While the Doctor and Master storyline may be overly talky (well, how else would a writer of Chibnall’s calibre unveil his grand game-changing design but to have a character simply tell the other characters (and us) about it in an extended monologue?) the Fam get a surfeit of action and even an attempt to recast the opening scenes of “Spyfall” as foreshadowing but before too long, everyone’s on Gallifrey and it’s time for the season’s endgame to unfold.
Dhawan dials up the manic energy to compensate, but after a while, it just starts to come off as goofy and annoying. There are some incarnations of the Master you have a hard time imagining opposite other Doctor’s. I don’t think Dhawan’s Master would have lasted more than a few minutes against Capaldi and I think Tennant would have found him ludicrous. Despite his misdeeds and, frankly, excessively homicidal tendencies, he just doesn’t exude much genuine menace or intelligence. He’s too hyperactive, all eyes and teeth and mannerisms and the only reason he seems effective is that Whittaker’s Doctor isn’t that formidable a presence either. What’s clear, though, is that in his decision to bring back the Master for this series, Chibnall’s embarking on an agenda of Missy erasure. Not just in the dismissal of the idea that the Master has a better agenda, but also in the fact that this Master’s master plan is the exact opposite of Missy’s at the end of Season 8. Of course, the Master betrayal of Ashad and embracing of the Cyberium is inevitable, in the same way, this Master’s arch ‘unpredictability’ is tediously predictable, so much so that he probably has a strong case to challenge C. Montgomery Burns’ trademark on changes of heart. I do, however, love just how ‘extra’ this Master is when it comes to designing his new CyberMaster race, all collars and cloaks, like some kind of cyber couture. The miniaturised death particle plucked out of nowhere, is the deus ex machina that wraps up the season proper though, but even then we all know that somehow the Master (and therefore virtually anyone else) will have survived the complete elimination of all organic life somehow.
But what of the much-heralded, game-changing, nothing-will-ever-be-the-same-againery that our beloved showrunner has been banging on about since the season started? Well, forget “Star Trek: Picard” because this; this is sheer fucking hubris. When Moffat dipped into the established history and nature of the Doctor, it was a forced change, a requirement that he find a way to write around the absence of the Ninth Doctor in a story which dealt directly with the Time War and the first Time Lord genocide. But this, this is an unforced, unnecessary change, a vanity change because Chibnall needs to scratch that itch that’s been niggling at his awkward inner fanboy since long before he appeared on ‘Open Air’: the need to square the roundel of a passing and inconsequential scene in “The Brain Of Morbius”.
The great irony is, though, that much of the game-changing revelations are nothing of the kind. In an era where dwindling audiences speak of a need to broaden the show’s casual appeal, it’s particularly short-sighted to navel-gaze on underlying canon like the origins of the Time Lords, which are likely of interest to only the hardest core fans but it’s even more wasteful to do that and not really change anything. That the ability to regenerate was not native to the Time Lords has always been the case. Generally, it was thought that Rassilon (and maybe Omega and possibly an Other) through experiments in time and space developed the means to give Time Lords an extended life but here, it’s revealed that it wasn’t them but another would-be Time Lord (and abusive mother) Tecteun who took a foundling and performed experiments on the child after it survived a fall from a cliff.
The revelation that the Doctor is that child and has the ability to endlessly regenerate is as obvious as it was when it was first mentioned back in “The Ghost Monument” and goes a long way to undermining a lot of what made the character so great. Far from being the one who threw off the non-interventionist aloofness of their fellow Time Lords and set out to experience the universe and make a difference, the Doctor is now reframed as a ‘special’ one, a refugee from some other dimension but in a way that doesn’t add to her character at all because she doesn’t remember any of her past lives before the reset. So the Doctor isn’t Gallifreyan and can regenerate ad infinitum (and has done already)? So what? I guess that’s what season thirteen will need to make worthwhile.
Perhaps the most egregiously onanistic part of Chibnall’s self-centred fan service is in recreating a piece of Doctor Who lore that already existed: his ‘The Division’ being just the already established Celestial Intervention Agency with a duller name. It’s a profoundly selfish act by one of the long-running show’s poorest showrunners. Chibnall no doubt thinks he’s done a grand thing, removing one of the series’ constraints in terms of the possible number of Doctors but all he’s done is robbed a future showrunner, possibly one with greater narrative skill and imagination than him, who would have thrived on finding ways to subvert or overcome the limitations of a seemingly impassable obstacle.
If Chibnall had resisted the urge to meddle unnecessarily in series canon or, at the very least, avoided the temptation to overhype the changes and let their implications next season speak for themselves, this would have been a great season finale. As it is, it’s still a great hour of Doctor Who but the sheer self-serving vanity of it all leaves a nasty aftertaste.