Review by Tim Robins
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, Ryan and Yaz face a terrifying fight to survive. Civilisations fall. Others rise anew. Lies are exposed, truths are revealed, battles are fought, and for the Doctor – trapped and alone – nothing will ever be the same again…
The Timeless Children saw producer Chris Chibnall revisit old fan theories, retcon the show’s mythology on a scale beyond anything his predecessor Stephen Moffat had attempted and deliver a two hander between Jodie Whitaker and Sacha Dhawan that finally justified Jodie Whitaker’s casting as The Doctor.
After Ascension of the Cybermen, one of the most exciting, action packed Doctor Who episodes that I’ve seen for a long time, It was predictable that The Timeless Children, the story’s second part and, at the same time, the season 12 finale, would be heavy on exposition, particularly given the many mysteries Chibnall had set up during the preceding episodes.
Of course, while many sci-fi fans dislike info-dumping, in crime fiction the moment where the detective gathers the suspects together and makes sense of events is the most anticipated and pleasurable part of the story. And part of that pleasure is the skill with which the writer executes the dénouement. I am not entirely sure that The Timeless Children’s dénouement was actually that well handled, but writer Chibnall certainly deserves full marks for the story’s totally unpredictable twists.
The weakest moments came when characters revealed “helpful” legends to explain the situation. Chibnall has tried this before, in Resolution of The Daleks – and it just doesn’t work in his hands. Moffat, in contrast, was exceptionally good at seeing Doctor Who through the lens of fairy tale and folk lore. One of the impressive aspects of his writing was to produce a post-modern Doctor Who that often alluded to textual aspects in the stories. Chibnall seems to want to follow this path, but this indeed does result in ineffectual info-dumping as, suddenly, characters helpfully recall all kinds of legends that foretold exactly what was happening.
For example – there’s a tale of a lone Cyberman with an anti-life particle in his chest. And lo! Such a particle shall appear in one of the very Cybermen currently chasing the Doctor.
What next? When the Daleks turn up at Christmas , will someone remember a legend that if you kiss a Dalek three times it will turn into frog (or Urbankan?) – or that if the Zarbi make an appearance, The Doctor will suddenly recall a legend that if you spin the creatures to the left, a giant foot will descend from the sky and squash the entire army of ants flat on the floor?
As ‘crime’ fiction’s sudden, last minute, revelations aren’t exactly playing fair with the audience who could never have known, let alone suspected, what turkey might be pulled out the magician’s hat. In that respect, many of the revelations of The Timeless Children were on the level of Murder She Wrote. Then again, it was easy to overlook these tacky plot devices when confronted with what turned out to be a monumental work of fan fiction.
Captain Kirk used to make computer baddies explode by asking them to calculate the square route of Pi , but if you want to make Doctor Who fans explode, just ask them to reconcile The Brain of Morbius and The Deadly Assassin.
In the former, the Doctor and an evil Time Lord’s brain battle it out while a screen shows them being forced back through previous generations. During this battle, The Doctor is clearly revealed to have had regenerations prior to William Hartnell, the first Doctor (many of these faces actually the production crew of the time, dressed up in period clothes). At least that is what was intended.
Then came The Deadly Assassin, in which The Master has reached the end of his natural regenerations and is preparing to use the ancient powers of Rassilon embodied in some temporal bling to exceed the regeneration limit of all Time Lords, revealed to be twelve in total. This sends members of the then nascent Doctor Who Appreciation Society of the day into total melt down in the pages of the organisation’s magazine. By counting the faces seen in The Brain of Morbius, fans realised that The Doctor had used up most, if not all, of his regenerations.
Bizarrely, considering Doctor Who’s “make it up as you go along” continuity, fans became fixated on this. Even the show’s new producers couldn’t leave alone when Doctor Who returned in the 1990s. The result has been some of the most dreary, tortuous, convoluted stories in the history of the programme. But unexpectedly returning to that old saw wasn’t enough for Chibnall. He also used The Timeless Children to out another continuity issue, this time arising from The Invasion of Time where we see that, beyond the Time Lord’s citadel live another group of characters called the Shabogans. (Imagine blokes from 1970s’ fashion ads dressed in furs). What was their relationship to the Time Lords?
At this point I am going to leave you to watch the programme to find out because I can already feel my senses numbing.
From the above, you might conclude that I hated the episode. Certainly, I was left cold by the revelation that the Doctor is the progenitor of all time persons and, as such, has had endless previous, past and future lives. I preferred the Doctor when he/ she was a naughty schoolboy/ arrogant cynic on the run and find all this worrying about who the Doctor is a product of having to sell the series abroad.
But, in fact, The Timeless Children was held together by a magnificent performance from Jodie Whitaker, who was required to show an incredible emotional range as she confronted her arch enemy, The Master.
It helped that Whitaker had Dhawan to play off. The actor quickly established himself as a fitting successor to Roger Delgado in Spyfall, by channelling something of Batman’s villainous Joker to become a decidedly sinister clown prince of time. It seems to me that Whitaker is better alone than playing mother hen to her ‘fam’, (thoroughly side lined but highly watchable in this adventure).
As for the plot, forget it. It made no sense. I can’t see what advantage being able to regenerate would give to the Cybermen. I mean, if one’s next regenerations was short, all its bit would fall off and, worse, the next Cyber-regenerations could be an introvert or, worse still, could be a woman with lots of womanly cyber-feelings. And I would have preferred The Doctor to use her regeneration particle to regenerate the Time Lords.
What the Daleks and Captain Jack will make of all of this next festive season, I can’t imagine. The best twist of all would be if Chibnall and Whitaker announced that they would stay for a few seasons more.
• Buy Doctor Who – The Brain of Morbius (Amazon UK Affiliate Link)
• Buy Doctor Who – The Deadly Assassin (Amazon UK Affiliate Link)
Doctor Who © BBC
Dear Readers: A review is an opinion. Other opinions are available
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide.
His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip with Mike Collins. Since 1990 he worked at the University of Glamorgan where he was a Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Media Studies and the social sciences. Academically, he has published on the animation industry in Wales and approaches to social memory. He claims to be a card carrying member of the Politically Correct, a secret cadre bent on ruling the entire world and all human thought.