SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Series 12 of Doctor Who. Proceed at your own risk.
When Doctor Who returned for Series 11 in 2018, new showrunner Chris Chibnall was very clear about what would be in his version of the show – or more importantly what wouldn’t. He wanted his version of Doctor Who, with Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, to be full of brand-new creatures and threats. Writers weren’t allowed to head to the monster cupboard for any revivals, with no dusting down of old favourites or over-reliance on the show’s past for continuity.
Barring the appearance of certain historical adversaries from the planet Skaro, Chibnall stuck to his remit. By the time the word Dalek was mentioned in the New Year special “Resolution” (2019), viewers who joined the series with “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” had only heard the briefest mentions of regeneration, never heard the words Time Lord and knew nothing about where The Doctor came from. The Who in Doctor Who was back…
Series 12, on the other hand, trips over references to the past. And the stories are all the better for it. It’s a series full of massive revelations that change established facts within the show’s lore and sets the series on a new course.
When the first trailers for the new series appeared last November, it was clear that Chibnall was now taking Doctor Who in a new direction. We got glimpses of the returning Judoon and Cybermen plus the mention of something coming for The Doctor. And, as we eventually found out in “The Timeless Children”, even bigger shocks and surprises were to come.
The first major surprise came during the breathtaking closing moments of the first episode of “Spyfall”. Agent O was an old enemy – the Master in a stolen body. We all thought that the character was dead because we see the Master kill a later version of himself – Missy – in “The Doctor Falls” (2017). But, continuity fans, this new Master could simply be an earlier version him/herself.
Played brilliantly and energetically by Sacha Dhawan, the actor didn’t appear in any of the publicity for this first story – to the extent that he was even edited out of scenes specially for the trailers. Major kudos for carefully keeping this revelation under wraps; his return was a genuine jaw-dropping moment.
This new Master is dangerous, excitable, unhinged and more unpredictable than we’ve seen before – and the rogue Time Lord takes great delight in taunting his old friend, The Doctor. He also now carries his Tissue Compression Eliminator again – a deadly device that kills and shrinks victims on a whim, not seen or referred to on-screen since “The Mark of the Rani” in 1985.
It does look like it might have been blown up at the end of the series along with his new race of CyberMasters… but everything we think we know can be a lie, right? Rest assured, he’ll be back.
Who is The Doctor?
In Series 12 we get to see a more troubled, angrier soul at the TARDIS controls. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor carries most of the action, while the family lag behind. After a surprise encounter with a previous version of herself in “Fugitive of the Judoon”, The Doctor finally tells her friends who she is.
“I was born on a planet called Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous,” she announces. ”I’m a Time Lord. I can regenerate my body. I stole this TARDIS and I ran away. I’ve been travelling ever since.”
But, as we later discover, this is only partly true.
THE TIMELESS CHILD
First referred to by a Remnant in “The Ghost Monument” (2018), the Timeless Child was mentioned again in “Spyfall” and popped up in a dream in “Can You Hear Me?”. Obviously, this was going to be important.
“They lied to us, the founding fathers of Gallifrey. Everything we were told was a lie. We are not who we think, you or I,” says the Master. “The whole existence of our species is built on the lie of the Timeless Child.”
By the end of “The Timeless Children”, The Doctor (and the audience) finally find out what this is all about. The Doctor is the Timeless Child and wasn’t born on Gallifrey after all. The young Doctor was found beneath a gateway to another universe – a refugee from another world – and was adopted by a Shobogan explorer called Tecteun from old Gallifrey. In terms of Doctor Who history, this is massive. The Doctor was at least as surprised as most of the audience.
REGENERATING THE MYTH
Tecteun discovered that the child could regenerate her body, and she then dedicated her life to finding out more about this clever and unusual trick. A big citadel on Gallifrey was built, the locals discovered time travel and named themselves Time Lords – and the Doctor’s gift of regeneration was gene-spliced into this new race.
Like “The Deadly Assassin” (1976) – which, incidentally, wasn’t universally liked by the fandom back then – this ambitious story turns the series on its head. We now know there have been LOADS of other Doctors. The Morbius mind battle from “The Brain of Morbius” (1976) now makes complete sense. Ruth from “Fugitive of the Judoon” makes sense. And although The Doctor seems tortured by this news at first (to be fair, who wouldn’t be?), by the end of the episode she seems to have got her head around the idea.
The storyline about an adopted lad called Brendan in Ireland seen in “Ascension of the Cybermen” might have seemed a plot strand too many. But this filter over the Doctor’s past is a clue to who she actually is – which will no doubt be picked up in a future series. We find out that information around this was deleted from the Matrix – could this have been a meta-reference to old episodes of Doctor Who being wiped? In that case, hopefully, some audio soundtracks might survive somewhere, so The Doctor can enjoy animated episodes of her life at a later date…
The Rise and Fall of Gallifrey
“I took a trip home, to Gallifrey, hiding in its little bubble universe,” the Master tells The Doctor. “Not sure how to describe what I found. Pulverised? Burned? Nuked? All of the above. Someone destroyed it. Our home, razed to the ground. Everyone killed. Everything burned…”
Poor old Gallifrey. As we later find out, the Master destroyed his homeworld to make the Time Lords pay for all the lies. Worse still, he kept the bodies, turning them into a new race — an unstoppable regenerating Cyber army. As plans go, it’s bold and brave.
