What an awful, boring mess. That’s what I jotted in my notebook halfway through this Doctor Who finale and it didn’t much improve, so that’s what I pass on to you first, unadorned.
Despite Cybermen stomping around, the Master grandstanding on Gallifrey and the Doctor learning loads about her earlier lives, The Timeless Children manages to be spectacularly turgid, an overblown gush of nonsense that gobbles up almost 65 minutes of primetime television. Frankly, I’d rather have sat through a double edition of Countryfile.
Where to begin? “Everything is about to change.” Such is the Master’s teasing warning in the cliffhanger recap. I’m not remotely bothered if current showrunner Chris Chibnall scatters and scrunches the sacred texts. Really, there aren’t any. There is no Doctor Who Bible. Rather he has concocted an earlier, unknown Testament, but in so doing has stretched the mythology to breaking point. You can’t fault his audacity, but The Timeless Children can’t hope to be interesting, as any sense of drama or dramatic tension makes way for an exposition megadump. This lore fest might startle the drooling devotee but must signally fail to engage the programme’s dwindling audience.
I prefer the idea of William Hartnell being the first, the original Doctor, but numerous incarnations prior to his…? I can accept them. I’ve been intrigued by this concept since 1976 when eight unfamiliar faces popped up in the mind-bending contest in The Brain of Morbius. (“How far, Doctor? How long have you lived?”) We also already knew that the Doctor (in The Time of the Doctor) and the Master (in The Five Doctors) were offered a full new set of regenerations. So none of this is new.
The Doctor’s long, lost history exposed now offers one minor reward in that the “Irish” Brendan simulation establishes that he/she was at least once ginger, and a fine red head. Expect the actor Evan McCabe shortly to be whirled around the Who convention circuit and Big Finish audio merry-go-round. The finale disappoints by showing little of the magnificent Doctor Ruth (Jo Martin). This guff about the Gormless Kid, sorry, the “Timeless Child”, abandoned, dithering around on the Boundary to another realm, discovered by the Shobogan space explorer Tecteun, regenerating through a flurry of races and genders… This might read well in prose (one of the fan fantasies indulged by BBC Books perhaps), but narrated by Sacha Dhawan’s Master, at length, and enacted by a mute cast on BBC One, it does not make for involving television.
For me, the crucial line in this is Doctor Ruth’s: “Have you ever been limited by who you were before?” Let’s hope we can file all these earlier identities under Unclaimed Baggage, forget and move on.
Despite Dhawan’s considerable charm and maximum efforts, I miss the Master. I mean the proper Master. The original, you might say. I’m so lucky I grew up watching Roger Delgado’s interpretation in the 1970s. He was dastardly, suave, charismatic, utterly persuasive. I also miss Missy. A waspish, hilarious, black-hearted Mary Poppins who sought and earned redemption, expertly pitched by Michelle Gomez. Dhawan’s Master seems to be channelling the bonkers John Simm version. He’s trying too hard to be insane, pouring glee and little restraint into each scene, though his florid performance helps lift many a stagnant stand-and-mansplain moment.
It’s the third finale in recent years to rely on the Master/Missy in alliance with the Cybermen. Remarkably quickly, these new arrivals on Gallifrey are blended with Time Lord body parts; they also have time to augment their armour with the outré regalia, those silly ceremonial collars that even in their debut The Deadly Assassin were described as “seldom worn robes with their colourful collar insignia”. They look ridiculous.
When will the Who makers stop relying on the Cybermen? They are dullness personified. Ashad the Cybermoan shows some personality and promise but is “tissue compressed” in the most anti-climactic manner. His army yet again are lousy shots. It would have been gratifying had they at least grazed Graham, singed Yaz or flattened Ryan.
Accentuate the positives. There are some. The heart-warming interlude where Graham praises Yaz for being “such an impressive young woman… you’re never afraid and you’re never beaten”, then worrying he’s offended her sensibilities, is beautifully written and played. The Doctor using all her memories to blow the Matrix and free herself is a flurry of joy, and a rare example of the signature tune being used mid-programme. In a vacuum of tension, one scene gets close to suspenseful when Yaz, Graham and co hide inside Cybersuits and are stalked by Ashad. Oh, I also liked the minuscule beat of relief when Ravio (Julie Graham) steps out of a Tardis/20th-century house and realises, “This is Earth. We’re on Earth.”
Apart from the deliberate obfuscation in Chris Chibnall’s script, which simultaneously reveals but withholds so much, a few minor quibbles remain. How did the Master escape from his trap at the end of Spyfall? How did he destroy Gallifrey? How did he wipe out the Time Lords, stop them regenerating or deep-freeze a selection for Cyberconversion? He just does. How did the Boundary establish a handy link between Ko Sharmus’s beach and Gallifrey? It just does. How do the Doctor and the humans get off the exploding Cybership and suddenly access a working Tardis? They just do. How on Earth can the Judoon materialise inside the Doctor’s supposedly impregnable Tardis? They just do.
Thus The Timeless Children clamps shut with a tedious cliffhanger. The Doctor being incarcerated is death to drama. Former showrunner Russell T Davies appreciated that and would never allow it during his tenure.
Series 12 has improved on series 11 but, tragically, Doctor Who has been haemorrhaging viewers. At least in the UK. It’s still being made by well-intentioned, dedicated cast and crew, but it has become old hat on a good day and old toot on a bad one. They can’t physically produce the rate of episodes the BBC secretly would like each year, nor to a high enough standard. Will another overhaul help? A casting coup to entice young or disenchanted viewers? I would look to the emerging talent in Netflix’s Sex Education.
This finale demonstrates that “everything is about to change” does not equate to “everything is about to improve”. With luck, there are a lot of lives left in the good Time Lord but, with a heavy heart, I’m saying she/he deserves – and indeed needs – a lengthy rest.