The Timeless Child Problem
Updated: Jan 8, 2022
When Doctor Who made its debut broadcast on a cold, autumn evening on 23 November 1963, British audiences were introduced to The Doctor. A mysterious man, dressed in Edwardian clothes, someone from another time and another place, and cut off from his own people. For a while it seemed that The Doctor was possibly a human, but he couldn’t be. Could he? Well interestingly he did identify himself as being a human during the second episode of The Sensorites (1964), where he says ‘‘It's a fallacy, of course, that cats can see in the dark. They can't. But they can see better than we humans..’ and during episode two of The Savages (1966) where he says that the Savages are ‘human begins, like you and me’. Despite the odd hint at The Doctor’s ‘true self’, very little was known about the character both by audiences and characters alike, until nearly six years later during the broadcast of The War Games (1969) where The Doctor’s race was finally identified as Time Lord and not human.
However, before the ten-part epic serial, there were some clues which appeared now and again which helped audiences understand a little bit more about the mysterious character. The Doctor met a member of his own race during The Time Meddler (1965), audiences watched The Doctor change his appearance for the very first time at the end of The Tenth Planet (1966) – the term regeneration was not arrived at until later, The Doctor briefly mentioned his family during The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967), and during the prementioned The War Games, The Doctor informed Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Zoe Heriot (Wendy Padbury) that he had been running from his own people for quite a while. This comment was confirmed in The Name of the Doctor (1963), which shows The Doctor and Susan departing in a Tardis.
And yet the mystery behind The Doctor, and Time Lords themselves, continued right throughout the classic series. Perhaps most famously during The Brian of Morbius (1976). In a famous scene, The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and Morbius (Stuart Fell – body/Michael Space - voice), another Time Lord, engage in a mind battle. The previous faces of The Doctor flash across the screen, starting with Jon Pertwee’s incarnation and ending with William Hartnell’s. However after William Hartnell’s face flashes across the screen, more never-seen-before faces appear as well– 8 in total. Could some of them be incarnations of The Doctor that came before William Hartnell’s incarnation? Possibly, it wasn’t until four serials later, The Deadly Assassin (1976) that a Time Lord was revealed to have only 13 lives. Yet again, some (or all) of the unfamiliar 8 faces could equally be Morbius’ past incarnations. It was never confirmed who wore the 8 faces, that had never appeared before. However with the revived series hitting the screen in 2005, and Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and Matt Smith helming the role, The Doctor lived through a whole regeneration cycle. So it was fair to say that 8 unfamiliar faces belonged to Morbius. Or did they?
The mystery behind The Doctor continued throughout the tenure of The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy). The Seventh Doctor returned to 1963 during Remembrance of the Daleks (1988) to collect the Hand of Omega, a powerful Gallifreyan weapon, which was acquired by The First Doctor sometime before the events of An Unearthly Child (1963). But even then, the Hand of Omega is only one small piece of the puzzle to unlock the mystery surrounding The Doctor. Over the next two years, various villains claim that they know The Doctor all too well; Lady Peinforte (Fiona Walker) threatens to expose The Doctor’s secrets during Silver Nemesis (1988), Morgaine (Jean Marsh) claims that The Doctor is Merlin in her universe, and Fenric (played by various actors) is an old acquaintance of the Time Traveller who was imprisoned inside a flask for all eternity. Sylvester McCoy’s incarnation of The Doctor is remarkably different from other actors who helmed the role during the classic era, since it seemed that the villains The Seventh Doctor faced knew more about him than the fans did.
Moving onto The Eight Doctor (Paul McGann) whose sole appearance occurred in Doctor Who: TV Movie (1996), viewers were treated to a piece of information that is best described as interesting. The Doctor claimed that he is half-human, on his mother’s side. Hmm. Okay. Not entirely sure if that’s right. To be fair The Doctor was likely joking around when he said that, then again The Doctor has always been a bit vague anytime he discusses his family. Keeping in mind, the ending to The End of Time (2009/10) seems to contradict this information since The Woman (Claire Bloom), a Time Lady, was rumoured to be The Doctor’s mother. However, Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins) asks The Doctor who the woman was, but The Doctor fails to answer. So was The Woman, The Doctor’s mother? Possibly. Could The Doctor’s mother be half-human? Absolutely. This is what makes the character of The Doctor so fascinating, there is never an easy answer to the many, many questions fans have about the show’s protagonist.
