11/03/2020

The Timeless Children review

Series 12 Episode 10 01/03/20 Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn


So it was about authorship after all. Ascension of the Cybermen turns out to have been undermined throughout by a streaming hacker who couldn’t resist introducing it himself at the end and boasting of his reinterpretation of the ensuing acts, of which the Doctor was both audience and unwitting star. The Timeless Children was visually engaging television and I was surprised by some of the resolution it presented, if only because I was expecting something more complicated. Performances were very strong, and as with Ascension of the Cybermen, I felt an energy in the production which I’ve rarely experienced in the Chibnall era. There were a few moments when it seemed The Timeless Children did not marry so well with Ascension of the Cybermen, however, and in hindsight the episode left lingering doubts about the wisdom of the decisions therein.


This episode felt on first viewing as if it belonged to Sacha Dhawan's Master. Dhawan seized the lead from the beginning, painting the Master as an arch manipulator, giving the Doctor a tour of the scene of his current atrocity, revealing its latest twist, and trapping her in her own moral outrage just before he rips away its foundations. With the Doctor a captive viewer of the Master’s feature presentation, the Master is then free to offer Ashad some notes on his own work, ask the questions the Doctor hadn’t needed to ask, and minimize Ashad’s own involvement in future Cyberman projects. The climax sees the Master as director-producer of a grotesque answer to A Chorus Line, Time Lords and Cybermen amalgamated into singular sensations whose personal stories have been erased, and where being knocked out of the line just lets you be resurrected for further auditions, again and again and again.

Those who find Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who echoes that of the early 1980s had much to confirm their suspicions here. The alliance between the Cybermen and the Master allied two protagonists closely associated with the Davison era, following on from the introduction of the ‘warrior’ Cybermen with their distinctive styling reminiscent of the Cybermen in Earthshock. Gallifrey is conceived in terms familiar from 1980s visits, founded upon the late-1970s mythology established in The Deadly Assassin and The Invasion of Time, and for all the extra detail added pays homage to that vision more than Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat ever did. Borusa, a touchstone of Gallifrey stories in the tradition of The Deadly Assassin, is mentioned for the first time in the twenty-first century series (and, it might be salutary to note, this is only the fifth televised story to include his name). 

The Master’s ascendancy over the Doctor recalled a letter commenting on Castrovalva, where the new Doctor was described as ‘apparently no match for the evil Master’. The brutality the Doctor endures here is worse than anything experienced by the Doctor in Castrovalva, though there are precedents in Adric’s treatment in that story and the Doctor’s imprisonment and Matrix experiences in Arc of Infinity. More specific to Castrovalva is Chibnall’s reading of the Master in the vein of Christopher H. Bidmead. He even has the Master wish he’d used the ‘cut you down to size’ line from Logopolis on Ashad. The Master’s death wish is further along a train of thought from his ‘if escape were that easy, we would all be free of this nasty world’. Chibnall’s Master courts escape through death again and again, welcoming collateral damage as proof of his own bleak interpretation of the world, but each attempted spectacle of self-immolation ends in failure. He only survives because he needs to impress his primary audience, the Doctor. 

Twice this series the Doctor has been coerced by the Master into being a participant in immersive theatre. Twice she has escaped by out-auteuring the would-be auteur. In Spyfall Part One she was unaware she was being manipulated almost until the very end. In Spyfall Part Two she had most of an episode to trap the Master in his own play. Here, she’s aware that she is being led into a trap, does not know when the trap will be sprung, and initially regards the exercise as colossal timewasting and the Master’s actions with contempt. In the Matrix, she initially rejects the Master’s narrative, but it’s his performance, his channelling of emotion, which convince her. If Michelle Gomez’s version of the character played the Edwardian governess looking for pupils, then Sacha Dhawan’s is the actor-manager. In response the Doctor becomes an internet streaming service, blasting out anything she can remember about her life, old and new, with the Matrix turned into her server. Knowledge and its acceptance becomes liberation. It’s an individualist tale for an era of the programme which has included several expressions of faith in self-realisation.

