Doctor Who: The Timeless Child (A History of Change)
Today we welcome the brilliant Chris Lupton to the WGN family as he takes a look at how the divisive finale to this year’s series actually reflects what it is he loves about the show…
Change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon
This article contains spoilers from Doctor Who Series 12
It’s fair to say that ever since its return in 2005, Doctor Who has drawn its fair share of controversy from its fan base. From “Bling-Daleks” to the “Gay Agenda”, show-runners have been praised with one hand and lambasted with the other.
So on Sunday the 1st March 2020 in a season finale that would blow the minds of fans everywhere, it was revealed that the shows much-loved lead character, the Doctor, was in fact not a native of the planet Gallifrey as established for the past 47 years, but was in fact the genetic base template for her own people (who incidentally had mind-wiped the titular Time Lord time and time again in a plot thread left cruelly dangling). In one fell swoop, this was single-handedly the largest modification of established Doctor Who lore since the very first regeneration in the 1966 epic, The Tenth Planet.
In fact, the finale as broadcast wasn’t the only shocking and divisive revelation in the latest run of the show as helmed by Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch). His debut series saw the introduction of a female actor in the title role, played by the superb and energetic Jodie Whittaker, and more recently in his follow-up series, the shock revelation of a previously unseen incarnation of the Doctor (a very cool, collected and sharp-tongued Jo Martin – the first black actor to inherit the title). Couple these introductions with the show’s transmission shifting to a Sunday night viewing slot and the delivery of more morally-centred stories aimed at education and character drama, and you find yourself with some of the biggest changes to Doctor Who since its revival 15 years ago.
So how can all this cause controversy amongst the fans?
When I decided to submit this as my debut article for WGN, it came as a passion pitch. I wanted to stand up for the bold and innovative direction Chris Chibnall had taken with the revelations in The Timeless Children. We were delivered (part of) the answer to the age-old question of ‘Doctor Who?’ and steered in a direction nobody expected. I was surprised to find a lot of conflict in my fellow fan circles.
Initial points of view from some were ‘Why change the established lore?’. Others weren’t so keen on the introduction of additional, unknown incarnations that occurred before William Hartnell’s first Doctor. Some contested it contradicted established ‘facts’. Some were argued across forums and social media with fiery passion, and others with a more open-minded but guarded approach. What struck me after a lengthy conversation though was one consistent factor in all of these opinions; they came from a place of passion.
Doctor Who, like many fandoms, can be many things. It can be a rock, or a safe place, a fond childhood memory being relived, or a wonderful family activity that brings people together. This, as Whovians, is our passion. It’s escapism on a weekly basis that goes beyond the realms of conventional television, allowing you to experience a horror story one week and a historical the next, and by its very nature, the show evolves.
When lead actor William Hartnell bowed out in 1966, Patrick Troughton took on the role. Children across the world who had been captivated by Hartnell’s impish and crotchety grandfather-like figure were suddenly subjected to a new actor with a different face and mannerisms, in the role they’d idolised and adored. The show, and its lead character, had found a way to regenerate anew.
From that point, the Doctor’s Universe grew. Across the decades, we were introduced to the Time Lords, his home planet of Gallifrey, the Regeneration Limit – and suddenly upon the shows return in 2005 (heralded by Russell T Davies), the Last Great Time War and the (then) demise of the Time Lords.
Not only did the show evolve narratively, but in production and direction. Educational stories gave way for Bug-Eyed Monster Of The Week epics, gothic ‘Hammer Horror inspired’ serials, dramatic companion deaths (we never did find out if he was right…) and gruesome violent action resulting in letters to the BBC’s weekly Points of View.
To look into the recent adaptations to the lore itself, the Timeless Child is no completely original concept. The idea of a secret history has been hinted at long before Chris Chibnall’s tenure; with a homage of unidentified faces potentially belonging to the Doctor being displayed in 1976’s goth-horror The Brain of Morbius, and the manipulative portrayal of the 7th Doctor declaring himself as ‘More than just another Time Lord’ in 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks (all intended as part of the fantastically planned but sadly never carried out Cartmel Masterplan – look it up, it’s foundations are firmly inspiring for the Timeless Child).
The show itself has never been devoid of criticism from its fan base either (famously, footage of Chris Chibnall himself as a Whovian teen can be found on the internet criticising the show’s run during the Peter Davison era of the early 1980s), but it’s always persevered with its direction. Never wavering, never rolling back and admitting defeat, each and every one of the aforementioned great evolutions in the show’s history have paved the way to become the established lore as we know and love today.
Essentially, this isn’t a question about what’s canon and what’s not. It’s not even a question about where this will go with future lore building. It’s simply an acceptance that Doctor Who as a show evolves. Sure, it doesn’t always hit the mark, but it’s lasted for 57 years on constantly innovating narrative decisions that drive and fuel stories for years to come.
So was the decision to evolve the show’s lore and build upon it acceptable? Should Chris Chibnall have asked himself, ‘Do I have the right?’.
The answer, ultimately, is yes. If showrunners weren’t writing exciting, new ideas to keep Doctor Who fresh, Doctor Who would stagnate and die.
Regeneration is key to this exciting and amazing legacy, and after all, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?