Thursday, April 23, 2020

12:10 The Timeless Children


The Timeless Children is not so much a story as a cop-out. 

There are fireworks. There are flags and lampshades that warn us that this is a really important story and the season climax. The space-opera gloss from last week is all present and correct. I liked the gun battle in the camp. I liked Ryan throwing the bomb as if it was a basketball. (I like the way he says “oh my days” rather than “oh my god.”) I liked the way Graham takes charge of the party of player characters on the space ship and comes up with scheme that is so crazy it might just work. I liked the huge crashed Chris Foss spaceship on Gallifrey. I liked the melodrama, the machismo, the one last cavalry charge into certain doom. Be swift, be brave, but most of all, be lucky! 

There is a great big hole in the plot. It is called the Boundary and it connects the story about the Cybermen quite arbitrarily with a story about the Master. It is guarded by an old soldier with robes and a staff played by Ian McElhinney. He speaks his lines in that understated thespian way that good stage actors used to have, managing to say minor lines under his breath but still letting us hear them. He puts one in mind of dear, dear Sir Larry playing Zeus. But most of all he puts one in mind of Sir Alec Guiness. If Doctor Who is going to do Star Wars it may as well go the whole way.

I wish we could have stuck with the gritty space opera and left the Master and the Time Lords for another week. I’ve always wanted to see Blakes 7 done with Cybermen in the Doctor Who universe. (Why do we describe a more down-beat version of an established character as “gritty” incidentally? Is there any such thing as a “smooth” reboot?) 

The Master is quite funny, but the whole “I am evil and I know I am evil” routine got old after John Simm. And Michelle Gomez. And Moriarty. And that Dracula thing. He shrinks the Lone Cyberman with his evil shrink ray and five minutes later says he wished he’d said “I’m going to cut you down to size.” He makes a fairly good evil joke at the Doctor, and then asks why she doesn’t crack a smile. He says “Are you sitting uncomfortably?” before expositing the backstory. Evil is performative; the Master is outside the script. But it removes any sense of him being a threat you need to take seriously. 

Having killed the main villain from last week, the Master gets control of the Cybermen’s floaty glowy mercurial artificial intelligence that they normally keep hidden in the brains of romantic poets. There was a decent comparison to be made between the Time Lord Matrix and the Cybermen’s Cyberium but no one makes it. I hope at some point we get a Cybermen / Sea Devil cross over so they can call it the Silurian Cyberium. It turns out that the Shrunken Cyberman had a Plot Device hidden inside of him that, if released, would wipe out all organic life. The humans already know about this Death Particle. Legends speak of it, apparently. You’d really think that Chibnall could come up with a better way of getting his plot coupon to the Doctor.

The Time Lords are all dead, but the Master is going to allow the Cybermen to convert the dead Time Lords into Cybermen. Which is a Bad Thing because Time Lords can’t die. There is, it seems to me, a tiny flaw in this reasoning, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Earlier in the episode the Lone Cyberman was waxing maniacal about how he was going to remove the last bit of organic matter from his people and turn them into pure robotic entities. The Master, speaking again from outside of the script, complains that that would be a cliche because there are already lots of evil robots in the Doctor Who universe. This plot thread gets buried when the Master zaps the Cyberman. A pity. “Emotional Cyberman who wants to be a robot versus Emotionless Cybermen who want to stay a bit human” was a plot that could have gone somewhere. 

The Cybermen and the Rebels come from a serious world we might almost believe in. They speak the same language, literally and metaphorically, as Ryan and Yaz. The Master is a clown; a trickster; a wild card in the deck; he knows he is in a story and loves the fact that he’s got cast as a baddie. So, obviously, when he incorporates the Cybermen into his plan, the Cybermen are going to become ridiculous. The bigger and more apocalyptic the plan, the more risible the Cybermen need to appear. The Master isn’t really going to destroy the universe by releasing the Particles of Death. He is going to destroy it by parodying it and making it ridiculous so no-one can believe in it any more. 

Since Season 2, everyone has been working really hard to make the Cybermen scary; and the last time we saw them they were properly dark. So obviously, when they are turned into unkillable dead Cyber Time Lords they acquire high collars, with a lace-style pattern worked into the metal. And robes. When did Cybermen ever wear clothes before? When the ultimate villains come on stage, the audience titters. The Master’s victory is complete.

Graham tells Yaz that she is amazing, strongly signalling that she is going to get killed. (She isn’t.) The Doctor decides to use the miniaturised body of the Lone Cyberman and a bomb to unleash the Particles of Fatal Death to kill the Master and all the Cyber Time Lords (who are, if you have been following this, unkillable.) 

