Doctor Who: 12-10 “The Timeless Children” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Doctor Who has an impossibly unique appeal. Over fifty-seven years, across the globe, everyone has their era, their Doctor- yet Chris Chibnall’s has struggled to establish personal identity since he and the Thirteenth Doctor took to our screens, despite taking greater strides this series. The Series 12 finale, The Timeless Children, is an Earth (or Gallifrey) shattering- or maybe not- box of revelations- and while laudable in attempting to entrench itself in history and open a bigger universe, can’t tell a thoroughly gripping story to match the ambition.
Unlike last week, there’s no subversion- The Master is instantly a demanding threat in action, taking Thirteen down memory lane, overlooking the husk of a citadel standing in the BBC quarr- Gallifrey. The Cybermen continue their march to drive home the human’s desperation and devastation (before they lose their aim!) Revolutions pour out and action builds, however, The Timeless Children sadly loses sight of real drama. Even with the as-per wonderful production design- shattered statues, tattered banners, symbols everywhere selling this scoured Gallifrey and the ethereally abstract Matrix, the sheer level of exposition isn’t engaging. The Master’s plan should be something that contradicts Thirteen’s core principals. It doesn’t challenge her, it challenges us– they could’ve used the mysterious Division like how the War Doctor worked, contrasting her typically spurred do-gooding.
Sacha Dhawan is terrific though- as are his thrillingly sinister new theme variants (Thirteen gets a lovely new piano one also). The Master here is a bristling combo of performative, goofy bravado and menacing pomposity, mixed with a vaguely flirtatious sense- to hide his despondency. He “becomes” The Doctor, as their intriguing mental connection develops- his fear of unknown truths pitched against Thirteen’s love for new experiences- as she becomes the companion, taking in his Ozymandias’s schemes. The Master has a desperate, suicidal wish- his understanding of self has been destroyed, so he takes playful, childish pleasure in shattering Thirteen’s world- trying to bring her to his level as per. Simmering hate keeps him alive, revealing the truth- his scouring of Gallifrey is believable in his bitterness that The Doctor was indeed always special. A shame though, his supposed “lack of a better nature” wasn’t commented on (hey Missy!)
The axis of evil joining of the Master and Ashad is a thrilling stand-off between prominent villains of the series, Ashad’s will contorted with increased annoyance by The Master’s wild-eyed quirks and fickle intended promises- their two ideologies and planning skills clashing. The Master points out all the fallacy in Ashad’s plans, his character contradictions- one he doesn’t help, as he claims only after full plan completion will he “ascend”- so does he want to? He continues twisting usual Cybermen iconography, promising to destroy all organic life (though an AI wanting to create in his image is natural full automation development).
Ashad’s proactive early on, with a monster movie human hunt, all twisted glee and threatening whirrs as his frustration shows while our side cast only glimpse him briefly in their unsettling trapped isolation. The companions’ suits are a visual gag also and play with the Cybermen’s themes of taking identity. It’s a shame Ashad is so unceremoniously bumped off, even if The Master’s presence makes that an unfortunate inevitability- his toy is playfully daft. The Cyber Lords are a silly and wild visual, a grotesque revenge like an inverse of Missy’s plan, as The Master becomes his creation myth in a philosophical undercurrent- this time paralleling the Timeless Child experimentation, but less satisfyingly than how Series 8 culminated the ethical military and “good man” issues arc. The new Cybermen in daylight are a blast, even if their time is limited. The side characters are barely featured- their ending oddly underplayed after returning to Earth following a life of warfare- but Ian McElhinney is enjoyably sprightly, wise and giddy.
So, does The Timeless Children “change everything”? Well, yes and no. Personally, entrenched “canon” does little for me- I became a fan because of how beautifully absurd, or affirmingly wonderful, the storytelling can be- uncovering simple truths about humanity that we can relate to. But the story here is The Master narrating Wikipedia- it just shuffles continuity around, with the illusion of dramatic tension or narrative weight. The story before then is entertainingly sleight of hand, with an appropriate sense of escalating scale- yet it eventually becomes just overpowering plot with little emotional heft, even if the time-lapse is at least an appealing mythic flourish.
