After taking pains to set Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor apart in his first stint as Doctor Who showrunner, Chris Chibnall took a different tack with series 12, upping the stakes and giving us more of the classic tropes that have made this long-running series so enduringly appealing. The season included the revival of a well-known nemesis and a classic monster, plus an entertaining cameo by a former ally. And the finale dove deep into Whovian lore to give us a pretty big final twist.
(Mild spoilers below until the second gallery; some major spoilers after. We’ll give you a heads-up when we get there.)
Last season, the Doctor landed in Sheffield, sans TARDIS, right after regenerating. She teamed up with some locals as her new companions (aka her “fam”): Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh, Coronation Street); his grown stepson Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole, Hollyoaks); and Ryan’s old school chum, Yasmin “Yaz” Khan (Mandip Gill, also from Hollyoaks), a rookie police officer eager to prove herself.
Despite some unevenness overall, series 11 had a couple of very strong episodes, such as the fairy-tale flavored “It Takes You Away,” in which a young blind girl named Hanne in a cabin in the Norwegian woods has lost her father through a portal to a parallel universe. And in “Demons of the Punjab,” Yaz convinces the Doctor to take them to her grandmother Umbreen’s past in the Punjab, on August 14, 1947, the eve of India’s partition—and learns way more about her family history than she bargained for.
Last November, the BBC dropped an action-packed trailer for series 12 on the 56th anniversary of BBC One’s airing of the very first episode of Doctor Who. The trailer was full of spaceship battles, James Bond-style black-tie hijinks, scenes set in 1943 Paris under Nazi occupation, and the usual colorfully nefarious creatures threatening the universe. All in all, it boded well for Whittaker’s second season.
It’s Doctor. THE Doctor.
Much of that promise was fulfilled in the sense that series 12 felt like classic Doctor Who, which should delight longtime fans disappointed by Whittaker’s first outing. (I thought it was solid and showed a lot of promise.) That said, there was no single episode this season that captured my imagination in quite the same way as the show does at its best. And two episodes—”Orphan 55″ and (to a lesser extent) “Praxeus”—suffered from an annoyingly condescending, didactic tone. It’s the same heavy-handed preachiness that plagued the series 11 episode “Rosa,” in which the gang had to ensure Rosa Parks got on the bus for her historic ride.
The series opened with the James Bond-inspired Spyfall Part I, in which the Doctor and her companions are enlisted by MI6 to look into a series of mysterious deaths. The killers turn out to be an interdimensional alien species known as the Kasaavin, who in turn have been manipulated by none other than the Doctor’s ancient nemesis, the Master (now played by Sacha Dhawan).
Spyfall Part II took on us on a madcap, rather confusing romp through various time periods, culminating with the Kasaavin retreat, taking the Master with them. But before he goes, the Master taunts the Doctor with the news that he has destroyed their home planet of Gallifrey and that both their lives have been based on Time Lord lies.
(WARNING: major spoilers below the gallery, particularly as it relates to the finale and past Whovian lore. STOP reading now if you haven’t yet watched the episode.)
“Fugitive of the Judoon” gave us this season’s first big twist along with hints of the broader arc to come. We’ve met the intergalactic police force-for-hire, the Judoon, before in the series three episode “Smith and Jones,” when they were hunting a blood-sucking, shape-shifting Plasmavore. Here, they are supposedly hunting a man who lives in Gloucester with his wife, Ruth (Jo Martin). But we soon discover their true target when Ruth recovers lost memories and declares herself to be the Doctor, with her own buried blue police box TARDIS.
Ruth had concealed her identity with a chameleon arch to avoid detection. (David Tennant’s Doctor did the same thing in the two-parter “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood.”) Yet neither Doctor has any recollection of the other, leaving fans to speculate about whether this might be an incarnation from another timeline. Bonus: there’s also a cameo in this episode by fan favorite Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), who delivers a cryptic message to the Doctor via her companions—”Beware the Lone Cyberman”—with a warning not to give said Cyberman what it wants.
