I complain that Chris Chibnall screwed up the Timeless Child idea, so I’m putting my money where my mouth is, and giving my thoughts on how another approach might have worked a bit better.
For the record, it’s not that the very concept of the Timeless Child is totally unthinkable or impossible. After all, Philip Hinchcliffe, Robert Holmes, and those gang of pranksters loaded up The Brain of Morbius with an in-joke of putting mysterious extra faces on a screen in addition to Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, and Baker.
Is it really a shock that some 5 year old watching it was mesmerized by it? That he’d imprint on it?
At the same time, totally ignore the obvious possibility that those extra faces were Morbius’? The fact that he’d eventually be a future showrunner who’d blow it all up exponentially was admittedly a curve though.
I’ve long held the belief that you can do any story — as long as it’s done well. Execution is all. That being said, let’s take a little trip over to a different time track. Imagine if the different elements of the Timeless Child were presented a bit differently, with a different showrunner. This would be taking a different direction at the fork in the road when writing the script.
It all begins and ends with Fugitive of the Judoon. I’ve said before that this is my favourite of the entire Chibnall/Jodie Whittaker era. The fact the Vinay Patel was the co-credited writer probably has a lot to do with it. Another bonus: this episode is basically the Jo Martin era all in one go, and she’s a very good Doctor, outshining Jodie throughout.
For this alternate path, the episode would play out exactly the same, until we hit the grave site scene, where we diverge.
The Doctor’s sonic is picking up incredible readings inside the grave. She digs until she unearths the edge of a generic, cylindrical TARDIS. Hearing a voice behind her, she spins around to face “Ruth” in full costume, looking calm, confident, and holding a large weapon. She begins to introduce herself, “Hello, I’m…” We cut away to an aerial shot, with thunder rumbling, and when we return, the Doctor says that that was a Gallfreyan name — checks to confirm Ruth’s biology with the sonic, only to find out that not only is Ruth a Time Lord, they are the same Time Lord. The Doctor’s stunned, but Ruth’s settled and determined.
They teleport into Martin’s TARDIS, and from there, things run along similar paths as in the episode — we see the confrontation with Gant run its course. After departing, instead of Martin being severely annoyed and ditching Jodie at the next stop, they have an actual heart to heart conversation, where Jodie shows a bit of compassion with her curiosity, while Martin softens a bit. After all, she remembers losing Lee, as well as going on the run in the first place, her human life, and she still wants nothing to do with Division anymore.
She slumps down a bit over the TARDIS console. She feels so old. Ancient. Older than the stars. And she’s tired of the violence. The Doctor tries to comfort her, telling her there is another way. Having resigned herself that Ruth is in the Doctor’s past. The Doctor realises that because of the time differential, Martin won’t remember this meeting at all. Probably not, says Martin. But Martin hits a few controls and the Doctor, in proximity to the psychic circuits on the console, rocks back a bit, stunned. The Doctor’s dropped off, not realising Martin hit her with a remote mind-wipe, and later is found sleeping on a park bench by “the fam”. Her memory of almost everything having to do with Ruth has faded. The TARDIS crew move along to maybe very different stories filling out the rest of Series 12.
Back in Martin’s TARDIS, she knows she can’t go on like this. She needs a fresh start. Not as a human though. She’ll never do that again. The blonde was annoying, but she wasn’t wrong about changing her ways. She decides to go back to the one place Division won’t look. Gallifrey. As her memory of the strange blonde in braces begins to fade, she decides to bring out the chameleon arch again, but this time, to make a different change. A new name, a new Gallifreyan life, a new start.
Immortality became a curse millions of years ago. A strain… A burden she no longer wanted any part of, so she’ll become someone else. Someone hopeful. Someone who can care again. Someone who’ll walk a different path. At least whoever she becomes will have a chance.
Sometime later, a small child is found outside the walls of Arcadia and taken in.
It’s many, many years later when the grown man chooses his path with a name. A name to help and heal. Never cruel, never cowardly. He decides he’ll be not a warrior, but a Doctor. This is where his life truly begins.
Many years later still, he and his granddaughter steal a TARDIS and escape.
Now that’s a rough outline, but I feel it would have been more acceptable to the audience at large. Possibly still divisive, but maybe not as much. In essence, yes, the Doctor had this existence before the Hartnell incarnation for billions of years, doing God knows what, and possibly some unspeakable things, but the headline here would be that this Time Lord remade themselves and only when they decided to change, only then, would they begin again with the Hartnell incarnation and truly become the Doctor.
You could easily rationalise this path, see how it could work with a “Timeless Child” scenario, because here, Hartnell truly would be the first Doctor. A lot cleaner, I feel. The Thirteenth Doctor finds a TARDIS in the grave, not hers and Ruth may be her but with a different name, not the Doctor.
The separation there, I think, is important. If the character reinvents themself, effectively starting fresh with a self-imposed type of “witness relocation protection” program that even they don’t know about, it gives the actual Doctor his own beginning, separate from everything that had gone before: a clean break, instead of the confusing, irreconcilable bramble of questions originally presented.
Now, dear reader, instead of what we actually got, would this scenario have been more acceptable?