THE TIMELESS CHILDREN
Wow. And not in a good way.
At the end of Ascension Of The Cybermen, the Master informs us that everything we knew was a lie and things are going to change. Forever.
Correct us if weíre wrong, but didnít Chris Chibnall at the beginning of his tenure declare his disinterest in all things fanwank? Wasnít it going to be an era of simple stories the casual viewer could understand without a degree in Gallifreyan history?
Well, that didnít last long, did it? Give him five minutes and heís hip deep in Doctor Who lore and determined to carve his initials in it.
Is this a bad thing per se? Should we respectfully tiptoe around Doctor Who history as we know it, changing not one line? Course not. Showrunners have upended the backstory for years. There werenít even Time Lords until very late in the Second Doctorís tenure. And all the Gallifreyan stuff didnít appear until Robert Holmes chucked it in in the late seventies. Then there was the Cartmel Masterplan, the half-human thing in the Eighth Doctor movie, the intimations about the Sisterhood of Karn with regard to regenerationÖ
Fine. But letís ask another question. Should Chris Chibnall do it? And here weíd have to say: one thousand percent no. Robert Holmes earned it. Chris Chibnall most definitely has not. Not just because of the execrable state of the series under his tenure, but because he proves conclusively in The Timeless Children that when it comes to the important stuff he shouldnít be allowed anywhere near it.
So what is this all a lie stuff? According to Chibnall, everything you knew about Rassilon was rubbish. Instead, the Doctor is a creature from another realm whose regeneration abilities form the foundation, along with the discovery of time travel, of the Time Lords.
So whatís wrong with that? Donít get us wrong, there isnít a problem with the extra lives/hidden history stuff: on its own, itís as valid an idea as anything else. The problem is the Doctor being so very very special. Primarily, itís wrong because it actually makes the Doctor LESS interesting. Before the Masterís revelation, the Doctor was a renegade Time Lord, yes, but a Time Lord like other Time Lords nonetheless. What makes them different is not some quirk of biology: itís an insatiable curiosity about and compassion for the universe and a deep conviction that itís their duty not to stand by as the other Time Lords do in the face of injustice but instead to devote their lives to striving to make the universe a better place.
Of course, the Doctor is still that person with those convictions. But making them special because of who they are, rather than for what they do, significantly takes away from them as a character. You could write stories that organically send characters in exciting new directions. Or you could be utterly lacking in inspiration and just fiddle with their backstories instead. As Dr Polidori might say, is it too late to choose a new group?
Thereís another reason the Doctor is an endlessly fascinating character: itís because of their mystery. We donít know everything about them, and we donít want to know. Where would be the fun in that? Needless to say, however, that mystery is plumptiously tempting for showrunners looking to go down in history as the one who set Fact X about the Doctor in stone. Sadly, this temptation often ranks higher with them than the benefit of keeping the mystery intact. No doubt they revel in the knowledge that they put their fingerprints on the Doctorís story, and why shouldnít they? After all, itís not them it hurts, itís us. A reveal may give us a short-term hit of satisfied curiosity, but each one makes the Doctor just a little less intriguing.
So thatís how Chibnallís pet revelations affect us. But how do they affect the Doctor? Clearly, very badly. Between her shock and the Masterís paralysis field, she basically spends much of the episode catatonic. Question: has Chibnall actually ever seen an episode of Doctor Who? Surely not. Otherwise, how could he think this reaction would ever be an acceptable one for the Doctor? When has the Doctor lacked this much agency?
The companions who are struggling on without her are clearly trying to apply themselves to the situation and come up with cunning plans the way they think she would. Sadly for the Doctorís reputation, theyíre actually far, far better at it than she is. When she does finally drag herself into action, itís catastrophic. She goes out to sacrifice herself to off the Cybermen, but when Ko Sharmus volunteers to take her place, not only does she not argue, she literally runs away. Of course itís not unheard of that the Doctor has to accept someoneís sacrifice for the greater good, but never just for selfish reasons and not like this. Between her utter passivity and someone elseís heroism, itís like sheís absent from the story that has her name in the title. It seems ever clearer that Chibnall has no grasp whatsoever on who the Doctor actually is.
Because bad as that is, itís not all of it. After two seasons of extending our best genuine effort to like Chibnallís Doctor, we can no longer avoid the fact that far from always being the most fascinating person in the room as all the other Doctors are, sheís often the most boring one. In this story alone, weíd rather spend time with literally any of the other characters including the Master (and we really, really donít like the Master) than with her. The alt Doctor whoís only onscreen for a few minutes is more interesting than she is. The companions whoíve been underdrawn due to lack of space are more interesting than she is. The characters with early deaths whose names we have to look up on Wikipedia are more interesting than she is.
Weíre tired of the gasping. Weíre tired of the monotonous pace and inflection of the delivery. Weíre tired of the embarrassing bragging swiftly followed by ignominious failure. Weíre tired of her resorting to the sonic screwdriver in every single situation. Weíre tired of villains pushing her around and her letting them. Weíre tired of the utter absence of conveying that sheís an alien with many long lives behind her. As a result, whether sheís a mysterious regenerating being from another realm or a small tree frog, we canít really bring ourselves to care.
And it doesnít matter anyway. The Master says it will change everything, but will it? Will it really? Does it make that much difference? Half of his infogrenades seem to consist of taking something that was already there and replacing it with something the same but with a different name. And the Ruth Doctor asks the Doctor whether sheís ever been limited by what she was before and the Doctor agrees she hasnít. So if it makes no difference, why bother with it in the first place?
