Doctor Who: “The Timeless Children”

***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD! SERIOUSLY!***

Holy smokes, there’s a lot to unpack in this episode! Let’s get right to it, because this is going to be a long one!

One of the things I grew to dislike about the Steven Moffat era was his seemingly constant need to make pointless additions to the Doctor Who canon, perhaps the most egregious of which was having one of Clara’s splinter selves tell the First Doctor which TARDIS to steal when he and Susan fled Gallifrey. In “The Timeless Children,” Chris Chibnall makes an addition to the canon as well, one that is maybe not pointless, but isn’t entirely necessary, either. Do I hate it the way I hate Clara telling the First Doctor which TARDIS to steal? No, and the reason why is that ultimately this addition doesn’t actually change anything. Everything we know about the Doctor from Hartnell onward remains unaffected, and so there’s a lot less for me to push back against. Plus, I’m far more intrigued by this idea than by all that nonsense with Clara’s splinter selves.

It is, however, a fucking huge addition to the canon! It also answers a lot of lingering, if minor, questions about Doctor Who. The Timeless Child, as we discover from both the Master and the Matrix on Gallifrey, is a being from another universe with the ability, previously unknown in our own universe, to regenerate instead of die. The Timeless Child was discovered long, long ago by Tecteun, an astronaut and scientist of the Shobogans, Gallifrey’s indigenous species, near a gateway to the Boundary, and Tecteun decided to experiment on the child until the mysteries of regeneration were unlocked and could be added to Shobogan DNA. Mixed with the civilization’s discovery of time travel, thus were the Time Lords born. So what became of the Timeless Child? They were recruited by the Division to run special, secret missions that the Time Lords wouldn’t openly authorize because of their policy of non-intervention.

The Master’s biggest reveal, though, is that the Timeless Child is actually the Doctor, and that she has had numerous pre-Hartnell lives (such Doctor Ruth from “Fugitive of the Judoon”) that were erased from her memory. Unfortunately, at this point the fact that the Doctor is the Timeless Child likely comes as a surprise to no one, because it’s always the Doctor. The most dangerous creature in the universe is locked inside the Pandorica? Surprise, it’s the Doctor! The Hybrid is supposed to be a deadly crossbreed of two warrior races? Surprise, it’s the Doctor…and Clara! (We’re going to come back to the Hybrid a little later, by the way. Stick around!) Personally, I thought it would be a better revelation, and possibly make more sense, if the Timeless Child turned out to be the Master. It would better explain why he destroyed Gallifrey if he discovered he had been ruthlessly experimented on as a child, had his memory erased, and been lied to all his lives by the Time Lords about how important his role in their society really was. Instead, he’s angry because…there’s a piece of the Doctor’s DNA inside him? Because the Time Lord’s pomposity was unearned? The Master has always thought their pomposity was unearned! (On the other hand, if the Master is the Timeless Child, we lose Doctor Ruth, and a cosmos without Doctor Ruth scarcely bears thinking about.)

Still, this new information does answer some questions that have been around for a very long time. We finally learn, for instance, that a Time Lord’s twelve-regeneration limit is imposed by Tecteun at the start, rather than a natural limitation. (The Timeless Child could apparently continually regenerate, well past thirteen incarnations.) This also explains how the Time Lords are able to grant one of their own a whole new life cycle, as they offer to do for the Master in 1983’s “The Five Doctors,” and actually do for the Doctor in the 2013 Eleventh Doctor episode “The Time of the Doctor.” Perhaps most remarkably, this revelation also finally explains all the pre-Hartnell faces that appear on the screen during the psychic mindbending battle between Morbius and the Fourth Doctor in the 1976 serial “The Brain of Morbius”! Those faces were always intended to be Doctors before Hartnell, but later that same season the twelve-regeneration limit was mentioned for the first time in 1976’s “The Deadly Assassin,” so the faces were retconned to actually be Morbius’s previous incarnations. Now, at last, we can retcon them back to being the Doctor’s. It only took 44 years, but we got there!

