The thing about being a fan since the eighties and reading lots of fic, professional and not, and lots of theories, ridiculous and not, is that the revelations of “The Timeless Children” are not remotely shocking. What is shocking is how badly they are told. Telling me that there are pre-Hartnell Doctors and that our hero had a long life she cannot remember has been done before. In novels, Lance Parkin hinted at it, Marc Platt insisted upon it. In interviews, Andrew Cartmel winked at it. Onscreen, Lady Peinforte dropped tantalizing clues. Weirdly, the Cybermen were in that story as well.
The first problem is that Chris Chibnall decided to embrace this fan origin silliness within the confines of another chunk of action-adventure tedium, all cliché and no heart. Does the Doctor say something like “I started this and I’ll finish this… alone” before going out on a suicide mission that a random supporting character will complete for her, sacrificing himself so the hero can have more adventures? Of course she does. This would have been approximately a million times better if the Doctor had said “The Master’s expecting one of those ‘one last confrontation’ showdowns that we keep having, and I’m not giving it to him,” and thrown the ultimate hand grenade out the TARDIS door, impact button first, to thump against the far wall and detonate. Maybe the audience might have protested that they were robbed of a big climax, but it’s the same big climax that they have already seen in everything else that looks or sounds like this. Besides, the Master assuredly had the same transmat / teleport / trap door that every other writer has already used. We’ll have another “one last confrontation” showdown same time next year.
But even a million times better, this would still be a disappointing mess of infodumping and mansplaining. All the business with the Cybermen is utterly unimportant because the core of this story is a man telling a woman, at incredible length, who she is. This is triply unfortunate because the most entertaining thing in the episode is the Master’s conversation with the Lone Cyberman, and Sacha Dhawan is great. “Oh, you mean robots. You’ll be robots.” I enjoyed that a lot. The kid liked the whole hour, of course. Oh, and it has the best flashback scene that the program’s ever done, accompanied, wonderfully, by the theme tune.
“The Timeless Children” wants very, very badly to be “The Deadly Assassin”. It evokes that earlier story in the dialogue, just to make sure viewers recognize the recreation of its set. “Assassin” has a lot that annoys and disappoints me as well, mainly in part four, but all of its wild revelations and retcons are not its problem. Instead, there’s a totally effortless feel to “Assassin,” as all that we learn about Time Lord society and regenerations and Borusa and politics come naturally. Extremely little is fed to viewers there. Its writer, Robert Holmes, was among the very best writers to ever work on Who, and let viewers and characters learn things together in a natural and interesting way. This is just clumsy, and very, very boring exposition. I respect that Chibnall is in charge and can make whatever decisions he wants about the hero’s past, present, and future. I just wish that he had chosen a better and more entertaining way to let us see them unfold.