Will we miss the Doctor’s home planet in Doctor Who? Perhaps not. Across the years, Gallifrey became a tired and slightly dull place to hang out. Russell T Davies destroyed it off-screen when the series came back in 2005. He brought it back in his first episode “The End of Time” (2009), and promptly got rid of it again in the concluding second episode.
Steven Moffat returned to Gallifrey for the anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” (2013) to tell the story of the Time War, and after that he too hid it away in another universe. After brief appearances in “The Time of the Doctor” (2013) and “Listen” (2014), the Twelfth Doctor returned home in “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent” (both 2015) and found the planet positioned at the extreme end of the time continuum. At the end of the universe, give or take a star system, we’re told.
Now, it would appear that by the end of Series 12, Gallifrey is a dead planet and the Time Lords are no more.
Monsters and villains play a big part in Doctor Who and there was a pleasing mix of horrific creatures and enemies scattered throughout the series, both new and returning, all contributing towards expanding the show’s scope and mythology. As well as the returning Master, we met:
- Kasaavin – spies from another dimension
- Daniel Barton – in league with the Master and the Kasaavin
- Dregs – terrifying mutated versions of mankind
- Skithra and their Queen; scorpion-like creatures
- Judoon – old foes; Rhino-esque police force
- Praxeus – a dangerous bacteria that affects plastic particles
- Chagaska – creatures created from a girl’s nightmare
- Zellin and Rakaya – bored immortals
- Ashad the Lone Cyberman – a Cyberman without an inhibitor
- CyberDrones – an advance guard of Cyberheads
- Cybermen – resurrected old enemies, with a new look
- CyberMasters – Cybermen, made up of dead Time Lords, that can regenerate!
The best was saved until last. The Cybermen made a welcome return across the last three stories, and introduced us to the Lone Cybermen – an angry, unfinished Cyberman on a mission to save his defeated race.
REFERENCING THE PAST
While the Master, Gallifrey and story of the Time Lords are the big plot points, there are other less obvious Easter Eggs and callbacks within the series that serve to anchor Series 12 in the era of traditional Doctor Who while also pushing the show forward into new territory. They’re also fun to spot — and also, presumably, fun to scatter!
- In “Spyfall”, to get the Master’s attention, The Doctor uses morse code which sounds suspiciously like the Doctor Who theme. The rhythm of two hearts, she says.
- The Doctor then goes old-school and links up with the Master telepathically, as seen previously in “The Three Doctors” (1973) and “The Five Doctors” (1983).
- Jodrell Bank gets a mention – a nice touch, supposedly in reference to the end of the Fourth Doctor’s era and “Logopolis”. But remember it was called the Pharos Project in that story. So, unless the Master is referring to another unseen adventure between the old foes, it appears this mention is just an unfortunate scripting error.
- UNIT and Torchwood are referenced, but we discover that they’re now defunct.
- Captain Jack Harkness pops up to say hello and give a warning in the “Fugitive of the Judoon”.
- A discarded Chameleon Arch is seen in the same story, and is responsible for hiding ‘Ruth’ from her captors.
- There are throwaway references to the Celestial Toymaker, the Eternals and the Guardians, who all get a mention in passing in “Can You Hear Me?”
- Autons get a shout out in “Praxeus” – but The Doctor soon realises that these creatures, first seen in 1971’s “Terror of the Autons” and brought back when the series was revived in “Rose” (2005), don’t tend to work like the horrific bacteria.
- We even get to see other TARDISes – with stunning retro interiors and chameleon circuits that work.
The TARDIS with four main characters travelling around in it from episode to episode isn’t new to Doctor Who – it was there right at the start (see “An Unearthly Child”, 1963). But in the shorter stories, if the characters are given stuff to do, it dominates the story, and if they aren’t given material, they disappear into insignificance.
Series 12 had too many scenes of the three supporting characters sitting around waiting for adventure, rather than being part of the adventure. There were even given a new seating area inside the TARDIS to help them, er, sit around and discuss plot points.
While we do get to find out a bit more about their backgrounds, Ryan comes off worst, and they didn’t even seem too moved by the Doctor leaving them at the end of the series. It does feel like their particular journey is coming to an end.
Doctor Who Series 12 may not have been a ratings success, but the show’s far from dead. It’s a big old universe – with all of time and space to explore after The Doctor inevitably escapes life imprisonment, the cliffhanger ending to series – and there’s no need for the show to fade away. Plus we’ve got a whole new back story to discover. The series has cleverly returned to it roots. Where does the Doctor come from? Doctor who? It might be another 20 years before we ever find out, but the mystery is there to ponder and explore.
With Daleks returning at the end of the year and a new series in development, who knows what might be returning next. We don’t know exactly when Series 13 will air yet, but with filming not taking place until autumn 2020, it looks like it could be later in 2021. Two things are certain at the moment: Jodie will be back, as will Chris Chibnall.
Remember, time is relative, right? With BritBox and other streaming services, plus the new range of Doctor Who Blu-Rays, there’s a huge history of Doctor Who to discover or rewatch while we wait.