The mystery of the Timeless Child and the secret history of the Time Lords is finally revealed in Series 12’s gorgeous and exciting finale, “The Timeless Children.” What does this mean for Doctor Who’s past, and the Doctor’s future? Sylas and Emmet discuss.
Sylas: I know my throat is sore because I have a cold, but really it’s from yelling about Cybermen. I know they didn’t have a choice about landing on the carrier but it was like watching the heroine going down into the basement in a horror movie. Like, obviously it’s full of cybermen, Yaz!
Emmet: I’m too busy feeling all the feelings about the Master.
Sylas: Of course you are. I mean, besides he’s always been your favorite, he’s such a joy to watch. Sacha Dhawan is such a joy to watch.
Emmet: And this is so him, too, it’s so very the Master to swoop in and team up with slash take over the badguys, be it the Daleks, or the Cybermen, or the Autons or whomever, and then he goes, what’s your plan? Okay, I’m going to take that to the nth degree, the worst possible scenario, the most overblown version. Imma do that. Because he’s that dramatic and that chaotic.
Sylas: I love it as a plot development, and I agree completely that it’s fitting for everything the Master has always been, but I am disappointed that we didn’t get the full story of the Lone Cyberman. The way he died is fine, even kind of awesome, because it takes what you think the threat is and goes sideways with it, but I wanted to know just a little bit more about who he is, why he became what he became. We get all these lines from him, about how he’d had children and then killed them when they joined the resistance, how he was initially rejected for upgrading and it sent him into despair, only to later find that he had this special destiny with the cyberium. I just wanted the full story.
Emmet: Yeah, that’s fair.
Sylas: For a while I was convinced that the stuff with the found baby and everything had something to do with him, even though I couldn’t see how. Part of it is that I kept picking up on little bits of an Irish accent in the Lone Cyberman’s voice, and since we can’t see much of his face it seemed like maybe it was the same actor. Which it obviously isn’t but I didn’t google them till after.
Emmet: That bit was confusing. It was seeded poorly, the way it was edited made it seem like it was happening concurrently, or in reference to what was going on with the cybermen, but it was really a set up for later solving of mysteries, which i thought was weird.
Sylas: Yeah it was. I think that it didn’t have to be, but it was awkward to have it all seeded in “Ascension of the Cybermen,” when it was constantly juxtaposed against the Lone Cyberman, rather than in the episode to which it was actually relevant. I think that if it had been clear from the start that we were experiencing the Doctor’s visions, that would have cleared it up a lot. In a perfect world, they would have seeded those visions throughout the season, and we would have known it was more of a long term mystery.
Emmet: No one is as good at that as Davies was. He had his own flaws as a showrunner but one thing he really knew how to do was to to give us just enough to pique our interest and to have it fresh in our memories when the mystery comes due, but never overdid it. Whereas Moffat was either never seeding anything, or cramming it down our throats like the crack in the wall.
Sylas: Chibnall seems like he’s somewhere in the middle of those.
Emmet: Yeah but when he gets it right, he really gets it. I have to say, I’m a big fan of Chibnall going back to what Davies did and getting rid of the Time Lords all over again.
Sylas: Oh yeah, I agree.
Emmet: I get why it’s exciting to bring them back for the big 50th, to turn around and say no, the Doctor would never let this happen, not really. But it takes something away from the show to have the Time Lords back, to have that big controlling entity around, to have the guardianship of the universe not only fall on the Doctor’s shoulders. And since the beginning of New Who, the loss of Gallifrey has been a backdrop for the Doctor, and an important part of both the character and the themes of the show.
Sylas: And it sets it apart in time from Classic Who. It’s like AD and BC. We can have DG and AG, During Gallifrey and After Gallifrey.
