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Image Description: The Doctor views fragments of her past in the Matrix
Matthew Dovey asks whether Series Twelve’s grand revelations about the Doctor’s past are really just derivative of ideas explored over a quarter-century ago
Origin stories for established characters are always dangerous territory. Every fan wants to know more about their favourite character’s mysterious origins, but are often disappointed when these are revealed. Doctor Who is no different: much of the now accepted lore around Gallifrey and the Time Lords split the fan base when they were first revealed on screen (for example, in the Deadly Assassin); so it is little surprise that the revelations of The Timeless Children should also split them once more.
For those of us that survived the wilderness years between the end of Classic Who and New Who on the staple diet of the Virgin New Adventures, there is a sense of déja vu as regards these redefining revelations. Although there is a very different narrative, the key plot points in the discovery of the Timeless Child all seem very derivative of the ‘Cartmel Masterplan’.
For those not familiar with the ‘Cartmel Masterplan’, a quick recap is in order – warning: spoilers for those who might wish to read the Virgin New Adventures lie ahead. In the days before showrunners, Andrew Cartmel was the script editor of the final three seasons of Classic Doctor Who. He felt that Doctor Who had drifted too far from its origins as the tale of a ‘mysterious traveller in time and space’, and the Doctor had become little more than just a Time Lord travelling in a box. Ironically, some of the criticisms I have heard of The Timeless Children is that it rewrites Doctor Who’s history from its origins as being just the story of a Time Lord in a box! So, with writers such as Ben Aaronovitch and Marc Platt, he started to introduce seeds that the Doctor was more than just another Time Lord, most notably in Silver Nemesis and Remembrance of the Daleks.
However, the show was cancelled before any of these hints could be resolved, leaving it up to the authors of the Virgin New and Missing Adventures novels to take up the mantle and develop the ideas further. Most notably, these included Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible (Marc Platt), The Pit (Neil Penswick), Human Nature (Paul Cornell), The Room with No Doors (Kate Orman), and Cold Fusion (Lance Parkin). When the Seventh Doctor’s swansong, Lungbarrow (Marc Platt), arrived, it met with a similar reaction from the fanbase as The Timeless Children. Those who were unhappy with the ‘Cartmel Masterplan’ were, of course, only too pleased when developments in New Who contradicted the masterplan to the point that the New Adventures could no longer be considered ‘canon,’ and were thereby relegated to some alternative timeline.
In Cartmel’s account of the Doctor’s origins, ancient Gallifrey had a vast empire overseen by the matriarchal Pythia, rulers who had the ability to see the future. However, the Pythia begin to lose their grip on power as their ability to predict the future begins to decline. Leading experimentation into time travel, Rassilon emerges as a dominant figure in Gallifreyan society, although it is never entirely clear whether these experiments are to compensate for the Pythia’s waning precognition, or the cause of it. There begins a power game between Rassilon and the Pythia, which eventually ends with the last Pythia committing suicide; her acolytes fleeing to the planet Karn to become the eponymous sisterhood. However, this is not before she uses her remaining powers to curse sterility on all of Gallifrey.
Rassilon’s response, in facing the end of his race, is to establish genetic looms – future generations will not be born, but will be woven. This also allows Rassilon to introduce genetic modifications, such as the Rassilon Imprimatur mentioned in The Two Doctors),enabling future Time Lords to withstand the rigours of time travel. Another of these modifications is the ability to regenerate – in some accounts, the genetic code for this was stolen from the Great Vampire, later encountered by the Doctor and Romana in State of Decay. Rassilon, however, artificially limits this ability to twelve regenerations. There are differing accounts as to why: one is that Rassilon, who was already becoming fearful of being usurped, wanted to keep that ability to himself; another is that Time Lords retain their previous personalities, and there becomes a point where this drives them mad – thirteen personalities being about the limit. Whilst, pre-Chibnall, due to Tennant initially regenerating into Tennant in Journey’s End, Capaldi’s Doctor was technically the fourteenth incarnation, he was the thirteenth personality, and his reluctance to change yet again is consistent with this latter account.
Alongside Rassilon at the dawn of the Time Lords, there were two other key figures – Omega, who collapsed a star to create the Eye of Harmony as seen in The Three Doctors, as well as another mysterious figure whose name has been forgotten and is only remembered as ‘the Other’. In many tales, the Other did not originate from Gallifrey, while it is also known that he vanished as mysteriously as he arrived. Meanwhile, Rassilon’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and paranoid. There are rumours that he engineered Omega’s demise, and also ordered the massacre of natural-born Gallifreyans. The Other, as soon as he has ensured his granddaughter is safely off-world, jumps into one of the genetic looms, where his genetic material remains for millennia until it is re-woven into a Time Lord. This Time Lord will later be assisted by the stellar manipulator known as the Hand of Omega to flee Gallifrey, but not before the Hand steers his TARDIS into Gallifrey’s past. Here, he will pick up a young girl who had missed the shuttle her grand-father had arranged for her, but who recognises that strange Time-Lord as a reincarnation of her grand-father – a Time Lord who will adopt the name of The Doctor.
