On the eve of the premiere of Doctor Who: Flux, “The Halloween Apocalypse” (best. title. EVER.), I figured it was apropos to reflect on the Timeless Child. Tomorrow, the first episode of Jodie Whittaker’s final full series as the Doctor will air. Shortened due to Covid affecting filming, Doctor Who: Flux will be one single six episode serial story. It, along with three feature length specials with Jodie airing next year, will also mark the end of Chris Chibnall’s time as showrunner for Doctor Who. The Timeless Child is the largest narrative plot point developed during his time at the helm. It’s one of the most hotly debated, too. I wanted to write about it as soon as the episode aired…but I had SO MANY feelings and I had NO IDEA how to sort any of them. They needed to percolate. I needed time to think. But now, with Doctor Who: Flux about to begin, I want to discuss the Timeless Child. And, oddly enough, it was the model set in Spider-Man comics which helped me get to the point where I could see how the Timeless Child fits within the world of Doctor Who.
In an interview with Radio Times, Chris Chibnall explained the Timeless Child was outlined before Jodie Whittaker was even cast as the Doctor, “It was always the plan to do it in the second year. I knew from the start. And it was part of what I talked to [BBC exes] Charlotte [Moore] and Piers [Wenger] about, just opening up the mythology to more stories. The purpose was to bring narrative opportunity and to be able to go to places that were shut off before now. That’s the big thing, really. When people were having opinions about the first female Doctor, I thought ‘well this is going to be interesting, because we haven’t even started yet!’” He began laying the groundwork for the Timeless Child in his second episode. The Doctor, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham find themselves stranded on a distant planet called Desolation. When the Doctor encounters creepy swirling strips of sentient cloth called the Remnants, they tell her:
The Remnants – “You lead but you’re scared, too. For yourself and for others.”
The Doctor – “Yeah, well, who isn’t?”
The Remnants – “Afraid of your own newness. We see deeper though, further back – the Timeless Child.”
The Doctor – “What did you just say?”
The Remnants – “She doesn’t know.”
The Doctor – “What are you talkin’ about? What can you see?”
The Remnants – “We see what’s hidden – even from yourself. The outcast, abandoned and unknown.”
The Doctor – “Get out of my head.”
In Series Twelve, after the Master shockingly reveals himself, he tells the Doctor, “One last thing – something you should know in the second before you die. Everything that you think you know is a lie. Gotcha! Finally!” Of course, the Doctor doesn’t die and after she defeats the Master, the Kasaavin, and Daniel Barton, she returns to Gallifrey alone. She finds it destroyed as the Master told her and, in a recorded message, the Master says, “If you’re seeing this, you’ve been to Gallifrey. When I said someone did that obviously I meant…I did. I had to make them pay for what I discovered. They lied to us. Founding Fathers of Gallifrey, everything we were told was a lie. We’re not who we think, you or I. Whole existence of our species, built on the lie of the Timeless Child.” The Doctor has an intense vision where she sees the Remnants again and then she sees a young girl abandoned by an ornate structure. The Master continues, “Do you see it? It’s, it’s buried deep in all our memories. In our identity. I’d tell you more but…but why would I make it easy for you? It wasn’t for me.”
Later, sorting a Judoon lockdown in Gloucester, the Doctor, Ryan, Graham, and Yaz encounter a tour guide named Ruth Clayton. The Doctor learns “Ruth” is really her – the Doctor – an incarnation of herself she has no memories of. As Ruth doesn’t recognize her or her sonic screwdriver and is from a time before Gallifrey is destroyed and doesn’t know Gallifrey has ever been destroyed, it means this Fugitive Doctor (so named as the Judoon, outer space rhino police for hire, are hunting her) is a younger incarnation of herself she doesn’t remember. Then, when she and the fam are held prisoner by the old gods Zellin and Rakaya, the Doctor has a nightmare. In the nightmare she sees the same young girl by the same ornate structure and hears the Master’s voice saying, “It’s buried deep in all our memories. In our identity, built on the lie of the Timeless Child.”
So who or what is the Timeless Child? The truth comes out in the finale of Series Twelve. Back on Gallifrey together, the Master reveals all the Founding Fathers of Gallifrey have hidden to the Doctor.
