So that was an episode. Series 12 comes to an end and “The Timeless Children” redefines Doctor Who. Chibnall promised us a game-changing finale and he delivered. This episode is going to go down as a highly controversial addition to the lore of the show and no doubt some will be very upset about it. But we didn’t just get the Timeless Child reveal, it was also the fam’s time to shine and the Master’s latest madness involving the Cybermen.
Before we discuss the reveal and its implications, let’s focus on everything else that was going on in the episode. “The Timeless Children” might be a game-changer for the Whoniverse lore but it’s also an episode in its own right and a major plot point is the threat of the Cybermen. At first, our heroes are in three teams, all facing the enemy in some way or another. Yaz and Graham escape the carrier ship with Ravio (Julie Graham) and Yedlarmi (Alex Austin) while Ryan fends off the army with Ethan (Matt Carver) and Ko Sharmus (Ian McElhinney). As for the Doctor, well, she’s off on a Matrix adventure with the Master before the Cybermen get to Gallifrey.
The fam’s teamwork with the remaining humans is quite probably the least divisive aspect of the episode. While the Doctor’s side of things struggled to be consistent (and we’ll get to that), the humans had a fairly singular goal in mind from the start: stay alive. The guest characters didn’t get much more development here than they did last episode so sadly they remain quite unremarkable. They work well enough as side characters who help the fam, though, and really, that’s all we can expect from such a packed finale.
Ko Sharmus gets the largest role and the most memorable performance from Ian McElhinney but it’s not quite enough to justify his final sacrifice for the Doctor. Justify the emotional value, at least, since the Doctor’s survival was never in question but Ko Sharmus’s convenient deus ex machina is anticlimactic to say the least.
The good news is that the fam really came into their own in the absence of the Doctor. Yaz, Graham, and Ryan all faced smaller and not so small demons and proved how much they learned while traveling with the Doctor. The conversation between Graham and Yaz is by far the best scene of these two seasons that we’ve seen with the fam. These two especially took a while to develop a bond but this heartfelt and wonderfully acted moment was worth the wait. It’s not quite the end for the companions yet, even though they’re back on Earth and thinking that the Doctor is dead by the end of “The Timeless Children”. Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh, and Tosin Cole will be back in the upcoming festive special and that will most likely be the exit episode of the fam, though maybe not all of them. We’ve been building up to the end of their journey for a while and even if this week wasn’t a proper conclusion, it’s near.
Ryan and Graham especially feel like they’re ready to go. They’re most likely going to say goodbye to the Doctor, for real this time, in the festive special “Revolution of the Daleks”. Ryan’s anxieties about his home were touched on in “Can You Hear Me?” and even in “The Timeless Children”, he was the one to tell Yaz to let go. As for Graham, he’s unlikely to stay without Ryan but even disregarding that, now that he faced his own mortality he’s probably had enough of their adventures through space and time. The build-up is not perfect but the next episode has the material needed to give these two a farewell.
As for Yaz, her case has always been the most curious. She’s always been the most ready to be by the Doctor’s side, the most reckless, and the one with something to prove. Series 12 gave her a backstory and more development but it still feels like, as opposed to Ryan and Graham, like she needs more time with the Doctor. Or maybe that’s just me needing more time with Yaz. She could potentially become a solo companion for part of series 13, or maybe with a fam 2.0. However long she may have in the TARDIS, she deserves a proper conclusion to her story and that might need more than one episode.
The fam escapes the Cybermen fairly quickly and the Master eliminates Ashad, our antagonist of the previous two episodes not long after. This leaves the Cybermen with the Master as their leader who creates a new race by converting the Time Lords he murdered. And that is how we get one of the most ridiculous species ever to be featured on Doctor Who: the CyberMasters.
I appreciate the costume design but they still look so incredibly ridiculous that it’s hard to take the Master’s plan seriously. Fine, Doctor Who needs to be ridiculous sometimes. Sometimes, it needs to be so outlandishly surreal that we remember not to get lost in over 50 years of lore. “The Timeless Children” was not one of these episodes and played the concept of the CyberMasters completely straight.
As far as trying to integrate the Cybermen into the Gallifrey storyline goes, I’m sure the idea of the CyberMasters sounded better on paper. Regenerating Cybermen is a terrifying idea that only the Master could come up with and be willing to execute. On the screen, not only do they look less than intimidating but they take away the threat that the previous two episodes established.
Chibnall really did write the Cybermen better than either of the previous showrunners in “Ascension of the Cybermen” but he wanted to do too much in “The Timeless Children”. Compared to this, it would have better to just abandon the Cybermen and focus on Gallifrey and the Time Lords. The best scenes are all before the Master kills Ashad, including the tense moments as Yaz and Graham are hiding inside two Cybermen. Not that the Master isn’t engaging in his own right, but the two stories feel like they’re forced together.
