Well its official Doctor Who is dead.
The latest episode by Chris Chibnall not only completely destroyed the lore, but more or less defeated the whole point of the show. Originally I was going to cover this in the second part of my what ruined Doctor Who article, which I will still be finishing this week.
However I felt this subject deserved its own article. (Note obviously this has delayed King Kong by just a few days. Don’t worry though Professor Fang and The Circus Master will still be on schedule this week. Its not every week you see the death of a 56 year old series, so it is special circumstances.)
In this article I will be briefly exploring why Chibnalls latest retcon’s have ruined the series, and perhaps how this can be retconned out.
Why the Timeless Child is a Retcon too far
Its hard to know where to begin dissecting this trainwreck of an idea?
For those unlucky enough to miss Chibnall’s latest episode, it was revealed that the Doctor was originally a little girl called the Timeless Child from another universe who had the power to perpetually regenerate. She was found on another world by an alien known as Tecteun, who belonged to a race known as the Shobagans, the original inhabitants of Gallifrey.
After The Timeless Child was taken to Gallifrey, she was experimented on by Tecteun until she was able to extract her powers of regeneration, which was then spliced into every single Shobagan, creating the Time Lords.
The Timeless Child meanwhile was then experimented on further. They would brainwash her/him and force them out into the universe as their agent to fix things they wanted. Whenever the Timeless Child reached the end of her/his 13th life, then they would regress her to being a child again and wipe their memories of all of their previous lives to keep up the ruse that the Timeless Child was just another Time Lord.
They would keep doing this over and over again for billions of years, with the cycle of 13 regenerations from Hartnell to Smith just being the latest.
Aside from just being a ridiculous story, this more or less breaks the very foundation of Doctor Who in a number of ways.
To start with we now know pretty much everything about the Doctor. The character had to always remain somewhat mysterious (Clues in the title. Doctor Who?). Now its true that over the decades, writers and producers have revealed little bits and pieces about the character, but no one has gone as far as Chibnall.
There’s no Who left in the Doctor anymore. We now know that everything made Hartnell’s character who he was. He and all of his successors were just programmed into being who they were by the Time Lords.
This leads onto my next point, that this latest plot also robs the Doctor of his agency and makes him nothing more than a tool for the Time Lords.
For over 50 years we were led to believe the Doctor was a renegade from the Time Lords. He had left their race because he wanted to explore the galaxy and discover new life forms and cultures (though there may have been other reasons for leaving Gallifrey, which helped to add to the mystery around the character.) However his strong sense of morals caused him to interfere when he had too.
It created a nice dynamic between the Doctor and his people where on the one hand, he was a maverick that broke their laws, whilst on the other at times they need him to fix problems for them. As the Time Lords had spent so long in isolation, then the Doctor knew more of the universe than they did, and so he was always the first person they would call if something threatened them.
Now however the Doctor was always a tool sent by his people to interfere in other planets. Worse than that, all of his own actions were just a result of him being programmed to be that way by the Time Lords, but not knowing it because his memories were wiped.
Stealing a TARDIS, his moral code, even developing a fondness for earth, these were all simply the result of the Time Lords brainwashing the Timeless Child to be a hero.
We don’t actually know who the real Doctor is now. 56 years worth of development was just the life the Time Lords had created for him, similar to the Chamelion Arch creating a false life for John Smith.
(The fact that Jo Martin’s TARDIS was a blue police box shows that even that detail of the Doctors life, was as a result of the Time Lords. The only explanation is that the Time Lords for some reason liked that shape, and so the Doctor’s must have subconsciously recreated it in that form for them in An Unearthly Child. Its too big a coincidence otherwise.)
Before the Doctor was special among his people because he was more adventurous, now its solely because he is a magic being sent from another universe and brainwashed.
Ironically however whilst turning the Doctor into nothing more than a tool for the Time Lords, this development also makes the Doctor into too important a figure.
Now the Doctor is essentially a god from another universe. Again part of the Doctors charm was that whilst he was something of an under dog, despite being a highly advanced alien.
He was a loser among the Time Lords, a bum who basically just wanted to live an easy life, but had a strong sense of morals.
Now however he is a god sent to us from another universe and conditioned to be the greatest person who ever lived, and the founder of Time Lord society.
Its true that New Who has been guilty of God Moding the Doctor in the past, but these elements have always been criticised by the majority of fandom and viewers. Even then however, loathe as I am to defend him, even Steven Moffat never destroyed the Doctors status as a renegade, and outcast from his society.
There is also the grave insult towards William Hartnell, the actual first actor to play the role of the Doctor.
Now Hartnell isn’t the first. He is simply the 107838463746346738743897439467379th, though that’s probably too small a figure. (Remember in The End of Time, Rassilon said Time Lord history was several billion years old. That means logically that the Doctor who created their society, must be billions of years old too.)