The Doctor – “Do you really think I’m gonna believe anything that comes outta your mouth?”
The Master – “Do you remember this place, Doctor? Next to the Panopticon, the Chamber of the Matrix – the repository of all Time Lord knowledge. A databank of every Time Lord consciousness, living and dead. Every experience and every memory. The lived history of our race. I, I destroyed a lot of things but not this trove of secrets. This is what started it all. I, I was just playing, hacking the system, I…I got lost in there. And then I found everything. Aaaahh! Truth and reconciliation time, Doctor. Well, maybe not reconciliation, but time you saw the truth for yourself.”
The Doctor – “What truth?”
Trapping the Doctor in a paralysis field, the Master tells her, “I’m sending you deep into the Matrix to understand the truth of Gallifrey and of the Time Lords. Brace yourself. This is going to hurt.” Inside the Matrix, the Master narrates alongside the Doctor as she sees the true history of Gallifrey unfold:
Welcome Doctor. Are you suffering comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Once upon a time. No. Once upon several times, before the Time Lords, before everything we know, there was an explorer. Her name was Tecteun, from a little regarded, sparsely populated planet called Gallifrey. Tecteun was the first of Gallifrey’s indigenous race, the Shobogans, to develop space travel. Dangerous, unsophisticated space travel. She took risks to explore the worlds and galaxies beyond her home. And it was on one of these distant, deserted worlds on the far edge of another galaxy she found something…impossible. A gateway, a boundary into another unknown dimension or universe.
Tecteun glimpsed the infinite through that gateway. And beneath the monument she found a child. Abandoned. Alone. Thrown through, seemingly from the other unknown realm. Tecteun had a choice to make. Abandon or save the child? She chose to rescue the foundling and adopt this refugee from another realm as her own. Together they explored the universe. The child grew older. And finally Tecteun returned to Gallifrey with her new child. Like any parent, Tecteun wanted to understand her child. She searched for clues to the child’s identity – where she might be from, what species she might be. But the child would not yield any secrets Tecteun could understand. The child remained a mystery…until…playing with a friend, like any other child, there was an accident. A catastrophe. For Tecteun, for the child she saved, now lost to her…or so she thought. The child regenerated. The first regeneration of any person on the planet of Gallifrey.
Now, having seen her adopted child regenerate her body, Tecteun, a scientist and explorer, had a new landscape to explore. She dedicated her life to studying her child. Detailed every fragment of genetic material. Took her years, several of the child’s regenerations [six bodies, five regenerations]. Tecteun grew older. Her desire to understand became an obsession. She worked tirelessly, endlessly, furiously. She had to crack this code, to understand regeneration. And finally…she did. And to prove herself right, she took the ultimate risk. Tested the theory on herself. Put her own life on the line. Spliced into herself the genetic ability to regenerate.
I didn’t know any of this. Did you know any of this? Nearly there.
The planet of Gallifrey evolved. Shobogans grew in knowledge and ability. They built themselves a citadel. They discovered the ability to travel through time as well as space. With Tecteun they became a self-appointed ruling elite. And Tecteun proposed that the gene-splice the ability to regenerate into future generations of Citadel dwellers. It would become the genetic inheritance of them and their descendants. But he would restrict the regenerative process to a maximum of twelve times. The Timeless Child became the base genetic code for all Gallifreyans within the Citadel. The civilization would rename themselves with, characteristic pomposity, Time Lords. The foundling had become the founder. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Doctor – “What happened to the child?”
The Master – [laughs]
The Doctor – “What? What’s so funny?”
The Master – [still laughing]
The Doctor – “What happened to the child?”
The Master – “Oh Doctor, really? Haven’t you worked this out yet? The child is you. You are the Timeless Child.”
The Doctor isn’t in her thirteenth regeneration. She’s lived countless lives before. She goes back to the very beginning of Gallifrey, predating the Time Lords. Their ability to regenerate, upon which their society was built, came from her. In a vulnerable moment, the Doctor opens up to Ryan. When he presses her about what’s wrong and refuses to let her dismiss him, she says, “I’m not who I thought I was, Ryan. What I always knew to be the story of my life isn’t true. I wasn’t born on Gallifrey. Where I’m from, all the lives I’ve lived, some of that has been hidden from me and I don’t even know how much.” This is true for us as viewers, too. William Hartnell’s Doctor is far from the First Doctor we always presumed him to be.
