Modern Doctor Who has been fascinated with one central question its past self rarely cared to engage with: Doctor who? It imagined more than the clever twist of its title and sought to place its hero on the grand pedestal of a mystery solved. But last night, it finally asked the question for real, and added a follow up that’s far more important: Why should it matter?
“The Timeless Children” is a bit of a paradox—and not just because it’s the conclusion of a Cybermen story that, disappointingly isn’t really about the Cybermen.
It’s a story that is far more concerned with the Doctor—her relationship to the Master, her relationship to her people, and ultimately her relationship with herself. In this regard, and in many ways, it is an episode that can be read as a gamechanger for the entire history of Doctor Who: one that boldly, and no doubt controversially, asks us to reconsider everything we’ve known and assumed about the series’ lore since the very beginning.
But it doesn’t, really. Because “The Timeless Children” isn’t, as the Master constantly needles his captive frenemy about throughout the episode, having your mind be blown by revelation after revelation and that’s that. It would be a far less interesing story if it was, if all that mattered to Doctor Who, and to the Doctor, was this yearning desire to know absolutely everything. No, the season 12 finale is a love letter to the nerdiest of Doctor Who’s vast nuggets of worldbuilding. Not just by embracing it—all of it—as messily and crazily as it can, but by telling us the most important thing of all about it: It all matters. But also: It doesn’t, not really.
Before we get into all that, we should dive into what the episode had to say about the Doctor’s true past. As her friends slink about on the Cybercarrier and the Cybermen just sort of...hang around, on the Master’s orders, the Doctor finds herself amid the ruins of her homeworld, a captive of one of her oldest friends, and forcibly thrust into the full archives of Gallifrey’s Matrix, the font of all Time Lord history and knowledge.
It is there she learns the great lie the Time Lords told themselves, and most crucially, told her: Time Lords weren’t really born on Gallifrey. They were made, through the discovery of a mysterious, regenerating child from another universe, manipulated, experimented on, and ultimately brainwashed by the society built upon their very existence to never know that truth.
Hazily interwoven with the much less interesting—or, rather, much less impactful—stories of Ryan, Yaz, and Graham trying to escape the clutches of the Cybermen, and the Master’s own attempts to court Ashad into an alliance born of cybertech and Time Lord corpses, the Doctor is thrust back to the origin story of Gallifrey. It turns out, as the Matrix’s visions tell us, Gallifrey’s native people were not Time Lords, but the Shabogans—and the discovery by one of its earliest explorers, Tecteun (Seylan Baxter), of an alien child lost from a rift in space ultimately led to their discovery of the ability to regenerate.
Trapping this child in her lab and splicing their genes into her own, Tecteun becomes the first Time Lord as we would know them, offering the ability to regenerate to her fellow elevated Shabogan, born from years of experimentation—even torture, considering the child dies and is reborn multiple times in this process—of this Timeless Child.
Ultimately, Tectuen’s work leads to the Time Lords’ regenerative abilities simply becoming part of their natural biology, but she and her fellow new Time Lords decide that the Child’s secret should never emerge. The Child is forcibly regenerated, recollections of the Shabogans and what Tecteun did over countless lives wiped from their memory, and left to be rebirthed as just one Time Lord among many.
That’s already a lot. And that’s even before we get to the twofold reveal of all of this: The Timeless Child and the Doctor are one and the same.
The Doctor has so much of her true past lost to time—blocked off by the Matrix’s security systems, corrupted by the damage the Master wrought after learning of this truth himself in his massacre of Gallifrey—but now she knows she is the mystery at the heart of her own people’s very existence. Though they’re seemingly gone for good (again), burned to ash and their remnants used by the Master to prop up an intended new race of Cybermen with himself as their leader.
All this is as potentially fascinating as it is just overwhelming to learn in one go. The episode’s marathon-length info dump comes at the cost of sacrificing its storyline with the Cybermen, but with it brings this unparalleled reunification of so many bits of peculiar Doctor Who history. Mysterious incarnations like Ruth, or those odd faces glimpsed in “The Brains of Morbius.”
Those scant mentions of unknown Doctors in stories like Russell T. Davies’ novelization of “Rose”? They all suddenly have a place in proper Doctor Who history, enriching its past by offering a convenient, if audacious, way to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable pieces of canon.
But outside of what this means for Doctor Who metatextually, within the narrative this reveal is intended by the Master to be entirely devastating to his nemesis—the overwhelming headiness becoming less about fans trying to interpret the sheer amount of new history they just learned, and more about a direct attack by the Master on the Doctor’s very psyche, intending to break her with this knowledge as he was.
But it doesn’t. Because really, this is where the Doctor and the Master differ the most. The Master has always been fascinated with, and burdened by, the past—lingering enmity over his relationship with the Doctor as children, schoolmates, and eventually rivals, his ever-present desire to break the rules of regeneration and continue to linger beyond the incarnations granted to him, his rightful anger at being turned into a weapon during the Time War.