So, in comparison to the revelations of The Timeless Children, there are a lot of very similar themes between Cartmel’s account of the Doctor’s origins and Chibnall’s alternative:
- The Doctor is not of Gallifrey. In Cartmel’s version, his origins are unknown, although Human Nature suggests he may have been from Earth. In Chibnall’s, we just know that she was found on another planet below some temporal\spatial anomaly.
- The Doctor was present at the beginning of the Time Lords, and instrumental in their development, although in Chibnall’s version she was much more of a passive participant in Tecteun’s experiments than an active protagonist, as in Cartmel’s.
- The Doctor’s genetic code permeates the Time Lords. In Chibnall’s account, all Time Lords share the Doctor’s regenerative genetic code; in Cartmel, it is hinted that the Other’s genetic code might have been woven into other Time Lords, although it is only in the Doctor that there are sufficient levels for him to be a reincarnation.
- The Doctor is unaware of his previous life. In Cartmel, this is because he is a reincarnation, although some memories do resurface unconsciously. The seventh Doctor, in particular, is much more aware of his inheritance. In Chibnall, her memory was actively wiped by the Division.
- Regeneration is not a natural ability of the Time Lords – being introduced by Rassilon (Cartmel) or Tecteun (Chibnall), but in both accounts, being artificially limited to the magic number twelve, unless additional cycles are granted.
Despite the opposition of many fans, the genetic looms of the Cartmel masterplan seem a much more satisfactory narrative device than the Division’s memory wipe. It not only accounts for the Doctor’s failure to remember his previous existence, but very neatly accounts for the Doctor having Time Lord biology despite not being from Gallifrey. The Other’s genetically woven reincarnation is biologically a Time Lord, even though he possesses a navel unlike the loomed Time Lords. This origin does not detract from any previous stories whose plot revolved around the Doctor only having twelve regenerations, such as Mawdryn Undead or The Time of the Doctor. It even allows there to have been regenerations before Hartnell without affecting continuity, as his reincarnation did indeed only have twelve regenerations, with Hartnell as the first. It also accounts for what the Doctor/Other did in the many millennia between the dawn of the Time Lords and arriving in Foreman’s Yard in the 1960s, viz. floating around as genetic material in the Gallifreyan looms, and why no-one, apart from Susan, was aware of the Doctor’s previous lives.
Chibnall, however, leaves these all as loose threads – although it is possible some of these will be addressed in future series. If the Timeless Child was not from Gallifrey, why does she now have Time Lord biology, such as having two hearts, etc? Did Tecteun introduce Gallifreyan genetic codes into her whilst experimenting to discover the secret of regeneration? Or are these characteristics of the Timeless Child that were transplanted into Gallifreyans? If the Timeless Child has always been on Gallifrey, just with her mind wiped before becoming the Doctor, why is no other Time Lord aware of this? Indeed, this is particularly difficult to explain since, if we assume Jo Martin is a Doctor before a mind-wipe, she was apparently calling herself the Doctor whilst working for the Division.
This latter point reflects a problem that Chibnall seems to have with the passage of time. In the finale of the previous season, we are expected to believe that three millennia passed between Tzim-Sha encountering the Ux and the Doctor’s arrival, during which time he was only able to use the weapon he got them to create on less than half a dozen planets. It is just plausible that it really took millennia to develop the weapon, or that the weapon has a really long recharge cycle between uses. However, it seems less likely that during all that time, the Ux never questioned what they were doing, particularly given how quickly it takes the Doctor to persuade them they have been exploited by Tzim-Sha.
The same problem applies to the Timeless Child. Even in Classic Who, the assumption was that the age of Rassilon was many generations into the Time Lords’ past, in order for the current generation to have forgotten the true purpose of many of Rassilon’s artefacts, and for various legends to have been built in in place of history. Similarly, it would have taken generations for the Timeless Child and the origin of regeneration to have been forgotten. Given the average age of a Time Lord is measured in millennia, we are probably talking in terms of hundreds of millennia at least. During which time, the Timeless Child was present on Gallifrey and in later years, calling herself the Doctor and travelling in a TARDIS disguised as a police box. Yet, no-one noticed she had always been present throughout Gallifrey’s history. Did no one comment on the coincidence that a young dropout from the Academy should steal a TARDIS, which was also disguised as a police box, and also start to call himself the Doctor?
It remains to be seen what Chibnall will do next with the story of the Timeless Child. For me, at the moment, it feels very derivative of the ‘Cartmel Masterplan’, but less satisfying. I would have much preferred that either Chibnall had adapted Lungbarrow with Marc Platt’s help or approval, in the same manner that Paul Cornell adapted Human Nature, or else tried to come up with something completely new.