THE FINALE: The Lie of the Timeless Child
At the very start of this series, we talked about how everything has been building up to this: the story that changes everything. We’ve explored this strange, inward looking show and what that means for the Doctor in Spyfall, and what it means to be the Doctor, or anybody, for that matter, in Fugitive of the Judoon. We’ve looked at the how production problems and climate collapse are inextricably linked in Orphan 55, and how we can tell global-scale stories about global politics in Praxeus. We’ve challenged the very hearts of the show, with twists on Great Man history in Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, and how the rules of time are maybe less absolute than we believed in The Haunting of Villa Diodati, and what duties good people have in Can You Hear Me?
I hope, if you’ve read these eight earlier entries, that I’ve managed to communicate that there’s problems that run deep in the show, many of which predate this present era, but most of which have been in some way exacerbated by it. What I think these ultimately mean is that Doctor Who doesn’t know where it fits into an increasingly volatile, increasingly depressing world like ours. Something big will have to change, but I think Who has and always has had the power to be a real, progressive, forward-facing force for good, not just as a TV show, but as a cultural phenomenon and institution bigger than the small screen.
And that with that power comes a responsibility.
1. Cyberman: Homecoming
In terms of mechanical storytelling, the Brendan thread in Ascension of the Cyberman is everything Chibnall Who otherwise isn’t: It’s concise, telling a whole life in a very slight number of sequences, with only a few characters. It’s intriguing, seemingly unrelated to the rest of the story, with big questions rocking a real-feeling world. It’s subtle, with characters demonstrated through their actions, and through small nods and looks, like the decision Brendan’s parents make to adopt him, consigned entirely to a smile, or the realisation that nobody but him has aged, all of which go unspoken. Nobody has to say “oh, you didn’t die when you fell off that cliff, isn’t that weird” because we saw it happen, even though elsewhere, even in this episode, you have characters constantly an unnecessarily narrating their thoughts and circumstance — “Look! Bits of dead Cybermen, floating in space”.
If it weren’t for ‘dark secrets under the surface of uncanny countryside life’ being a Chibnall staple, it would be genuinely hard for me to believe that this came from the fingertips of same person who wrote the rest of the finale. In terms of quality, style, and even narrative, the two parts just don’t fit together; we find out later this is supposed to be a vision in the Doctor’s mind, but there’s no actual indication of that, and that it’s supposed to be encrypted Matrix data foreshadowing the reveal, but it doesn’t actually do that job. It’s just the whole Timeless Child myth told more compellingly, and there’s so much inconsistency between the two that they’re barely the same story at all; Brendan isn’t exploited and never goes on the lamb, which are surely the two most important parts.
We’ve all commented that the self-confident incongruence of this whole sequence is reminiscent of the previous era, and I don’t disagree that there’s a lot of similarity to the threads in Exteremis, Silence in the Library, and The Pyramid at the End of the World, but I think that the main reason people are making that connection, and certainly the main reason that a little part of my brain thinks “wait, are we sure Moffat didn’t write this bit?” is that it’s just holistic. Everything there has a point, and means something, and matters, and I don’t feel like I’m watching a collection of half-formed ideas and half-written characters. The self-contained completeness and competence of the Brendan thread speaks to a real potential in this era, but its something that feels absent the rest of the time, where pointlessness abounds.
For some quick examples of what I mean, in this story there are two universe-ending ethereal superweapons that the characters McGuffin over, both, separately used to stage character-defining ultimatums with near to no thematic link between the two. There’s a moment when Ryan realises that violence is necessary to defeat the Cybermen, but it’s framed as a would-be moral failing for the Doctor to do the same thing. This doesn’t just make stories feel less whole, but it sabotages their meaning too.
Like the previous finale and religious extremism, despite repeated and overt references to the themes, it’s still not actually very clear that this story is about refugees. It’s not like Resolution in which the word is just unthinkingly thrown around with such carelessness that it accidentally plays into anti-immigration narratives, this is actually about people fleeing from war, into the unknown, in hope of safety. But all the separate threads of this idea aren’t interlinked in a way that creates sustained meaning. Getting to the Boundary (another word for ‘border’) is the end-goal, and there’s no perspective from anybody who has passed through and is faced with the difficulties of a hostile reaction from the people on the other side, which in a British TV show, in our current political climate, is clearly the most important chapter of their story, because it’s the one the show has the most power to affect.
