The two part finale is over and can be summed up in a single word: divisive. There are positive reactions to the story, particularly focusing on the scale and dramatic stakes it provided. There are substantial negative reactions. When both veteran Doctor Who critic Elizabeth Sandifer and theocratic blowhard John C Wright hate something (for wildly different reasons) then something notable has occurred. Of course Wright just hates Doctor Who in general now because there are women doing things other than fainting and is just jumping on a bandwagon (if you must, you can read his confusion here: http://www.scifiwright.com/2020/03/the-death-of-doctor-who/ ). El Sandifer’s review is naturally so much better informed but also deeply scathing (http://www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/the-timeless-child-review/). Well worth a read.
I noted that episodes last season often had a great range of interesting ideas that frequently fell flat later in the episode. Chris Chibnall has found it difficult to raise and maintain the emotional stakes in episodes, which has made some potentially great stories like the punch that they need. Last season’s finale epitomised this issue by having the whole season end flat (https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2018/12/11/doctor-who-the-battle-of-ranskoor-av-kolos/ ). I cannot complain this time that Chibnall failed to turn things up a notch — all the dials were set to 11 and stuff certainly happened all over the place and often in entertaining ways. To that end, I’ll call it a success but very much a flawed one.
The biggest dial spun up higher than was safe was marked “lore”. If you start messing with the implied backstory of a genre show then you raise the narrative stakes. It’s exactly the fear that the revised mythology will ruin what a person likes about the show that creates an additional tension in an episode. Of course, it isn’t just science-fiction/fantasy that does this. Soap operas revealing that a key character isn’t dead or isn’t the child of who they think they are or some other shocking change to jolt tension into a story that needs it. It’s both a necessary and a cheap trick that can add more narrative complexity but also turn a series into just a series of ret-cons.
For the moment, I’ll put aside the big revelations and concentrate as far as is possible on the broader story across the two parts. The Doctor has gone to the closing period of a great war between humanity and the Cybermen. Both humans and the Cybermen are on the bring of destruction but the arrival of the Lone Cyberman (the part assimilated fanatic last seen menacing Mary Shelley) and his possession of the Cyberium (the sum total of the Cybermen’s strategic expertise as an AI) will turn the final defeat of the Cybermen into victory. The Doctor and her trio of companions arrive on a ruined planet to find a tiny set of human survivors on the brink of extinction.
Meanwhile, we get a totally separate story about a foundling baby in 1950s Ireland who grows up to be a Garda (Irish police officer). This story that takes a sinister twist at the end is contained within the first of the two episodes and its resolution is contained within the big lore-reveal in the second.
Various things occur in episode 1 and with mixed results. The Doctor turning up with a range of weapons and devices for fighting the Cybermen which are then instantly destroyed by flying Cybermen heads is unintentionally comical but beyond that the desperate fight of the survivors is well done. Splitting companions off from the Doctor is also a good move, as it gives Yaz in particular more to do and adds to the sense of desperate people making hurried decisions just to keep going.
The first episode ends with The Doctor and Ryan landing on a planet that has a special gateway through which human survivors have been fleeing to escape Cyberman-controlled space. Meanwhile Graham and Yaz are trapped aboard a huge Cyberman troop carrier that is coming back to life. At this point The Master arrives through the gateway which is now connected to the ruins of Galifrey and the story heads off in new directions.
The second episode (The Timeless Child) has the big lore reveal and a dastardly plan from the Master. What is less obvious is how unconnected the two are. The Master induces the Cybermen to travel to Galifrey. The Lone Cyberman explains his plan to destroy all organic life (including the inner organic parts of the Cybermen) and thus establishing a purely mechanical future. The Master has some excellent dialogue tearing the whole idea to shreds, pointing out that this is little more than the Cybermen turning themselves into pure robots and how commonplace robots are in the universe. The Master has a better idea. He has the dead bodies of Time Lords and with those he can create Cybermen with Time Lord organic bits capable of regeneration, creating essentially unkillable Cybermen.
So this is a fun twist with a good use of The Master to betray the initial main villain and substitute a new evil plan as the driving threat of the story. Like any evil plan, it can’t matter to much as it will be defeated somehow. Indeed it is, by the mechanism already established by the Lone Cybermen for destroying all organic life on a planet. What it lacks is a clear reason for everything else that is going on. Is it all just coincidence that The Master’s other scheme and the Cybermen scheme are colliding at this point? It seems to be and this is just part of where amid all the big explosions and lore reveals, there is that same sense of ideas thrown together but left unexamined. I’m not saying The Master has to have manipulated ALL the events for it make sense but there’s a lack of a story’s connective tissue here that makes a rewatch feel distinctly less good.
