(John- This is not a review of the episode, that is coming later this week, but it does include spoilers about the episode.) The major problem facing anyone wanting to attack The Timeless Children for breaking Doctor Who continuity or ‘the canon’ is the fact that it sort-of fixes it. There are quite a few moments of Doctor Who continuity that make more sense after The Timeless Children than they did before...
Let’s start at the beginning. (Well that’s now a loaded word. Let’s say the beginning of the series.) In 1963, in An Unearthly Child, the Hartnell Doctor potters around foggy London, hanging out in a junkyard while his granddaughter hangs out at Coal Hill School bemusing teachers. They are both exiles, cut off from their home planet without friends or protection. A few episodes later they arrive on Skaro and meet the Daleks for the first time. BUT in 1988, in Remembrance of the Daleks, it turns out that the Hartnell Doctor had come to Earth with the Hand of Omega, to use it as a weapon against the Daleks that he, like, totally knew about. This perhaps solved some mysteries: like why the Doctor was so determined to keep their presence on Earth a secret that he kidnapped Ian and Barbara for travels in space and time while not being able to control the Ship well enough to have any confidence that he could ever return them (the fact that he doesn’t technically do that again – indeed, Davison bundles so many people into the TARDIS, in lieu of an ID card, that it starts to look like Longleat – may just indicate the character mellowing, inspired by humans not to go around braining stricken cavemen with rocks). It may even explain his stranger-than-we-often-comment-on remark about protection. But it creates a pretty massive continuity issue.
Solution: when the Doctor brought the Hand of Omega, he was acting for the group that The Timeless Children calls the ‘Division’ and which fandom, until informed differently, will probably call ‘the CIA’ (read on). He buries the Hand of Omega but then has this fact removed from his memory. I like to think that that’s why the first episode starts with the London fog: the Hartnell Doctor wanders through the fog, possibly laid on by the Division, and loses his memory. The Hartnell Doctor therefore had no ‘remembrance of the Daleks’, but perhaps had no other memory either. The series starts now because it’s only now that the question ‘Doctor who?’ really arises. (The erasing depicted in The Timeless Children may not have been the first or last.) This explains a few things. Hartnell is the forgetful Doctor, from the playful misremembering that Hartnell incorporated into his performance (such as deliberately mangling Ian’s surname) and the inadvertent fluffs in the actor’s performance, to substantial things that only seem odd in retrospect: nobody mentions the Time Lords until they turn up (at the end of season six, in Troughton’s last story), nobody mentions Gallifrey until Pertwee says it (at the start of his last season, eleven), yet subsequently he’s Gallifreying and Kasterborousing at anyone in earshot. But what do I know? I thought the Gallifrey Falls painting in The Day of the Doctor would turn out to be the painting that the Hartnell looks at in An Unearthly Child and asks why he hasn’t seen that before.
There’s plenty of evidence that the Time Lords (or some sub-section of them: read on) wipe the Doctor’s memories. When they force Troughton’s regeneration into Pertwee and exile him to Earth (hmm, now he is an exile: or was he this sort of exile from the very start?), they don’t just take away the dematerialisation circuit, they take away his memory of dematerialisation codes (restored after he does them a favour in The Three Doctors), just as they had removed Jamie and Zoe’s memories (of travelling with the Doctor) when they return the duo to their past lives. While we’re on The War Games, we must pick up another whacking great plot subsidence: how the Troughton Doctor and Jamie are both together, much older, and working for the Time Lords when they cross paths with the Colin Baker Doctor in 1985’s The Two Doctors. No fandom with any sense of fun could just accept the explanation that writer Robert Holmes, who had written for every Doctor starting with Troughton, simply forgot that it was the Pertwee and early Tom Baker Doctors, not the Troughton one, who popped around doing odd jobs for the Time Lords. No, fandom long ago cooked up the ‘season 6B’ theory which said that a sub-section of Time Lords nobbled the regeneration and sent Troughton on secret missions (helped by Jamie and, as if the Time Lords refuse to help fandom conspiracy theorists, Victoria) before finally carrying out the sentence, which mainly involved Pertweeising him, tattooing his arm and bunging him on Earth. Lovers of the ‘season 6B’ (not knowingly a euphemism though now I can’t unthink that) attribute this skulduggery to the CIA, the Celestial Intervention Agency (not the bookers and worried friends of the Celestial Toymaker so stop that right now), because they (and possibly it) are introduced in The Deadly Assassin. Some sections of fandom hated The Deadly Assassin because it rewrote what we thought we knew about the Time Lords: they were not godlike being but shifty, bureaucratic, wordy and cynical minor politicians. (We so often end up back here: the Doctor and the Master and the Time Lords and mind games around the Matrix... who was it who said that Doctor Who always snaps back into shape with talking, talking, talking and funny collars?) In The Deadly Assassin the Time Lords went from resembling The Seventh Seal (in Genesis of the Daleks) to resembling The Manchurian Candidate.