The Master is delighted with this because it means that the Doctor is (all together now) just as bad as him. The Doctor chickens out at the last moment, reasoning presumably that if someone pointed out a child to her and told her that the child would grow up totally evil she still couldn’t kill the child. So the Jedi Knight shows up and commits hari kari while the Doctor runs away. Everyone goes home in various TARDISes. A mysterious lady in a bridal outfit [check this. Ed.] appears in the TARDIS to set things up for the holiday special and the Doctor is left going “what, what, what” like she always does. 

There is a twenty minute digression in which the Master narrates some guff about the origin of the Time Lords to the Doctor, but you can skip that part because it doesn’t affect the plot in any noticeable way.

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I said I was going to give up thinking about Doctor Who after the desecration of William Hartnell’s corpse in Twice Upon a Time; and nothing in series eleven made me regret the decision. Series twelve was a notable improvement. I found the holiday camp one and the America one perfectly watchable. The one with Lenny Henry, the one with the Romantic poets and the one with the rhinos I thought were positively good. Only the one with the dead birds and the one with the evil aliens who feed of negative emotions were properly unwatchable. The closing two-parter is funnish but is predicated on a cop-out and some not ultimately interesting fanwankery. 

So if anyone cares, on a scale of 1 to 5

Spyfall 1 ***

Spyfall 2 ***

Ocean 55 **

Nicolas Tesla’s Night of Terror **

Fugitive of the Judoon***

Can You hear Me *

Praxeus *

The Haunting of the Villa ***

Ascension of the Cybermen ***

An Untimely Child **


Richard Worth said...

Luke 18:17 'Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein'. I have not conferred with the younger members of the household about the recent series, and only caught the last three episodes. However, I am wondering what to would be like to approach them as a modern 12-year-old, without forty years of experience, with a modern set of references, and no expectation beyond the show being entertaining, fun and a bit scary. To take a specific example, Anthony Ainley was channelling Roger Delgado who was channelling a pulp serial villain probably played by Christopher Lee. Kids would have known what KIND of villain he was without being able to name three or four villains who inspired him, but may have felt they were getting a dose of something deep,and archetypal, or at least grown-up. The recent Master seems to be channelling Jack Nickolson's 'Joker', the Clown Prince of Crime as played by Hannibal Lector. We grown-ups may be looking at him from the wrong end of the telescope, as a cheap plastic knock-off rather than an affordable version of a classic. However, the challenge comes when the new series starts cannibalising itself: Dr Jodie doing things with Gallifrey and Origins and Identity and Cybermen-s-Borg which Dr David and Dr Matt have done before, so even the twelve-year-olds start to feel that they saw the same story when they were eight or nine.

voxpoptart said...

For many seasons before this, your and my Doctor Who opinions had diverged mightily. For me, the Hinchcliffe/ Sarah Jane era (as delightful as it is to read your account of it) is right *before* Doctor Who turned into the show I love -- I started my kids at "Face of Evil", catching the last bits of Hinchcliffe in order that they meet Leela, then getting them straight into Graham Williams, then Christopher Bidmead, then the '80s. And in the modern era, I liked the Matt Smith era and (after a throat-clearing half-season of bad characterization) absolutely loved the Capaldi era. And I even found the first Whittaker season a mostly-charming, weird little mess.

Then came "Battle of Ranskoor or Something", and all of this season, and I can't rate anything from this past season above 3-of-5 either. I'd be strewing the 1-stars rather more generously. I'm sad you don't enjoy the show, but at least it's nice to be agreeing.

Note also that, as a K-9-era fan, I'm offended that your site requires me to "Please prove you're not a robot".

Oliver Townshend said...

Certainly series 12 was much better than series 11, which I'm trying to blank out, and have pretty much succeeded (in fact I can't remember half the episodes you review in series 12, even when I read the plot exposition you've given, and yet I have seen them all).

A few 3 star episodes. Agreed. But at the moment, that's enough from Doctor Who to keep me happy. I just try to not overthink it while I watch, because when you do it spoils it all. Instead I read your reviews and my subconscious recognises your comments...

Are you going to dwell on the origin? I thought it pulled everything together quiet neatly. I know a lot of people complained it was new, and changed everything but I don't think it did. Most of it was stuff I remembered from my childhood.

Cable Seals said...

Hi Andy, you reminds me of Aslan in the late 1980s and early 1990s.