***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD! SERIOUSLY!***
Holy smokes, there’s a lot to unpack in this episode! Let’s get right to it, because this is going to be a long one!
One of the things I grew to dislike about the Steven Moffat era was his seemingly constant need to make pointless additions to the Doctor Who canon, perhaps the most egregious of which was having one of Clara’s splinter selves tell the First Doctor which TARDIS to steal when he and Susan fled Gallifrey. In “The Timeless Children,” Chris Chibnall makes an addition to the canon as well, one that is maybe not pointless, but isn’t entirely necessary, either. Do I hate it the way I hate Clara telling the First Doctor which TARDIS to steal? No, and the reason why is that ultimately this addition doesn’t actually change anything. Everything we know about the Doctor from Hartnell onward remains unaffected, and so there’s a lot less for me to push back against. Plus, I’m far more intrigued by this idea than by all that nonsense with Clara’s splinter selves.
It is, however, a fucking huge addition to the canon! It also answers a lot of lingering, if minor, questions about Doctor Who. The Timeless Child, as we discover from both the Master and the Matrix on Gallifrey, is a being from another universe with the ability, previously unknown in our own universe, to regenerate instead of die. The Timeless Child was discovered long, long ago by Tecteun, an astronaut and scientist of the Shobogans, Gallifrey’s indigenous species, near a gateway to the Boundary, and Tecteun decided to experiment on the child until the mysteries of regeneration were unlocked and could be added to Shobogan DNA. Mixed with the civilization’s discovery of time travel, thus were the Time Lords born. So what became of the Timeless Child? They were recruited by the Division to run special, secret missions that the Time Lords wouldn’t openly authorize because of their policy of non-intervention.
The Master’s biggest reveal, though, is that the Timeless Child is actually the Doctor, and that she has had numerous pre-Hartnell lives (such Doctor Ruth from “Fugitive of the Judoon”) that were erased from her memory. Unfortunately, at this point the fact that the Doctor is the Timeless Child likely comes as a surprise to no one, because it’s always the Doctor. The most dangerous creature in the universe is locked inside the Pandorica? Surprise, it’s the Doctor! The Hybrid is supposed to be a deadly crossbreed of two warrior races? Surprise, it’s the Doctor…and Clara! (We’re going to come back to the Hybrid a little later, by the way. Stick around!) Personally, I thought it would be a better revelation, and possibly make more sense, if the Timeless Child turned out to be the Master. It would better explain why he destroyed Gallifrey if he discovered he had been ruthlessly experimented on as a child, had his memory erased, and been lied to all his lives by the Time Lords about how important his role in their society really was. Instead, he’s angry because…there’s a piece of the Doctor’s DNA inside him? Because the Time Lord’s pomposity was unearned? The Master has always thought their pomposity was unearned! (On the other hand, if the Master is the Timeless Child, we lose Doctor Ruth, and a cosmos without Doctor Ruth scarcely bears thinking about.)
Still, this new information does answer some questions that have been around for a very long time. We finally learn, for instance, that a Time Lord’s twelve-regeneration limit is imposed by Tecteun at the start, rather than a natural limitation. (The Timeless Child could apparently continually regenerate, well past thirteen incarnations.) This also explains how the Time Lords are able to grant one of their own a whole new life cycle, as they offer to do for the Master in 1983’s “The Five Doctors,” and actually do for the Doctor in the 2013 Eleventh Doctor episode “The Time of the Doctor.” Perhaps most remarkably, this revelation also finally explains all the pre-Hartnell faces that appear on the screen during the psychic mindbending battle between Morbius and the Fourth Doctor in the 1976 serial “The Brain of Morbius”! Those faces were always intended to be Doctors before Hartnell, but later that same season the twelve-regeneration limit was mentioned for the first time in 1976’s “The Deadly Assassin,” so the faces were retconned to actually be Morbius’s previous incarnations. Now, at last, we can retcon them back to being the Doctor’s. It only took 44 years, but we got there!
Everything about the Timeless Child is a bold idea, but there are problems with it, some of which are pretty big. The Time Lords’ ability to regenerate being the result of genetic manipulation with the DNA of the Timeless Child directly contradicts the bit about River Song being able to regenerate simply because she was conceived in the TARDIS as it traveled through the time vortex. Granted, I always thought that was stupid anyway, but it’s hard to reconcile the two. If Doctor Ruth is one of those previous, forgotten incarnation, why does she call herself the Doctor? What reason does she have to operate under that name even while she’s working for the Division? It was always assumed to be the name the Doctor chose for themself when they left Gallifrey, “the [person] who makes people better.” If that’s no longer the case, could “the Doctor” actually be a codename assigned by the Division, one that the Doctor kept without fully knowing why? Another issue: Why was Doctor Ruth’s TARDIS already in the shape of a police box? The lore was always that the First Doctor stole a faulty TARDIS from Gallifrey, one with a broken chameleon circuit that left it stuck in the shape it had assumed when he and Susan landed on Earth in the early 1960s: a British police box. There could be a couple of possible explanations for this one, at least. One is that Ruth’s TARDIS’s telepathic circuits read the Thirteenth Doctor’s mind and transformed itself into a police box specifically for her. Another possibility is that Doctor Ruth’s TARDIS got stuck in the shape of a police box and, after her memory was wiped and she became the Hartnell Doctor, he wound up stealing that same TARDIS before it was repaired. (I think we can safely assume Doctor Ruth was the final secret incarnation before Hartnell, since she’d already left the Division by the time of “Fugitive of the Judoon.” It’s likely she was recaptured, memory-wiped, and turned into a child that grew up to be the First Doctor as we know him.)