The Deadly Assassin first mentions the Shabogans (looking forward to someone else writing that blog) and Rassilon, who has his own sash (though regrettably he is neither a Sensorite nor, as far as I am aware at time of going to press, ever burst into Encore une fois), and a key which over its subsequent appearances is never the same shape or size which outside of Time Lord society would be a real non-starter as far as keys go. Over the next (television) decade Time Lord mythology grew to such an extent that Remembrance of the Daleks tried to inject it with new life as part of what fans like to call the Cartmel Masterplan, which is like The Daleks’ Masterplan except it involves a plan, and it only involves Andrew Cartmel shouting ‘I AM NOW ABOUT TO HAND OVER THE CONTINUITY REFERENCES TO BEN AARONOVITCH’ if you’re Tim Worthington. Remembrance of the Daleks, its novelisation and some New Adventures novels that followed, hinted that the Doctor might be ‘the Other’, a mysterious figure of similar importance to Rassilon and Omega in the history of the Time Lords. The fact that Omega didn’t realise this in The Three Doctors by recognising the Doctor, the Doctor or the Doctor, need not detain us as Omega was by this stage someone who only knew his head was missing when he took his hat off.
Far from being ground-shattering, game-changing and fanboy-enraging, the revelations in The Timeless Children produce in old lags an agreement that the Time Lords would totally do that. In The Trial of a Time Lord the Doctor discovers that the Time Lords torched Earth and moved it across the galaxy and called it Ravalox, and that there’s a nice little earner to be had from anyone selling secrets half-inched from the Matrix (while we’re on the subject, can someone retcon the fact that Glitz doesn’t even try to come up with rhyming slang for ‘Matrix’?). In Genesis of the Daleks of course the Time Lords send the Doctor back in time to avert the creation of the Daleks, an act of naughtiness that has been seen variously as (a) the start of the Time War, (b) an action that must change the timelines so much that quite a few previous stories must now can’t have going to be having happened (tenses are the first casualty of lore), and (c) punishment for the Hartnell Doctor not blowing up Skaro with the Hand of Omega when he was supposed to and instead waiting until he’s the McCoy Doctor except time travel and anyway he couldn’t pilot the TARDIS or remember stuff and hang on sort out your own mess. (Accepting the contemporaneous behind-the-scenes explanation that Hartnell’s Doctor in An Unearthly Child was just going out to fix his colour television suddenly becomes more appealing.) These are precisely the sort of bounders who would go around pushing Colin Baker’s Doctor off his exercise bike.
Of course the biggest continuity problem, indeed the one to which The Timeless Children seems to owe its existence, is the moment in The Brain of Morbius in which the Doctor and former Time Lord bigwig Morbius have a mind-battle in which the faces of the Doctor exceed those who have appeared in the programme (in a few cameos by the production team). Not content to let Head Canon be your friend – I always found that thinking of those faces as Morbius’s past lives, as a marker of shifts in the battle between the Doctor and Morbius, lets you get on with your day fairly painlessly – the episode presents a major, though only partly celestial, intervention to remedy it. It seems odd to start with something that would barely hit the top twenty problems with Doctor Who continuity/canon, but it’s fun to see those faces in The Timeless Children presented as things the Doctor thinks about.
There have already been lots of fan theories over the years about ‘the first Doctor’ not being the first Doctor. The Brain of Morbius had people speculating that he must be the, what, ninth? Against this, people mention multi-Doctor stories: the Hartnell Doctor calls himself the original/definite article and says that there are five of him now (and therefore not before), and the others defer to him as the original. Elsewhere Doctors have numbered themselves in certain episodes, and they stood together in The Day of the Doctor as a complete line-up. This is partly cancelled out by The Name of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor (saying that there can be Doctors who don’t count because they weren’t very Doctory), so perhaps multi-Doctor stories become gatherings of the same person lying to each other, and you do realise that in the anniversary special they’re all standing in fog?
Lots of other potential problems make sense, or may make sense later depending on how far they’re going to take this, like the Master finding out that the Doctor is half-human in The Enemy Within (aka If We Can’t Have Dalek Cutaway You’re Not Having The TV Movie) and being amused by it and trying to rise above it and look fabulous rather than destroy everything. In a sense it’s no more radical than The Big Bang telling us that the universe has been rebooted so don’t worry if no characters in subsequent Doctor Who have heard of the Daleks or Cybermen despite them being on EastEnders and that. What do we do with the purportedly game-changing revelations of The Timeless Children? Well, like the episodes of previous twenty-first-century Doctor Who promising game-changing revelations which this season has emulated, we just watch those people who like to number Doctors worry about not being able to number Doctors. The solution is to come over to the ‘Terrance Dicks’s script for The Five Doctors’ camp by saying ‘Hartnell Doctor’ etc, as I have here.
In the last great retcon, The Name of the Doctor, Doctor Who set about explaining little annoyances. Now the poor staging of the end of Dragonfire part 1 is excused: the Great Intelligence went back to persuade the McCoy Doctor to hang off a wall and Clara went back to inspire him not to. If you’re one of those people who think that someone released the Tom Baker Doctor from a cupboard in Image of the Fendahl (sadly not an actual Denis Nordern link), rather than it just being the delayed reaction of his sonic screwdriver despite the fact that he congratulates the sonic after the door opens, then yes it’s Clara.
But now the fun really starts. I use ‘fun’ with all the irony of someone who has just spent a couple of hours on Sunday night writing this. (I haven’t decided whether the fact that I was thinking all this while The Timeless Children was on is a sign that I was really getting into it or... very much not.) Who was it who said that continuity is just all the bits you can remember? That’s what this article is, anyway. And if my totally-unresearched memories of fan lore are wrong, well, I’ll explain later.