The jaw dropping revelations contained within Series 12’s finale were certainly polarising within the Doctor Who fandom, some viewing the new additions as exciting, while others think of it as an unnecessary destruction.
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, and Mandip Gill.
Whovians have been divided for years as to the correct balance between knowing too much about the Doctor or knowing too little about the Doctor. For the first two incarnations, we didn’t even know that the Doctor was a Time Lord, or that they were from Gallifrey. While we didn’t learn too much about the Doctor’s childhood – we never met their parents, for example – we heard tell of their exploits at the Time Lord Academy. We frequently went to Gallifrey and saw the Doctor interact with their peers, becoming just one of many Time Lords and Time Ladies, who was significant and interesting only just in their verve for adventure and passion for righting injustice within the universe, instead of being content just to watch and to document. To that end, there was even efforts towards the end of the Classic interaction of Who, known as the Cartmel Masterplan, designed to add more mystery to the character of the Doctor and to elevate them to a higher status among the Time Lord species, to being one of the founding fathers of Gallifrey, who worked in concert with Rassilon and Omega to create the prosperity of the Time Lord race.
The character of the Doctor was certainly more mysterious when they returned for the revived series, harbouring the dark secrets of the Time War, which wouldn’t be fully revealed and expanded upon on screen until David Tennant’s swan song, The End of Time in 2010, before being completely unwritten in 2013. Still, even within this time, we revealed an entirely different incarnation of the Doctor, played by John Hurt, who fought in the Time War and was cast off by their subsequent incarnations. When the series returned in 2005, it additionally made the stylistic choice to frame the programme from the point of view of the companion, making the Doctor more of an unknown entity, as gradually the companions unearthed new details from him (and they were particularly cagey about their past).
So, this latest twist in the Doctor’s narrative is not the only time that the Doctor’s past has been expanded upon and revealed, though it is certainly the most controversial. The reasons for it being controversial likely link back to this idea of how much we know of the Doctor and how much we should know, as well as many fans’ perceptions of who the Doctor is and who they represent. Many, for example, have expressed irritation that the Doctor is extraordinary in any other respect than their personality characteristics. Others simply don’t view any problem in the established lore of the Time Lords, and don’t see the necessity of the change of what we already knew. I think some fans are merely irritated at another destruction of Gallifrey, when this act used to hold some sort of emotional potency. (Disclaimer: I actually do think that Whittaker played the scene where The Thirteenth Doctor discovered the ruins of Gallifrey very well, but Gallifrey was miraculously saved back in the 50th Anniversary special, was used incredibly briefly two years later for Series 9’s finale Hell Bent, and then promptly disappeared again.)
Now, I am not without my problems with Series 12 as a whole. While there are huge elements that I personally enjoyed, such as the latest incarnation of the Master, as portrayed by Sacha Dhawan, as well as the overall feel and structure of the episodes being, in my view, much more cohesive and filmic than Moffat’s era, there are also some areas which are lacking. One of those elements is the character development of the companions, who have been aggressively sidelined to make room for guest stars each week. I believe that the lack of depth within these companions is because of the presence of three of them at once making it impossible for us to make a meaningful connection to them. Having said that, I also feel like we had more of a connection to Martha and her family in her first episode alone, so I suppose it depends upon the extent to which you want to invest in those characters.