The way we follow up on this in the second half, with a thematic abstraction of the refugees from the Cybermen onto the mysterious alien child – apparently a “refugee from another realm” – fallen through a conspicuously similar boundary, is an impressively bold little sleight-of-hand, implicitly creating one, universal, global narrative out of her experience of cultural adoption and exploitation, aiming to draw together these ideas into an actual, applicable meaning. The big reveal, the lie of the Timeless Child, aims to demonstrate the suppressed truth that Gallifrey, like our own societies, built its power on great abuse and cruelty; reimagine the Doctor as a figure of change rather than complicity; and put a foundation in place to inspire positive action in the real world.
And it comes so close getting it right.
2. Like a Hybrid
There’s a series finale that changed everything. It redefined who the Doctor is and threatened to bring the show crashing down around us. It was controversial when it aired, and all this time later it is controversial still.
“Tell me about it.”
The Doctor returns to a changed Gallifrey alone, though to be joined later by the rest of the team, and faces a threat unlike any other – the threat of a secret kept from the characters and from the audience, so big it stretches out and over every episode of this series, and its revelation will change everything. It’s a secret about the Doctor. One that makes us question what we really know about them.
As makes sense of a story that so delves into the past, this is told mostly in flashbacks of stylistic pomp and uncertain reliability, while in the present day the Doctor is mostly confined to a single room, trying to solve these mysteries about their own history. The climactic moment comes from a conversation in the depths of the Matrix itself, Gallifrey’s supercomputer of souls, and after teasing throughout the series, the truth about an unknown entity comes out: it’s the Doctor after all, although how exactly is a little ambiguous.
It turns out that the Master’s presence in the series is mostly just to set up this reveal, and though things looked bad for the TARDIS team, everybody survives, if separated from each other under unique circumstances. Despite the shocking reveal, we end on a note of affirmation that after everything, the Doctor we know is still the Doctor we know.
I’m talking, of course, about The Trial of a Time Lord.
The Valeyard reveal of Trial isn’t as sexy as that of The Timeless Children, but it has a dramatic direction to it that the other lacks. In both series, there is the constant threat hanging over us of Sandifer’s narrative collapse — a change so great it “removes all possibility of the show continuing,” which we talked about in regards to Spyfall — and in both finales this comes specifically in the form of an undermining of ‘the Doctor’ as an identity. This series, the idea being threatened is that of who the Doctor is, in a technical sense: where they come from or what their birth name is. But the question of the Trial tribulation is who the Doctor is, as in, an issue of character. Season 23 takes the mixed reaction to a more abrasive Doctor and builds the series around that tension between the hero and his audience, threatening to reveal that the Doctor isn’t actually the good guy after all. If you want to talk about putting the Who back in the title, then it would probably help to question what that Who originally meant. Was the true mystery surrounding the strange Doctor in the scrapyard “what’s the name of the planet he comes from?” or is it “what brought him here?” and “can we trust him?”
And while it turns out that the projections we’re watching aren’t what actually happened and the Doctor isn’t corrupt, the reveal that the Valeyard is one of his future faces (not the case anymore, of course, but it’s pretty clear that this was the original implication) proves to us that the possibility isn’t just open, but it actually happened (or will happen) that the Doctor turned vindictive and cruel. He became the villain, which means our Doctor, who we’re watching every week on TV, has the potential to do the same. A character-based mystery comes to a character-based reveal that tells us something new about our lead: that he’s not inherently good, but that good is something he does.
This idea is iterated upon by dozens of stories since, maybe most notably by the story I was winking at earlier. In Hell Bent, the Doctor actually does go “bad guy” and the show declares that nothing about being Doctor Who is inherent at all. The Doctor can turn bad and his companions can fly away in TARDISes and start their own adventures. The whole paradigm can be inverted because nothing about a person’s character is written in stone, because they’re people, not top trumps cards.
3. The End of Reality Itself
I argued (somewhat controversially) in my Fugitive of the Judoon post The Book of Ruth that the actual, in-universe identity relationship between the Doctor and the Timeless Child is closer to that of an ancestor or kidney donor than to actually being the same person in a way that has any real practicality or relevance, but that the show insists they are worth treating as one and the same because the share certain aesthetics and because of an era-wide attitude of essentialism that defines characters by metaphysical absolutes rather than their actions. And the way that this bleeds into the material universe of the show is often as a very ugly biological moral-determinism as seen in this line from Things She Thought While Falling:
“That’s interesting, she thought. I seem to be an optimist. With a hint of enthusiasm. And what’s that warm feeling in my stomach? Ah, I’m kind! Brilliant.“
Or this one from the Master:
“When I kill them, Doctor, it gives me a little buzz. Right here, in the hearts. It’s like… How would I describe it? It’s like… It’s like knowing I’m in the right place, doing what I was made for.“
Doing what he was, quite literally, made for. The characters are their functions in the show, performing their roles. They’re not fluid, changing identities, but stock figures defined by the name in the credits, and characters defined like this can never feel bigger than the sum of their scenes.