Which takes us back to The Master and the big lore reveal. The Master forces The Doctor into the Time Lord’s psychic virtual reality archive (called The Matrix long before the movie). There she learns the secret history of the Time Lord’s regeneration ability. It seems they discovered it even prior to becoming Time Lords when they were just the Shabogan people (and yes, that is another term established decades ago) from a child found at a gateway on a remote planet. That child…dun, dun, dun…was The Doctor (gasp etc) and worse, their DNA was used to alter the Time Lords making the Time Lords all part The Doctor and so on. But also…The Doctor knows nothing of this and The Matrix has had chunks of the Doctor’s pre-Hartnell regenerations hidden. What does exist instead is the fake memories of a foundling in 1950s Ireland who grows up to be a Garda. What does it all mean! At the moment not very much. Clearly there are going to be more reveals. Indeed, to get past all these revelations requires a pep-talk from the Jo Martin Doctor to the Whittaker Doctor which enables The Doctor to realise that really, while interesting, it makes no difference to who she is. And that’s sort of true.
I don’t think this is a great bit of new canon for the Doctor’s past and brutal dissection of the flaws in it in El Sandifer’s review are right in substance. However, the insight by The Doctor that really it doesn’t matter that much is also true. I prefer when the show isn’t The Doctor is the Most Special but also the weight of the show is that PRACTICALLY The Doctor is the only Time Lord in the universe other than frequently dead Master. The thin scattering of other non-Galifrey Time Lords can be counted on one hand.
What annoys me more is again, how unconnected all this is. The revelation about regeneration is supposedly the motive for all the angst and destruction The Master has now perpetrated. Now yes, he’s annoyed that The Doctor is even more special than he thought but its oddly flat as a motive for destroying Galifrey. Yes, The Master doesn’t need much of an emotional pretext to do something evil but it still lacks substance. It is misreading of dramatic empathy where a revelation that is taking as a big deal for the audience is assumed to be a big deal for the characters. However, the connection just isn’t there. If The Master had been The Timeless Child and had their regenerations repeatedly exploited by the Time Lords and by their secret Special Circumstances Division THEN the story makes sense.
I’m back to that issue with the Chibnall years that ideas are undercooked. A revelation drives The Master to genocide of his own people! Wow, powerful idea but only if the revelation is something that is shocking to The Master. Otherwise it is just The Master killed his own people because he is messed up and evil and oh, there’s a revelation as well. Indeed, the whole thing is just SO much better if The Master is the Timeless Child that I struggle to see why they didn’t go that way other than because they wanted there to be a secret regeneration of The Doctor (even that could have been worked in – e.g. The Doctor was a Time Lord attempt at Timeless Child Mark 2 but without the psychosis).
My repeated complaint this season is exactly that there is a missing level of thought in the plots and dialogue. In the Moffat years, stories would skip past things or leave threads unresolved intentionally (and that was annoying) but in the Chibnall years we get the same result but by accident. Over-worked stories have become under-worked stories that need just a bit more attention.
What is good about this two-parter? Quite a lot. Plenty of explosions and action and mostly good effects (the flying cyber-heads, not so much). Views are divided by the gloriously over the top Cyberman-Time Lord costumes but frankly I love them. There joy that somebody had designing those shines through.
Yaz, Ryan and Graham are still underused but they did get things to do and separating them from The Doctor gave the characters an opportunity to be active participants in the story. It was great that they could rescue each other and have plans of their own. Having said that, another obvious missed-opportunity was that they didn’t rescue The Doctor from the Matrix but instead just get to wake her up after she rescued herself.
I really liked the two occasions were The Master and The Doctor commented on the stories plot. The Master’s example was ridiculing the Cyberman organic extinction plan. Honestly, somebody should have The Master check out all the scripts. He maybe evil but he has a good sense of plot when he wants to.
The Doctor’s example was the insight that who she is as a person and a character matters more than what she is or what her DNA is or what her now very convoluted back-story is. I’d feel happier if I knew this was an intentional repudiation of the lore-heavy segment of the story i.e. as if The Doctor themselves was renouncing the relevance of a canon that can never make sense.