Every showrunner should leave their mark, so parts of these changes are refreshing, isolated- but it didn’t move me. It feels like more set-up, rather than a true series finale. Compared to the last Gallifrey story, Hell Bent, this feels like a hollow response to claims it wasn’t “epic”- revelations are the whole awkwardly flowing story here, rather than mythology serving intimate, resonant beats. If you’re making changes to a supposed “canon”, you assert it matters- so expect the audience to want to care and expect established story emotional mechanics. Words like “Shabogan” have no inherent value, and it’s delivered in rusty, alienating fashion. Meanwhile, the “Ireland” Brendan segment is swept aside- a bit pointless following up so randomly blasé when so much time was dedicated prior, though the “clue or apology?” thread is interesting.
Graham’s aloof, gung-ho positivity and Yaz’s keen desire to take lead on the action are on show, as is Ryan’s learned pacifism (survival vs Doctor’s teachings)- and unbelievably, shows cocky, hilarious childishness as his Spyfall basketball moment ties back in. There’s a touching, warmingly scored and revealing bit of character from Graham towards Yaz, that is appropriately underscored by her and doesn’t get sappy. Following on from her running away arc from Can You Hear Me? her honesty at Graham’s words is genuinely fantastic and feels endearingly human- so it’s incredibly frustrating how late this all is as I’ve prior mentioned, with so little seen as to why Graham is moved. It feels like a moment forced into the plot, rather than a natural part of the story.
Jodie Whittaker fizzes with emotionally raw, resigned, pent-up anger- revealing, in her desperation to save her friends while about to be faced with supposed life-shattering changes in this battle of truth and untruth. Yet once Master Monologue Time begins, Thirteen does largely nothing to drive the story- she passively listens, other than lashing out once. I was rather fascinated by the space-faring as it happened (the first regeneration with the new effect is riveting), yet these supposedly ground-breaking moments weren’t very suspenseful- they’re meant to be massive for us, not the characters- and we don’t have connection to Tecteun (Seylan Baxter) or her plans. So much doesn’t have relevance- the boundary is ultimately meaningless. We’re told the entire mystery doesn’t matter anyway.
This is Chibnall’s authorship, an attempt at reconciling perceived plotholes, his version of the infamous late 80s Carmel Masterplan- like 1976’s The Brain of Morbius’ “other Doctors”. Yet it feels like his notes relayed verbatim- rather than wove into an audacious story. There *is* promise here- re-establishing the Time Lords upon lionised, foilable and corrupt identity ethics in their origins, works in tandem with The Doctors’/Masters’ self-actualisation vs self-loathing story. But it doesn’t explore this as a moralistic scandal or metaphor for upper-class empires in this oppressive system- It’s more interested in lore than creating drama in The Doctor rejecting a “Master Race”, forcibly being created from her exploitation and cultural appropriation. Thirteen seems to outwardly accept her status as the chosen one- it’s a slightly uncomfortable reading of superior genetics (you can’t avoid it screaming “I’m so much better than you!”), rather than claiming outright that her newly deeper history and versions of herself just give her greater untapped potential of experiences.
The Doctor’s definition has changed often, yet the core outsider appeal always remains- existing apart from organising systems, her actions more impactful from her unique perspective- defined by defiance as an outer space weirdo, travelling with helpful hope. The Ruth Doctor factor- while superb to see her again, with her authoritative, direct and heroic presence- makes it destiny, for now. It feels like she’s regressing to earlier type- rather than eventually inspiring the word Doctor, were they always destined? Even if not remembering traits and identity, did the concept of The Doctor exist before Hartnell started his journey?