And this why the twist feels so bootless. It understands that the reveal itself isn’t emotional, so it grounds the drama in the Doctor’s feeling that her identity has been undermined, but when that identity and everything that comes with it has been treated like an objective fact there’s just no tension there. In Trial, the Valeyard twist is meaningful because we’ve been toying across the series with the bounds of what the Doctor can be, and what bad things he could do. The Hybrid reveal matters because we’ve just seen that the Doctor can fail to live up to his name, so the idea that him and Clara are not just equals but dangerously interlinked has real emotional weight in the present. But the Doctor’s acceptance that she’s not defined by the possibility of past faces feels inevitable and insubstantial because we already know that what makes her the Doctor is the fact that she’s the Doctor.
But ironically, the reason the episode has to go out of its way to ground the twist in character is because we the audience were supposed to be shocked by the new facts themselves. And many people were, both positively and negatively, but there’s this great disconnect between the show’s focus on imagery and abstract information and the “real,” material universe of the show and the characters that we are supposed to believe in. To refer back to the ‘refugee’ theme, the only way in which the Thirteenth Doctor fits into that narrative is that she’s now got a fact attached to her that says she is a kind of refugee, despite her actual material conditions and lived experience.
And this essentialist amaterialism throughout the era is why we’re expected to care about somebody using the Death Particle on a planet that’s already dead. Of course it’s still symbolically difficult to pull the trigger on your home, even when it does literally no harm, but that’s the point; imagery and tradition are obviously important, but when they’re placed higher on the narrative priority list than actually existing suffering it’s hard not to compare to the principles of the Time Lords themselves which put the ethereal rules and traditions above the needs and lives of actual people.
4. The Trial of the Time Lords
The Timeless Children has been celebrated by some as the long overdue condemnation of the Time Lords and for finally separating the Doctor from them and their culture, but from the courtroom epics that bookend their classic appearances to the Rassilon showdowns across the revival, nobody paying attention has ever been under the illusion that the Time Lords are supposed to be the good guys, except from through the mythology that builds up around them when they’re all extinct, which is exactly where we’re back to now. The revelation that regeneration is built on exploitation is upsetting on a personal level (although I remain convinced that Chibnall doesn’t actually know this is an abuse narrative, see the endnotes) but is frankly the least of their crimes. They are the “self-appointed ruling elite” of the universe, in such power for so long that it would be impossible not to be corrupt. This is all already in the text. They’re “decadent, degenerate, and rotten to the core,” and they always have been, so this exposition isn’t anything new.
If you live in a country like mine then this description of a callous, powerful people who manage to be isolationist when it comes to sharing their privileges and imperial when maintaining control over everyone else is probably ringing some bells. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Doctor Who, a British institution, reflects Britain as an institution. Despite itself, this show has been a repelling force against some of the worst aspects of this country; as much as it is absolutely soaked in our national imagery, the Doctor is a revolutionary and anti-imperial agent in a way that couldn’t be less British. The whole premise of the show is the Doctor rejecting their “rightful home” in favour of finding friendship and community with aliens and others and outcasts.
But despite forging their own way, the Doctor remains rooted in her birthplace, and the show in old ideas. As I talked about a year ago On Doctor Who and Class (that’s right, this whole series has been a longwinded follow-up to something old that most people haven’t seen, what a twist, I’m a genius) the TARDIS, regeneration, the time sense, all this iconography is an inheritance from Gallifrey that sets the Doctor above everybody else in the universe. These are all, in effect, an unimaginable privilege of cultural heritage, stolen from other species and repurposed to reinforce the Time Lords’ position as, y’know, the Lords of Time. And while the Doctor and the show keeps condemning them, as in all three of the stories I’ve talked about, we keep ending up back here doing it again. Like in a clockwork castle or a mindwiped fugitive reset to factory default.
This reimagining of the Doctor as the victim of her home’s imperialism is, on the label, a progressive realignment of the lead and the show with a marginalised people, but materially, the Doctor is still privy to every single one of those privileges. She’s still a functional aristocrat, except now laundered of the crimes that she owes it to by a retroactive continuity change to her biology and biography. As well as just draining the political potential for drama and commentary out of the show by the cheapest method, this is a British institution choosing not to engage with what it means for somebody’s wealth and culture to be built on the suffering of others.
