Under the leadership of Andrew C. Cartmel, Doctor Who introduced a bit of mystery into the Doctor’s backstory during the waning days of the classic series run. Questions of who the Doctor really was and the connection to the foundation of Gallirey and Time Lord society were sprinkled into a couple of episodes — and even more liberally applied if you read the Target novels of that era.
Feels like Chris Chibnall may have read those novels and wanted to build on the seeds the Cartmel era sewed into Doctor Who continuity. Or maybe Chibnall wanted to take a page from the immortal Robert Holmes and make us question or reexamine everything we thought we knew about Gallifrey and Time Lord society.
I have to keep reminding myself that when Holmes did this with “The Deadly Assassin,” it wasn’t immediately embraced by some factions of the fandom. It was only with hindsight and a bit of distance that “Assassin” grew in the estimation of fandom to the status it holds today.
My problem with that is Chibnall isn’t in the same league as Holmes when it comes to writing for Doctor Who. And “The Timeless Child” (and really all of his two series as showrunner) continue to show that.
(I will now go controversial and alienate half of you by saying the only modern writer who comes close to doing what Holmes did for the show is Steven Moffat.)
The big issue I have with this one isn’t the pacing, but the fact that large sections of it are a huge infodump by the Master. I’m not necessarily sure how you can show not tell with the sheer amount of backstory the Master dumps on the Doctor while both of them are in the Matrix, but I kept feeling like there had to be a better way to do it. I will give credit to Jodie Whittaker for performance in this episode as the Doctor. She does well conveying that the Doctor’s mind is being blown as she’s forced to confront the potential truth about her history and its implications for Time Lord society. And finally seeing the Doctor accept all of it (at least, if we’re to believe the Master hasn’t manipulated things) and go into the offensive mode to stop the Master’s latest plan was nicely done. I’ve been critical of her work at times throughout the season. But it finally felt like she was embracing the role as her own and not as distilling of the excesses that David Tennant gave us toward the end of his tenure.
Of course, it helps that the Master’s newest plan is one that is as completely bonkers as any the Anthony Ainley Master came up with during the 80’s (not counting “Survival”). Driven insane by the fact that the Doctor is part of him, the Master destroys all of Gallifrey but leaves the Time Lord bodies behind so the Cybermen can convert them and create a race of regenerating Cybermen. After seeing the Master ally him/herself with the Cybermen for two series during the Capaldi era, it might have been interesting to see the Cybermen hesitant to join forces with the Master again. But instead, they’re quick to embrace his plan.
And I’ll admit that Cybermen with Gallifrey headdress and re-generation ability was chilling and effective. But given that the death particle was put into play early, it seemed like this would somehow be used in the end of things.
Once again, we have the Doctor forced to wipe out all of Gallifrey. Certainly, that is where we started things for this modern era of Doctor Who. And it makes me wonder if the series is going to plow that same ground again next season or in future seasons.
I will also admit I was a bit curious about how the Judoon penetrated the TARDIS defenses to get in and arrest the Doctor. But I figure that’s just something that has to happen to set up the cliffhanger and give Chibnall something to work towards in the Christmas special.
It may take a day or two for me to revisit “The Timeless Children” and see how it holds up. Until then, I’ll go with it was a decent end to an up and down season.