The Master has always wanted to simultaneously be the outcast and yet also be someone special, his intellect and capacity for cruelty driven by some latent destiny that no one else can see. Of course, when confronted with the revelation from that past that he isn’t—and that the person he simultaneously respects and despises the most is—it would break him. In his head, the Doctor and he are so alike that he feels the same revelation should likewise break her.
But the Master, so wrapped up in his own irreconcilable burdens, forgets that the Doctor runs from the past not out of a fear of it—but because she, unlike him, is truly unbeholden to it. It’s not that the Doctor doesn’t care—all that lingering guilt over the Time War is more than enough evidence—but rather that the Doctor is not as chained to that past as her archrival is. As she tells him, the revelation that there is so much more to her life (lives, rather) beyond that charming old man who stole a TARDIS and ran away from it all with his granddaughter so long ago is an idea so wholly liberating that it empowers the Doctor more than it could ever disgust or break her.
She does not know the totality of who she is, and therefore is free to be whoever she wants to be—to hold the ideals she chooses to hold, to champion the causes she chooses to champion, to see the sights and go on the adventures she chooses to go on to. None of that is defined by the Doctor being the origin point of Time Lord society. None of that is changed by her inheriting this “Timeless Child” title, as much as the Master would want it to be. She is, and always be the person she chooses to be regardless of what she knows about herself: the Doctor, and all the ideals that choice represents.
It is fitting that an episode which, on the surface, uncovers so much secret history that we hadn’t previously known about the Doctor chooses this as its ultimate thesis. Paradoxically, by telling us so much more about the Doctor’s past, it opens doors to mysteries beyond what we have learned—and instead asks us to imagine the potential of those mysteries far more than it does the ramifications of what was actually unfurled here. It’s not what we learn that really matters, but what is left unlearned—who are the Doctor’s real people? Where are they from? Why was the Doctor left abandoned by the Boundary? What even is the Boundary?—simultaneously peeling back layers of mystery only to lay down the potential for even more.
In the end, it asks us, as many people have attempted to ask before: Doctor who? But having asked it, this particular era of Doctor Who is quite all right with leaving the answer to that up to our hero than it is some lofty canon. And it’s quite right to.
The poor Cybermen. I think there are maybe two stories in their time on Modern Who—their debut in “Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel” and then the Twelfth Doctor’s swansong in “World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls,” but even the latter does it to an extent—where they’ve remained the big villains of the piece instead of falling back to being lackeys that don’t get to be the true threat they were built up as in the first part of a two-parter. Let the Cybermen stand as the compelling villains they are, dammit!
That said, the Master is an absolute bastard, but you can’t fault his flair for design with the Cyber-Masters. Cybermen suits + robes + a dash of Gallifreyan extravagance? Lovely. The little sad face too is so very Master. I wish we’d seen more of them.
Speaking of wishes though: It’s kind of wild how very separated Ryan, Yaz, and Graham’s arcs are here from the Doctor’s. Of course, there’s the intentionality in that they’re physically separated from her, but their part of the Cyberman subplot means their time is made much less impactful thanks to the focus on the Doctor. We don’t really get to see how they feel or react to these revelations, or hell, what even being on the ruins of her homeworld is like! After a lot of strides taken to try and flesh these characters out this season, sometimes less successfully than others, it felt bizarre to have them feel so totally out of this story.
Aside from all of it’s fiddling with Who history, I did appreciate that this episode dabbled with another time-honoured classic Doctor Who trope: companions disguising themselves by hiding in the shelled-out bodies of their foes. From the Daleks and now to these Cybersuits, it’s always a nice and tense little idea to literally put our heroes within the skins of their pursuers.
At one point, the Master tells the Doctor that the visions of mysterious Irish policeman Brendan (seen throughout last week’s episode) were mental hints he was sending her about the true nature of her past. Except...“The Ascension of the Cybermen” never actually made that clear? There could’ve been way better ways to edit those scenes into last week’s episode that made it obvious the Doctor was meant to be experiencing these scenes as we were. Maybe they would’ve felt way less random and unnecessary? Alas.
The TARDIS is meant to be pretty good at stopping people from just teleporting into it. How did the Judoon, of all races, manage to transmit themselves through its defences? Poor Doctor.
So, Daleks at...well, whenever the BBC decides to drop “Revolution of the Daleks,” as teased at the end of the episode? The network is being really vague on whether Doctor Who’s moving back to Christmas specials or sticking with the New Year for now, but either way: I think this might be where we see some companions stay behind for good, given we didn’t lose anyone here as many people had expected to. Nothing like a bit of Dalek murder to get you to eye the TARDIS door, is there?