It’s been more than a couple of months since “Ascension of the Cybermen” and “The Timeless Children” aired and sometimes with finales the initial impressions you have being swept up in the excitement of a new episode stick with you forever. Sometimes upon rewatch you develop a deeper appreciation of the ideas expressed by the writer. Well for me Series 12 will be remembered but perhaps not as fondly as Chris Chibnall would have liked.
“Ascension of the Cybermen” sets up some thought-provoking scenarios and of the two episodes, Ascension has a stronger narrative for me. In many ways a traditional episode we have the common enemy, the Cybermen, trying to come back at the end of the Cyberwars. It’s a great scenario to explore. Whereas “The Timeless Children” has everything thrown in together bar the kitchen sink. There were sufficient ideas concepts there for three separate finales in my humble opinion. with the Master, the Cybermen, destruction of Gallifrey, an origins story for the Doctor plus the CyberMasters. Quantity is not always a substitute for quality but let’s review the juggernaut that was the series 12 finale.
Humans, humans everywhere
My expectation at the end of the glorious “Haunting of Villa Diodati” moving into the last two episodes was that the Doctor was preparing for an epic battle fighting the new Cybermen imaginings of the lone Cyberman’s ideology. The Doctor had had to surrender the Cyberium to Ashad in episode 8 so I enjoyed how the story picked up almost straight after as the Tardis team arrive on an unknown planet, maybe Earth and got stuck in protecting the initially sceptical humans. I liked how the threat was created as all the gizmos the Doctor created such as the neural system inhibitor, the particle projector customised to project gold in the air and the forcefield failed.
The humans really were a rag tail bunch and I did find myself slightly frustrated at the writing with some noticeable exposition scenes (a failing of series 11) as Reekat was interacting with the Doctor explaining who they are. The humans were sketchily drawn and hence felt disposable even before Ashad and his army arrived to kill them. I really enjoyed Julie Graham though as Ravio who brought much-needed energy with her no-nonsense approach. I’m so glad Ravio survived to end up in the 21st century.
One of the strengths of this series has been where the companions are separated and I loved the opportunities splitting the team up opened up for danger. The sequences seeing Yaz and Graham escaping in the graviraft with the other humans, encountering the Cyberman graveyard and then landing on the Cyber carrier were very well done. Those scenes gave a sense of scale and largeness to the Who universe which we haven’t seen for a long time due to the majority of this series set on Earth. I’m not so sure about Graham’s plan to use the Cyber armour. It’s not as if its empty suit. There are some body parts and circuitry inside so how do you climb into it? Why wasn’t the loud activity of drilling picked up by the Cybermen? But it did allow for the tense scene where Ashad almost discovers Yaz and Graham. Well done Jamie Magnus Stone. He’s had a great time with also directing Spyfall Part 1.
It is probably one of my favourite scenes because the camera lingers for so long on Ashad, Yaz and then Graham. Genuinely nail-biting to watch. There was a part of me that wanted to see Ashad find them just to have that gasp of breath as I did when Bill was converted. But of course, our Yaz and Graham are spared and in some ways, it’s a welcome paring having them the stronger actors of the companions together. They haven’t really talked much together since “Punjab”. So the quiet scene of “I’m from Yorkshire, that’s a love letter” was a charming relief if so out of the blue in amongst the action. You get a sense that Yaz has had the bigger journey this year and it’s good to see it acknowledged but it also feels like a surprise to see her growing so much.
This season Ryan had some solo interactions in “Orphan 55” and “Can you hear me” but with such a crowded Tardis I was expecting him to be killed by the Cybermen when he was left behind. He survived but was mainly sidelined bar a couple of good comic moments paired with Ko Sharmus. Ah now Ko Sharmus, is an example of a curious character whose back story I felt wasn’t given sufficient explanation. He was part of the resistance unit that sent the Cyberium back in time and I really wish more time had been spent over this series to explain the greater parts of his role rather than a throwaway line that’s only revealed moments before he sacrifices himself.
His actions taking the death particle to blow up the Master and the Cyberlords would have then felt more meaningful. As it was he took a bullet for the Doctor blowing everything up. I know that characters in Doctor Who have noblely sacrificed themselves before ( start a list someone ) but the Doctor’s eagerness to scamper off to find a Tardis felt a bit callous. It makes the earlier speech in the Tardis about ” This is the way it has to be “with the companions redundant and hollow.
