You can’t say Doctor Who series 12 hasn’t been ambitious. After a first series for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor with barely a sniff of extended Doctor Who continuity or hardcore trivia, the follow-up concludes with the revival of a 44-year-old plothole, callbacks to classic series episodes and a rewrite of Time Lord history. Not bad for a difficult second album.
But it’s also fair to say the new twists revealed in The Timeless Children have been divisive. The discovery that the Doctor is not from Gallifrey, was the first of all Time Lords and had a whole series of lives she doesn’t remember has genuinely incensed some fans, who have taken to social media to claim series boss Chris Chibnall is vandalising decades of canon, disrespecting William Hartnell and generally killing the show. Or words to that effect anyway.
But isn’t all this a bit overblown? Whatever you think of the series 12 finale itself (which may vary depending on your tolerance for fabulous, dramatic Cyber-Lords), the changes themselves seem to me to genuinely open up intriguing new doors for Doctor Who, while still paying tribute to the series’ past.
Despite the Master’s promise, not a whole lot has changed here. The Doctor is still a time-travelling alien having adventures and changing faces. The TARDIS is still a police box. The series will continue. Sure, Chibnall has tweaked Time Lord history and given regeneration an origin story, but really it’s remarkable how little this actually changes established canon (as our own Morgan Jeffery has written elsewhere).
What The Timeless Children does is add possibility and mystery to the Doctor’s backstory. Now there’s a whole collection of past lives, dark deeds and adventures she doesn’t know about and may uncover in future series, as hinted by the large portion of her life redacted in the Time Lord Matrix archive.
Personally, I’m all for it. Beyond the jealously-guarded numbering system we as fans have attached to the Doctors (“Hello, I am the Fourth Doctor” Tom Baker said never), what’s been lost by giving the Doctor a past before Hartnell?
It doesn’t suddenly mean William Hartnell didn’t invent the character – it’s a real-life, historical fact in our own actual reality that he did that. Is it an insult to his memory? Arguably, replacing him in the titular role of his TV show with another actor may have been more of a blow back in the 1960s. Should we retrospectively cancel Patrick Troughton and every other Doctor since out of respect?
Anyway, it’s not like the idea of pre-Hartnell incarnations is a new idea. As referenced in The Timeless Children, 1977 story The Brain of Morbius was intended to imply at least eight incarnations before Hartnell (which now may be canonical), and personally I’ve always thought it was a shame that in a story about an endlessly body-changing immortal we’d decided to start with the very first version of the character.
Isn’t it more interesting to suggest there are versions of the Doctor we haven’t known, rather than us just landing by chance with the original (you might say)? Why else was John Hurt’s War Doctor such a fun addition to the series if not to scratch that itch for character mystery?
Here’s a fact – a huge number of Doctor Who fans today, maybe even a majority, first started watching the series in its post-2005 revived era. For them, the Doctor has always had a long list of previous lives, unknown adventures and secrets. Christopher Eccleston (or one of his successors) may have been their first Doctor, but we all knew he was never supposed to be the first. Did that make it wrong for fans to get to know the character through him? Did that make him less of the Doctor?
No, it didn’t. And if anything, The Timeless Children does something clever by sidestepping any sort of an idea about the ‘First’ Doctor by having the Doctor’s former self regenerate and change many times, muddying the waters as to when he/she actually took the name and became a recognisable version of the character we know (though the existence of Jo Martin’s Doctor does suggest Hartnell wasn’t the first to use the name).
In fact, despite the tenor of some complaints online it’s actually all fairly respectful. Chibnall hasn’t brutally taken a scalpel to previous Gallifrey-set stories, and they all still work in this new continuity. The changes he has made are ideas explored in the classic series already – The Brain of Morbius’s older Doctors, and the planned storyline from the 1980s that Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor was something more than an ordinary Time Lord – so it’s hard to say they’re a huge left turn compared to what came before.
And how did this important, immutable canon come to pass if not for people making it up as they went along anyway? If all Doctor Who did was stick to the status quo the Doctor would be a 42nd-century human who built a time machine (as described in the show’s original pitch document), had a few adventures then just stopped in the 1960s when William Hartnell became too ill to continue.
A regular process of change and rejuvenation, no matter how painful it can feel at the time, is the only reason Doctor Who survived its earliest days, delivered whatever your preferred era of the show was and has kept going for nearly 60 years.
Look, nobody is trying to force someone to enjoy an episode they didn’t enjoy, or blindly salute a story choice they found unsatisfying. If you don’t like Doctor Who’s latest episode, that’s fine – one day another one will come along you enjoy more.
But to say these new revelations break, destroy or ruin Doctor Who? I think we all need to take a breath and get a little perspective. Right after we’re done re-editing the TARDIS Data Core wiki.
Doctor Who will return to BBC One for a festive special called Revolution of the Daleks