SERIES 12, EPISODE 10 | WHERE TO WATCH: BBC iPLAYER
[Warning: this review contains spoilers.]
Well, there we have it – Doctor Who has either been expanded to incorporate a whole new realm of storytelling potential, or ruined forever, depending on what side of the heated online discourse you decide to fall. After the previous instalment in Chris Chibnall’s series finale left our travellers pursued by Cybermen towards a portal to the ruined Gallifrey, The Timeless Children has given us rather a lot to take in.
Let’s dive straight into the biggie. So the Doctor had a pre-Hartnell past as an unknown alien, found and experimented on by the Time Lords. We’re still divided on the specifics of this – whether making Gallifrey just one part of the Doctor’s past adds to the character, or whether making her so central to its history tars the power of her being a normal Time Lord turned rogue – and it’s also unclear how her early history as a victim of medical abuse ties into her slightly less early history as an agent of the Time Lord CIA, two seemingly very disparate reveals. However, this huge revelation comes with undoubtable excitement as to all the potential routes now opened up for series to come, as the Doctor will inevitably learn more about her past selves. When Doctor Who began back in 1963, there was much mystery surrounding the Doctor – indeed, the character’s ambiguous identity was the basis for the show’s title – but 57 years of development had gradually worn that down, and now there are whole new mysteries to be solved.
But while we have to applaud the ambition behind the episode’s reveals, its execution of them is lacking. The passivity of the Thirteenth Doctor was a recurring problem back in Series 11, a problem which crops up again here. Having spent all series supposedly looking for the Master, here it’s the Master who finds her. She doesn’t have to do any investigative work to discover the secret history; rather, we get 45 minutes of the Master lecturing her while she occasionally says “that’s a lie” or “that’s bad” and then lets him continue. It’s not story, it’s exposition, and while the reveals themselves may be dramatic enough for this to be forgiven on first viewing, it doesn’t make for a piece of television that’ll last outside of the context of what came before and what’ll come next. This problem of the Doctor not actually doing much recurs later in the episode when she decides not to use a superweapon against the Master, but Ko Sharmus does instead; Chibnall seems to want an ending akin to The Day of the Doctor, but forgets that episode’s point was ‘there is a third way other than genocide and surrender’, not ‘let someone else do the genocide’.
Nevertheless, a lot of this story is genuinely engaging – certainly much more so than last series’ utterly dull finale – and a large part of that is down to the performances of Jodie Whittaker and Sacha Dhawan. Who has good form with casting the Doctor and the Master to riff off each other – Pertwee and Delgado, Tennant and Simm, Capaldi and Gomez – but this pairing is up there with the best. Dhawan’s Master is charming but always on edge, psychotic and enraged, both a big-picture schemer and an unpredictable improviser, and we see a tragic side to Whittaker’s Doctor as she realises how far he’s fallen and what she may have to do to stop him.
Dhawan seriously impresses in another part of the story – after inviting the Cybermen to Gallifrey, the Master plots with their leader Ashad, then betrays him and creates his own race of Cyber-Masters. The interactions between the Master and Ashad have a real tension in them, because, unlike certain other parts of this finale, we’re not always sure where they’re going, and Dhawan gives the best line of the episode in his disappointed “Oh. You mean robots.” Ashad, after being so threatening a presence in the past two episodes, is rather swiftly offed here, though that serves to highlight this Master’s own threat; we do wish someone had come up with a more original superweapon name than ‘the death particle’ though.
Given that the two Time Lords are so impressive here, then, it’s unfortunate, if perhaps inevitable, that once again the companions are underserved by The Timeless Children. They each play a part in reaching Gallifrey, then have a conversation about how dangerous their exploration of the planet is going to be, after which they all proceed to never be in any danger or contribute anything to the plot. There’s a rumour going around that Graham and Ryan will be exiting the show in this year’s festive special, and we have to think that this would be for the best, as we’re tired of writing “the companions didn’t do much” every week. Still, Graham does get the other best line of the episode – “Yaz, I can’t get this hat off.”
So The Timeless Children is to be commended for its ambitious ideas but not so much for its execution of them, despite being held together by an electric pairing of Doctor and Master. We are, nevertheless, excited to see where the show goes in exploration of its new swathe of mythology. For those of you not so keen on the Doctor’s new past, though... well, despite the Master’s promise, not everything about Doctor Who has changed. As Jo Martin’s Doctor points out, our favourite time traveller has never been limited by who she used to be, and she will continue to have the same variety of adventures across time and space. The Doctor will be back.