We’ve finally made it. It’s been a long and bumpy road on the explosive and uneven season of Doctor Who, but it’s time. The truth will come out and Chris Chibnall will need to pull all the random plot points together and make some sense of the new Master, Ruth!Doctor, and the Lone Cyberman.
“Are you suffering comfortably?” the Master asks at one point during the extra-long episode and I wanted to scream back, “Yes, yes, I am, thanks for asking.” I’m not here to give a long drawn out recap of plot points, so consider this the Cliff Notes version and let me get to what all of this does—or frankly—doesn’t mean:
Whilst trapped in the Matrix, the Doctor finds out she was the Timeless Child and her DNA (and ability to regenerate) was given to a select few members of Gallifreyans, who then called themselves time lords. The reason the Master has been having a literal hissy fit all season long is—you guessed it—he’s who he is because of her. (And all that ‘Brendan the police officer’ foolishness was some sort of perception filter time lords used when they needed the Doctor to go fix something but didn’t want them to be detected. This was all done by some mysterious group of time lords called The Division.)
The Master’s big plan? Use the Cyberium and transform all the dead time lords into Cyber time lords with the potential to regenerate and wreak havoc across the stars. And despite all the suspense and truly sweet heart-to-heart between Graham and Yaz, all the fam make it out alive, thanks to Graham’s wacky plan to wear a Cyberman suit (what is this, The Wizard of Oz?) and Ryan’s being a crack shot with explosives and guns with the team at the Boundary’s edge.
The Doctor has a chat with Ruth!Doctor while stuck in the Matrix and uses all the memories she has (including Morbius Doctors) to break free. It doesn’t matter what she can’t remember—she is who she is. She then decides to use the Death Particle that lives in the (now shrunken) Lone Cyberman.
She gets really close until Deus Ex Machina, I mean, Ko Sharmus shows up and says he’ll do it since he’s didn’t send the Cyberium far enough back in time. She runs off, stealing another time machine while the Master and Cyber time lords hopefully melt into nothingness. With all her fam and remaining Cyber War survivors back in the 21st century, it’s just her talking to herself and the TARDIS…until the Judoon show up and capture her.
Doctor Who canon is a very loose concept, spread out over a 50-plus-year television show, plus Big Finish audios and multiple novel ranges, where it feels like most of this plotline is borrowed from. Everyone wants to have a go at time lord mythology and who the Doctor might be. That’s fine.
What’s not fine is making a big ruckus about how this is going to change everything forever and then moments after messing with the one (supposed) set piece of canon ( i.e. William Hartnell was the first Doctor) explaining that snap, it doesn’t matter because the Doctor will always be the Doctor. It’s like Chibnall and J.J. Abrams went to the pub for a pint and sneakily traded plot points for their major projects. The Doctor having other lives she doesn’t remember feels exactly like Rey finding out she’s a Palpatine but deciding she’s a Skywalker.
Yes, choosing your own destiny is a worthy concept and it’s not like the Doctor hasn’t had these moments before (see the Twelfth Doctor refusing to accept Missy’s Cyber Army). It’s just…we have no emotional connection to Thirteen and her companions despite Chibnall painting a flourish here and there this season.
The reason new Who has always resonated with audiences is because we’ve given a damn about the characters. Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat knew how to make us care about companions. From the very get-go, we saw Nine sacrifice himself so Rose Tyler could live. We watched Martha Jones walk away because Ten would never appreciate her. We saw Donna Noble knock some sense into Ten only to never ever remember the impact she had on him or her growth as a character. We see Amy Pond and Rory Williams grow up, get married, struggle with marriage and not being able to have kids—only to find out their child has been at their side the whole time. Clara Oswald and Bill Potts pay the price for being at the Doctor’s side, either by being too reckless or too trusting. All of these interactions and relationships had deep emotional impacts on the fandom, for better or worse.
We got closer this season when we saw some of Yaz’s backstory. We know Ryan has dyspraxia and Graham is scared of his cancer coming back. But what do we know about them? And what do they really know about the Doctor? Why does any of this matter? The short answer is without true emotions and character development, it doesn’t. Thirteen has shut out these companions in ways her predecessors haven’t and maybe that’s in line with her not wanting them to get hurt.
So when we get right down to it, does it matter that the Doctor is the Timeless Child? Not really, although it does dissolve a lot of plot holes and sort of clean-slate the show for whatever might come next (most important, future regenerations of Doctors and showrunners yet to be).
Then you’ve got that whole side plot where the Master yells so much about his feelings instead of just showing them I was ready for Thirteen to just deck him so he’d shut up. I still don’t accept he’s a post-Missy Master because look at all that gorgeous character development thrown in the garbage. Michelle Gomez deserves better. Remember when the Doctor and Masters faced off with conflicted emotions and not too many words? And yet, no reference that time is repeating itself.
Russell T. Davies built a firm groundwork, which Steven Moffat deepened while carefully plotting his own tweaks or nods to canon. I really can’t say what Chibnall has done other than give too much but not enough. I mean, this is his dream job, right? He famously once took on Pip and Jane Baker for ruining the show and yet he is now, ironically, doing the thing he once hated.
“It could have been a lot better,” Chibnall once said. “It could have been slightly better written, especially the last story.”
You took the words right out of my mouth, man.
Regardless, there’s one thing all the muck and bad writing can’t take away, and that’s Jodie Whittaker’s ever hopeful, shining Doctor. She exudes all the values the Twelfth Doctor reminded himself of prior to regenerating, the biggest of which is kindness.
But the desperate truth is I want more of her Doctor because after two seasons, I still haven’t gotten a hold on who she is. The bits in the Matrix where she was talking to herself were great and when she broke the Matrix with her mind, that was the most metal use of the Doctor Who theme EVER. The moments in the end where she talked to the TARDIS were beautiful too. I almost want Thirteen not to have companions anymore and just be on her own for a bit. After all that’s happened, wouldn’t anybody need a little space to process?
The Twelfth Doctor once told Clara, “Time can be rewritten with precision, with great care…but not today.”
I’m not sure if we’ll ever see a day when Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is written with that same sort of love. The Doctor will return later this year in “Revolution of the Daleks,” but I’m not sure I will. Is there anything worth coming back to?