When the show was revived in 2004 for broadcast in 2005, the show’s head writer/executive producer Russell T Davies brought a new angle to The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Tenth Doctor (David Tennant). It is not long to realise that The Doctor does not like talking about his home planet, evident in The End of the World (2005) and Gridlock (2007). Returning fans, who were familiar with Gallifrey, would scratch their heads in confusion, and wonder, why? New fans would watch eagerly to find out. It soon comes to light that Gallifrey was destroyed during something called the Time War against a race of creatures called The Daleks. It is important to keep in mind, that Russell T Davies’ decision to ‘destroy’ Gallifrey from the show adds to the character of The Doctor. Despite running away from the Time Lords at the very beginning, you can tell that The Doctor is really beat up about losing his home planet, and being the last of his kind left in the universe. However as it turns out there are two more secrets from The Doctor’s past that will soon come to the surface, a few years later.
First it turns out there was an incarnation of The Doctor running about the universe between The Eighth and Ninth Doctor, which The Doctor doesn’t talk about. Fans were introduced to The War Doctor (John Hurt) at the end of The Name of the Doctor. Second, it turns out that The War Doctor was the incarnation who fought in the Time War. It is also revealed that he was the one who destroyed Gallifrey, before it turns out that he actually didn’t, and Gallifrey is still alive, in another dimension, out of sight, and away from danger.
Now, whilst the introduction of The War Doctor could have ruined the continuity and mystery behind the character, it simply doesn’t. Firstly, The War Doctor timeline occurs after the very beginning of the character, and secondly The War Doctor answers question, which fans have built up over 8 years without spoiling the mystery behind The Doctor. Thirdly, since a Time Lord can regenerate 12 times, and has 13 lives - the introduction of The War Doctor means that the timeline of The Doctor looks like this; 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,War,9,10,10(again) – see Journey’s End (2008) and 11. A total of 13 lives, which complete the full regeneration cycle of The Doctor. But of course the BBC would never allow The Doctor to die. So, The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) was given a new cycle of regenerations at the end of The Time of the Doctor (2013).
With Peter Capaldi playing the Twelfth Doctor between 2014-17, fans were given very little new information about The Doctor’s past. Any more mysteries would remain lost in the midst of time, and The Doctor would continue to remain relatively secretive as well. Then, 2020 had to come along.
Little did Doctor Who fans realise, that the mystery behind the beloved character was about to be spoilt forever, on two ordinary Saturday evenings. On 26 January 2020, Doctor Who fans sat around the television set to watch the latest episode, Fugitive of the Judoon (2020) where a seemingly ordinary human, Ruth Clayton (Jo Martin) turns out to be forgotten incarnation (not one that The Doctor refuses to talk about) or (an incarnation of The Doctor from a parallel universe or other dimension), a legitimate incarnation that he has forgotten about. Wait, what? Yes. It turns out that The Doctor has forgotten about a past incarnation sometime before The First Doctor (William Hartnell). Or rather several incarnations!
Throughout the 2020 series, various characters made a reference to someone called The Timeless Child. Who is the Timeless Child? Why is he/she so important? Will The Doctor find out? Does The Doctor know The Timeless Child? Well, she does, she IS The Timeless Child. That’s right, The Doctor, is the mysterious Timeless Child, who came from another dimension, with the ability to regenerate, who then, unwillingly gave the Time Lords the ability to regenerate, although the Time Lords were originally called Shobogans, so the mystery behind the Time Lord has also been ruined, and The Doctor or The Timeless Child was apparently studied for years and years as he/she regenerated into the next life, in a strange montage which made it look like that every Timeless Child remained in the same place, which means that The Woman from The End of Time, can’t be The Doctor’s mother, if she is infact his mother, yeah the whole thing is ludicrous. And what’s more The Timeless Children (2020) also contradicts information established through the classic and revived series.
It was firmly established during The End of Time that if a Time Lord dies or is killed before they can regenerate then they die because their body is already dead. At the end of The Caves of Androzani (1984), it is implied that The Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) may not make it because Spectrox Poisoning which he contracts during the serial may just be his downfall. However, The Seventh Doctor, does die during Doctor Who: The TV Movie before coming back to life and regeneration into the Eight Doctor, in a Frankensteineseque-like fashion. But it is important to note that the TV Movie was produced by an American Production Company, who attempted to introduce and remould the show for an American audience. So it’s safe to say that the Seventh-Eighth Doctor regeneration is an exclusion to the rule. However during the flashback scenes during The Timeless Children, it is firmly established the First Incarnation of the Timeless Child, falls from a cliff edge, dies from her injuries, remember DIES from her injuries, only to regenerate into the Second Timeless Child. I’m sorry when a Time Lord or Timeless Child, DIES, they DIE.