Everything about the Timeless Child is a bold idea, but there are problems with it, some of which are pretty big. The Time Lords’ ability to regenerate being the result of genetic manipulation with the DNA of the Timeless Child directly contradicts the bit about River Song being able to regenerate simply because she was conceived in the TARDIS as it traveled through the time vortex. Granted, I always thought that was stupid anyway, but it’s hard to reconcile the two. If Doctor Ruth is one of those previous, forgotten incarnation, why does she call herself the Doctor? What reason does she have to operate under that name even while she’s working for the Division? It was always assumed to be the name the Doctor chose for themself when they left Gallifrey, “the [person] who makes people better.” If that’s no longer the case, could “the Doctor” actually be a codename assigned by the Division, one that the Doctor kept without fully knowing why? Another issue: Why was Doctor Ruth’s TARDIS already in the shape of a police box? The lore was always that the First Doctor stole a faulty TARDIS from Gallifrey, one with a broken chameleon circuit that left it stuck in the shape it had assumed when he and Susan landed on Earth in the early 1960s: a British police box. There could be a couple of possible explanations for this one, at least. One is that Ruth’s TARDIS’s telepathic circuits read the Thirteenth Doctor’s mind and transformed itself into a police box specifically for her. Another possibility is that Doctor Ruth’s TARDIS got stuck in the shape of a police box and, after her memory was wiped and she became the Hartnell Doctor, he wound up stealing that same TARDIS before it was repaired. (I think we can safely assume Doctor Ruth was the final secret incarnation before Hartnell, since she’d already left the Division by the time of “Fugitive of the Judoon.” It’s likely she was recaptured, memory-wiped, and turned into a child that grew up to be the First Doctor as we know him.)

“The Timeless Children” also explains that the young Irish police officer Brendan, whom we saw flashes of in “Ascension of the Cybermen,” was a Matrix construct designed to disguise the story of the Timeless Child under a visual filter. When the older, retired Brendan gets his memory erased, that’s the Timeless Child getting their memory wiped by the Division, either before a new mission or before becoming the First Doctor. Which makes me wonder: If the life of Brendan is a Matrix construct designed to hide the truth, then who’s to say the 1965 and 1966 Peter Cushing Doctor Who movies can’t be also? Perhaps now they, too, can be canon! (Okay, that might be pushing it.)

Whew! I told you there was a lot to unpack, and I’ve only covered half the episode! The other half, involving Ashad and the Cybermen fighting the human survivors, including Graham, Ryan, and Yaz, and invading the ruins of Gallifrey, is pretty good, but obviously less interesting. There’s some mumbo-jumbo about a “death particle” embedded inside Ashad that turns out to be pretty important and probably should have been brought up a lot sooner than just this episode, and a nice moment between Graham and Yaz when they think they might be about to die, and a neat plan to sneak past the Cybermen inside Cyber armor. The death particle is employed at the end of the episode, presumably killing the Master, killing his dumb-looking Cybermen/Time Lord hybrids called CyberMasters, and preventing any life from ever existing on Gallifrey again. Not to be too cynical about it, but you can expect two of those three things not to be true in the long run.

(The CyberMasters aren’t just dumb looking, they also don’t make sense. First, you don’t need organic material to make Cybermen. In fact, Ashad’s plan was to remove the organic material from the remaining Cybermen and make them entirely robotic, so there isn’t any need for the Master to use Time Lord corpses to make himself a Cyber army, even one that self-replicates. Second, how the hell did he create and redesign them so quickly? Third, and perhaps most confusing, if Time Lord corpses can regenerate, then they’re not corpses, they’re alive. The Master specifically said they were dead, so how can they still regenerate? My heads hurts.)

Ultimately, “The Timeless Children” is an exciting episode that turns Doctor Who lore on its head in an intriguing way, but I have so many questions. Also, I wish Captain Jack had come back for the finale, but at least we got another nice scene with Doctor Ruth. Also, I wish we had been given some further information on when exactly this Master comes from in their timeline. If he’s post-Missy, I want to know how that’s possible. If he’s between the John Simm Master and Missy, then I want to know that, too, just so I can understand.

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! On Gallifrey, the Master reminds the Doctor about how they used to have fun running from Borusa after skipping his classes at the Academy. Borusa was first introduced in the aforementioned 1976 Fourth Doctor serial “The Deadly Assassin” as an old teacher of the Doctor’s who has become a cardinal of the High Council. (He would reappear twice more on the show, the final time as Lord President of the High Council in 1983’s “The Five Doctors.”) The Master also mentions what fun they had in the panopticon, where the High Council gathers, including assassinating presidents. This is also a reference to the plot of “The Deadly Assassin,” in which the Master frames the Doctor for the Lord President’s assassination. The term Shobogans also comes from “The Deadly Assassin,” although in that serial it is meant as an insult meaning hooligans. It makes sense that the Time Lords might turn the name of the race they evolved from into an insult, much like an Earthling calling someone a cave man is an insult. When the Doctor sees her companions and the remaining human survivors have come to rescue her on Gallifrey, she says, “No humans on Gallifrey,” a rule that also first came up just before “The Deadly Assassin” as the reason why Sarah Jane Smith couldn’t come to Gallifrey with him. That rule was either scuttled later or ignored when Leela, a human, was allowed to stay on Gallifrey at the end of the  1978 Fourth Doctor serial “The Invasion of Time.” (Clara was also allowed on Gallifrey, sort of, in the 2015 Twelfth Doctor episode “Hell Bent.” So were the Sisterhood of Karn who, while not humans, are also not Gallifreyan.) The Doctor mentions she fought the Matrix before and denied its reality, something they did in “The Deadly Assassin” and also in the 1986 Sixth Doctor serial “The Ultimate Foe.”  The Division sounds a lot like the Celestial Intervention Agency, a secret Time Lord organization that often used the Doctor for special missions, such as sending him to Skaro to prevent the creation of the Daleks in the 1975 Fourth Doctor serial “Genesis of the Daleks.” However, the organization wasn’t given a name until, you guessed it, “The Deadly Assassin.” Really, I’m shocked at how much of “The Timeless Children” calls back to “The Deadly Assassin”!

