Doctor Who Series 12, Episode 10
“The Timeless Children”
Posted by Sage
In preparing to write this recap, I went back into the archives (or the Matrix, if you will) to read what I wrote about the Series 11 finale, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.” I had to, because to be perfectly honest, I barely remember anything that happens in it. Rereading that recap reminded me why it was so forgettable: the threats hadn’t been properly seeded; Tim Shaw was a crap villain from the jump; the emotional moments weren’t earned; Yaz was once again treated as an afterthought; and the Doctor’s optimism came off as naiveté. I called it “Doctor Who Lite,” and I stand by that. Then again, Series 11 was pretty toothless on the whole, so an earth-shaking finale was never a possibility.
Well, it seems that Chris Chibnall heard and processed the criticism of his freshman showrunner year. (We’ve hardly been shy about the fact that Head Over Feels as an institution has a much more positive view of Series 12, and we’re not alone.) Looking at my complaints about the last finale as a checklist of sorts, “The Timeless Children” seems at first glance to have it all. It certainly had me on the edge of my seat for the full hour and change. I felt sincerely worried about the fate of our heroes. Its big bad (the biggest bad of them all) is decidedly not crap. There were – again, at first glance – stakes!
And while I’m going to nitpick (because that’s what we’re all doing here), I want to say up front that this episode was an absolute blast to watch. It’s packed with moments that will go on Jodie’s highlight reel. And it potentially sets up an interesting pivot for her third series, depending on how the holiday (Is it Christmas? Is it New Year’s? Only the BBC knows our future.) special plays out.
But like a handful of other stories this series, the veneer of “The Timeless Children” starts to crack under closer scrutiny. Many of its problems can be traced back to previous episodes – even all the way back to the two-part premiere. Whereas Series 11 didn’t try to do much of anything, Series 12 was way too ambitious (a much lesser sin and one I’ll always prefer). In the finale, the Master acts as though all of his recent efforts were in pursuit of showing the Doctor the truth about their past and then bringing the Cybermen to Gallifrey to gift them a planet and a load of preserved corpses, creating a new master race. Considering that Barton and the Kasavin were attempting to use human DNA as so many external hard drives, you might assume that those schemes would connect at some point. But “The Timeless Children” disregards everything the Master was up to when we met up with him again at the beginning of the series – a plan so complex that he lived as a human MI6 agent for years, even meeting an earlier version of the Doctor in that disguise. We still don’t know how he escaped the Kasavin realm, how involved he was in the Cyberwar or what he knew about the Cyberium (It’s implied since he kept the Time Lords bodies on ice that he already had plans for converting them, but was that his intention when he first decided to destroy Gallifrey?), or indeed why he left the Doctor a message she sees at the end of “Spyfall” instructing her to look for answers herself, fully aware that only he knew where to find them and that he’d have to show her himself eventually. (And would he really have deprived himself the satisfaction of seeing her face when she heard the truth? Make it make sense!) I’m still scratching my head as why he tried to kill her so many times in the premiere, while his entire motivation is thenceforth to break her with this revelation.
But it’s impossible to be that worked up about any of it when Sacha Dhawan (future Feelie and Most Handsome Young Man nominee, you know we’ve already decided) is just so. damn. much.
“The Timeless Children” sacrifices some opportunities to connect threads in favor of giving Sacha’s Master a showcase. And I’m sort of fine with that. Do I wish the Master had been more integrated into the season and not just its bookends (especially with the hand-wavey way they temporarily got rid of him)? Sure. But as we saw with Series 10, having the Master hang about takes away from the relationship between the Doctor and their companions – and with such a crowded TARDIS, that’s not something we could afford to do again.
Anyway: His flamboyance, those rollercoaster emotions, all that flair – those are the showier parts of Sacha’s Master, the let-me-entertain-you theatrics that pull attention. But watching the episode for a second time, I started to appreciate how deliberate his performance is as well, and the clever way that he uses those showier bits to work in a few tricks. There’s some slight-of-hand happening here, mostly in terms of how Sacha plays off of Jodie, letting the Master’s deep, eternal sadness seep in through those reactions.