And I…I had feelings.
But it was hard to sort them! That’s why it’s taken me so long to write about this! On the one hand, this felt very disorienting. Like the Doctor was experiencing in-universe, everything I thought I knew about the world of Doctor Who had just been turned on its head. It was jarring. I didn’t hate it but I was certainly uncomfortable with it.
On the other hand, the idea that there were Doctors before the First Doctor wasn’t something created by Chris Chibnall. While the modern series doesn’t (or didn’t) reference it, Classic Doctor Who gave us the Morbius Doctors which show there were at least eight incarnations of the Doctor which existed before the First Doctor we all know. While I’ve not gotten to the episode myself in my watch of Classic Doctor Who, I know it has the Fourth Doctor engage in a psychic duel with Morbius. As the screen begins to cycle back through the Doctor’s past faces Morbius asks, “How far Doctor? How long have you lived? Back, back to your beginning…” The machine shows eight faces that came before the First Doctor before it explodes. Philip Hinchcliffe, the episode producer, has said, “I just reasoned that it was entirely possible that William Hartnell may not have been the first Doctor Who. So yes, as far as Bob [Holmes, the episode’s writer] and I were concerned, the other faces were meant to be past Doctors…it is true to say that I attempted to imply that William Hartnell was not the first Doctor.”
The idea that a Time Lord is limited to twelve regenerations – particularly the Doctor – is something the modern series played fast and loose with even before the Eleventh Doctor was granted more regenerations by the Time Lords in “The Time of the Doctor.” We have the Meta-Crisis Doctor, born when the Tenth Doctor, unwilling to give up his face/personality yet, siphoned off the extra regeneration energy coursing through him after being fatally shot by a Dalek into his spare hand (which, in turn, grew into a meta-crisis version of himself when it was touched by Donna). So, even though his face stayed the same, Russell T Davies had the Doctor use a regeneration. When Christopher Eccleston declined to return for Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary, instead of using Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor, Steven Moffat cast John Hurt to play the version of the Doctor who fought in the Time War, a version the Doctor “doesn’t like to acknowledge” who exists between the Eighth and Ninth Doctors. Whether or not the Doctor likes to acknowledge that life or not, it was a regeneration. So, with the Meta-Crisis Doctor, the Eleventh Doctor was really the thirteenth incarnation of the Doctor. And taking Classic Doctor Who into account with “The Brain of Morbius,” he was at least the twenty-first incarnation of the Doctor. Then the 50th anniversary special ends with yet another new regeneration of the Doctor in the form of a Tom Baker cameo as the Curator of the Undergallery. The Eleventh Doctor looks at him and tells him, “I never forget a face.” The Curator replies, “I know you don’t. And in the years to come, you might find yourself revisiting a few but just…the old favorites, eh?”
Now, I grant “The Brain of Morbius” is often ignored in Doctor Who – both largely through the rest of the classic series and certainly through the entirety of the modern series until Chibnall had those Doctors’ faces flash through the Matrix as the Doctor overloaded it with her mind/memories in “The Timeless Children.” But even if we ignore it, it’s there all the same. And here’s where the medium of comic books dovetails so well with Doctor Who!
Using Spider-Man as our frame, Peter Parker was bitten by that radioactive spider in Amazing Fantasy #15, released in 1962. Depending on where we look in the Spider-Man comic mythos, he was either fifteen or sixteen when that happened. This means Peter Parker was originally born in 1946 or 1947. Take a moment to let that sink in! Now, reading Spider-Man comics in 2021, Peter seems to be either in his late twenties or early thirties. I was born in 1982 but now I’m older than Spider-Man, despite him being married shortly after I started reading comics. This is one of the things I love about comics! They are so unique among story mediums! We have the same characters appearing in stories – many once a month, some several a month – for decades without aging much in real time. So all the writers, artists, and editors who steer these stories must be mindful of honoring what came before while making their modern grounding feel authentic. I am fascinated by this!