The Cybermen being better than man
The appearance of Jack in “Fugitive of the Judoon” had warned of the danger of the lone Cybermen and that frankly had me excited. At last, there was a momentum to a series by Chris Chibnall. The ascension in Christian religious belief refers to the physical departure of Christ into the presence of God in heaven and Ashad holds the religious zeal of a believer. His monologue at the beginning of “Ascension” over scenes of a Cyberman graveyard gave the plausible idea that the reminder of a mighty empire exploited, outfought, surrendered could live again. It betrayed a stronger more violent creed, of the religious fanatic created for war. As he said he was a willing recruit “I was not discarded… I was chosen to revive the glory of the Cyber-race.”
For the Doctor, there is the personal struggle that the Cybermen have longevity and that however hard the Doctor thinks she has eradicated them the silver warriors can and do return. As I have said previously I’ve never adored the cold logic of the Cyberman but having a disturbed battle-scarred leader with a monstrous human face peering out makes for exciting drama. I really enjoyed the dichotomy that Ashad brought to the story.
The Cybermen are usually bereft of emotion but Ashad showed human anger and pride alongside the misguided grandness in his dream. There was something of the Star Trek Borg about his battle of logic and then the bubbling anger. The Cybermen actually felt a proper threat in “Ascension” mainly because of Ashad. The scenes on the cyber freighter of Ashad marching with the Cybermen felt genuinely thrilling and interesting. However, I really hope however we never see the flying Cyber head probes again which looked incredibly cringe coming over the horizon.
A regret for me with the outcome of the story is Chris Chibnall didn’t realise the lasting potential of such a fascinating character as Ashad. Having him miniaturised by the Master was so disappointing. Was the Master as interesting a threat than Ashad? Not for me. Having the Master create Cybermasters from converted timelords with the doyley head-dresses which did look rather silly diminished the impact of the earlier Cybermen and shrank them to mere puppets. I mean Ashad’s plan to have a fully automated Cyber army purged of all organic life using the death particle is granted a bit of a flawed plan as he wouldn’t survive.
However, when you have a hard-nosed character such as Ravio describing Ashad as the Cyberman who makes another Cyberman scream (as he drilled into one who cried in agony) then surely hang on that character for dear life and don’t get rid of them.
Master mania on Gallifrey
I wasn’t expecting the Gallifrey reveal at the end of “Ascension” or the Master to appear but I guess as Gallifrey and the Master have been part of this year arc it’s appropriate they book-end this series. Sacha Dhawan has brought a lot of energy this series and I greatly enjoyed his performance in Spyfall as it felt nuanced and right because he was the enemy hidden in plain sight. But the Master in this finale though lacks real purpose and motivation I’ll explain what I mean. He enters at the end of Ascension and dramatically divulges “Be afraid Doctor. Everything is about to change” Why should he be so upset on the Doctor’s behalf. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
I know that it explained that the Master doesn’t like having a piece of the Doctor inside him so are we saying the Master is a right-wing bigot, oh wait he was wearing a Nazi uniform in Spyfall. It makes sense now I didn’t see the hidden political message (this is sarcasm folks). Where his demeanour is written as so manic, the delivery of lines so fast it becomes reminiscent of the Joker rather than the Moriarty he should be to the Doctor’s Holmes. Is he really so psychotic now that all the growth and redemption of Missy’s master is forgotten? Oh, this is so sad. I’m wondering if he is newly regenerated? But the master is having a temper tantrum and wants to punish the Doctor with the knowledge he has found that the Doctor is the “special one”? He is so upset at the lie that he destroys his own people? There was an interesting moment where the Master wishes for death and Sacha Dhawan’s performance sold it but I wish it had been explored further.
I have real reservations at the destruction of Gallifrey again when there are more stories to be told. It feels a step too far considering the historical place it holds in Doctor Who. It’s never explained how the Master destroys a whole planet like Gallifrey. I’m sure it has its big defences and it just feels too convenient for the story that we are told he just does it. The reason being is that the Master doesn’t like the lies. It feels intuitively wrong for me. There’s a lot of illogical assumptions made for the story. How did the Master create Cybermasters from dead timelords when he wouldn’t know if they would regenerate? He just did it. The whole storyline lacks any sense. As a viewer, I wanted something more purposeful, more sophisticated in the writing. Something that I could empathise with, such as the difficult decision the Doctor had to make to destroy his home planet to stop the Time War killing everyone including the children.
I think Chris Chibnall actually missed a real trick to make the Master the Timeless Child. Experimented upon and to all intents and purposes tortured it would explain the Master’s psychosis and destruction of Gallifrey far better. He would have also felt the injustice of being robbed of becoming the King of Gallifrey. When he looked into the Untempered Schism as a child the implication was he went mad so the Timelords in his mind whether intentionally or not he would have blamed for deposing him. This avenue would have also opened up the concept of the Doctor having a piece of the Master within her.
