‘The Timeless Children’ may be the most controversial Doctor Who episode ever made. Oh, there are other contenders – even the classic story ‘The Deadly Assassin’ divided fan opinion in its day. But this Series Twelve finale rocked the Whoniverse in a way that few other episodes have.
But why was ‘The Timeless Children’ so divisive? Well, there are many reasons. First, it seemed to answer the oldest question in the universe (and indeed Doctor Who canon) by explaining who, exactly, the character is. Admittedly, this explanation ultimately raised more questions, and technically there is still a big question mark hanging over the Doctor’s identity. But in terms of how she fits into Time Lord society (and indeed where she came from) ‘The Timeless Children’ pretty much has you covered.
In short: an adventurer named Tecteun (a Shobogan, and one of the first inhabitants of Gallifrey) single-handedly developed space travel and journeyed to a planet on the far edge of the galaxy. Here – next to a gateway leading to another part of space and time, or perhaps another dimension – she found an abandoned young girl, whom she adopted as her own. This was The Timeless Child.
However, the Child later had an accident and was thrown off a cliff, which triggered a regeneration. Bedazzled by this concept, Tecteun began to experiment on the young girl as she sought to learn the secret of this mysterious power. Eventually she was able to harness it, and spliced the relevant genes into her own body so that she, too, could possess the power of regeneration.
After this, Tecteun became one of the founders of Gallifreyan society, and of the Time Lords as we know them. The Timeless Child, meanwhile, went on to live a mysterious life across countless regenerations (of which he / she has no memory) and after many centuries he / she became the Doctor. The Doctor, of course, was unaware of her pivotal role in the history of the Time Lords, until the Master shared with her the tale of Tecteun – a tale which he unearthed from the depths of the Gallifreyan Matrix.
And this revelation pretty much changes Doctor Who history as we know it. William Hartnell is no longer the First Doctor. The First Doctor is, in fact, a girl. The Doctor is no longer a Time Lord (depending on how you look at it.) And some Doctor Who fans were far from impressed.
Of course, not all of their objections were about protecting the mythos. Some viewers looked at ‘The Timeless Children’ and wondered why, exactly, Tecteun was shown to be experimenting on kids (and seemingly murdering them again and again) for her own selfish ends – and why she was being portrayed as a hero. It’s a bit of a plot hole.
Similarly, we have the Ruth Doctor from ‘Fugitive of the Judoon,’ who we don’t really have time to explore here. But suffice it to say, she has her own police box-shaped TARDIS, which makes little sense in light of the new revelations. (She’s supposed to be a pre-Hartnell Doctor, but it was Hartnell’s Doctor who first acquired the TARDIS in the form of a police box.)
As such, there are a number of Doctor Who fans who would be quite happy if Series Thirteen began with the Doctor waking up and discovering that it was all a dream. And let’s face it – this is Doctor Who. It could happen. But are there any other (perhaps more logical) explanations that would enable the BBC to ‘undo’ the events of ‘The Timeless Children,’ if it so wished?
Absolutely. For a start, we have to bear in mind that it was the Master (the Doctor’s arch enemy) who spun this perplexing yarn, and one riddled with plot holes – a tell-tale sign that someone is telling porkies. We have the aforementioned Ruth Doctor, for one thing. And then we have the behaviour of the ‘heroic’ Tecteun, who appears to murder children on her days off from inventing space travel.
Then we’re asked to accept that the Doctor could have lived countless regenerations of which she has no memory. And then we have to believe that the Time Lords made it possible for these ‘top secret’ details to be discovered in the Matrix, whilst putting greater security on other details (such as the Division) which are apparently irretrievable. If it’s all meant to be secret, why not delete everything?
So it’s certainly possible that the Master was lying in ‘The Timeless Children,’ perhaps to justify his destruction of Gallifrey, or even to fudge with the Doctor’s head for his own amusement.
Another explanation is that this story takes place in a parallel universe, and that the Master is describing an alternate version of the Doctor. And this idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds; parallel universes were a plot point in the Season Twelve opener, with the story’s baddies – the Kassavin – originating in a different universe. (Remember, too, that the Master shouldn’t even be alive in this universe, given his / her apparent final death in 2017’s ‘The Doctor Falls.’ He could well be a parallel version.)
And whilst this might seem like too much of a cop-out given the magnitude of ‘The Timeless Children’ (and the mammoth amount of publicity leading up to it) it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.
Moreover, I think some Doctor Who fans would be quite happy with a cop-out explanation if it undid some of the upset caused by ‘The Timeless Children.’ And it did cause a lot of upset for some people. Indeed, some fans were so appalled by the episode’s revelations that they vowed never to watch the show again.
At the same time, there are some fans who champion the programme’s boldness – unfettered by its own continuity, and unafraid to make brave creative choices in an attempt to drive the show forward. If the BBC were to retcon ‘The Timeless Children,’ I know there would be a lot of unhappy faces in the Whoniverse.
And it raises an interesting question. Should Doctor Who undo its own storylines to please anguished fans? Or should it do as it pleases, and invite people to take the programme or leave it? Creativity, after all, is often a deeply personal, individual expression of an idea. If this is what Chris Chibnall (writer of ‘The Timeless Children’) wants, should he really be “answerable” to his viewers? Or should he be allowed to forge his own path?
Tell me your thoughts in the comments below. And let me know what you think of ‘The Timeless Children.’ Has it become an all-time favourite, or has it shaken your confidence in the Whoniverse? And will you be watching the upcoming festive special ‘Revolution of the Daleks‘?
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