One thing that Series 12 did well, however, was the element of mystery. The Timeless Child story arc first began in Whittaker’s second episode, The Ghost Monument, where a telepathic race preyed upon the Thirteenth Doctor’s fears and revealing the truths hidden even from herself – that of the Timeless Child. Eager fans leapt upon this, thinking that it would provide the story arc for the coming series, only to discover answers waiting far later. The largest, and greatly exciting, revelation was the identity of Ruth in Series 12’s “Fugitive of the Judoon”. I literally am unable to describe my reaction when Ruth was revealed to be one of the Doctor’s own incarnations: one that the Thirteenth Doctor was unable to recognise, but even more baffling still, was not recognised by the other incarnation. At some point, therefore, a memory wipe must have occurred. The genius of this story point in particular was because of its placement midway through a series, with zero indication in any press that such a large reveal was on the way. Indeed, when John Barrowman’s Captain Jack turned up halfway through, many who had been promised a big reveal from the Doctor Who Twitter made the logical assumption that his appearance must have been the largest surprise. How we were so wrong. The later information that Ruth was fleeing from the Time Lords, and that they still existed in her time period, made it clear that, somehow, she was from the Thirteenth Doctor’s past, and linked to the “big secret” at the heart of Gallifrey that the Master had warned against.
What comes next is a series of revelation after revelation, which is that the Time Lord ability to regenerate is not one that is naturally occurring, but rather one that was harvested from a child of an unknown species who demonstrated the ability first as a result of a freak accident. The child herself, known as the Timeless Child, had been found on a random planet, having fallen through what appeared to be a rift in space: an orphan in a different universe or dimension. As it transpires, the founding fathers of the Time Lords used this ability and capped the regeneration limit to 12, allowing a rapid expansion of their race technologically, allowing for their advancement in the realm of time travel. The Time Lord race themselves were sworn only to observe the universe, but a separate faction, known as the Division, operated secretly to intervene in necessary circumstances. They recruited the Timeless Child as one such agent, doubtless due to their ability to regenerate an infinite amount compared to the Time Lord’s own abilities. The Division’s activities are so clandestine, however, that they were even redacted from the Matrix, the depository of all Time Lord knowledge.
The identity of the child? The Doctor themself.
Throughout the structure of the episode, and the nature of the storytelling, it didn’t exactly serve as a massive surprise to the audience by that point, but was certainly entirely groundbreaking to the canon nonetheless. The way in which the story arc was delivered and tied up within the episode was, in my view, not the most climactic it could have been. The entire episode, in fact, turned out to be quite anticlimactic, with the Master swiftly dispatching the Lone Cyberman, who had been greatly emphasised by Captain Jack, and had been the main villain for the preceding two episodes, before creating a new race of Time Lord-Cybermen who were seemingly indestructible but also looked entirely ridiculous. The entire of the Timeless Child reveal was also done while Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor stood helplessly, trapped by glowing rings, while the Master told her the entire story as if a documentary. Personally, I think that these plot points might have worked better with the Doctor physically trapped within the Matrix, like in the conclusion of the Trial of a Timelord series, where she could have been confronted with the memories of her past, like she did ever-so briefly in the cloaked Brendon memories that we’d been exposed to in the previous episode.
The delivery of the information aside, however, the actual reveal opens up a massive amount of possibility for Doctor Who, which is hugely exciting. For so many years, we have been plagued with a supreme and ever-growing knowledge of the Doctor, and now we are slightly free of that. There is another mystery to be revealed. What race is the Doctor from? Are there more creatures out there in the universe like her? What exactly did the Division get her to do? And what circumstances led up to the Doctor having her own memories wiped of these experiences? All of these questions that we can now ask, all of which not even the Doctor knows the answers to either. It’s one thing entirely to want the show to explain something that has happened to the characters, but another entirely when the character doesn’t know it themselves. It’s putting the Doctor in a position of vulnerability and confusion, which is an unfamiliar territory for the character, and a brilliant development.
To my mind, absolutely nothing has been taken away from the Doctor Who universe with this story arc. In fact, the world has just been expanded upon. We used to be certain that we knew pretty much everything there was to know about the Doctor. Now we know pretty much nothing, but that doesn’t erase the show that has come before, nor does it erase the experiences that the Doctor has gone through. Now, there’s just an even greater wealth of the universe, and of the story of the Doctor, to explore. More importantly, it’s added an extra layer of mystery to a show that was created 57 years ago, which is no mean feat! So, you know, if they could just fix the other problems (gimme companions with depth please!) then the future is very exciting.