In all fairness to Chibnall he is not the first person who has toyed with the idea of pre Hartnell Doctors. Andrew Cartmell planned a similar idea, whilst as far back as the first regeneration from Hartnell to Troughton, the producers were going to reveal that the Doctor had changed his face multiple times in the past.
Then there are the notorious Morbius Doctors from the 1975 story Brain of Morbius. In this story Morbius and the Doctor have a mind wrestling contest, where we see images of the previous Doctors flash up on screen. After William Hartnell however several previous faces pop up too.
The difference with these retcons or attempted retcons however is that none of them were official. The Cartmell Masterplan was quickly shot down by John Nathan Turner and never brought to the show itself (exactly for the reasons that JNT felt it would ruin the Doctors character by revealing too much), whilst the scene of the previous Hartnell Doctors in Power of the Daleks was quickly cut from the script. Even the Morbius Doctors was deliberately left vague. Those faces could easily be previous versions of Morbius. (I always just assumed they were personally. Hinchcliff also said that he only ever intended to hint, not conform, that those faces could be the Doctor as well.)
Ultimately no producer felt that they had the right to definitively add in Pre Hartnell era Doctors, as ultimately it could be seen as disrespectful to reduce the man who created the characters performance to just being one in a long line.
Some fans have tried to defend this latest retcon by using the tired, debunked old argument of “Doctor Who is all about change.” Well I will be tackling this argument in a greater detail in What Ruined Doctor Who Part 2.
For now though I will just say that you cannot justify a creative decision by saying “well someone did something in 1966, so that means its okay for me to do something now.”
Furthermore changes in canon in the past were not always the same.
When we first met the Doctor in the Hartnell era, he was more of a blank slate. We did not know who where he came from, why he left Gallifrey (other than the vague hint he couldn’t go back.)
When it was revealed that he was a Time Lord, that he could regenerate, those weren’t retcons. They were simply filling gaps in. Once they were filled in, no one would bother to go against them. They would add, maybe fill in another gap (like how often the Doctor can regenerate, or that they can give Time Lords more regenerations if need be.)
Its the same with any long running character. Once a gap has filled in and become part of their identity over time, then its hard if not impossible to rewrite them.
For over 5 decades the Doctor has been a Time Lord. A mountain of spin off material has been made about Gallifrey, entire story arcs have revolved around his relationship with his people, even among the general public, the Doctor is known to be a Time Lord, the same way that Mr Spock is known to be a Vulcan, and Superman is a Kryptonian.
To change that now, and pretend that this is the same as a writer revealing the Doctors people are called Time Lords after just 6 years, when we didn’t know who his people were at all, is completely dishonest.
Ultimately this retcon will not last. Chibnall has gone too far this time. It will be retconned out sooner or later. There is no way for the franchise to go on with the Timeless Child as the Doctors official backstory.
The Lazy Destruction of Gallifrey
Another major development of Chibnall’s latest offering was the destruction of Gallifrey.
Surprisingly this hasn’t been covered by most commentators and fans.
Gallifrey was destroyed once before during the Time War story arc, but again this was different.
Gallifrey’s destruction in The Time War happened off screen and so there was always a possibility of it returning.
Furthermore at the time, whilst I never thought it was a particularly good idea, at least it was new and innovative.
This time however it almost feels like a parody. The entire 50th anniversary revolved around Gallifrey being rescued, the Time Lords being restored, and even showed us a future Doctor who assured us that Gallifrey would be back.
Now all of that has been undone, and what for? So we can revisit the same story arc from 2005-10, except it’s not as effective now.
There’s no Time War for future writers and spin off material to play around with. Now its just the Master who wiped out all of the Time Lords (which by the way HOW did he do that, and WHY when he had turned good as Missy?)
Furthermore this time we saw Gallifrey melt into nothing but dust. There is no way back. No future writers can play around with Time Lord mythology now.
No writer was ever so arrogant as to completely finish a large part of the lore in quite the same way (Remembrance for instance still showed us Davros escaping.)
In this respect Chibnall has just further dragged the show down a pit.
Ironically he’s managed the worst of both worlds. In terms of change, he has damaged the identity of the character and series in a desperate attempt to do something new, yet he has also recycled the same tired ideas.
Lets see the series finale leaves the Doctor as the last of his kind again, it also features the Master and the Cybermen working together for the third finale, and focuses on rewriting the Doctors past like Hellbent.
Is it any wonder mainstream viewers have jumped ship?
The show needs to get out of this obsession with rewriting its past. The Fitzroy Crowd have an obssession that in order to do good Doctor Who, you have to smash up the canon, again founded on the fact that the people who established the continuity made some changes.
This quote from Paul Cornell
To be a good writer, you have to smash things up. To make great Doctor Who, especially, you have to destroy something someone values with every step. Those footsteps of destruction will, in a few years, be cast in bronze and put on a plinth for the next great story to destroy.
