Tuesday 3 March 2020

Reviews in Space & Time: Doctor Who 12x10 - The Timeless Children

Doctor Who 12x10 - The Timeless Children

The time has finally arrived, and things will never be the same again. With the Cybermen back in full force, a long-awaited return to Gallifrey and the Master once again in tow, the stage is set for the Doctor Who series 12 finale – The Timeless Children. Showrunner Chris Chibnall brings his series-long arc to forefront of the episode, having planted the seeds for the eponymous Timeless Child as far back The Ghost Monument. Once again directed by series staple Jamie Magnus Stone, the episode follows directly on from the events of both The Haunting of Villa Diodati and Ascension of the Cybermen. “Everything you think you know is a lie.”

Hiding within the CybermenThe Master and Ashad

As the Cybermen prepare to destroy the last remnants of humanity, the Doctor reluctantly agrees to travel with the Master through the boundary to the burning ruins of Gallifrey. Without her help, Graham, Yaz and Ryan must now free themselves from the clutches of the Cybermen and reunite with the Doctor, defeat the Cybermen and return home.

While the Master forges an uneasy alliance with the lone Cyberman, deep within the Matrix the Doctor is forced to confront the origins of the Time Lords. Her identity shattered, the Doctor discovers the true meaning behind the Timeless Children.

The fam arrives on GallifreyThe Timeless Child

Doctor Who canon has never been a straightforward thing. Both the show and the character have drastically evolved as time has gone on, pieces have been reworked to suit a different purpose and the sheer amount of expanded material that’s out there which may or may not be “in-continuity” is a whole different subject entirely. Likewise with no set creator, the writer(s) in charge at the time essentially have free reign to take things in a direction they see fit. Canon controversy is nothing new. In 2005 Russell T Davies turned heads by eliminating the Time Lords and (to a much lesser extent) the Daleks in one fell swoop. He also made the Master’s madness a product of Time Lord machinations. Meanwhile Steven Moffat not only introduced an unknown incarnation of the Doctor between Eight and Nine, he overturned the regeneration limit, gave the Doctor a new wife and committed the biggest sin of all – giving Davros a working pair of eyes. Go even further back in the classic series and the same sort of upsets are there – the Time Lords of The Deadly Assassin bare little similarity to the ones from The War Games. The Doctor’s proclamation of being half human on his mother’s side in the 1998 movie? For a show like Doctor Who to survive as long as it has to evolve over time. The majority of these creative decisions have all built toward something, weaving the beautiful but messy monstrosity that is the Doctor Who mythos. But whereas these changes were predominantly done to benefit the stories being told, The Timeless Children is a twist with a story haphazardly built around. Much like Fugitive of the Judoon, it becomes so preoccupied with its ramifications that it struggles to tell a good story taking place in the now.

That isn’t to say the episode didn’t have ideas. In fact on paper so much of The Timeless Children could work so well it’s almost poetic. But at almost every turn these ideas are squandered – casually tossed aside in favour of “the bigger picture”. And once again the biggest victims in all of this are the Cybermen. Four different finales, four separate times they’ve become little more than a backdrop – and three of those times it’s been playing second fiddle to the Master. After dedicating two whole episodes to Ashad and building him up as this wholly unique mouthpiece to the Cybermen, it turns out his importance in the episode is just misdirection and his real significance is just to carry a second mcguffin on top of the Cyberium – the Death Particle, a kill-all bomb loaded to end the story at the nearest convenience. The whole story of the lone Cyberman has been completely at odds with what the show’s second most recognisable villain has always been, and that contradiction was completely reinvigorating them. The Timeless Children poses that the next stage in their evolution would be to become a completely robotic race, which again contradicts their very nature but is at least an interesting plan coming from a Cyberman that’s even more organic than usual. There’s a cruel irony in the Master remarking to Ashad that a completely robotic race “lacks vision”, since that’s essentially what the Cybermen become once they ally themselves with him. Ashad is disposed of without a moment’s hesitation, his purpose served by bringing both the Cyberium and the all-powerful Death Particle to Gallifrey. And as it turns out the Master has been pulling strings in the background the whole time, because the Cybermen just don’t have agency anymore.