Chris Chibnall’s storytelling often seems unabashedly technical, story development arising from putting characters in place like figures on a war gaming board. They then narrate plot points rather than talk and advance the story through revelation of personality. Character moments occur, but at later beats than they might have done under earlier showrunners. The development of Graham, Yaz and Ryan has been slowed by their subjection to a long-term plan, to their detriment. Within The Timeless Children, The arrival of Ko Sharmus to detonate the Death Particle felt lacking in preparation, despite the credibly forceful performance. of Ian McElhinney. Revealing Ko Sharmus’s responsibility for sending the Cyberium back in time at so late a point felt wasted here, as well as dangerously slowing the pace of the final confrontation. 

More positively, the suddenness of the revelation of Ko Sharmus’s role in the wider plot was enough to knock the Doctor off-balance again. Some critics of the episode have argued that letting Ko Sharmus, rather than the Doctor, wipe out organic life in the Citadel stripped the Doctor of her heroism, indeed made her a moral coward, but she is so discomfited that her use of the Death Particle might have seemed reckless whereas Ko Sharmus’s is deliberated. Additionally, the decision to let Ko Sharmus wipe out the Time Lord-Cybermen hybrids – the Cybermasters, as they seem to be called – restores the sense in Ascension of the Cybermen that the Doctor and friends were being caught up in someone else’s story. Ceding the honourable death to Ko Sharmus was in its way a denial of the Master’s narrative – the Master was only interested in provoking the Doctor to new levels of despair and disgust, but Ko Sharmus’s sacrifice argued that the Doctor is still right to hope.

Among those unhappy with The Timeless Children are those who think this episode has turned the Doctor into a generic chosen one figure, a hero with a secret origin whose greatness is intrinsic to their nature. For them, Steven Moffat’s ‘madman with a box’ and earlier iterations of the Doctor as wanderer have been overturned by the Master’s tale where the foundling has become the founder. Yet this is the gloss the Master is putting on the evidence he has presented. He shows the Timeless Child being the victim of unethical scientific research, presumably forced through several regenerations as Tecteun sought to read her adoptive child’s genetic code. The Child’s contribution is unacknowledged, they are first buried in the Time Lord secret service, the Division, and then for reasons unknown are regressed to childhood, and placed in anonymity and amnesia among the youth of another generation who have known nothing but the lies their elders told them. It’s the narrative of an abuse survivor who has blocked out the horrors of their youth. The Master even tells it with the intention of disabling the Doctor, perhaps wishing that she will reject the good and optimistic just as he has. The Doctor finds her strength to escape the paralysis field not from the superhero origin but from confirmation of the self she has built in her subsequent life. Her identity is not as dependent on Time Lord mythology as the Master’s, who needs not only to wipe out the Time Lords but horribly burlesque them in death. The true Doctor, perhaps, is Brendan, not the policeman who wants to serve but the navigator whose name he took, always looking to real and mythical wests.

The resolution of the Brendan storyline was perhaps the aspect of The Timeless Children which I found most disappointing. The notion that Brendan’s story was a fiction planted in the Matrix as a clue that might reveal the Doctor’s hidden memories, should the Doctor ever come across it, is one thing; but the idea that the ‘Irish’ scenes – ‘Gallykissangel’, as they have been dubbed – were ‘transmitted into [the Doctor’s] mind as you tracked the Cybermen’ disappoints. This is partly because there was no indication during Ascension of the Cybermen that the story was being experienced by the Doctor. Her puzzlement, even distress, would have been relatable, but here it seems she showed no reaction to this tale of a red-headed lad intruding into her conscious at intervals. There seemed no reason for this in-story explanation of the appearance of the Brendan scenes in Ascension at all; Doctor Who is sufficiently robust for the audience to accept them without context in the first of the two episodes and for the Doctor then to encounter the Brendan story again in an abbreviated form in The Timeless Children. The audience is collectively and severally timeless children; as Kim Newman concluded his 2005 BFI Television Classics volume, Doctor Who takes us ‘somewhere else’. The current production team are more wary than some of their predecessors of presenting Doctor Who as multiple layered unrealities, and that is a pity.