We moved into the endgame with “The Haunting of Villa Diodati,” easily this season’s best episode. The Doctor and her companions crash the famous 1816 house party that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, only to find that Percy Shelley (Lewis Rainer) has gone missing and the remaining guests are experiencing mysterious “hauntings.” Those turn out to be related to the Lone Cyberman (Patrick O’Kane) Harkness warned about (actually a partially completed Cyberman named Ashad). To preserve the historical timeline, the Doctor is forced to give him the prize he seeks: the Cyberium, an AI containing all the history and future of the Cybermen.
That choice seals the doom of the entire universe, so the Doctor and her “fam” travel to the far future, to the last outpost of humanity, in the penultimate episode, “Ascension of the Cybermen.” There, they hope to foil the Lone Cyberman’s plan for galactic domination. They discover a portal leading to the now-ruined Gallifrey, out of which pops the Master—the puppet master who’s been pulling all the strings. And he promises the Doctor a revelation that will change everything she thought she believed—a revelation that has something to do with a flashback subplot regarding a young Irishman named Brendan.
Who is the Timeless Child?
Everything hinges on an indigenous race of Gallifreyans called the Shobogans—first mentioned in the 1976 episode “The Deadly Assassin“—and a story the Doctor and the Master were told as little Time Tots about a “Timeless Child” (briefly mentioned in last season’s “The Ghost Monument“) who was the source of the Time Lords’ ability to regenerate. The legend holds that a Shobogan scientist named Tecteun discovered a mysterious little girl just outside a portal to a strange distant world and took her back to Gallifrey.
One day, while playing, the little girl fell off a cliff and should have died. Instead, she regenerated. Tecteun experimented on the child through several incarnations (male and female, many different races)—wiping the little girl’s memory each time—until she figured out how to extract the regeneration energy and use it to regenerate herself, plus many of her fellow Shobogans. They became the Time Lords.
It should be painfully obvious that this Timeless Child is the Doctor herself. Doctor Ruth (and Brendan, for that matter) are prior incarnations she just can’t remember, given the memory wipes. That means that every Time Lord has a bit of the Doctor in them—including the Master, hence the homicidal rage that led him to destroy his home planet. Granted, the Master has always been mad, ever since looking into the time vortex at the Untempered Schism (a gap in the fabric of space and time) as a child. But he has always considered himself to be the Doctor’s equal. Having that illusion shattered sent him over the edge into committing outright genocide.
The revelation was an inspired plot twist that should have plenty of repercussions for future seasons—like the canonical limit of 13 regenerations for Time Lords. The Time Lords made a big show of granting Matt Smith’s Doctor a second set of regenerations in his final episode, “The Time of the Doctor,” in gratitude for saving Gallifrey. But that limit likely doesn’t apply to the Doctor, whose DNA is the source of their ability. So it wasn’t really a “gift,” just the furtherance of an ancient lie.
There was much to like in series 12, so it’s hard to put a finger on why this season never entirely caught fire for me. Whittaker continues to shine as the Doctor. Apart from the aforementioned lapses into preachiness and a couple of dangling narrative threads, the writing was much improved, giving her a chance to stretch her formidable acting chops. Maybe it’s just a sense of having seen so much of this before, done a little bit better.
Sure, it was fun watching the gang team up with Nikola Tesla to save the world, only to have him still end his days penniless and forgotten. But it wasn’t as powerful as “Vincent and the Doctor,” for example, when Matt Smith’s Doctor and Amy Pond met up with Vincent van Gogh. Similarly, the show has broken our hearts with tragic Cyberman-centric plots in the past—most notably the Peter Capaldi-era “Death in Heaven,” which made the Cyberman invasion properly poignant by allowing Clara to suffer a real personal loss. There’s none of that deep emotional resonance with the Lone Cyberman subplot. The only novelty is the Master’s admittedly ingenious idea to merge the Cybermen with regenerating Time Lord bodies to create his army, as one final twist of the knife for the Doctor.
That’s the downside of Chibnall’s decision to establish the 13th Doctor’s place in the Whovian canon so emphatically. It’s tough to come up with sufficiently clever innovations on all those well-worn tropes without suffering a bit by comparison. That said, series 12 was stronger than its predecessor, with a more engrossing and memorable finale that does seem like it might be a game-changer. So I still hold out hope that series 13 will realize this incarnation’s full potential.
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