Doctor Who season 12 rewrote the franchise’s lore with the Timeless Child retcon – and only time will tell whether it was worth it or not.
Doctor Who’s Timeless Child retcon can be good for the show’s future. Current Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall promised season 12 would redefine the series. He attempted to fulfill his promise in the season finale, “The Timeless Children,” which introduced the biggest retcon since the Time Lords were introduced in 1969’s “The War Games.” It seems the Doctor is no Time Lord at all; rather, she is the Timeless Child, a being from another universe who became the base genetic code for the entire Time Lord race.
The Timeless Child retcon has divided the fanbase since its reveal. The episode itself wasn’t well-written, employing a “tell, not show” approach to storytelling that’s less than effective. And the retcon put classic Doctor Who above the 2005 relaunch, clashing significantly with key stories in the Matt Smith era. Some fans are calling for the Timeless Child to be re-retconned in Doctor Who season 13, perhaps by revealing the Master was lying all along, but that’s unlikely to happen.
But why has Chris Chibnall decided to rewrite decades’ worth of Doctor Who continuity in such a dramatic way? In truth, there’s a good reason; it’s because the Timeless Child could be good for the show’s future. It can not only expand on what’s already been established with the Doctor but work within that continuity.
The Timeless Child Adds Mystery To The Doctor’s Character
Showrunner Chris Chibnall has suggested he is telling a story he first came up with when he was a teenager, watching Doctor Who in the 1980s. That certainly explains why the retcon fits better with the classic series than with the post-2005 relaunch, and as such in order to fully appreciate the retcon, fans need to begin by looking at the so-called “Cartmel Masterplan.” This was the brainchild of script editor Andrew Cartmel, who believed Doctor Who had lost some of its mystique because the Doctor had gradually been transformed into something of a known commodity.
It’s important to understand Cartmel did not intend to provide a new origin story for the Doctor; rather, he was content to simply drop subtle clues and hints. “All I wanted to do is throw the Doctor back into shadow again and just give hints of what was going on,” Cartmel explained in a recent interview with The Legend of the Traveling TARDIS Radio Show. Thus, in “Remembrance of the Daleks”, the Doctor obliquely referenced the founding of Time Lord society as though he’d been there, and in “Silver Nemesis” Lady Peinforte hinted she knew the Doctor’s secret history, including his actions during Gallifrey’s ancient past.
Chibnall’s Timeless Child retcon serves the same purpose. Everything fans thought they knew about the Doctor is a lie, right down to the idea William Hartnell was the first Doctor. The Doctor once again hails from an unknown race, possibly even from a different universe altogether, and she is over a billion years old. Even she doesn’t know who she really is. Chibnall has accomplished some of what Cartmel intended, by successfully throwing the Doctor back into shadow again.
The Timeless Child Doesn’t Change The Doctor
The impact of the Timeless Child retcon has frequently been exaggerated. It’s a huge change to Doctor Who lore, but it actually changes nothing about the Doctor’s character. This point was driven home in “The Timeless Children,” with the Master leaving the Doctor in the Matrix, believing this revelation would cripple her emotionally. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor was instead confronted by Jo Martin’s mystery past Doctor/next Doctor, who insisted she has not been fundamentally changed by this experience. Reassured, Whittaker’s Doctor broke out of the Matrix, symbolically choosing to still be the Doctor.
The Doctor is not who she is because of her backstory on Gallifrey; instead, fundamentally she is who she is because of the choices she makes. The same point was stressed by Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor in the episode “The Doctor Falls,” when he argued with the Master.
“I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone — or because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that. Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live — maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, maybe there’s no point in any of this at all, but it’s the best I can do. So I’m going to do it, and I will stand here doing it until it kills me.”
In the face of the Timeless Child retcon, it would have been easy for the Doctor to give in to bitterness and hatred of the Time Lords, or to despair at her loss of identity. Instead, she recognized that her past does not dictate her present, and that every day she is the product of her choices. She is still the Doctor, unchanged on a fundamental level.
Will The Timeless Child Be Worth It?
The Doctor is now an unknown quantity once again, a mysterious and eccentric alien who travels through time and space. Modern viewers can now experience the same thrill as fans of the classic series, who watched as the truth about the Doctor was gradually revealed. There is once crucial difference between Andrew Cartmel and Chris Chibnall; where Cartmel was content to drop hints, Chibnall intends to provide concrete answers. The Timeless Child retcon is specific about many of its details – one reason Cartmel, ironically, isn’t a fan – and in interviews Chibnall has hinted further answers will indeed be forthcoming.
All this means there’s a sense in which it’s too soon to properly evaluate the Timeless Child retcon – because it has only just begun. At a stroke, Chibnall has rewritten over 50 years of Doctor Who continuity, but fans don’t yet know what he will replace it with. The Time Lords have been played out, but something new is about to emerge in their place. It’s true the initial retcon was clumsily done, but the real test will be what comes next. Only then will Doctor Who fans be able to say whether or not this was actually worth it.
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