The elaboration of the Doctor’s origin story seems designed not to change the Doctor’s nature but to confirm Chris Chibnall’s understanding of it, a wandering apostle of hope in the face of adversity and despair. The Timeless Child’s seeming passivity as they are used as a quarry of genetic resources by Tecteun is an expression of faith, and the Jo Martin Doctor’s aggression towards her former Time Lord employers a sign of faith tested to endurance. Presumably there is more testing of the Doctor’s optimistic beliefs to come. More detailed analysis of the faith of Chris Chibnall’s Doctor is being undertaken elsewhere, just as there are others with better appreciation than me of procedural drama. The idea of the Doctor as rogue ex-cop with a loyal sidekick, solving crimes outside the service’s rules, is a detective fiction concept projected back into the Doctor’s hidden past by Chibnall, but it’s possible that it will influence the next series if Chibnall maintains the ensemble cast.

This review is in danger of understating how much I enjoyed the episode. The art direction on the story did great things with those traditional settings of Doctor Who, the quarry and the beach. Ko Sharmus’s respect shown to Ryan and Ethan was that of a wise general to junior officers, suggesting that kindness and empathy were themselves worth fighting for. The simultaneous terror and childlike dressing-up as Graham, Yaz, Ravio and Yedlarmi disguised themselves as Cybermen. The tension was underlined by Ashad’s near-discovery of the party and the dangers inherent in wearing Cyber-armour. Graham’s trouble in removing his ‘hat’ worked as comic relief on its own account and because the audience knows that Cyberconversion technology is persistent. A good proportion of the audience will have seen the Cyber-helmet attempting to graft itself onto Amy in The Pandorica Opens

There was more, of course. The punch the air moment for those with anxiously-defended interpretations of a certain scene in The Brain of Morbius as the Doctor regressed through her history and the faces of Douglas Camfield, Robert Holmes, Philip Hinchcliffe, George Gallaccio, Robert Banks Stewart, Graeme Harper, Christopher Barry and Christopher Baker (in no particular order) were seen once more. The swaggering materialization of the humans’ escape TARDIS as a detached house, making me wish the housing crisis could be solved so easily. The Doctor’s temporary vehicle appearing as a tree on a war-ravaged planet, indicating that life persists even amidst desolation. The Doctor’s pause for thought being framed as a mistake, as if allowing the Judoon to take the initiative and capture her. The return of ‘What? What?’ and the policy-reversing caption promising, in a seeming non seqitur, Revolution of the Daleks.

John has been very patient waiting for this review, so I will stop here before I further entangle the televised episode with the multiple reactions and interpretations already offered. One last train of thought. The destruction of the Time Lords and their city by the Master might be argued to represent Chris Chibnall’s assertion of authorship of Doctor Who, introducing a much obviously bolder hand than he used in his first year. However, this is a destructive analogy; Chibnall has always been more interested in building anew, as seen in his experimental first series. Even after the destruction of the Time Lords, the Master was tortured by his own past and metafictionally the past of Doctor Who, while the Doctor, even when imprisoned, was able to look forward. Clichés are clichés because they work, as Terrance Dicks was fond of saying, and Jo Martin’s appearance as the Doctor’s inner self was not groundbreaking but perfectly adequate as a lead-in to the Doctor’s escape. 

Last year and this, Chris Chibnall was attempting to make a Doctor Who for the present, but some question whether he is doing enough to stop viewers dwelling on the ruins of previous eras. More stories with the drive of Ascension of the Cybermen and The Timeless Children would be a great start.

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