“Everything You Think You Know” — The Bad Storytelling of Doctor Who’s Timeless Child
The problem with the Timeless Child overarching plot of season 12 of Doctor Who was far simpler than many believed. It wasn’t too complex, nor did it fail because it tried to be too progressive — it all just came down to bad, and even terrible, storytelling.
In its conception, the Timeless Child was not a bad idea — in fact, it had the potential for greatness. It could have recontextualized everything we knew and thought about the Time Lords. But it never came close to reaching this potential. Every step of the Timeless child story arc had serious storytelling issues, right from the very beginning. Taking a closer look, we can see not only how the storytelling failed, but why the season ended in a messy snarl of continuity that drove fans away.
(It probably goes without saying, but many spoilers for season 12 ahead.)
The Prologue of Season 11
The seeds of the Timeless child were sewn not in season 12, but in the second episode of season 11. While trying to make their way back to the TARDIS, the Doctor and her companions encounter a hostile life form engineered to be a weapon who drops the hint that the Doctor doesn’t know something about a Timeless Child.
The problems with this execution lie not only in the execution, but a general lack of originality — something that has plagued Chris Chibnall’s episodes from the very beginning. The 13th Doctor’s regeneration sequence at the end of Twice Upon a Time is a near beat-for-beat copy of Matt Smith’s regeneration sequence in The End of Time. And, likewise, the beginning of the Timeless Child storyline is a near-exact copy of the beginning of the Silence storyline in season 5: an antagonist taunting the Doctor about something s/he doesn’t know.
The problem is that while one could imagine a number of ways for Prisoner Zero to know about the Silence in Matt Smith’s first episode, there is no possible way for the Stenza-engineered living weapon (which has never been off-planet) to know anything about Time Lords whatsoever — particularly not their most closely guarded secret. So, rather than coming across as a mystery existing in the universe for the Doctor to unravel, it instead seemed like a clumsy attempt to copy Steven Moffat’s story hook. Sadly, this would be an endemic problem with the entire Timeless Child story arc.
The Master, Destroyer of Gallifrey
In the second episode of season 12, we get the first full plunge into the Timeless Child storyline — we learn that the Master has destroyed Gallifrey because of something he learned, and that “everything you think you know is a lie.”
The response a story point like this is supposed to create is shock and curiosity — shock at the monstrous nature of the act, and curiosity as to what could have possibly caused the Master to do such a thing. But, that’s not what happened. Instead, the first reaction it caused for many watching was to make them wonder: “How?”
The problem here comes from the fact that it is the Master who has done this terrible deed. It’s not that the Master is incapable of it — the Master is a known psychopath who would have tried to destroy Gallifrey for kicks if he got bored enough — but that he is the one character who would never be allowed to carry it out. The Time Lords know who and what he is — they would watch him like a hawk, imprison him at their first opportunity, and wipe him from existence to stop him. Compare this to the War Doctor, who in previous incarnations had been Lord President of Gallifrey (twice), and who had been a key part of their battle against the Daleks in the Time War. The War Doctor has the access he would need to a superweapon to destroy the Time Lords — the Master does not.
How the Master managed to destroy the Time Lords is made even more baffling when you hear his description of what is left and see the destroyed Gallifrey, all of which leads to the conclusion that he somehow not only took out a planet of several billion people single-handed, but did it the hard way. It all defies belief, and in turn, makes it look like a clumsy attempt to revive Russell T. Davies’ “last of the Time Lords” background for the Doctor.
Enter the Ruth-Doctor
Our next big step into the Timeless Child storyline comes in the fifth episode, “Prisoner of the Judoon.” Here we encounter a massive twist — a previously unknown Doctor that the current Doctor cannot ever remember being, who refers to her TARDIS as a “ship,” which we have only seen the William Hartnell Doctor do.
It should be noted that while we like to treat canon as sacred, it really isn’t. It, like everything else in a story, is a storytelling tool, and it can be modified for effect (for example, Darth Vader turning out to be Luke Skywalker’s father in The Empire Strikes Back). That said, the continuity it creates is the context in which any changes take place, and these changes have to make sense within that context. The problem with this new, super-spy-ish Doctor, is that she doesn’t.
The clear attempted implication is that the Doctor has had incarnations prior to the William Hartnell Doctor. This is not new (it appeared in the Tom Baker story “The Brain of Morbius,” before being dropped in the following season), but its execution created confusion instead of revelation.