He is also perpetually horny, with beings both organic and mostly inorganic. Sacha’s Master has no sense of personal space but a very suggestive way of sizing up everyone he meets. So, to recap: sad, angry, horny. Honestly, relatable.
I don’t think any other Master has the vast interiority of Michelle Gomez’s take, but that was also something the script called for. Especially when we have such an exciting actor in the part, I want this current Master to be written better than he has been. With all the shared history between these two characters, I felt like there was an obvious shade to the Master flying off the handle when he learned who the Doctor really was that was totally ignored all season. Wouldn’t some tiny part of him be angry at the Time Lords for the lifetimes of torture and manipulation his best friend endured at their hands? For their arrogance and greed? Even if buried deep, deep, deep under those layers of rage and betrayal?
If I were in charge (Rassilon help us!), I would have had the Master frame his Time Lord genocide as a gift to the Doctor. Revenge for the both of them. He’s no stranger to a grand gesture (see: Missy hand-delivering a Cyber-Army to Twelve), and it just seems childish at this point to pretend like the Doctor and Master’s relationship hasn’t always been guided by an extremely toxic but indestructible love.
Alas, I’m not in charge. And it’s a good thing, because I can guarantee that I would never have been able to come up with anything as beautifully stupid as CYBER MASTERS.
I refuse to delve into the why and the how and the when of the Master’s seduction (I’m also being literal, he basically dares Ashad to kiss him) of the Cybermen, because the best thing to come out of it was the new (and again, dumbest) redesign of these cyborgs. Because obviously what you want to do when you’re taking over a planet is communicate to your enemy that you’re immortal, right up front. It’s also obvious how the good guys are going to get out of it when Chekov’s Death Particle is introduced – a “myth” that the ragtag group of human survivors the fam picked up knew well but didn’t think to mention before.
Speaking of those survivors…I don’t remember a single one of their names, which underlines another trap this finale falls right into: It’s ridiculously back-loaded. Presumably, “Ascension of the Cybermen” exists so that we feel some sort of kinship with humanity’s last stand, but it was difficult to connect with them individually in the midst of the battle. Not to mention, if the fam is involved, I’m always going to be paying closer attention to what they’re doing and feeling.
The Master, ham that he is, hogs a lot of screen time in “The Timeless Children.” Again, our moments with our companions are fleeting. But we get to see them take what they learned about functioning on their own in “Spyfall, Part Two” and use their resourcefulness not only to save themselves and the people they’re with but the Doctor as well. And it’s all so wonderfully in character. Graham casually suggests donning Cyber armor, an effective but extremely reckless plan that had my watch party very concerned that Ryan would accidentally kill one of them; Ryan makes one solid shot with a Ko Sharmus bomb and almost gets taken out while celebrating; and Yaz is the first to yeet herself through the boundary, while Graham is still reflecting on how dangerous it is. (She’s got a girlfriend to rescue!)
Circling all the way back to the Great Yaz Drought of 2018, this is where Chibnall really made up for how dirty that last series finale did her. Both of the most moving companion moments in “The Timeless Children” centered her. I’ve always loved Graham and Yaz’s friendship, though it really seemed to cement during “Demons of the Punjab.” And I respect how hard it is, given the terrible world that we live in, to write a scene in which an older white man compliments a young woman of color for being a good and strong person without it being icky or patronizing. The way Graham speaks to her – with such awe, respect, and gentleness…truly a standout scene of the whole series for me, made all the better by Yaz’s succinct (and a little embarrassed) response. They’re so close, she doesn’t feel the need to perform a grateful, gushy version of femininity that isn’t immediately accessible to her – even when Graham teases her for it.
And later, it’s Yaz who tries to physically stop the Doctor from sacrificing herself for the universe. Graham and Ryan would surely do anything for there to be another option, but they stay still, they let the Doctor make her choice. But Yaz isn’t having it. She hates to lose. She won’t lose her. And you can’t watch that scene and tell me that Jodie and Mandip weren’t playing a different kind of attachment than the Doctor shares with either of the boys. Ryan, in his role as one half of what I now only see as a BROTP, pulls Yaz back with just a a few soft words, empathetic to both of them.
