The season 12 finale for Doctor Who contains a lot of plot twists and turns, and one callback that I really didn’t see coming.
Warning: post contains significant spoilers for The Timeless Children
Current series showrunner Chris Chibnall clearly loves a mystery more than most, which is clearly why season 12 of Doctor Who was rife with them.
The Timeless Child does try to solve some – but not quite all of them, but there was one reference that really got my brain buzzing, because it’s both a glorious bit of series continuity and a nod to old-school fandom.
It also might be a wink towards one of the weirdest bits of Doctor Who merchandise and canon, and one that’s not really all that welcomed by a lot of Doctor Who fandom, and not without good reason.
Of all the things that I figured the season finale would make me think about, FASA’s 1985 Doctor Who Role Playing Game wasn’t high on my list.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, because the references relate to what Chibnall’s calling “The Division”, a segment of Time Lord society charged with interfering despite the Gallifreyan insistence on non-interference. Brendan, the Irish cop introduced in Ascension Of The Cybermen is, it turns out The Doctor, and this was when The Doctor worked for The Division, only to have his mind wiped and a regeneration forced. Probably more than one regeneration as it transpires.
It might be called The Division now — or was it then? That’s the problem with time travel stories, you never can be quite sure – but in terms of the show’s chronological development on Earth, the idea that the Time Lords had a division of meddlers with good intent goes back some 44 years in the form of the Celestial Intervention Agency.
The Celestial Intervention Agency first saw light of day in 1976’s The Deadly Assassin, which is one of the key stories in terms of established Doctor Who canon.
Doctor Who canon is an incredibly messy business depending on if you’re a TV show purist, or if you include the novels, and even then if you take only the Target ones, or the Virgin NAs, or the newer BBC books… in short, it’s messy, OK? But The Deadly Assassin establishes the existence of the Celestial Intervention Agency, albeit in a few short throwaway lines written by the legendary Robert Holmes.
Firstly when Tom Baker regeneration (who I guess now isn’t the 4th Doctor, but some unknown number in the regeneration cycle) lands on Gallifrey
SPANDRELL: Is there anything further of relevance I should know, Coordinator Engin?
ENGIN: I see there is an addendum. Ah, yes. The sentence was subsequently remitted at the intercession of the CIA.
SPANDRELL: Celestial Intervention Agency. They get their fingers into everything. Is he mixed up with them?
ENGIN: There’s nothing further on the file.
SPANDRELL: Oh yes, they’d see to it that there wouldn’t be.
And then later on when the President has been assassinated:
GOTH: So you think there is a real danger, Castellan?
SPANDRELL: He has already killed one of the guards. I think he’s ruthless and determined. A typical CIA agent.
GOTH: But if he is a member of the Celestial Intervention Agency, why should he wish to harm the President?
Bonus marks if you spotted Sacha Dhawan’s mention of assassinations in The Timeless Children, because it’s also a direct callback to The Deadly Assassin, a story which also establishes The Matrix and the 12 regeneration limit for regular Time Lords. It’s also oddly Tom Baker’s only story – and one of only a handful overall – that features no companions whatsoever.
There’s simply no way that Chris Chibnall doesn’t know about the Celestial Intervention Agency, and it feels unlikely that Gallifrey would have two agencies doing the same work, no matter whether there’s been a name change now, or in the past.
In the intervening years after 1976, that messy Doctor Who canon of spin-off books, audios and semi-licenced videos make a lot of use of the Celestial Intervention Agency, but its next appearance in a Doctor Who licensed product after 1976’s Deadly Assassin came courtesy of RPG makers FASA. Yeah, the Battletech and Shadowrun people.
That’s what jumped into my mind watching The Timeless Children, if only because I still have my copies of the RPG, back from when I purchased them in the mid 1980s.
FASA acquired the licence to produce a Doctor Who RPG, and more-or-less slapped its existing Star Trek RPG mechanics into it. There’s a huge problem with a Doctor Who RPG though, because everyone is only really going to want to play as the Doctor.
FASA’s solution for this was to revive the Celestial Intervention Agency and cast the players into the role of Time Lords working for the CIA, if only to avoid the whole 12 regeneration limit of the Doctor.
As an RPG the Doctor Who FASA RPG isn’t great, frankly; because of the roots of where FASA drew its engine from there’s way too much focus on combat and overcoming foes with violence, which is entirely unlike Doctor Who.
There’s a lot of Doctor Who canon that fans will argue endlessly about – I’m honestly not sure you could get any one group of Doctor Who fans to agree on what colour the TARDIS is, frankly – but the FASA game is one of the odder entries, and one that does nothing at all to help with ongoing continuity problems like the UNIT dating controversy.
Was Chris Chibnall consciously referencing it with the now-renamed-or-possibly-earlier-named Division? Probably not, but there’s no way as a long term Doctor Who fan of a certain age (as all the new era showrunners have been) that he’s not aware of it.
The Timeless Children can be viewed on ABC iView now, and will broadcast on ABC TV on Thursday.