Ashad reveals the Death ParticleThe Cyber Masters

The concept of the Cybermen converting the Time Lords into a race of all-powerful regenerating cyborgs is ridiculous, but it’s that kind of ridiculous that Doctor Who thrives on. The design is suitably over the top – replacing the iconic handlebars with Time Lord collars and decking them out in robes, along with a perturbed grimace in the place of that emotionless expression. It could have been something wonderful had the Cybermen been allowed to do it on their own terms. After being the driving force behind the previous two episodes, the Cybermen slink into the background as the Master’s silent robotic army. If anything lacks vision, it’s the retreading of old ground.

The side-lining of the Cybermen should logically be to the benefit of the Master, but even his grand plans feel fairly one note in the grand scheme of everything going on in the episode. To his credit Sacha Dhawan is on top form as this incarnation of the renegade Time Lord, and it really hasn’t taken long for he and Whittaker to strike up a dynamic befitting of the two former friends. Compared to previous versions within the modern iteration of the show his is perhaps the scariest of them all, displaying a madness that’s calculating yet completely unhinged. The revelations the Master finds within the Matrix only fuel that madness further, with the knowledge that part of him will forever be the very thing he hates leading to his destruction of Gallifrey. It perfectly parallels the motivations of Ashad, a Cyberman made even more deadly by the very thing Cybermen stand against – emotions. Moments like the Master’s disappointment at the Death Particle not activating upon Ashad’s decompression also suggest a hint of despair in his actions, as if this forbidden knowledge has truly tipped him over the edge. But instead of a Master with nothing left to lose, it’s just another grand army from which he will rule supreme. Even when the Doctor threatens to end it all with the Death Particle the Master is ultimately playing to her better nature and knows she won’t use it. Nothing has really changed, and the whole situation ends up as just a rather uninspired twist on Dark Water’s already unpleasant legacy. The Master's plan also apparently involved dropping the extracts of Brendan's life seen in the previous episode into the Doctor's head. The sequences worked because they were so disjointed from the rest of the story, but at no point did it even remotely suggest that was what was happening.

The MasterTecteun and the Timeless Child

On the subject of things that haven’t really changed, one thing that goes hand in hand with the new series’ inability to use the Cybermen is its handling of Gallifrey. Russell T Davies’ decision to do away with the Time Lords at the beginning of his tenure was a bold move, but not only did it effectively do away with years of canon for a new audience it also felt like a natural progression of the show’s history. Moffat’s decision to unravel the Time War in The Day of the Doctor was a move befitting of a 50th anniversary special, but then they quickly fell into the background other that helping to fix the hurdle of a regeneration limit and be a footnote in Hell Bent. Now it’s Chibnall’s turn, and again there seems to a general problem of using them effectively “in the now”. The Timeless Children may restore their legacy of being liars and hypocrites, but with it comes their apparent extermination at the hands of the Master. The Doctor is left to face the abuse that she once suffered, but without the ability to come face to face with her abusers. Like the Doctor themselves Time Lord history is also riddled with secrets and lies, but their prominence and effectiveness in modern Doctor Who is a perfect circle. They were gone, they came back, they’re gone again and that’s how they’ll stay until another writer feels the need to resurrect them again.

But ultimately these things are just built around the revelation that not only is the Doctor the Timeless Child, but also the progenitor of regeneration and a cornerstone of Time Lord society. Even before dissecting the ramifications of this the general framing of these bombshells have some unfortunate implications. The Doctor, canonically a woman for the “first” time, is now central to (and Whittaker’s tenure will be largely defined by) an abused child storyline. Going forward the story may try to develop this with appropriate real-world parallel and if so then great, but right now it stands as at best rather messy coincidence and at worst poorly managed intent. The Doctor herself is also ultimately passive to these revelations, trapped within the Matrix and having it all explained to her rather than figuring any of it out for herself. She may forcefully physically attack the Master and demand answers, but he was always going to tell her anyway. Even her resolve is found in an incarnation that isn’t her own. In Fugitive of the Judoon the 13th Doctor was overshadowed by a new, unknown incarnation of the Doctor and here she’s overshadowed by the concept of “the Doctor”. The Ruth Doctor is barely a footnote, appearing simply as an apparition for a few minutes just to remind the current Doctor of who she is. A footnote in someone else's story.

