There are a few approaches Russell T. Davies can take to repairing Doctor Who’s Timeless Child convolution, but his options are rather dependent on what Chris Chibnall does with his remaining time at the show’s helm. With only six episodes to the upcoming season 13 as well as three feature-length specials due out in 2022 culminating in the exit of Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor, there isn’t a lot of time left to right the ship which means the task may ultimately lay at the feet of Davies who has been announced as returning to Doctor Who as the showrunner following Chibnall’s Doctor Who departure. It’s not like Doctor Who hasn’t straight up abandoned ill-conceived established precedent before – the Doctor being half-human among the most glaring examples – but Davies has never been one to shy away from a challenge. He may already have solutions ready to deploy.
The Timeless Child has been a mystery woven throughout The Thirteenth Doctor’s tenure but only hinted at until the season 12 finale turned Doctor Who canon upside down. When the Doctor’s arch-nemesis and former fellow Gallifreyan, the Master, revealed to the Doctor she was the alien Timeless Child upon which the very capabilities of regeneration Time Lord society depends upon was built, her mind – and that of the Whoniverse fandom – was blown. While considered the thirteenth incarnation of the famed wanderer through time and space, albeit with a War Doctor twist dropped between Eight and Nine, the Doctor learned she had lived countless lives prior to what she and established series history considered to be the First – or “original,” one might say – Doctor. The problem is, she can’t remember any of what came before.
While it was certainly impactful and somewhat delightful to learn the surprise Doctor played by Jo Martin was somehow a legitimate incarnation not yet properly introduced, the idea that she was but one of many who came long before William Hartnell first strolled onto the scene in Doctor Who’s 1963 debut was unexpected, to say the least. Add to that the idea that the Doctor isn’t actually from Gallifrey but instead has unknown origins and the capability of seemingly perpetual regeneration, and there’s a lot to unpack, not all of it as good as it might have been in Chibnall’s head before putting pen to paper. Fortunately, RTD has only improved his skills since departing Doctor Who in 2009 and if interested could easily make The Timeless Child downright fantastic.
It’s certainly understandable why Chibnall went for the Timeless Child arc. Not only was he trying to shift the narrative from the previous two showrunners – RTD focused the series on the companion’s evolution and Steven Moffat centered the dramatic arc around the mystery of the companions themselves – but he created a concept that allowed the Doctor to become a mystery once again. It’s arguable that after 37 seasons and multitudes of specials over nearly 60 years there wasn’t a lot left to discover about the Doctor and the concept of the Timeless Child throws a wrench in that fact by creating an enigma around the Doctor’s very existence. Admittedly, this is a cool concept, at least on paper.
The problem, however, is that when strings get pulled there’s a lot that flies in the face of emotionally heart-wrenching stories fans became greatly invested in. For instance, if The Doctor is the source of regeneration and can do so an infinite amount of times, why did Eleven need a new regeneration cycle in order to defeat the Daleks and regenerate for the thirteenth time? Seems rather a waste for the Time Lords to give up their chance at escape from the pocket dimension in order to give the Doctor more regenerations that weren’t actually necessary. Also, there’s the fact that The Timeless Child’s existence suggests the Doctor’s origin species was capable of regeneration, too. Yet, River Song’s powers of regeneration didn’t come from a splice of The Doctor’s genetic code but instead from a conception in the TARDIS while traveling in the Time Vortex. Therefore, The Timeless Child’s people must also be children of time, though they somehow sat out the Time War upon which the entire current series’ mythos has been built upon. It’s one thing to retcon one-off conceits but Chibnall’s narrative makes a direct assault on the underlying foundation of the current series, basically everything that happened during Matt Smith’s tenure in the TARDIS, and, quite frankly, raises a lot of questions about what species Susan might be.
