By now every Doctor Who fan will have seen or at the very least heard about the most recent controversy in the show’s long, twisted history – Chris Chibnall has seemingly defied all pre-existing unwritten rules and has decided to explore the origins of the Doctor in his most recent series finale, and it seems the vocal majority of fans are largely unimpressed. The premise of the episode, which depicts the Doctor trapped in the Matrix and informed by the Master that everything she thought she knew about her origins is a lie, seems to have been specifically designed to invoke fan rage.
Not only does this episode reveal that the Doctor is in fact not a Time Lord at all, but is in fact an entity from another universe who was found by a Gallifreyan scientist called Tecteun and used as the template to create the entire Time Lord race, it also implies that the Doctor has had a previous set of regenerations before the First Doctor, and that after living an entire set of lives working as an agent for a Time Lord organisation called ‘The Division’, who would wipe the Doctor’s memories, revert them back to a child, and begin the chronology of the Doctor’s life that we are already familiar with.
Like all huge revelations that change fundamental aspects about Doctor Who lore, such as The Time Meddler, The War Games, Spearhead from Space, The Deadly Assassin, Genesis of the Daleks, The Five Doctors, The Trial of a Time Lord, Rose, The Big Bang, Night of the Doctor, The Day of the Doctor, Time of the Doctor and Hell Bent before it, the fandom will likely require some time – anywhere between 15 to 25 years – to fully assimilate this new facet of the lore into canon and process its many implications. In the meantime, however, it is important to look above the tangled mess of fan outrage and slander to understand exactly why Chris Chibnall would commit such a heinous act of treachery against the show he claims to love.
The key aspect of Doctor Who that is critical to this debate is the power of hindsight. It is no secret that Doctor Who’s lore is a complete mess, arguably one of the messiest timelines in sci-fi history – whilst Doctor Who has never had to rely on out-of-universe reboots or alternate universes to keep its lore intact, one simply cannot rationalise each and every aspect of the vast narrative universe of the show and its various multi-media spinoffs into one cohesive narrative. It simply isn’t possible. As such, the show has often had to ‘bend’ its own rules and lore in the past in order to tell new, compelling stories.
A perfect example of this is Genesis of the Daleks, a six-part story from Tom Baker’s run that is often lauded as being one of the best episodes of Doctor Who ever made, and yet, for those who were keeping up with Dalek lore in the 1960s, the episode essentially rewrites Dalek history from the ground up, and throws out many of the pre-established concepts from earlier Dalek stories. For example, the Daleks are shown to have been created by a scientist called Davros, and the Thals are depicted as being just as warlike as their enemies. The previously established proto-Dalek race that Terry Nation had previously alluded to, the Dals, were erased in favour of the Kaleds, and there isn’t a petrified jungle in sight.
The same is true of another popular Tom Baker story, The Deadly Assassin. This episode was lambasted at the time for utterly demystifying the Time Lords, reducing them from a godlike race of immortals to a society of doddering bureaucrats, a transition from which the species never truly recovered. To this day, Time Lords are still depicted as being innately corrupt and fallible, whereas the original intention was for the Time Lords to embody temporal justice. Despite the negative reception of this episode at the time, it has since been re-evaluated – particularly as newer Doctor Who episodes helped to reshape the lore to fit the new depiction of Time Lords. Over time, the fandom collectively forgot that the lore had even been changed at all, to the extent that some now see the early depiction of the Time Lords as odd by comparison.
But what does all of this have to do with The Timeless Children? Sure, introducing Davros and changing the lore of the Time Lords may have been a controversial decision, but over time the fanbase has some to accept this ‘new lore’ as simply ‘lore’. The old debates over whether or not the Daleks grew from Dals or were engineered from Kaleds by Davros have long been lost to time, and that is the critical factor: Time. The unfortunate truth is that The Timeless Children is the most recent in a long line of controversial stories, and as it is currently the most recent Doctor Who story to air, there is no ‘cushion’ to help rationalise the new revelations within the lore of the show – whilst the lore-scars of The Deadly Assassin and others like it have long since faded, The Timeless Children is a fresh cut, and the coagulation has barely begun.
The frustration that fans currently feel derives from the fact that we are being presented with a narrative that goes against the grain, and because we cannot see inside Chibnall’s head we do not know where this new road will take the show. The key to understanding where Chibnall intends to take us lies in understanding what this man knows about Doctor Who and, more importantly, what he knows the fans want and, in this case, what they do not want. When watching The Timeless Children, there are several important things to take into account that are very telling of how Chibnall plans on approaching this new plot thread in the future.
The combination of utilising the Master and the Matrix as framing devices for telling the story of the Timeless Child is very revealing in itself. From previous episodes of Doctor Who we know that both the Master and the Matrix are highly unreliable sources – and given the fact that we know that the Master can alter Matrix projections at will (as seen in the Colin Baker story The Ultimate Foe) proves that what we have been shown so far regarding the story of the Timeless Child is not the whole picture, and the fact that this is a story in-progress is very pertinent. Doctor Who fans as a whole have a tendency to take plot revelations in the show at face-value, and Chibnall has clearly exploited this to create the ultimate controversial story – but just because what we learn from that story is presented to us as the truth, it does not mean that we can take it as such. A great example of this is the Valeyard, who in The Ultimate Foe is revealed to be a dark amalgamation of the Doctor’s evil nature, a revelation that has had very little impact on the show’s narrative as a whole.
Oddly enough, there is another aspect to The Ultimate Foe that is extremely relevant to The Timeless Children. Not only does this story give a potential get-out clause as it confirms that the Master not only has access to the Matrix but can also re-write its contents at will, but there are also out-of-universe links between this story and the most recent finale. The writers of The Ultimate Foe, husband-and-wife writing duo Pip and Jane Baker, were publicly lambasted on national television at the time by none other than baby Chibnall, who back in the late 1980s was a prominent member of the Doctor Who fan club. Chibnall’s scathing review of the story proves not only his passion for the show but also his understanding of what Doctor Who fans like and dislike, and this information is critical for unpacking his thought process when writing The Timeless Children.
With Doctor Who, hindsight is everything – and without it new plot revelations can seem shocking, unnerving and ‘canon-destroying’. But when you take a step back and look at the show as a whole, Doctor Who has been built on bucking tradition and charging head-first into the unknown – something that Chibnall has definitely done with The Timeless Children. He has steered his ship into a storm with the fandom tied to the mast, and only when we emerge on the other side will we be able to judge if the path he took was the right one or not. As recent news has suggested that both Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker could be staying with Doctor Who until at least Series 15, it is possible that so far we have only seen the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to Chibnall’s grand plan. A lot can happen in three seasons, and if it is true that what we have seen so far of the Thirteenth Doctor is still her ‘early phase’ (think Series 8 Capaldi or Season 24 McCoy) then who knows what the future holds.