I would argue Doctor Who is the closest live action story we have which operates as the comic medium does. Doctor Who has been on since 2005 and Classic Doctor Who ran from 1963-1989. That’s a lot of material! The James Bond movies kind of do this but there are nowhere near as many Bond stories and Casino Royale reset the canon in many ways whereas Doctor Who has been following the same character in their adventures across space and time for almost sixty years. So the writers, producers, and showrunners for Doctor Who have to balance their stories in a very similar way to how comic creators do. They must be mindful of honoring what came before while making the show feel authentically grounded in our modern world.
The idea of the Timeless Child, while I grant not executed perfectly, is a bold attempt to do this. In addition to “opening up the mythology to more stories,” as Chibnall said, it does so in a way which tries to bring a bit more harmony between Doctor Who and Classic Doctor Who.
Since I began my journey through the 695 episodes of Classic Doctor Who, one of the things I’ve been most impressed by is how the modern series works. You don’t need to know anything about Classic Doctor Who to watch the current show! But if you do, you find so many nods to the stories that came before woven throughout. As a viewer, I appreciate that. If I needed twenty-six years of stories before following Rose Tyler into the TARDIS with the Ninth Doctor, I probably would’ve been too intimidated to ever started watching Doctor Who. And what a loss that would be! I can’t imagine how bleak my life would be without the Doctor! That being said, I appreciate that the connective tissue is there and I appreciate when Doctor Who returned in 2005 they didn’t just reboot it but allowed the original series to anchor and, if you watch it, expand what they do. Christopher Eccleston wasn’t a new Doctor but a new regeneration of the Doctor first played by William Hartnell in 1963.
Just as with comic books, as a story following the same character(s) in their world grows over decades passing through the hands of dozens and dozens of creators, things will change. Things will be added. Things will be tweaked. And some things will be outright discarded. That’s natural. That’s the way serial storytelling on this sort of scale has to work. I have been so surprised by many of the things I’ve learned since I began watching Classic Doctor Who, including how many things I took for granted about the Doctor were themselves much later additions.
The idea of the Time Lords – let alone that the Doctor stole a TARDIS and ran away from their society to explore all of time and space – didn’t become part of Doctor Who until they finished their sixth series! Heck, even the sonic screwdriver didn’t show up until the Second Doctor! The First Doctor often said he invented the TARDIS and Susan, his granddaughter, explains to their first companions Ian and Barbara she made up the name of their ship:
The Doctor – “They’ll tell everybody about the ship now.”
Ian – “Ship?”
The Doctor – “Yes, yes, ship. This doesn’t roll along on wheels, you know.”
Barbara – “You mean it moves?”
Susan – “The TARDIS can go anywhere.”
Barbara – “TARDIS? I don’t understand you, Susan.”
Susan – “Well, I made up the name TARDIS from the initials, Time And Relative Dimension In Space. I thought you’d both understand when you saw the different dimensions inside from those outside.”
The Second Doctor reaffirms he invented the TARDIS when he explains it to Victoria, shortly after she begins travelling with him and Jamie. Jamie says, “You see, we travel around in here through space and time.” The Doctor says, “Oh no, no, no, no. Don’t laugh. It’s true. Your father and Maxtible were working on the same problem, but I have perfected a rather special model, which enables me to travel through the universe of time.” These aren’t the only times the Doctor mentions having created the TARDIS either.
While Russell T Davies is clear the Doctor is 900 years old when the new series begins, the Doctor recalls their age very differently through the classic series, too. Just from the episodes of Classic Doctor Who I’ve seen, I know the First Doctor never mentions his age while the Second Doctor tells Jamie and Victoria, “Well, if we count in Earth terms, I suppose I must be about 400, yes, about 450 years old. Yes, well, quite.” But when trying to find a cure for the Silurian plague, the Third Doctor tells Liz Shaw, “I’m beginning to lose confidence for the first time in my life – and that covers several thousand years.” He reiterates the same in another adventure, snapping at a prison warden before cutting himself off, “Let me tell you sir, that I am a scientist and I have been for several thousand…” In doing a bit of research for this piece (to give context without spoiling too much of Classic Doctor Who for myself now that I’m watching it :D) I learned the Fourth Doctor regularly claimed to have lived for 750-760 years while the Sixth Doctor said they were 900 twice and the Seventh Doctor said they were 953.