Emmet: You’re cute. But also, I just can’t get over the gorgeous fuck you of this choice, after how angry so many people were about having the Doctor be a woman. For Chibnall to say, You know what? Not only is it good for the Doctor to be a woman, she’s been a woman before, lots of times, she was a woman first, so there. That moment where she takes the Master to task for believing he’s diminished her, saying “I’m so much more now than I ever was, and I’m glad I know”, that’s essentially her speaking directly to the audience. It all fits together beautifully. And it makes the Doctor’s entire history work better! All the time she spent as this curmudgeonly old guy, that was the Time Lords exerting their influence. It doesn’t mean that those incarnations aren’t really the Doctor, they absolutely are, but it does mean that you can make better sense out of the more dated aspects of a show that’s over half a century old.
Sylas: I was so worried they were going to do something cheesy like say that humans went to Gallifrey and settled there and became the Time Lords and that’s why the Doctor loves them because she’s human too, just super evolved and different.
Emmet: Right, there have been fan theories about stuff like that before. And I kind of knew the Doctor was going to turn out to be the Timeless Child. I thought I’d hate it, but I don’t. They really pulled it off. And it’s astounding to contextualize this long-running show as being just one small bit, one separate version of this person’s life. The Doctor must have been thousands of years old at least by the time they were forced to regenerate into a child and live their life all over again as though they were a brand new kid.
Sylas: At first I was wondering if this wasn’t something that the Time Lords did every 12 regenerations, to keep the Doctor in a normal Time Lord cycle, but I don’t think that’s the case. The images of the life of Brendan, the Irish guardsman, seem to cover the story of the Doctor being found through her service with the Division, which has to be about where we caught up with Ruth.
Emmet: Yes. And while we don’t know what it was that made Ruth turn against the Time Lords and go renegade from the Division, we do know that they basically wiped her memory and probably forced her to turn into a kid again in order to get control over her.
Sylas: But she still becomes the Doctor again. That identity is so intrinsic that he chooses it again. It’s like in the vision when Brendan’s dad takes him to the interview and says “he wants to serve” but when Brendan gets to answer for himself he says he wants “to make a difference.” I think that’s so important, and that moment must have made such an impression on Tecteun for it to be included in the image messages. And if she left those messages, does that mean that she didn’t want the Doctor’s memory to be erased.
Emmet: I’m wondering if Tecteun is supposed to be one of the three founders of the Gallifreyan society, either Rassilon, Omega, or the Other.
Sylas: It would make a lot of sense and be very cool if she was the Other.
Emmet: I mean that’s the obvious choice, since the Other is only vaguely talked about in the show, whereas Omega and especially Rassilon have developed characters and interact with the Doctor.
Sylas: I don’t even know what to make of the idea that Tecteun might have been Rassilon. But I do keep thinking about how much this improves the “secret of the Doctor’s name thing” that Moffat did, which I know you didn’t like and I didn’t either.
Emmet: It makes it so much better. It’s not about the name, it’s about an identity and a history that has been hidden, not by the Doctor, but from the Doctor.
Sylas: I’m just imagining Chris Chibnall watching those episodes trying to come up with what he thinks the answer is, but Moffat never did answer, so Chibnall got to actually put his own theory into the show. He did say he had planned this from the beginning of his tenure.
Emmet: And this canonizes something that’s been fanon for ages, which is the concept that Gallifreyans and Time Lords are two different classes of people. Regular Gallifreyans don’t get to regenerate, they don’t get to hang out at the Time Lord Academy or mess with time travel. It makes so much sense of the weird disparities we see on Gallifrey in Classic Who, and plays with the idea that being a Time Lord entitles you to choose a name like the Doctor, the Master, etc.
Sylas: Which I find curious because Rassilon is obviously a full Time Lord, right? But he doesn’t have a “the” name. Unless it’s really “the Rassilon.”
Emmet: This episode is heavy on the Time Lord lore, bringing back the Panopticon, and the Matrix. And they get back into the concept of non-interference by bringing in this secret Division that breaks that rule. I really want to know why the Doctor believed in this, and what happened that made her step away.
Sylas: I wonder if we’ll see Ruth again. The Doctor could really mess up her own timeline if she’s not careful. Not that wibbly-wobly, timey-wimey rules haven’t taken care of that in the past, when different iterations have run into each other. I’m also thinking about how amazing it must have been for all these different actors, a lot of them kids, to get to play the Doctor, if only for a moment.