“The Timeless Children” also explains that the young Irish police officer Brendan, whom we saw flashes of in “Ascension of the Cybermen,” was a Matrix construct designed to disguise the story of the Timeless Child under a visual filter. When the older, retired Brendan gets his memory erased, that’s the Timeless Child getting their memory wiped by the Division, either before a new mission or before becoming the First Doctor. Which makes me wonder: If the life of Brendan is a Matrix construct designed to hide the truth, then who’s to say the 1965 and 1966 Peter Cushing Doctor Who movies can’t be also? Perhaps now they, too, can be canon! (Okay, that might be pushing it.)
Whew! I told you there was a lot to unpack, and I’ve only covered half the episode! The other half, involving Ashad and the Cybermen fighting the human survivors, including Graham, Ryan, and Yaz, and invading the ruins of Gallifrey, is pretty good, but obviously less interesting. There’s some mumbo-jumbo about a “death particle” embedded inside Ashad that turns out to be pretty important and probably should have been brought up a lot sooner than just this episode, and a nice moment between Graham and Yaz when they think they might be about to die, and a neat plan to sneak past the Cybermen inside Cyber armor. The death particle is employed at the end of the episode, presumably killing the Master, killing his dumb-looking Cybermen/Time Lord hybrids called CyberMasters, and preventing any life from ever existing on Gallifrey again. Not to be too cynical about it, but you can expect two of those three things not to be true in the long run.
(The CyberMasters aren’t just dumb looking, they also don’t make sense. First, you don’t need organic material to make Cybermen. In fact, Ashad’s plan was to remove the organic material from the remaining Cybermen and make them entirely robotic, so there isn’t any need for the Master to use Time Lord corpses to make himself a Cyber army, even one that self-replicates. Second, how the hell did he create and redesign them so quickly? Third, and perhaps most confusing, if Time Lord corpses can regenerate, then they’re not corpses, they’re alive. The Master specifically said they were dead, so how can they still regenerate? My heads hurts.)
Ultimately, “The Timeless Children” is an exciting episode that turns Doctor Who lore on its head in an intriguing way, but I have so many questions. Also, I wish Captain Jack had come back for the finale, but at least we got another nice scene with Doctor Ruth. Also, I wish we had been given some further information on when exactly this Master comes from in their timeline. If he’s post-Missy, I want to know how that’s possible. If he’s between the John Simm Master and Missy, then I want to know that, too, just so I can understand.
And now for some Doctor Who neepery! On Gallifrey, the Master reminds the Doctor about how they used to have fun running from Borusa after skipping his classes at the Academy. Borusa was first introduced in the aforementioned 1976 Fourth Doctor serial “The Deadly Assassin” as an old teacher of the Doctor’s who has become a cardinal of the High Council. (He would reappear twice more on the show, the final time as Lord President of the High Council in 1983’s “The Five Doctors.”) The Master also mentions what fun they had in the panopticon, where the High Council gathers, including assassinating presidents. This is also a reference to the plot of “The Deadly Assassin,” in which the Master frames the Doctor for the Lord President’s assassination. The term Shobogans also comes from “The Deadly Assassin,” although in that serial it is meant as an insult meaning hooligans. It makes sense that the Time Lords might turn the name of the race they evolved from into an insult, much like an Earthling calling someone a cave man is an insult. When the Doctor sees her companions and the remaining human survivors have come to rescue her on Gallifrey, she says, “No humans on Gallifrey,” a rule that also first came up just before “The Deadly Assassin” as the reason why Sarah Jane Smith couldn’t come to Gallifrey with him. That rule was either scuttled later or ignored when Leela, a human, was allowed to stay on Gallifrey at the end of the 1978 Fourth Doctor serial “The Invasion of Time.” (Clara was also allowed on Gallifrey, sort of, in the 2015 Twelfth Doctor episode “Hell Bent.” So were the Sisterhood of Karn who, while not humans, are also not Gallifreyan.) The Doctor mentions she fought the Matrix before and denied its reality, something they did in “The Deadly Assassin” and also in the 1986 Sixth Doctor serial “The Ultimate Foe.” The Division sounds a lot like the Celestial Intervention Agency, a secret Time Lord organization that often used the Doctor for special missions, such as sending him to Skaro to prevent the creation of the Daleks in the 1975 Fourth Doctor serial “Genesis of the Daleks.” However, the organization wasn’t given a name until, you guessed it, “The Deadly Assassin.” Really, I’m shocked at how much of “The Timeless Children” calls back to “The Deadly Assassin”!
And finally, as promised, a little more about the Hybrid. There’s a theory going around that “The Timeless Child” actually fulfills the Hybrid prophecy from season 9. The prophecy says that a hybrid creature would stand over the ruins of Gallifrey and unravel the Web of Time, breaking a billion billion hearts to heal its own. At the end of season 9, it was hypothesized that the Hybrid was actually the Doctor and Clara traveling together, but this new theory states that the Master merged with the Cyberium is the true Hybrid. After all, he stood over the ruins of Gallifrey; hacked into the Matrix to discover its biggest secret, thus unraveling the Web of Time; and broke a billion billion hearts to heal his own by murdering the Time Lords. I don’t know if this was intentional, but it’s an interesting take!
Next up is this year’s Christmas Special (or next year’s New Year’s Day Special) “Revolution of the Daleks,” which we’ve just learned will also be Graham and Ryan’s final episode. Nooooooo, Graham, come back!