The Timeless Children also destroys the Time Lord legacy and society which was built up and developed over the classic series era. Fans were given a whole heap of information during The Deadly Assassin when we learn more about Time Lord hierarchy and society, the Matrix, the eye of Harmony, everything necessary to appreciate a little bit more about the people whom The Doctor continually runs away from; The Invasion of Time (1978), not as memorable as The Deadly Assassin, again builds on Time Lord society, but doesn’t necessarily provide any new information; Arc of Infinity (1983), provides an sight into Time Lord ‘law and order’ and The Five Doctors (1983) centres around The Death Zone, an area on Gallifrey from the darkest moments of Time Lord history. The classic series is full of memorable episodes which build on Time Lord history, but never was their origin – the very beginning of their society spoilt to the point where the mystery behind Doctor Who was depleted.
But with The Timeless Children, it turns out that The Doctor is the reason Time Lords can regenerate. It turns out when The Doctor was The Timeless Child, a tiny piece of his or her’s DNA was inserted into every Time Lord or Shobogan. So that means that every Time Lord who has appeared in the series has had a tiny piece of The Doctor floating inside of them. Yes, every Time Lord: good and bad, ally and villain, beloved and hated. Why? Why include this into the Doctor Who canon. So the next time you watch Survival (1989) just remember as The Doctor and The Master fight as the planet of Cheetah people explode around them, that The Doctor is harming himself, metaphorically at least: think about it.
But of course, the production team behind The Timeless Children believe they can solve the Timeless Child problem by having The Master reveal that the memories of the Timeless Children were continually modified which explains why The Doctor, we have come to love cannot remember his past lives. However this raises more questions, who did The Thirteenth Timeless Child, obtain a new regeneration cycle to regenerated into The First Doctor? Who provided him or her with a new set of regenerations? If the Time Lords decided that 13 lives would be more than enough, why did they make special arrangements for The Timeless Child? They wouldn’t need The Timeless Child’s DNA anymore since a tiny piece of him or her was given to every Time Lord or Shobogan, who surely passed it genetically onto their offspring. Surely somebody would know the truth about the Timeless Child, so why didn’t someone pass on this useful information to The First Doctor? The series has had a whole regeneration cycle worth of Time Lords who do not seem to care much for the rules. And how did The Master find out? Oh, yeah, he was casually hacking the Matrix at some point and came across the information. Very convenient.
The biggest question behind The Timeless Children is, why? Why take the show in this direction? Why give The Doctor a confusing and unrealistic backstory which heavily contradicts everything built up over the classic series? Why even reveal what The Doctor was like before An Unearthly Child (okay their have audio drama set before the first televised serial) but they haven’t spoilt or answered the mysteries and questions which fans have grown to accept will never be answered. Until now.
Every new executive producer/head writer should always bring something new to the show, and Chris Chibnall has, in the worst way possible. And to add insult to injury, the 2020 series, is without a doubt the worst line of episodes ever. The series in 2020 was not clever, not original, not exciting, not intelligent, and not worth the time to care about. It does provide fans both old and new with a whole pile of information, but not in a good way. In simple terms The Timeless Child story arc does not need to exist. The answers to The Doctor’s unseen past did not need to be answered. The entire season was worse than the unpopular Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) era, which makes episodes like The Twin Dilemma (1984) look like Van Gogh’s, The Stary Night.
Perhaps Chris Chibnall was trying to be clever who believed he could fit The Timeless Child timelines into the timeline of The Doctor. However there is only one episode which can account for The Timeless Child, and again that provides us with even more bigger problems. There is also no guarantee that Chibnall has this episode in mind when planning the 2020 series.
If we flashback to Logopolis (1981) a strange figure called The Watcher (Adrian Gibbs) saves The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) from dying, allowing him to regenerate into The Fifth Doctor. There have been some theories which have arisen, after the broadcast of The Timeless Children, that The Fourth Doctor, was actually the final incarnation of a regeneration cycle. If that is the case, then the 8 Timeless Children, that we know of must have been the first eight lives of the regeneration cycle. Right? Wrong. Below are multiple attempts to fit the Timeless Child into the timeline of The Doctor. It becomes evident that every possibility is problematic, and no I’m not including spin-off Doctors because they do not count.