This is the third season finale in last four seasons that the Master teams up with/uses the Cybermen. At some point, you’ve got to let them use another enemy to get to the Doctor, or let them stand on their own. The Cybermen, the Master, Gallifrey and the mystery of the Timeless Child prove to be too much for Chibnall to handle in one episode.
The secret of the Time Lords
Let’s just put it out there that Jodie Whittaker and Sacha Dhawan are both incredible actors and they perform the hell out of their scenes. They’re magical together. Dhawan is more than worthy to follow in the footsteps of other actors who previously played the Master and he brings his own mad spin to the character. Nevermind that Missy wasn’t as much as mentioned, maybe one day we’ll find out where she is in relation to this new Master. Though that does bug me and has been since the first part of “Spyfall“, Dhawan’s Master can be appreciated out of context. As for Whittaker, she’s been getting a lot more to work with this series than in her first one and especially in this finale. She gets to show a whole new side of the Doctor and deal with a revelation that fundamentally changes the character.
As mentioned, it’s unfortunate how the Cybermen were brought into this storyline. The Timeless Child mystery was enough to fill a whole episode, it is a monumental retcon of Doctor Who history after all. Let’s talk about that reveal, now that we lamented the fate of the Cybermen. It was rather predictable that the Timeless Child would be none other than the Doctor, though the devil is in the details. Brendan was also the Doctor, or a filtered version of one of their lives, anyway. So is Jo Martin’s Doctor, and about a million others. The Doctor is revealed to be the first of the Time Lords, someone who’s not actually from Gallifrey but is responsible for the civilization that was built there.
So okay, look. There’s no such thing as canon in Doctor Who. We could argue about this, fans have been for half a century, but there just isn’t. Retconning is what this show does better than any other. The Doctor’s character wasn’t meant to be a Time Lord at first, nor was he supposed to turn into Patrick Troughton all along. The beauty of this silly old British sci-fi is that the people in charge just make it all up as they go along. Those people who are in charge keep changing, too, almost as much as the lead actor does. RTD destroyed Gallifrey, Moffat brought it back, Chibnall annihilated all organic life on the planet. Every era has its controversial choices, and every showrunner is accused of ruining the show. Every actor who plays the Doctor struggles to live up to their predecessor until fans love them so much they don’t want them to go. The circle of life, Doctor Who style.
Retcons are the norm so no, there isn’t an inherent problem with Chibnall’s concept of the Timeless Child. He even canonized the obscure Morbius Doctors from 1976’s “The Brain of Morbius”, something that was regarded as a continuity error for four decades. Maybe a new writer will change the status quo again, but until then, there are a lot more than thirteen Doctors out there. There’s enormous potential in this, especially as far as the expanded universe is concerned. A controversial reveal, for sure, but one that does redefine 56 years of history and open up a world of potential for storytellers of the present and future. And as far as Doctor One to Thirteen are concerned, no need to redo the numbers. The Doctor’s history is not erased, just expanded.
That being said, I myself am still ambivalent about the Timeless Child arc. I was hoping it wouldn’t be the Doctor because I think the story of this renegade worked well as it was. Someone who wasn’t ever the best or the brightest but one who had a great spirit of adventure and was willing to learn, unlike the rest of their race. Now, the Doctor is the most special immortal being of the universe. It also matters where this will go, which is another reason why I’m not making a judgment just yet. Whittaker and Chibnall will return in series 13 so there’s more for Thirteen to discover about her past, not to mention all future incarnations of the Doctor.
“The Timeless Children” will always be remembered for its shocking move and retcon, and hopefully we can forget about the CyberMasters. As an episode, it suffers because the Cybermen and Gallifrey storylines simply don’t fit together and so the former wastes the potential that was set up for it in the previous episodes. As far as milestone content goes, this series finale delivers like no other. Series 12, in general, has been infinitely more ambitious than Chibnall’s first season as showrunner and it paid off, for the most part. There were a couple of low points and “meh” moments but the opening, middle and closing are strong if divisive episodes. Historical episodes were once again a particular strongpoint and Whittaker got to show a whole new side of her Doctor. The companions got various levels of attention and therefore quite an uneven development.
Luckily, as noted earlier all three of them will return in “Revolution of the Daleks“, expected at the end of 2020. “The Timeless Children” leaves Thirteen with no break and a Judoon cliffhanger, and now that we know that the Daleks are returning she sure is going to have her hands full again. Until the special episode, this has been Doctor Who series 12, a bumpy, ambitious ride that set out to change everything.