Emmet: Aw, yeah.
Sylas: I also love how the Master managed to make the Doctor’s history of being medically experimented on, exploited, and having her mind erased somehow about him. Like he’s the victim here.
Emmet: Which is partly because he’s just that much of a diva. But it’s also really tragic, because the one thing that he’s always been afraid of has come true; he’s not as important to the Doctor as the Doctor is to him. He’s always been jealous of the companions because he was the Doctor’s friend first, he’s always been worried that the only reason he is important at all is because of his relationship to the Doctor. He can’t imagine a life without the Doctor, and the only way he was sort-of okay with being so defined by her was by believing that she was equally defined by him. And now he’s found that she has a whole, much larger, life before him, and that he owes his identity as a Time Lord to her. That’s foundationally crushing for the Master. That completely warps his sense of self beyond recognition. No wonder he blew up Gallifrey.
Sylas: It makes me think of the first time we encounter the Master in New Who, when he’s still Professor Yana, and he’s making that guidance system out of office supplies and food, and the Doctor comes in at the end and suddenly makes it work. Yana is so thrown by it, so down, and the Doctor says “it’s easy to come in at the end”, but you still kind of can imagine that this was their dynamic when they were younger, too.
Emmet: It’s like, could this relationship be healed by the Doctor recognizing that this is a love language problem? The Master doesn’t like that they are two halves of the same brain. He wants to be the only one who does the whole project and gets the praise for it, rather than having the Doctor swoop in at the end. He hates the fact that he needs her for that.
Sylas: And stopping his massive evil plans at the last second is kind of the same thing.
Emmet: It is.
Sylas: Look, the Master just has a really intense praise kink.
Emmet: He does! I love the fact that his reasons for doing things never change. With Simm!Master we had a moment where we think, maybe we’ve resolved the core of his problems, he’s figured out the drums, he kills Rassilon over it. But even after that, he’s still the same, he’s still got the same motivations and he will never, ever be satisfied.
Sylas: You know, I have to wonder what else the Time Lords took from the Doctor’s genes besides the ability to regenerate. Like the two hearts thing must be taken from the Doctor too—what are the odds that her species and the Gallifreyans both happened to share that particular distinctive trait? And probably the telepathy as well. The Time Lords aren’t the only beings in their universe to have telepathic abilities, but the way it works for them is very specific, so if it’s the same for the Doctor as it is for the rest of the Time Lords, that suggests to me that they got at least some of it from her, too.
Emmet: Maybe the two hearts help support the regeneration.
Sylas: There was something in one of the books to that effect. It was like, you get your second heart when you regenerate for the first time. The show is kind of doing its own version of that idea. It makes sense to me that, having taken the Doctor’s genetics for one thing, the Time Lords might well keep cherry picking any other bits they found desirable.
Emmet: Knowing this about the Doctor’s history, we kind of need to revisit the question about whether Susan was his actual granddaughter. I was always a fan of Susan actually being related to the Doctor, but everything we know now changes that. It seems likely that, after triggering this new cycle of regenerations, they gave the Doctor a granddaughter as a way of keeping him in line.
Sylas: It’s possible. Either that or they managed to convince him that these were things he wanted in life. I mean, who’s to say the Doctor can even reproduce with people of this universe. Also, I’m now trying to retroactively make sense of the whole thing with the Time Lords giving the eleventh doctor a new set of regenerations. Like, was it just playacting and he would have been able to regenerate somehow anyway?
Emmet: Or did they somehow, when they did the mind-wipe and the forced return to childhood, put a cap on them, limiting the Doctor to the same lifespan as them?
Sylas: And if they did that, that means that they stole something from the Doctor and then found that they had to give it back in order to survive.
Emmet: You can really theorize and develop endlessly, it’s such a smart move on Chibnall’s part. Not only because it makes the past of the show so interesting, but because it opens up a lot of new possibilities. And this finale was particularly good because, unlike a lot of the more recent finales, it took it’s time. It was even a bit longer than usual, an hour and five minutes, and I never felt like I was struggling to keep the threads of the plot. Things weren’t all laid out at breakneck pace, they lingered enough on their emotional moments, they gave us space.
