The Timeless Children and the Death of Canon

"The Timeless Children" was a huge disappointment. Doctor Who series 12 was generally bland like its predecessor, but "Fugitive of the Judoon", "The Haunting of Villa Diodati", and "Ascension of the Cybermen" set the stage for a potentially amazing finale. Instead, "The Timeless Children" felt more like a fan fic than a cohesive story; its entire "plot", if it can be called that, being based around the hollow reveal that the Doctor was the Timeless Child all along.

As Full Fat Videos have detailed in their excellent video essay, this retcon provides nothing for the show but a cheap shock. It doesn't change the Doctor's personality, her relationship with her companions, or her relationship with the Time Lords, which was already antagonistic. And it takes away so, so much. The Doctor was never supposed to be this godly figure. When we first meet the character in An Unearthly Child, he's fairly ordinary for an alien, and not at all a hero. He's just a passing traveller. It takes years of adventures, righteous decisions and self-sacrifices for him to become the Oncoming Storm. On a non-diegetic level, this is mirrored in how the show has flourished and developed itself.

Even then, the Doctor has for the most part been embarrassed by the legend he has left in his wake, and the charm and whimsy of the character has always been in his enduring nature as a "Cosmic Hobo" or "Mad Man with a Box". The Doctor's fifty-six year character development is an astonishing thing, now totally retconned by the Timeless Child. It turns out the Doctor was always destined to be special; that they would have become this legend regardless of what they had done and how they had acted. It invalidates the decision of the Hartnell Doctor to steal a TARDIS and explore the universe with his granddaughter, and his transition, with Ian and Barbara's help, from a stern scientist to a loveable old gentleman. "Twice Upon a Time", which contrasts the First Doctor with the man he would become, is likewise made irrelevant, as is the Doctor's entire series 8 character arc at the end of which he concludes he is not a saint but "an idiot".

Not only this, but the last of the Doctor's mystery is gone. By extending the character's prehistory, Chris Chibnall has side-stepped the controversy that would come with depicting the Hartnell Doctor's early life on Gallifrey. But the effect is still the same. We've seen the Doctor's childhood now.* We even know her adopted mother. Yes, we no longer know the Doctor's species, or where she was born, but what does this matter? We know as much as the Doctor knows herself, and the question of where someone comes from is less important than the question of who, fundamentally, they are. Yes, "Doctor who?" has been answered. We might as well know her name. The tragic thing about this is that it doesn't just apply to Doctor Thirteen. The mystery, and the magic that comes with it, has left the character in all their incarnations.

Inevitable comparisons to Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker must be made. TROS similarly retconned its own canon to ruin by making the Skywalker family irrelevant and raising the Palpatine family to the centre of the Star Wars mythos. I don't think TROS or "The Timeless Children" will be accepted by fans for a long time and frankly, they shouldn't be. And this got me thinking about the nature of canon itself.

What gave the Disney corporation the right to say what happened to Han & Leia's children over, say, the old Expanded Universe? A financial transaction. But this seems ridiculous to me. It's all equally imaginary.

TROS and "The Timeless Children" have proven that canon can be totally rewritten at any moment with the flick of a writer's wrist. This sort of thing will only become more common in our age of abundant media. And thus I think the value of canon itself will depreciate.

There may once have been a "canonical" account of the life of King Arthur, by a recognised author predating Geoffrey of Monmouth. Perhaps for some fifty years in ancient Wales the contents of the Matter of Britain were clear-cut, and everyone could say with certainty what "really" happened to Arthur and his knights, and what was merely fan fiction. But it couldn't have taken long for the legend to spiral out of control in its popularity, until the Arthurian cycle became what it is known as today; a vast ocean of imaginative accounts, many of which bear very little similarity with one another.

Of course, this is a fantasy, as Arthur long predates copyright and even "fiction" as we know it. Modern copyright law may stem the tide, but the process will still be the same. It's already begun in comic books, the "canons" of which, if they can still be called that, have already reached an Arthurian level of incomprehensibility and incoherence. So long as a story is popular, there will be demand for more of it. So long as there is demand, there will be someone willing to write it. Sometimes these additions will make the story better. Oftentimes they will make it worse. But it will carry on. Stories upon stories upon stories. Eventually, without repeated and necessary reboots, any concept of canon will collapse under its own contradictions.

And that's fine. It's the fate of all great tales. The restrictive effect of copyright law will soon be reversed by the impatience of our hyper-literate, hyper-media age, and Star Wars and Doctor Who will become as complex in a century as the Matter of Britain got to be in a millennium.

In this anarchy of imagination, the headcanon will only become more important. We're seeing this already with dedicated fans simply refusing to accept the authority of "The Timeless Children" and TROS. And why shouldn't they? The fantasy of the silliest reylo is just as real as the events depicted in Episode IX (by which I mean, totally makebelieve). As canon contradicts itself unto collapse, fans will be forced to pick and choose between fictional realities. This in effect is simply a return to how stories were in ancient times, when there were millions of variations between storytellers. Now there are millions of headcanons.

This doesn't mean stories aren't important, or that we shouldn't hold "The Timeless Children" or TROS to account. For as long as the copyright endures, Disney and the BBC have unparalleled influence over these popular myths. Their vision for them matters; if TROS is elaborated on in the lore by future writers it's very possible that the Chosen One story arc of Star Wars will eventually be swamped by this Palpatine-centric reinterpretation of the series which is simply a less interesting story. After decades of material viewing Star Wars through a TROS lens future generations may never know the power of the Chosen One's fall and redemption; that version of the Star Wars myth becoming merely a relic of the franchise's earliest history. Likewise, unless the Timeless Child reveal is erased by a future showrunner (we can only hope), it may become too ingrained in the lore to ever be extricated, and the vision of the Doctor as a humble Cosmic Hobo will be lost ever after. As an example, I sometimes wonder whether Doctor Who was right to depict the Doctor's species and home planet in the first place. It was the start of the slippery slope which led us here, and I can't help but feel that the First and Second Doctors bear a magic and mystery that all subsequent incarnations lack. But there's no way Gallifrey could possibly be written out of the Doctor's backstory by this point (even Chibnall didn't go that far); I worry fifty years from now the same might be said for the Timeless Child.

While we petition for new writers, and new retcons to retcon the retcons, all we can do is indulge in our own headcanons, in which, in most cases, Episode IX and series 12 never happened. And take comfort in that. If these stories in their original form touched you, then that's all that matters; and they will always be real to you, no matter what some hack writer says.

*Yes, I realise Steven Moffat was the first to break the taboo of depicting the Doctor's pre-Unearthly Child life, first in "The Name of the Doctor" and later in "Listen". While these instances were not terribly damaging in themselves I always worried they would set a terrible precedent.
Additionally, many try to justify Chibnall's riding roughshod over canon by referring to classic Who. In the scrapped script The Final Game it was proposed to make the Doctor & the Master two aspects of the same immortal being. The Brain of Morbius implied the existence of pre-Hartnell Doctors (as referenced in "The Timeless Children"). And, of course, there was the incomplete Cartmel Masterplan. My simple answer to this is that none of these ideas were fully realised, and that in any case, just because something was considered in classic Who doesn't necessary make it good.