What is the Division?The Ruth Doctor

The Timeless Child attempts to defy canon and change everything that we knew about the Doctor, but in its efforts it’s actually done the very opposite – it’s created an even more restrictive one. Take away all the expanded material and popular theories from over the decades and how much do we really know about the Doctor? That they were a Time Lord? That they had at least one grandchild so presumably children as well? The Doctor’s history is clouded by vagueness and contradictions, and that’s part of what makes the character interesting. “Rule #1: The Doctor lies.” The Doctor is a hero that keeps things close to their chest, sometimes to the detriment of the people around them. It’s what helped ignite the spark back in the Seventh Doctor prior to the show’s 1989 cancellation, and often created friction throughout the Doctor’s travels in time and space. In reality the only thing this new origin, in which the Doctor is an unknown alien found by the first Galifreyan space traveller and was experimented on to create the regeneration process, defies is that the Doctor isn’t a native Galifreyan. It moves the goalposts by creating a whole unexplored period in the Doctor’s history with unseen incarnations, but the former was already there and the latter has been speculated over and over. The grand mystery of the show is its very title. Dredging up obscure pieces of Classic series trivia (The Brain of Morbius Doctors) and abandoned concepts (The Cartmel Plan/The Other) in an attempt to consolidate them is creating definitive points in the character’s increasingly messy timeline. Through this episode the show is left with two choices: confront these revelations head on and further erode the mystery of “who is the Doctor?” or barely revisit them again, in which case what would have been the point of establishing them? The episode attempts to posit (both to the Doctor and the audience itself) that these revelations don’t matter because the Doctor is still the Doctor we’ve always known, but if they don’t matter then why tell them in the first place?

But despite its protestations the story of the Doctor has changed fundamentally. The story (that we knew) of the Doctor was that they were simply someone who defied their race’s rule of non-interference, travelling the universe and eventually coming to stand up for the little guy. It’s a story of revolution, one that says anyone can stand up and be a “Doctor”, a self-made legend. That much may still be true depending on where the Ruth/Doctor fits into all of this, but now we learn that the Doctor was always destined for greatness. A potentially immortal being that’s far more than what both they and the audience were led to believe. Anyone could still be a Doctor, but this Doctor is special. Though the comparison isn't completely balanced, it's very similar to how Rey ended up being treated in the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Characters should be defined by their actions and presumably the Doctor still will be, but those actions are now tied to a past. A past that was more powerful when left unexplored.

With all that said and done, there’s still the matter of how the companions fared in this episode. Series 12 has largely been a mess of whether or not Graham, Ryan and Yaz matter to the story and more often than not the show has struggled to adequately develop one companion, let alone three. The Timeless Children wants the audience to believe they matter, but detached from the main story once again just how much they truly contribute is debatable. Again there are moments of brilliance - the sequence where Graham, Yaz and the human survivors hide from Ashad inside Cyberman bodies is both tense and chilling, the kind of suspense Doctor Who should strive for. But the rounding off of any semblance of an “arc” the characters had is half-hearted. Ryan’s basketball triumph should have had payoff, but his success is belittled by there immediately being more Cybermen. Meanwhile Graham reassure Yaz she’s one of the greatest people he’s ever met, if only because someone has to remind her that she’s relevant. Finally Graham may have had the most development in the previous series, but that doesn’t mean that he should simply be the butt of the jokes. Once reunited they resolve to save the Doctor, but even though she’s relieved to see her fam she didn’t need saving as she’d already broken free of the Matrix herself. From there they’re just extra bodies to help plant bombs to blow up a spaceship. The guest cast have even less function in the episode, with one immediately falling victim to the Cybermen and the rest just making up bodies to make the episode not just about the main characters. The only one with any real significance is Ko Sharmus, who nobly sacrifices himself so the Doctor doesn’t have to. The Doctor that was so set on ending it that she never tried to think of a plan B.

Graham and YazDoctor behind bars

It’s funny that after series 11 made a point of trying to be fresh and distance itself from the Doctor Who of the past, series 12 entrenched itself in it. The Timeless Children is so occupied with delivering a shocking twist, that it forgets that it needs to be a good story first and foremost. It’s not about where Doctor Who is going any more, it’s about where it’s been. The episode ends with the Doctor trapped in a Judoon prison and the promise of the Daleks returning at the end of the year, but it’s the Ruth Doctor and those Timeless Children that everyone wants to known about. Answers which will presumably come one day, but at the same could very easily not should Chibnall step down before that time comes. And then who’s to say that’s the story the new showrunner wants to tell?

Time will tell. It always does.”

1 comment:

primegundam said...

Great review! Really articulated a lot of my feelings about this episode.