Spoilers for the Series 12 (2020) finale of Doctor Who follow.
Following the huge continuity bombshell dropped by the Series 12 finale “The Timeless Children,” Johnny Spandrell of the Randomwhoness blog posted this thought on Twitter:
That’s quite a fair question to ask. As I mentioned last time, I’m not a fan of stories that exist just to tweak in-show continuity. The Doctor is already alien and somewhat difficult to relate to, being a millennia-old alien being who travels time and regenerates into new bodies upon death. Does making her the foundation of an entire alien society really do anything story-wise?
I argue that “The Timeless Children” does much more than continuity-tweaking. In redefining the Doctor, it opens up many potentially interesting stories in the future. More importantly, it goes back to one of the inherent themes in much of modern science fiction: a matter of identity.
The question’s right there in the title. When the show originally began, the origins of the Doctor remained shrouded in mystery. He was a mysterious traveler. We learned bits and pieces of him as the show went on, but not too much because there was so much else to focus upon as he and his companions journeyed through time and space. But the question was always there in the background: who is this guy?
Bit by bit, the show filled in details about the Doctor. Even then, it did so gradually. We didn’t find out until the end of the Second Doctor’s era that he belonged to a species known as the Time Lords. The show was on for well over a decade before we saw a glimpse of the Doctor’s home planet.
Over time, the Doctor lost the mystery and became somewhat familiar. This was a dilemma that the show ran into near the end of its original run, prompting script editor Andrew Cartmel to seek out a way to make the Doctor more mysterious again.
When the show came back in 2005, it was a chance to introduce the Doctor to a whole new audience through the eyes of a companion who was unfamiliar to him. But again, after more than a decade on the air, the character has become familiar. Entire episodes were devoted to explaining the “rules” of the Time Lords. In a show about the limitless possibilities of time and space, having a guide who seems too familiar runs the risk of making the rest of the adventure stale.
Now, the Doctor is more mysterious than ever, with a secret past that even she herself doesn’t know. We’ve turned time back to the early days of the show, when the Doctor’s species and real identity remained obscured. The universe is wide open, with many new mysteries, including several about the Doctor herself, left to explore.
Who Am I?
Of course, while a somewhat mysterious Doctor helps the show, it isn’t 100% necessary. The Doctor’s mysterious past is more or less a storytelling convenience that allows the creative team to add interesting new twists when they become dramatically appropriate. The more important aspect of “The Timeless Children” is the way in which it strikes are a core question that is integral to the science fiction genre: what is a person?
This is a theme that the show has explored multiple times before, including recently in “Twice Upon a Time” when the Doctor argues about whether a construct formed out of his former companion’s memories is the real person. Argues the not-quite Bill Potts:
“Oh, shut up and stop being so stupid. Of course I’m real. What is anyone supposed to be except a bunch of memories? These are my memories, so this is me.”
Memory is an integral part of a person’s identity. The older you get, the more your past experiences define you. In the case of the Doctor, she’s already got 2,000 years or more of memories stored inside her. Imagine forming that sense of self over centuries, only to discover that the most basic facts that you think you know about yourself are incomplete at best and flat-out wrong at worst.
That’s why the montage of the Doctor’s past lives is so important. It’s both a refutation and a reminder, a reassertion that she is the person she believes herself to be even if there are aspects of her past she doesn’t know.
In many ways, the Doctor’s memories are both an affirmation and a refutation of Bill’s statement from a few years ago. Yes, she is defined by her memories, but she is also so much more.
I Contain Multitudes
The question of identity forms the backbone of the conflict in “The Timeless Children.” Yes, there’s a whole Cyberman army out there, but the Master basically improvises his way into taking control of them. His main plan was to break the Doctor by revealing that she is not who she thought she was. It’s a plan that backfires, because the Doctor sees things in a different way than he does:
“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.”
To answer the question posed at the start of this ramble, there are multiple reasons to do this story now. It’s a way of opening up new dimensions for future storytelling, and of getting back to the core concept of the Doctor as a mysterious traveler. More importantly, it’s a chance to examine the human condition and what we consider to be essential to our identity. While none of us are timeless children, we are also more than the sum of our current thoughts and experiences. Like the Doctor, we contain multitudes more.