For some, I’m sure it’s a personable metaphor about never being limited to who you were, pushing beyond your traumatic history, revealing buried identity- remembering what is unique about the gift of yourself, despite things out to crush, contain or use you, which has immigration and adoption undertones- and that confrontation of revelations is fundamentally empowering and potentially relatable, which is commendable. But even adding a victimised past (which to me is quite problematic, making the first female Doctor an long-suffering abuse survivor), my issue is by continually making her especially part of ingrained lore, it loses some of The Doctor’s universal relatability and deeper meaning- even if the changes help to newly distance her from her established legacy by obfuscating her origins.
She’d inevitably gain this level of importance as mythology builds- and both prior showrunners have dabbled in her universal importance- but is this not relatively the same mystery? Thirteen wants nothing to do with her people- the same codifying as Time Lord introduction The War Games. The climax sees The Doctor’s righteous but hypocritical pacifism come within inches of being tested after reasserting her agency, instantly back on her feet wanting to save lives, happy to sacrifice herself “in a heartbeat” (s). Yet Ko Sharmus rolls in, taking the convenient new MacGuffin and tough decision for his only just established penance, giving us morality whiplash and keeping Thirteen’s hands clean- rather than Thirteen refusing, and stating why she wishes to live against The Master’s self-destructiveness. Sharmus tells her the universe still needs her- a discovery she’d just made. It’s symptomatic of The Timeless Children’s problems- it’s a lot about what The Doctor is, not who she is now.
Thirteen’s drama is based around her “other faces” not her traumatic past- thoughts and feelings are more interesting than an abstract absence of knowledge. Despite the flurry of joy that’s the Matrix scene, a traditional history throwback where Thirteen at least figures out the problem, defeating it with *her theme tune!*, there’s nothing fundamentally really changed- it mostly reads as “it’s Doctor Who, and there’ll always be more”. We’re left with questions of a whole new backstory- but do we want these answered? What continuing, impressing effect will it have?
Thirteen at least cutely gets past her alienation, realising her committed friends are sincerely there for her (yet they still don’t HUG!). It doesn’t resolve the keeping of secrets or establish a new honesty about their acceptance of the “real” her, not just the happy go lucky front, just yet anyway. Are Yaz and Ryan still unsure about TARDIS life, though? I love Thirteen’s grace note, reconnecting with the TARDIS, chatting away. She’s still clearly uncomfortably dealing with her new understanding, not comprehending it- before she gets a Tennant style ending, complete with her pensive face and shocked “WHAT?”.
Series 12 has been a largely marked improvement, one I’ve consistently enjoyed- it’s felt livelier, more vibrant, bolder and intriguing. I’m yet to feel completely connected to the companions, it’s been thematically messy, and some problems like often over-explanatory dialogue have persisted from Series 11. But Jodie Whittaker has stepped confidently and actively into the role, we’ve had the terrific Jo Martin Doctor and Sacha Dhawan Master- and The Haunting of Villa Diodati feels like a future classic. And hey- it’s only positive that the show is taking steps to secure its future- Who is for everyone, and there’ll always be a version on the horizon for you- defined by its constant ability to rewrite, to overrule its outlandish continuity for new possibilities, a capacity to change. And when it comes to this series’ controversial aspects, I find it hard to be overly annoyed if I personally dislike them- especially when others are finding joy. I just wish we didn’t have to wait so long for Series 13!
The Timeless Children, while admirable in ways, is, unfortunately, a disappointing capper to an improved series. It’s a shame that promising elements are buried in convoluted, overblown plotting, that doesn’t work as a layered thematic ending of itself. It threatens at times to be a poetic, bold dive or rumination on the show’s mythic nature, and while well-produced it lacks the courage or clarity to properly articulate an emotional story for the characters beyond ultimately not-that-shocking or devastating revelations. Believe me, I love messy ambition- I just wish it left me feeling what it wanted me to. A Master showcase but a largely, frustratingly passive Doctor, it has everything you think you want from a series finale- and maybe that’s the problem? We’ll see how this all plays out in future, as this feels like set-up with little deftness. Ah well, Daleks at (hopefully!) Christmas- can’t go wrong, can it?