And yes, naturally these are normal slips when you’re writing for a show that runs for decades with hundreds of episodes in the pre-Internet age of easy research into past scripts and clips. These things occur in comic books, too. But with the Timeless Child reveal, it can be a way to bridge these inconsistencies! They can say sometimes old memories blocked by the Time Lords bleed through into the Doctor’s present consciousness or when the Doctor regenerates some of those memory blocks get shaken so different things are remembered in different lives. Those are just the first ideas to come to mind. We know Time Lord memory blocks aren’t unbreakable from the modern series, too. After the Tenth Doctor wipes Donna Noble’s memory to protect her from dying as a result of being part of the Time Lord Meta-Crisis (pause to feel sad and cry…) he tells Wilfred, her grandfather, and Sylvia, her mother, to never mention anything about himself or Donna’s time travelling with him to Donna. It would undo his memory block and that would kill her. If a more permanent memory block was possible, it’s safe to infer the Doctor would’ve used it to further protect Donna.
Even the idea the Doctor is something more than a Time Lord goes back to the classic series. Through the ‘80s, Classic Doctor Who began struggling in the ratings. Andrew Cartmel was hired as script editor for Series Twenty Four and, alongside writers Ben Aaronovitch and Marc Platt, they began to lay the groundwork for the reveal that the Doctor was more than a renegade Time Lord. The Doctor was the Other, a figure who was born a world apart from Gallifrey and part of “a Triumvirate of Time Lords” responsible for all Gallifrey’s advances. The Other was “the most powerful and most mysterious of the Triumvirate as well as the designer of the first TARDIS.” The goal of this was to return a sense of mystery to the Doctor, the Time Lords, and the world of Classic Doctor Who (a critique often leveled at Steven Moffat’s modern Doctor Who era as well, it explained “too much” of the Doctor’s past and how regeneration works). The Seventh Doctor himself alludes to this reality. In a confrontation with the creator of the Daleks, Davros says, “You flatter yourself, Doctor. In the end, you are merely another Time Lord.” The Doctor replies, “Oh Davros, I am far more than another Time Lord.”
So this idea of the Timeless Child fits, surprisingly well, within the world of Doctor Who – both classic and modern. And it goes a long way to bridging some of the disconnected plot points between Doctor Who and Classic Doctor Who, disconnections which are normal and natural when you’re talking about a story told by dozens of writers over hundreds of episodes across nearly sixty years. For all of that, the idea of the Timeless Child has my respect. Like the modern regeneration of Doctor Who itself, it works well enough just within the context of modern Doctor Who but incorporating Classic Doctor Who gives it even more depth.
The child Tecteun finds being a young girl is brilliant, too. The Abrahamic God, so often considered “Father” in the Jewish and Christian traditions, is unique in religious/mythological history in making creation an act of a “male” deity. Traditionally, for very obvious reasons, creation – life itself – comes from a female deity or the interaction of a female and male deity or a genderless source. Biologically, women carry and bring new life into the world so we see this reflected in (almost) all of our religious traditions throughout human history. The idea that this new source of life – regeneration – comes via a mysterious girl found by Tecteun is so religiously/mythologically/theologically grounded and I love it.
Still…the idea that the Doctor is now a “Chosen One” and Doctor Who becomes “just another” Chosen One story like Star Wars or Harry Potter or Dune or SO MANY OTHERS felt…a little frustrating. Is that the word? It felt like, in making the Doctor “special” like this, something important, something foundational was lost. After their first adventure together, the Doctor herself tells Ryan, Yaz, and Graham, “I’m just a traveler. Sometimes I see things need fixing, I do what I can.” There’s rarely anything “just” about a Chosen One.
And here is where Spider-Man saved the day for me! Spider-Man in particular and the comic medium in general showed me exactly how this can work without changing this key understanding of seeing the Doctor as “just a traveler”!