And finally, as promised, a little more about the Hybrid. There’s a theory going around that “The Timeless Child” actually fulfills the Hybrid prophecy from season 9. The prophecy says that a hybrid creature would stand over the ruins of Gallifrey and unravel the Web of Time, breaking a billion billion hearts to heal its own. At the end of season 9, it was hypothesized that the Hybrid was actually the Doctor and Clara traveling together, but this new theory states that the Master merged with the Cyberium is the true Hybrid. After all, he stood over the ruins of Gallifrey; hacked into the Matrix to discover its biggest secret, thus unraveling the Web of Time; and broke a billion billion hearts to heal his own by murdering the Time Lords. I don’t know if this was intentional, but it’s an interesting take!

Next up is this year’s Christmas Special (or next year’s New Year’s Day Special) “Revolution of the Daleks,” which we’ve just learned will also be Graham and Ryan’s final episode. Nooooooo, Graham, come back!

Rat Queens, Vol. 7: The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King (Rat Queens #7)The Once and Future King by Ryan Ferrier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another fun romp through the Rat Queens’ D&D-on-crack world, this time under the guidance of new writer Ryan Ferrier. The transition from Kurtis J. Wiebe’s writing to Ferrier’s is seamless. The characters, settings, and absurd adventures remain instantly recognizable. This volume starts with a standalone adventure called “Swamp Romp” that’s fun, charming, and had me laughing out loud. I promise you’ll never look at unicorns the same way again. The adventure that fills the rest of the volume, which involves the invasion and takeover of Palisade, is fun, too, but “Swamp Romp” might just be my favorite RAT QUEENS issue in some time. Violet is notably absent in the main adventure, having stepped away from the Rat Queens to start a family with Orc Dave and been replaced by young, nerdish Rat Queens fan Maddie. Maddie is a fun and interesting character with a lot of potential, but I still missed Violet. The art by Priscilla Petraites is excellent, although there were a few panels where I lost track of who was doing what or who was speaking. Not a major issue, but somewhat frustrating in the moment. I continue to enjoy the adventures of the Rat Queens and eagerly await the next volume!

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Doctor Who: “Ascension of the Cybermen”

***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***

This episode is a very exciting first part of the two-part season finale, but it’s also something of a mixed bag. I liked it, but there are a few things that didn’t work for me. Let’s start with the things I liked.

The Cybermen are back! It’s always fun to see one of Doctor Who‘s greatest and longest-running foes (the first Cyberman episode aired back in 1966!) show up again, but what makes “Ascension of the Cybermen” so much fun is that it’s not your run-of-the-mill Cybermen story. The action takes us to the end of the Cyber Wars, when there are very few Cybermen left (and very few humans, too). What we get are Ashad, the half-converted Cyber zealot who was introduced in the last episode with a total allegiance to the idea of rebuilding the Cyber empire, and two beat up old Cyberguards, and they’re still enough to pose an enormous threat to the human survivors!

In fact, everything having to do with the Cyber Wars is what lifts this episode above others of its kind. There’s a great scene of what is essentially a space graveyard, with hundreds of dead Cybermen (and loose parts) floating in space near the wreckage of one of their biggest battles. It’s a striking image, and one that will stay with me for a long time. I was also very pleased to see classic series-style Cybermen among the revival-style Cybermen on the troop carrier. The scene toward the end with all the Cybermen awakened from their “tombs” and marching through the corridors of the ship strongly reminded me of a similar scene in  the 1982 Fifth Doctor serial “Earthshock” in which awakened Cybermen march out of the hold of a space freighter toward the bridge.

One interesting bit of information we learn is that human survivors have been escaping through the Boundary, a wormhole to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, or perhaps beyond, where the Cybermen can’t follow them. I have to admit, for most of the episode I assumed it was going to be a Logan’s Run situation where the Boundary is actually a trap and everyone who goes there winds up dead! The Boundary is guarded by a lone, older, wizard-looking human named Ko Sharmus, who keeps telling the Doctor to walk closer to the water’s edge to activate the Boundary. I thought for sure Ko Sharmus was going to spring a trap and possibly reveal that he has survived all this time through cannibalism. It didn’t happen that way, and I’m glad because the actual reveal — and the episode’s excellent cliffhanger that made me want to watch the next episode immediately — is that the Boundary appears to lead to Gallifrey!