Sylas: yeah I really enjoyed that. I also enjoyed that it was a two-parter. I like two-parters.
Emmet: I’m just so happy with all of this. Some people might feel that this is giving the Doctor too much of the “special girl” treatment, but I really love stories about chosen ones who don’t want to be chosen. Here are the Time Lords with this alien child who is very special, central to their existence, they literally wouldn’t exist without her. And the Doctor spends their life, at least the most recent part of it, desperately trying to get away from that, trying not to be chosen. It makes everything in the Doctor’s history with Gallifrey so much more compelling. The character foundation is so much stronger. And it puts all this weird classic history between the Doctor and the Time Lords into perspective, because he was this weird renegade who stole a TARDIS and ran away, and yet was always getting drawn back in to save them from something. The same guy they forced a regeneration on as punishment—that is, from Troughton to Pertwee—is also the guy they’re always begging to come be their President.
Sylas: Oh I didn’t even think about the fact that now that forced regeneration isn’t even the first time.
Emmet: And it isn’t even the worst!
Sylas: I feel like we need to rewatch a bunch of Doctor Who now, with this new context.
Emmet: I really want to rewatch Ruth’s episode.
Sylas: You know the other thing I was thinking about, and you called this when we first watched it, is “Can You Hear Me,” the episode with the immortals. You referenced the return of ideas like the Eternals and the Guardians, and thought it was significant that they were coming back. And when we were watching it you also reminded me about the fan theory of the Doctor being the Other. You were actually really close—the Doctor is functionally part of the foundation of Gallifrey, and here she is facing off with these immortal beings with whom she actually probably has more in common, or at least did at one time, than she does with Gallifreyans.
Emmet: Ooh. You’re right.
Sylas: Also we need to talk about Yaz. I’ve spent so much of the season complaining that she wasn’t getting her due, but they were just waiting for these episodes to remind us that she’s such a tough badass. And so much like the Doctor. And everyone around her knows it.
Emmet: Also poor Graham, constantly pouring his heart out to people and then getting jokes in response.
Sylas: Is it just me, or is there maybe a little something there between Graham and Ravio? Because I totally ship it.
Emmet: Oh yeah, I definitely thought there was.
Sylas: They always say that the companions come back from traveling with the Doctor and the world seems small and you can’t tell anyone, but this is the perfect loophole. Bring back someone from the future and get with them.
Emmet: Speaking of coming back home, it occurred to me that they are setting us up for the Doctor being away from the companions for a really long time. When she finally escapes the Judoon prison, they’ll have adjusted so much to being back on Earth that they might not want to leave anymore. Also imagine Ravio and the rest, surviving the Cyber Wars and then spending the rest of your life on 21st century Earth.
Sylas: And of course Yaz and Ryan and Graham are going to assume the Doctor is dead. Merlin Obi-Wan dude took her place and set off the bomb, but all they know is that he ran after her. They don’t know if she even tried to escape, and when she doesn’t come for them, they’ll figure that she died.
Emmet: That was a very Tenth Doctor moment, to have a human come and say, this is my job, you go, the universe needs you.
Sylas: I kind of figured that was going to happen, when he arrived on Gallifrey and was immediately like “I’ve already lived longer than I thought I would, might as well blow up something else before I go.” He had such a Doctorish feel about him too. I really bought it, even though it was a little bit obvious. There was so much emotion and good acting behind the whole thing.
Emmet: I also loved the look of the Cyber Gallifreyans. The Cybermasters. So much gorgeous cut metal.
Sylas: Should we go start over and watch all of Whittaker’s episodes again?
Emmet: Yes, definitely. Might as well do something while we wait to find out how the Master got out of dying this time.
Emmet Asher-Perrin is now going to go watch the Blank Space Doctor/Master fanvid on repeat. Sylas Barrett thinks that’s a pretty good plan.