One of if not the central tenant of Peter Parker/Spider-Man as a character is his relatability. He is the “everyman,” struggling in all the ways we all do while still trying to manage the great responsibility that comes with his great power. Spidey is a character with whom we all can relate. Yet during J. Michael Straczynski’s time writing The Amazing Spider-Man, the idea of the Spider-Totem was added to the Spider-Man mythos. Spider-Totems are supernatural beings spread across the multiverse who are linked to the Web of Life and Destiny. In The Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 2 #48, Straczynski would say the first Spider-Man was one of the Vodū, a race of beings worshipped as gods by the Ashanti Tribe in Ghana. This being, Anansi, the first Spider-Man, offered an eternity of service for enlightenment and, as a result, his power and knowledge was given to Spiders – all the Spider-Mans, Spider-Womans, Spider-Girls, Spiderlings, Ghost Spiders, and Spider-Hams – spread everywhere across the Great Web. One of the Great Totems, the Other, was originally identified as the source of Peter Parker’s spider-powers. Far from being the result of an accident at a demonstration, Peter was always destined to be Spider-Man. Dan Slott would develop this concept further during his time writing The Amazing Spider-Man, saying the Other was a powerful multiversal entity who chooses a host at various times for various purposes, Peter Parker being one of them.
All this is to say, being tied to a powerful group of multiversal entities who hold together the Web of Life and Destiny that holds together all of creation and being the only Spider who can lead all the other Spiders into battle against the godlike Inheritors who hunt Spiders across the multiverse and being the host of the Other is about as far from “common,” “relatable,” and “everyman” as you can get. Gone was the everyday guy who got his powers by accident and did his best to do right by them. Peter Parker, too, had become a Chosen One.
Except he wasn’t. Except he was.
I’d wager a great many Spider-Man fans – and “big” fans, too – know nothing about Spider-Totems. Peter Parker/Spider-Man remains the relatable everyman trying to make his way in the world. And even if you do know about Spider-Totems, I don’t know that it would change your frame of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. At least it didn’t for me. It was an idea, a new twist on a character almost fifty-years-old (at the time). Sometimes it shows up when writers, like Dan Slott in the “Spider-Island” or “Spider-Verse” stories, have an idea they want to use it for. The rest of the time, Peter Parker/Spider-Man remains the everyday sort of character he always was with nary a mention of Spider-Totems in the story. And even within those stories where Peter has the fate of the multiverse hanging on his Chosen shoulders, he’s still our regular, friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
The same will be true of the Doctor. The Timeless Child is an idea, a new twist on a character almost sixty-years-old. It opens up new areas for stories, when a writer wants to use it. But the rest of the time, the Doctor remains the Doctor – just a traveler, sometimes they see something needs fixing and they do what they can. But even within those stories that will come where the Timeless Child and this big, new, unknown piece of their life and the history of Gallifrey is central, the Doctor will still be our traveler, sorting out fair play throughout the universe.
I understand why people struggle with the Timeless Child. I get it. I get the sense of frustration or even betrayal. I can see how this feels like a violation of the core of the character. In many ways, it did for me, too. But, thanks to Spider-Man, I found my path to not only make peace with the Timeless Child but be legitimately excited to see what stories it may open up in the future. After the revelation of her true self the Doctor tells the Master, “You think you’ve broken me? You’ll have to try harder than that. You’ve given me a gift. Of myself. You think that could destroy me? You think that makes me lesser? It makes me more. I contain multitudes, more than I ever thought or knew. You want me to be scared of it because you’re scared of everything. But I am so much more than you.” The Doctor will always be the Doctor. They’ve just draped some deep mystery back around the being who flies the TARDIS. I’m excited for Doctor Who: Flux! I’m excited to see what Doctor Who: Flux may add to the Timeless Child. And I’m excited to see what future writers and showrunners, Russell T Davies included of course, will do with this, too.
For me, no matter how many lives they add on to the Doctor before William Hartnell’s First Doctor, as long as the Doctor continues to do what they do because it’s right, because it’s decent, and above all because it’s kind – just that, just kind – then the character will continue to be the Doctor I’ve loved through the 489 episodes (and counting!) I’ve seen (countless rewatches not included, obvs. ;D). I’ll happily take more mystery around the character as long as the Doctor remains the Doctor and I’ve seen nothing to indicate that’s changing anytime soon. So I’ll keep my faith and travel hopefully, welcoming surprises in plot developments along the way.
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