The climax of the Doctor coming to the Master ready to deploy the Death Particle pales in comparison to her earlier triumph, when she escapes from the Matrix by using all of her memories – the ones she has access to at least – to “return the compliment” of blowing its mind. That was the episode’s “get up, you’re fine” pinnacle, as Ruth!Doctor randomly shows up (or is summoned) to remind the Doctor that change and evolution are in her nature and that to despair (as the Master wants her to) because there’s more of her than she ever knew would be pretty silly.
But it’s a bittersweet victory, because the Doctor is hearing this from a version of herself who lost, in a way. Ruth!Doctor had her memory wiped, otherwise Thirteen would know her. And that’s really fucking painful to think about. She hid herself away on Earth, did everything she could to evade the Time Lords, but it didn’t work. To me, that’s more tragic than this Doctor’s lost regenerations – that the ones who were taken from her didn’t experience regeneration as a moment of renewal and hope. How many more are there like Ruth!Doctor, who could have built on what they’d experienced rather than losing that knowledge forever? How many tries did it take the Doctor to well and truly escape? (“She’s clever, I’m clever, we’re all clever. All of us. However many that is.”)
What this addition to canon will mean in the future is entirely dependent on our TBD showrunners. Whether the Doctor goes looking for her true origins or runs into another former incarnation she doesn’t remember is up to them. It’s easy enough just to leave it be. And I’m no stickler for canon – a thing that is made up and added to every single time a Doctor Who story is created – but it is unfortunate that we can no longer look at the Doctor as someone who was raised to be one thing but felt called to be another – a misfit, not because of their origin or ability but because of their nature. (“You know what I find the most infuriating? You always behaved like you were different, like you were special. And you were.”)
Explanations aren’t always welcome or necessary, but nothing’s been broken or disrespected here. (Clara Oswald also wasn’t always a part of the Doctor’s origin story, and everyone seemed to get over that just fine.) All that matters to me is that the show follows through on how characters are affected by what they experience and know. The history of Gallifrey ranks much lower on my personal scale than how the Doctor absorbs this curveball to her personal mythology. How will this shape her? What does she take with her as she goes forward? We have a long wait for those answers and a Judoon prison to escape, but at least Chibnall is finally making moves.
Timey Wimey Observations:
- @ Gallifrey, leak your “Irish seaside town in the ’50s” Instagram filter.
- Related: I think the Brendan bits would have been even more intriguing if they had been framed as memories, not a confusing C-plot.
- “Aw, crack a smile.”
- Ryan in “The Ghost Monument”: “I play Call of Duty, let’s do this.”
Ryan in “The Timeless Children: “I’m not so sure about weapons.” You know what that is? Growth.
- “Don’t mean to conversion-shame you.”
- Ko Sharmus: “Gird your loins, gentlemen.”
Ryan: “I don’t know how to do that.” Pure.
- Throwback to the Master and Doctor’s presidential assassination date. At least now they have a motive.
- WHO winks at a Cyberman. WHO.
- “I do believe you’re appealing to my better nature. And we both know I don’t have one.” Listen. How hard would it have been to tweak this line to honor Missy’s arc? The Master flirted with his better nature and then rejected it. STILL WORKS.
- If I ever see Tecteun in these streets…
- We didn’t trust Space Moses, but it just turns out that he’s a sweet old guy who likes explosions.
- “Oh, you mean robots.”
- We knew the Time Lords suck, but they REALLY suck. They put this child through hell to steal her genetic code and then hoard that knowledge, even from their own people.
- “Yaz, I can’t get this hat off!”
- “Show us some leg, what do you actually look like?” HE EVEN WANTS TO FUCK THE CYBERIUM, COME ON.
- I am really furious at how delighted the Master looks when the Doctor just body slams him.
- “Live great lives.”
- For one beautiful, shining moment, I thought that Jack would be in the TARDIS with the Doctor in those final seconds. We deserve way more of him than we got and a Doctor/Jack holiday special would have been heaven.
- I genuinely can’t get over how stunningly beautiful Sacha Dhawan is. I know. I know it’s shallow. But we are blessed by his casting, and – as I didn’t see a regeneration – I hope and expect he’ll be back next year.
How did “The Timeless Children” work for you? The comments are there for your praise and grievances.
Featured Image Source: BBC