And of course, out pops the Master, who has obviously escaped from the Kasaavin in the way the Master always escapes his fate. So what does all this have to do with the Timeless Child and the Master’s destruction of Gallifrey (and maybe even Doctor Ruth)? We’re about to find out. Next episode now, please!

I mentioned “Ascension of the Cybermen” is a mixed bag, and indeed there are a few things I didn’t like. The Cyber Drones, which are basically just flying Cyberman heads that can shoot lasers, are the stupidest-looking things I’ve seen on Doctor Who since the Dalek agents that suddenly sprouted Dalek eyestalks out of their foreheads. The idea of Cyber Drones is a good one, and could have been a chance to show how Cybermats — small, rodent-like machines the Cybermen use to infiltrate their targets, which first appeared in the 1967 Second Doctor serial “Tomb of the Cybermen,” and later as the updated Cybermites in the 2013 Eleventh Doctor episode “Nightmare in Silver” — have evolved into something new and more destructive. Instead we just get flying heads, which made me groan rather than worry.

When the survivors’ dying gravraft (great name!) makes one last thruster push in order to make it to another ship in the space graveyard, they don’t appear to have much control over where they’re going, but instead of crashing haphazardly into the side of the ship the gravraft flies right into its perfectly-sized docking bay with the ease of a puck sliding into the goal in air hockey. It was lazy writing and could easily have been fixed with a two-second scene showing one of them desperately trying to pilot the gravraft into the dock instead of crashing it. (And it came as zero surprise to me that the ship was actually a fully-stocked Cyber troop carrier, but that’s probably because I’m a jaded lifelong Doctor Who viewer.)

I wondered what Ashad was doing when he and his two Cyberguards go after the sleeping Cybermen in the troop carrier with what appear to be buzz saws. Afterward I figured this is how he reprogrammed them to follow his orders, but it struck me as a strange way to go about it. Wasn’t there some computer he could tinker with instead? How does cutting into them like that help reprogram them, unless he just needed to switch some wires around? (One theory is that he isn’t reprogramming them, he’s cutting out their emotional inhibitors, but there’s no evidence of this, at least not in this episode.)

What was up with Brendan, the abandoned baby who grows up in 1950s Ireland to become a policeman? Why doesn’t that robber’s bullet kill him? I had several theories as I watched the episode: Brendan is the Master reborn after Missy’s death. Brendan is Ashad. Brendan is the Timeless Child. None of them seem to be accurate, especially in light of that final scene with an older Brendan retiring from the force and being greeted by his somehow unaged father and boss who proceed to forcibly mind-wipe him with a device that looked sort of like a Chameleon Arch, but maybe isn’t? (Alexa’s theory is that Brendan is actually a Cyberman, that 1950s Ireland is his dream while he’s in stasis, and that the mind-wipe is Ashad reprogramming him before waking him. It’s as good a theory as any!)

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! At the refugee outpost, Yaz sets up a particle projector to spray gold dust at the Cybermen, claiming that they’re allergic to it. This is a reference to something that was first mentioned in the 1975 Fourth Doctor serial “Revenge of the Cybermen,” in which we learn Voga, the Planet of Gold, was instrumental in winning the Cyber Wars by discovering gold dust choked Cybermen’s respiratory systems. Gold is used as the Cybermen’s weakness in every classic-series appearance after that. The Doctor offers Ryan a humbug out of a paper bag for his motion sickness. While certainly reminiscent of the Doctor offering people jelly babies out of a similar paper bag throughout the classic series, mostly during the Fourth Doctor’s tenure, it should be noted that the Fourth Doctor did once offer a humbug to someone instead of a jelly baby in the 1977 serial “The Sun Makers.” (I had to look that one up. I’m nerdy, but not that nerdy!)

Really looking forward to the next episode, promisingly titled “The Timeless Children”!

The Dead Girls Club

The Dead Girls ClubThe Dead Girls Club by Damien Angelica Walters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Damien Angelica Walters’s THE DEAD GIRLS CLUB is a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable thriller. Given how breathlessly I zoomed through the last third of the novel, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a page-turner, either. Walters’s narrative strength really shines in the flashbacks to narrator Heather Cole’s childhood, writing about girlhood and its close, intense friendships with heartfelt authenticity. The mystery that occupies Heather’s present, with its links to her past and its spooky overtones, hooked me and kept me guessing throughout. THE DEAD GIRLS CLUB is a well written and well executed thriller that stands shoulder to shoulder with Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL, Paula Hawkins’s THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, and Sarah Pinborough’s BEHIND HER EYES. Don’t miss it!

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