Nor can we really accept it as canon when it shoots far better episodes more full of holes than a fishnet stocking. There are way too many of these to list, but weíre just not prepared to let them go in the service of Chibnallís much dumber idea. Whatís more, it even creates holes in Chibnallís own stories. Letís just hope the tides of history bury it in mud as it deserves. In the interim, weíre declaring it an alternative fact.
What else is in here? First of all, the wearisomely inevitable return of Sacha Dhawanís Master. We know some people think heís the greatest Master since Delgado, but weíre just not getting it. We find the madness part desperately dull and a complete retread of the Simms Master. Whatís more, for a story which is meant to be Explaining It All, weíre still no wiser as to why heís quite so angry at the Doctor, and characters that are angry for no reason are a total yawn. Also, itís abundantly clear to us that Sacha Dhawan is actually a perfectly lovely guy, and itís that we keep seeing through the supposedly diabolical exterior. Absent the frisson of pure evil thatís supposed to be there, when he gets angry weíre reminded far too irresistibly of a toddler having a tantrum.
Whatís more, as with much of this Chibnall has left far too much of the Masterís story woefully underexplained. Why did he destroy Gallifrey? How did he destroy Gallifrey? Why does he want the Cybermen to overrun Gallifrey? Where does his death wish come from? How does his history with the Doctor account for quite this much fury? Sure, we donít want to destroy the Masterís mystery either, but all of this should at least make some sense.
Chibnall might not explain the things that need explaining, but itís not for want of talking. Through the centre section of this episode, the Master goes on and on and on, ranting and whispering and just talking talking talking and itís so boring. The pacing here is so off itís laughable.
And the two-handers with the Doctor fall completely flat, because the majority of the time she just lets him rattle on with no reaction on her part. Itís as if heís monologuing while sheís mentally composing her shopping list. And when she does occasionally riposte, itís as if she thinks sheís dealing out a superbly clever line when itís actually utterly mundane. ďAnd has it calmed all the rage?Ē Ooh. Zinger.
And the Cybermen? First of all, weíre really taken with Grahamís idea of dressing up in their tin overcoats. Of course it would never actually work, because they tell us the Cybermen are neurally networked and so theyíd instantly realise that the humans in the Cybersuits werenít in the network. For the same reason, Ashad peering through their eye meshes is utterly pointless. However, itís a lovely idea and we canít quite believe it hasnít been used before.
Unfortunately, the Cybermen themselves donít fare quite as well. Chibnall is far more interested in the Master than he is in the Cybermen in this episode, and as a result, after building Ashad up in the last two episodes, he has the Master tissue compress him off-handedly and leaves the rest of Ďem in a stompy holding pattern until he can be bothered getting round to them again. Considering the effort heís put into Ashadís story up till now, and Ashadís stature within the three episodes, itís a pretty ignominious ending. With this lack of interest, no wonder Chibnall couldnít be bothered coming up with a reason for Ashad to be so keen on being Cyberfied in the first place. Whatís more, Ashadís storyline about wanting to Kill All Humans shifts the Cybermenís motivation, which has always been all about Teh Conversion, too close to the Daleksí motivation. Not to mention the Masterís motivation. Take insufficient care to distinguish your villains and they all end up as one giant villainy bollock.
When the Cybermen eventually return, they have their collars on: weíre not sure the prettiness of these do the Cybermenís ruthless reputation any favours. To be honest, weíre a bit mystified by the Masterís plan: are regenerating Cybermen really that much worse than the bog-standard model? They never seem to have much trouble producing more of them, after all. And after this they just sort of trail away into a welter of silliness. How are the Time Lords in them dead, exactly, given that they can regenerate? And why do they (and the Master, come to that) stand there like a shelf full of tin cans while the Doctor is running away and Ser Barristanís setting off his grenade?
How do the companions fare? Itís poor old Ryanís turn to get the crappy end of the stick as heís limited to a few lines. Yaz and Graham get more to do, and theyíre agreeably proactive (DID YOU NOTICE THAT, DOCTOR?). However, we could have done without the heartwarming bit where Graham tells Yaz how impressed he is by her. Dude. We know. You donít have to tell us, and you shouldnít.
And the other characters? There isnít much room for them in this far too overstuffed episode, but by God Ian McElhinney is blisteringly good. Like we said in our review of Ascension of the Cybermen, heís the real hero of the story, and heís by far the most riveting thing on the screen. Snip everything out of this episode except for him, Ruth, Yaz and Graham and we really would have had something worth watching.
Argh. We donít like her, we donít like the Master, we donít like this episode and we donít like the showrunner. So looking forward to the next episode.
SECOND HAND NEWS
If Tecteun is so monomaniacally obsessed with figuring out the kid, why doesnít she go back to where she found her and step through herself?
I MAY BE SOME TIME
Tecteun had crude space travel technology and yet she managed to travel to other galaxies? Plural?
LIKE RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY
ďLook upon my work, Doctor, and despair.Ē Yes, itís a Shelley ref, but does the Master realise how ironic that line is meant to be?
How hokey is the Doctor breaking out of the Matrix with the power of her memories?
THE LEGEND OF THE PARTICLE IS WAY HARDCORE
The legend of the death particle? Not only is that utterly hilarious, itís the laziest writerís trick ever.
We canít quite believe Chibnall makes a big thing of who the Timeless Child is. The Doctor asks the Master twice to elucidate this impenetrable mystery. This being the case, for a minute there we actually thought it wasnít going to be the tritest answer possible. But no.
Would Ko Sharmusís tent maze really bamboozle the Cybes? If we were Cybermen weíd just set it on fire.
And as a last insult, the Judoon invade the TARDIS. The Judoon. Seems like any old riff-raff can get into the TARDIS now. Yeah, thatís a development we can really get behind.