5. Changing Times
The Doctor: You’re not actually suggesting that we change our own personal history?
The Doctor: We change history all the time. I’m suggesting something far worse.
There was a shared theme across the Social Issues stories of this era where the problems are accurately identified, but there was a failure to deliver solutions. In some cases, like Orphan 55’s climate chaos, there just isn’t a solution to deliver, but in others it’s because actually following these questions through would mean making fundamental changes, within the universe of the show, and without it, too. For example, addressing the way history inaccurately highlights the importance of individuals, as seen in Tesla’s Terror, would require totally rethinking the way we do historical stories, and the kind of historical stories we chose to tell in the first place. Series 11 even showed how this might look in Demons of the Punjab, but 12 fell right back into those risk-free routine historicals instead, because committing to big ideas requires actual change.
If you want an idea for free, my proposal is that the Doctor is wrong about time. The type of time she was taught to preserve, all the rules that say when it is and isn’t okay to save a dying child, the whole understanding of history she inherited from the Time Lords is incorrect. To preserve their own power, Gallifrey lied about the past and how it works, and through a combination of genuine ignorance and attachment to the authority that it gave her, she didn’t question it for centuries. Her choice to reject them and embrace a truer, more egalitarian history, then, is a fundamental change that comes from character, and has positive, progressive political implications for the audience that are more than relevant at a time in a country where pointing out historical racists is a cardinal sin and disrespecting the statue of one is a serious crime.
And, maybe more than anything else, it would just be interesting. We’re changing the rules of the show, pushing it in a genuinely new direction where we can’t rely on the crutches we used before, and writers are forced to think harder about the history they’re presenting. And I think saying, suddenly, that changing the past is fine, that we don’t need to be precious and protective about history, would actually spur on new and original storytelling. Many and big fundamental, structural shifts the show are exactly what it needs, and there’s no shortage of ideas out there.
We simply can’t face the world today and its problems with a few aesthetic and surface level adjustments and politics. Defaulting backwards a decade, as many seem to have done, is just returning to the problems that got us to where we are now, and if we want to survive what’s still coming then we need to pull up the weeds by the roots. We need to start thinking differently. This is as true of Who as it is everything else.
But this story isn’t that change.
6. The Revolution will Not Be Televised
I’ve tried my hardest to be properly insightful over the last nine posts, and I think I’ve occasionally managed, but I feel like I’m working against the show to do that and I’m not sure it’s worth the energy. So, if you want a wrap-up review of the series, go watch a teenage Chris Chibnall’s review of Trial and imagine I’m saying it.
It was… nyeeeeghm… boring.
The move of the holiday special is the perfect example of how, to me, this era is so often just less. Like New Years’ Day is just less than New Years’ Eve, and certainly less than Christmas. Less fun, less meaningful, less emotional. This is the hangover of Doctor Who. Both finales so far have been set after the battles that they’re actually about. The Timeless Children is just recalling something that happened lifetimes ago. It came and went, and the relevant web pages were updated, and then we got straight back to toothless Dalek run-arounds with neutered, outdated politics as per usual. It’s not even a terrible episode. For the era, it’s better than most. It’s fine. The same fine it was last New Years’ and the New Years’ before. And bets are open for 2022.
The lie of the Timeless Child is that it actually changes anything. That this isn’t a version of Doctor Who that only serves to uphold the status quo. That sides with Amazon. That sits at the front of the bus. The only reason The Timeless Children can go through with its threat of narrative collapse where Hell Bent or Trial of a Time Lord both pull back from that precipice is precisely because it doesn’t really make a difference. The show going forwards will be fundamentally identical. In the end it is just that – a TV show. And as much as people like me might insist it has a duty, the truth is its only real motive is getting another series. It’s not a universe, it’s a franchise. Selling plastic toys and cryptocurrency collector cards. It is exactly as amaterial as it presents.
The real change we need, that might one day make a difference to the people like you and I who are inspired by fictional worlds, would threaten the continuation of the show. It’d make it harder to make more episodes, so we’re doing a timecops arc instead. The story that changes everything is not going to be televised, and it never was. Even in Hell Bent we follow the wrong TARDIS.
I started this whole project to figure out where I stand with this show, and now I think I know how I feel. I’m lucky. My Doctor Who lasted 12 years, which is more than most get. And it was great. Incredible highs and embarrassing lows, often directly following one another, but never not fun for more than a few minutes at a time. It was funny, and heartfelt, and truly meaningful to me. And it’s over now, and that’s sad. And what’s replaced it is just less. It’s passive, unambitious TV, and that’s fine.
But I think I’m going to change the channel for a while.