The Doctor Removed of Her Agency
Chris Chibnall I thought had taken note of the criticisms about too much exposition in series 11. So one of my issues with the final episode was the exposition scenes back to a toxic level and combined with the dark themes of being tortured, experimented on and exploited which served to strip the Doctor of her core central power as a strong character. The Doctor as a victim isn’t the character we know about and I don’t believe it as an origins story.
Yes it is believable that the Doctor would have changed to become Hartnell but the episode tone around the timeless children revelations left me a bit cold by 1) introducing a vast timeline past for the Doctor told in flashback. In my mind, the final episode really struggled under the weight of everything despite its extended time. It’s the kindest I can be.
2). The Master written as the most dominant character of the episode able to control the explanation of “The Timeless Children” which I thought was a real mistake. I found it extremely hard to warm to Tectuan, as the adoptive “mother” as everything was told second hand by the Master. His actions and motivations for providing the whole history of the Doctor unquestioned 3) The Doctor, who is the main character, had very little to do trapped in the Matrix. She was told everything by the Master in a huge information splurge instead of investigating and discovering for herself.
Jodie Whittaker has improved as the Doctor this series. I like the way it’s been explored how she hides her real feelings from the companions, feels the pressure of being in charge. The aggression and sarcasm from her interacting with the Master was interesting. However, I did experience a cringing moment as she clutched her head, broke out of the matrix and the theme tune kicked in. If it was meant as a moment where we felt all the history of the Doctor behind the 13th it felt hollow and uncomfortable for me.
Going down the rabbit hole
One of the criticisms levelled at Steven Moffat’s era was it became dedicated to only die-hard fans. Steven did tinker with the Who is the Doctor story but was careful not to reveal too much. I was really interested recently to read a Radio Times interview with Steven Moffat here he talked about Missy regenerating into Sacha Dhawan and that not filling in all the gaps allows for viewers to use their own imaginations. As a concept, he has a point. Using the imagination certainly is one of the greatest tools to make sense of random facts and to allow for creating stories in our heads. Shakespeare was a master of it and some of his stories about the ways we see different types of love have widely influenced modern thinking in society in plays such as Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth or Much Ado About Nothing.
As showrunner Chris Chibnall has had an opportunity to present new exciting adventure stories for the Doctor but chooses with “The Timeless Children” to go back into the past to fill in gaps that didn’t need plugging and would only matter to the superfan. If I’m honest I despised the revelations in “The Timeless Children” initially and coming back to it now that episode still feels so disappointing. It is where a promising series arc took a sharp turn into itself and did it to the series detriment. It led to a weak conclusion of a vastly improved set of episodes from the previous series.
Even with the Doctor there’s whole sections you don’t know about. I don’t necessarily want to know every detail. “I thought the same with River Song,” …. That’s so much more exciting.” Steven Moffat, Radio Times Interview
All these details of a previously unknown and unreferenced history as a concept smacks of bad fan fiction. Was it needed? Not really because there should be unknown things about the Doctor as its been from the beginning of the show. Perhaps it is hubris on Chris Chibnall’s part after the success of Broadchurch but as a precocious 16-year-old Chris Chibnall had in 1986 criticised Pip and Jane Baker’s story effort for the final episode of the 23rd season of Doctor Who, Trial of a Timelord (The Ultimate Foe part 2) on the BBC’s Open-Air programme. Not only was it “too complicated” he agreed “it could have been slightly better written, especially the last story. It was very cliched” This finale seems to be going down another rabbit hole adding to existing mythos contradictions in the show instead of exploring new horizons in science fiction.
I do have to wonder whether this avenue he’s taken the show is actually required. We can make assumptions who the faces are in the mind-bending contest in “Brain of Morbius” but how does that fit with “The Three Doctors” where the Timelords refer to William Hartnell as the earliest incarnation? Doctor Who is a mass of contradictions so why go there to create more. The Doctor has now been changed after 57 years to be as important as Rassilon who in “The Deadly Assassin” is described as the founder of modern civilisation, an engineer and architect. With the revelations, the Doctor has emerged as a god-like figure capable of many regenerations. Being the creator of the Timelords ability to regenerate and being from another world can open up possibilities of new stories I understand that. But being an all-powerful figure with an innate gift puts him/her above the Timelord he’s been previously.