Perfectly sums up the mentality that led to the Timeless Child.
The show needs to get out of this mindset if it is to survive. You don’t have to rewrite what has gone before to keep a show fresh, and you cannot compare changes now, after 50 plus years of a characters established identity, to changes made when the character was more of a blank slate.
How Do We Write The Timeless Child Out
Well there is no one way to write out the Timeless Child, as it is fiction there are several, but my preferred method is this.
As regular readers of this blog will know I have decided to split Classic Doctor Who and New Doctor Who into two separate universes.
I feel that even without the Chibnall era, they are totally incompatible. For me Classic Who and New Who take place in two alternate universes, with a similar history up until a certain point, explaining the cameos from Classic era Doctors in New Who, but ultimately their histories went in a different direction.
To me this is the only way forward for Doctor Who. I think that Classic Who deserves to be seen as a completed work in its own right, much like the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle version of Sherlock Holmes.
Any sequels that come along should be set in alternate universes to one another, allowing them all to be linked, but ultimately its up to viewers as to which if any take place in the same universe as the original.
For me after this version of Doctor Who finishes (which will likely be soon,) then it should be rest for a few years, after which the next Doctor should be the 9th Doctor. Once this version reaches the 13th Doctor, then that’s that. When the Doctor is dead, then he will be dead for good. No resets.
Then when that version finishes, the next version should feature a new 9th Doctor, and then when this Doctor reaches the 13th Doctor, or is cancelled then the next sequel should follow on from a new 9th Doctor and so on.
All of these sequels can then be connected by having the Doctor from the previous version cross over into the universe of the latest. (For instance one episode of the hypothetical Doctor Who 3, would have Peter Capaldi or David Tennant’s Doctors cross over from an alternate universe into the New Doctors universe.)
However Chibnall’s ghastly Timeless Child makes this solution hard, as now New Who is so disconnected from the original, that its incompatible even as an alternate universe version of the same character!
I think this is a shame as there is a lot of good in the first 10 years of New Who that shouldn’t just be completely disregarded. (I say that even as someone who isn’t particularly fond of the revival era.)
It would be a shame to junk that completely, so I think the thing to do is to separate the Jodie era as an alternate universe from the rest of New Who.
I don’t like to do this. Its one thing to have two different productions be set in two different universes, but when you use the multiverse format to split up the same production, that’s when things get problematic, as future writers can end up chopping one story up too much to explain away any continuity blips.
Still these are special circumstances. There has never been a retcon this big and damaging even to the fundamentals of Doctor Who. I yearn for the days of Missy now.
Still how do you fit the Timeless Child even into the DW multiverse?
Well I see it like this.
The Timeless Child was a Time Lord from another universe. The New Who Universe to be specific.
We know from Hell Bent that in that universe, Gallifrey will fall billions of years from now at the end of the universe.
We see this when the ruins of the planet persist until literally the last night of the universe, when Ashildir is staying in them when the 12th Doctor visits her. (This is not possible if Gallifrey was blown to dust by the Master.)
We don’t know how the Time Lords fell in this universe, yet. Lets just assume that it was when the rest of the universe began to collapse they suffered the fate of all species.
The last of the Time Lords however, sent a special Time Lady through a portal to escape.
The Time Lords created her just before their planet fell, with there only being enough power to send through one. She not only could regenerate perpetually, but she contained a Matrix within her mind that contained all knowledge of the history of Gallifrey of that universe.
The role of this girl would be to find a primitive planet, and build up its society to be like Gallifrey using the knowledge and history contained in her mind, ensuring that Gallifrey would exist forever in some form. This special child was named The Timeless Child by the Time Lords before they sent her through to the other universe.
The Timeless Child however was found by Tecteun as soon as she entered her reality.
Tecteun as we know took the Timeless Child back to her home planet and experimented on her, where she not only took the powers of regeneration from the Timeless Child, but she discovered the knowledge in Timeless Child’s head.
Using this knowledge, Tecteun and the others learned about the Time Lords from the other universe and built their society based on their culture, becoming Time Lord knock offs themselves. They then conditioned the Timeless Child to be like the Doctor from the previous universe (who they learned about from the knowledge in her head.)
Some of her endless regenerations even came to look like the Doctor from the New Who universe (explaining the brief flashback of the Tenth Doctor from that universe, and Jodie morphing from Capaldi.)
Ultimately however the Timeless Child’s history is mostly different, explaining things like the Jo Martin Doctor.
So with this in mind it goes like this.
Classic Who (1963-1989) is N-Space.
New Who (2005-17, or rather up until Capaldi shouts I WILL NOT CHANGE in the snow) is M-Space.
Chibnall era Who is Y-Space.
Any future sequels can be their own universes.
To me this is the best solution to getting round the Timeless Child and excising Chibnall Who from both the revival and the original.
Thanks for reading.