There are only six episodes in series 13 and three feature-length specials in 2022 to wrap up The Timeless Child arc and The Thirteenth Doctor’s journey. That isn’t a lot of real estate to work with, especially when also considering Yaz will need to be written out prior to Jodie Whittaker’s bow, else she’ll become the first companion ever to travel with the Doctor over the course of an entire incarnation and into the next. Even Jamie came up one episode short of Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor era and Rose doesn’t count because Nine was around for a minute, albeit offscreen, before meeting her in the current series’ first episode.
However, given the fact all six episodes of season thirteen are connected to one story, it could very well be that Chibnall realizes there’s a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time and Whittaker’s final season will be all about the Timeless Child. The classic series’ sixteenth and twenty-third seasons were similarly interconnected but with a lot less focus on the central narrative that Chibnall will need to deploy if he’s to wrap the Timeless Child arc up in a fulfilling fashion. Anything less than tying every bit of the Timeless Child mystery into a neat, tidy bow will leave a lot for RTD to address when he takes back over the reigns of Doctor Who.
It’s hard to believe Davies would completely undo what’s been set up when he’s proven so adept at finding new ways of crafting stories within previously established narratives. This is the same showrunner who brought back Sarah Jane Smith and Davros from the original series while creating a mystery in the Time War that presented questions about The Doctor’s exact role in what had happened to Gallifrey without entirely abandoning previously established history. In short, he did exactly what Chibnall has tried to do with mixed results so he may very well relish the challenge of exploring how to best apply the mystery of the Timeless Child to the universe he so painstakingly resurrected in 2005.
He’s also done his fair share of Doctor Who retcons, including bringing Rassilon back from the dead so he could preside over the Time War itself. The difference is once again that his retcon fit completely with the story he was telling: Rassilon was basically the tyrannical GOAT of Time Lord royalty, and it made complete sense that he would be the leader Gallifrey resurrected when abandoning its principles of non-interference in order to wage full-blown interstellar war across time itself. It would be well within Davies’ wheelhouse to take the ingredients of the Timeless Child established by Chibnall and create something of his own.
RTD’s skillful hands shepherding the Timeless Child journey could be a fantastic feat of character exploration. The idea that The Doctor isn’t just a simpleton child of Gallifrey but instead the cornerstone of Time Lord society is a rather compelling hook. However, where Chibnall’s rollout was less than stellar, Davies could dig in deep and create a compelling journey for a wandering traveler with a new purpose: find out who they are and where they’re from. What companions might want to help the Doctor find those answers and what might the Doctor’s origin universe look like? Theoretically, the Doctor comes from a realm where Daleks and Cybermen and Weeping Angels don’t even exist. That could be a pretty enticing draw for the wearied hero.
The Doctor’s family suddenly takes on new meaning. If the Doctor was sent through the Boundary to be saved, one has to wonder what situation was so bad that a child had to be abandoned. Perhaps the homeworld the Doctor finds will have seen even more devastating destruction than the Time War once caused. Maybe there will be a civilization still picking up the pieces, an aspect of the Time War that never got to be explored. Given Davies is an expert at writing emotional, character-driven pieces, there’s a lot that could work in the Timeless Child story under his guidance. Answers regarding the secret agency The Fugitive Doctor used to work for that must be answered. Clearly, the Doctor learned something that resulted in having all previous memories erased. Could it have been the discovery of the origin world that led to that erasure? In which case, perhaps all of the answers are waiting within the Doctor already.
There are a lot of questions posed by Doctor Who‘s revelation of the Timeless Child. It’s hard to believe Chibnall will be able to wrap everything up neatly, which could actually be a good thing. RTD’s taking over just in time for a new Doctor with a first season that ramps directly into the 60th Anniversary of the series. If the Fourteenth Doctor’s initial journey is all about discovering who they are and where they come from, those answers could culminate in some explosive yet satisfying revelations in a multi-doctor diamond celebration that charts a new course for the series itself. If anyone can weave the threads of such challenging expectations it’s certainly the man who transformed Doctor Who from a dead franchise into mainstream programming known the world over.
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