The Doctor is known as a clever Timelord who ran away from Gallifrey and was travelling the universe. Part of the joy as a fan or casual viewer is identifying with the heroic things the Doctor does which he has learned to do since being the 1st Doctor Who Hartnell. The Doctor fights injustice along the way with just his wits and a screwdriver. He does it because it’s the right thing to do and not because he is looking for a reward of greatness. That’s the show’s inbuilt structure.
I’m reminded of another show from the 1980s called Moonlighting which was an American comedy-drama where Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd’s characters David and Maddy ran a detective agency. Their relationship and the success of the series was based on their romantic witty sparring (much like Beatrice and Benedick from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing) where the characters denied any feelings for each other. The series was extremely popular with tv audiences and critics until the characters finally in series 3 did go to a relationship and the ratings dropped like a stone.
My point is sometimes there are areas you shouldn’t touch or you use very sparingly. I saw a recent article where Andrew Cartmel has criticised the finale that it .“depletes the mystery of Doctor Who” and I can’t say I disagree with his comments that too much detail undoes the enigma and charisma of the character.
Risk and Boldness
The BBC responded to complaints regarding the Series 12 finale with a statement
BBC Statement on Series 12 finale : Doctor Who is a beloved long-running series and we understand that some people will feel attached to a particular idea they have of the Doctor, or that they enjoy certain aspects of the programme more than others. Opinions are strong and this is indicative of the imaginative hold that Doctor Who has – that so many people engage with it on so many different levels.
We wholeheartedly support the creative freedom of the writers and we feel that creating an origin story is a staple of science fiction writing. What was written does not alter the flow of stories from William Hartnell’s brilliant Doctor onwards – it just adds new layers and possibilities to this ongoing saga…..”
The BBC also in the statement mentioned the positive feedback but I’m suspecting the general public isn’t buying into the show showing indifference to the new backstory. The ratings are telling. “The Timeless Children” was the 30th most-watched programme of the week with an audience appreciation score of 82 which is average. It’s the lowest-rated episode of the show with 4.69 million viewers since its revival in 2005 after “The Eaters of Light” in 2017. So, if the general public isn’t invested in watching the arc who is Doctor Who meant to be aimed at now? This attempt at an origins story seems divisive to the critics and fans alike. I know that’s not new. Every showrunner or executive producer introduces new concepts and it won’t please everyone.
On the one side, some are saying RIP Doctor Who and on the other, some are enjoying the new landscape that has opened up. I’m somewhere in the middle as I will keep watching but that’s out of loyalty to the show, not real excitement now.
“……….We have also received many positive reactions to the episode’s cliff-hanger. There are still a lot of questions to be answered, and we hope that you will come back to join us and see what happens, but we appreciate that it’s impossible to please all of our viewers all of the time and your feedback has been raised with the programme’s Executive Producer.” BBC Statement on Series 12 finale
Chris Chibnall described in interviews the series 12 finale as “Massively game-changing” As a viewer, you imagine that all these revelations will have life-changing consequences for the Doctor but it seemed if there was a reset when Ruth appeared. She reminded the Doctor that having the knowledge won’t stop her being the Doctor and Jodie’s Doctor blasted mental energy at the matrix and broke out. It remains to be seen how this whole arc will conclude as we last saw the Doctor marooned in a Judoon prison and we are going into a Dalek story at Christmas. Jodie’s Doctor tends to brood and if there isn’t any progression shown in series 13 for the Doctor’s character with the knowledge of her new origins there will be a lot of fans asking, including me, what was the bleeding point of introducing this storyline.
I suspect even if we have answers I will wish we hadn’t gone down this route when there are so many other avenues the series could have gone to. I did like the idea of the Doctor working for the Division operating where necessary outside of official channels, outside of the non-intervention policy which forced Ruth to leave. I guess that may become a gauntlet of Big Finish to explore Ruth’s story further. I do hope we see Jo Martin again next series but it feels like she won’t be back. As for the “creator” tag added to the Doctor, it’s really not my cup of tea.
Very recently with the lockdown rewatch of Series 4 Stolen Earth and Journeys End I couldn’t help being reminded of revived Who in more halcyon days. Journey’s End was the most-watched programme of the week of 5th July 2008 and had an audience appreciation score of 91. I know that the David Tennant factor was part of that success but it prompted me to remember how completely joyful some Doctor Who finales can be. That was an acknowledgement then of four years of really hard work by Russell T Davies but he was also a master at knowing how to please an audience.
I really don’t relish the idea of watching Who now and being aware of the Timeless Child backstory when there are references to Gallifrey or who the Doctor might be so. Once this era is over I hope this “new” chapter of history much like “the I’m half-human “revelation gets quietly and safely forgotten.