The reveal of this previously unknown Doctor comes through the Doctor finding and digging up a TARDIS — her TARDIS, in the form of a police box. The problem with this is that the Doctor’s TARDIS didn’t get stuck in the form of a police box until the William Hartnell Doctor landed in 1960s London. So, instead of suggesting a Doctor prior to William Hartnell, it suggests a Doctor after him, where the only possible entry point is between Patrick Troughton’s regeneration in “The War Games” and Jon Pertwee’s entrance in “Spearhead from Space,” long after the Doctor has stopped calling his vessel a “ship.” The end result is a Doctor whose TARDIS only fits in post-William Hartnell and whose dialogue only fits in pre-William Hartnell.
The Timeless Children
Despite the numerous missteps earlier in the season, the two-part season finale got off to a very strong start. “Ascension of the Cybermen” provided us with a very compelling and capable villain — the Lone Cyberman, who is established as a sort of Cyberman Hitler and introduced in episode 8. We have the last remnants of humanity in a desperate escape from a seemingly insurmountable foe. And, our protagonists are left without the TARDIS, split up, and having to navigate these challenges on their own. Added to the mix is a secondary story about a policeman in what appears to be early 20th century rural Britain, with strange restorative powers that he does not understand.
All of this goes off the rails in the final five minutes of the episode, in which the portal into which the human refugees are seeking to escape — which is established to always go somewhere random in the universe — is opened up to Gallifrey, the Master leaps out, and for all intents and purposes declares that we’re going to do the Timeless Child storyline now.
Setting aside the abrupt swerve away from what was a truly compelling and worthy story, the key to suspension of disbelief is consistency — once you set the rules of your universe, you have to follow them. If there is sound in the vacuum of space, there is always sound in the vacuum of space. The moment you break them, you also pull the audience out of the story you are telling.
In the ending to “Ascension of the Cybermen,” the rules of the escape portal are broken less than an hour after they are established. The Master’s emergence also makes zero narrative sense — there is no way he could possibly know that the Doctor would be in that place at that time, or that he could get there through the portal.
All of these flaws emerging in the cliffhanger ending to episode 9 only get much worse in the season finale, “The Timeless Children.” Everything from narrative logic to believability to consistency gets thrown out the window.
The Lone Cyberman is killed in an offhanded manner by the Master, tossing away the entire established conflict from the previous two episodes. The Master then forces the Doctor to enter the remains of the Matrix, where she learns that she is the timeless child from whom the Time Lords stole the power of regeneration. The Master converts the bodies of all the dead Time Lords into regenerating Cybermen, and reveals that the reason he destroyed the Time Lords was because he discovered the secret of the timeless child and that he could only regenerate because of what was stolen from the Doctor. The secondary plot of the policeman is revealed to have been a fake memory used to hide the secret of the Timeless Child in the Matrix.
The Master’s plan makes absolutely no sense. Setting aside the fact that dead Time Lords can’t regenerate due to being, well, dead, the rules of regeneration are that they regenerate the entire Time Lord. So, if a converted cyber-Time Lord regenerates, the result would be a regular Time Lord (and probably one who is very angry with the man who destroyed Gallifrey). Also, the idea that the Master somehow kept all of the billions of Time Lord bodies in cold storage beggars belief.
The Master’s stated reason for destroying the Time Lords similarly makes no sense when you consider his character — the Master has never in the past shown any reluctance to steal regenerations or the body of anybody, including the Doctor (whose regenerations he has tried to steal at least once before). He might torture the Doctor with the revelation that the power of regeneration was stolen from her, but there is no way it would provoke him into taking revenge on the Time Lords for it.
Then there is the problem of the phony memory in the Matrix. The purpose of this memory is to prevent prying eyes from discovering the secret of the timeless child by masking it as just another memory. However, everything about the memory would draw more attention to it rather than less: it takes place on a planet that is clearly not Gallifrey and the restorative powers of its subject do not follow the established rules of regeneration. It thus stands out like a sore thumb from every other memory in the Matrix.
All of this adds up to a storyline that makes no sense within the continuity while making major changes to canon. But, it didn’t have to be that way — there was a single minor modification to the storyline that would have enabled it to not only stick the landing, but provide tremendous storytelling potential: as many others have pointed out before me, the timeless child should have been the Master.
Not only would this have given the Master a believable justification for seeking revenge on the Time Lords, it would have also retroactively explained how he has been able to escape death so many times in situations where a normal Time Lord could not. It would have further given the Doctor a new source of internal conflict, with her long life the result of an atrocity against an innocent child.
The sad thing about season 12 is that so many of the storytelling problems could have been fixed with small changes. The Ruth-Doctor would have worked if her TARDIS had been shaped as anything other than a police box (such as the lighthouse she and the Doctor travel to in search of answers). The Master’s destruction of Gallifrey would have been believable if he had used some biological agent or superweapon, instead of just using bombs, or had made reference to at least having had some help doing it. Instead, the end result is a two season-long story arc that rewrites canon and trashes continuity, turning what was once one of the best shows on television into a second-rate series.