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Doctor Who's 'Timeless Child' is this season’s 'Bad Wolf,' but what does it mean?

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Oct 15, 2018, 3:15 PM EDT

The latest season of Doctor Who feels like a brand new series, but some fans might be surprised to know that Season 11 is already borrowing a ton of touches from its 53-year history. The second episode featuring Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, "The Ghost Monument," gave us the return of the TARDIS as well as a few callbacks. One of the most fun of these was a callback to the Doctor's peaceful martial arts skills; Peter Capaldi's 12th Doctor name-checked the skill in last season's "The World Enough and Time" and when the Doctor mentions "Venusian aikido" it's a nod to Jon Pertwee's 3rd Doctor.

But the biggest callback in "The Ghost Monument" isn't Venusian aikido or jokes about redecorating the TARDIS. Instead, it's the most tantalizing of all Doctor Who traditions: the season-long mystery. Who is "the timeless child"? And what does this mean for the rest of the season?

Late in "The Ghost Monument," evil flying scraps of cloth have the Doctor and her pals corned and taunt her about how she's afraid of her "own newness." But then the talking cloth-serpents drop something crazy. "We see deeper, though, further back... the timeless child," they hiss. This phrase confuses the Doctor and the baddies mock her ignorance: "We see what's hidden. Even from yourself. The outcast...abandoned and unknown." Then the plot gets moving again and nothing else about this exchange is mentioned throughout the episode.

But it feels like a pretty big deal for a lot of reasons.

First, it's totally unclear who "the timeless child" refers to. Based on the dialogue in this scene, it could mean the timeless child is the Doctor herself, that there is some aspect of her youth we've never quite explored, which would make sense. Very little is known about the Doctor's childhood.

In "The Last of the Time Lords," we found out the Doctor and the Master were friends as children at the Time Lord Academy on Gallifrey. In "The Magician's Apprentice," Missy joked about knowing the Doctor when "he was a little girl." And in "Listen," we discovered some version of the Doctor retreated to a barn on Gallifrey when he was a young boy, mostly because of night terrors. In that episode, we overhear a couple arguing about the Doctor's potential to become a Time Lord, people who we assume are the Doctor's parents. But were they? Was the Doctor an orphan? And if so, why?

The reality is, we don't know a whole lot about the Doctor's family. The 1st Doctor famously traveled with his granddaughter, Susan, but we never knew who Susan's parents were. In other words, who was the child of the Doctor, who, presumably was one of his granddaughter's parents? When the 10th Doctor gets an impromptu clone offspring in "The Doctor's Daughter," he tells Donna, somewhat ominously, that he's been a parent before. Which begs the question: Could the timeless child refer to the Doctor's own child, someone who presumably could have eventually sired Susan?

But, then again, what if the timeless child refers to Susan herself? In "The Dalek Invasion of Earth," the 1st Doctor decides his granddaughter is grown-up enough to make her way in the universe without him and leaves Susan with freedom fighter David because it's clear she's in love with him. Susan appeared briefly in the 20th anniversary special "The Five Doctors," but after that, we don't really know what happened to her. The 12th Doctor had a photo of Susan on his desk in the Season 10 episode "The Pilot," while in the 7th Doctor serial "The Curse of Fenric," the Doctor said he didn't remember his family at all. But, the 9th Doctor told Rose his "whole family died" in the Time War. Presumably, this last comment could have meant Susan, her parents, and any of the Doctor's other unknown children and grandchildren.

Of course, as most fans know, after the events of "The Day of the Doctor," it's possible that every member of the Doctor's family (Susan, and whoever else) could still be alive since Gallifrey was saved. And, what's very telling here is that Season 11 already seems fixated on the Doctor's family. In the first episode, Yaz asked the Doctor about her family, and in paraphrasing the 2nd Doctor, she said, "I carry them with me." Taken together with this "timeless child" stuff from "The Ghost Monument," it seems likely that the newest season of Doctor Who will find the Doctor reunited with a member of her family.

Then again, it could all be a huge fake-out. In Christopher Eccleston's first and only season of Doctor Who, a hint about "Bad Wolf" was dropped throughout several episodes and turned out to be a reference to Rose Tyler, which, truly, no one saw coming. In Season 2, the word was "Torchwood." Season 3 had "Harold Saxon," who turned out to be the Master, which again, no one saw coming. Season 9 teased something called "the hybrid," which was ultimately never really explained satisfactorily. (Which could very well be connected to "the timeless child," but that seems unlikely.)

The point is, though all signs point to "the timeless child" being a reference to the Doctor's childhood and/or a member of her family, it's very possible that it will be nothing of the sort. Which is why, in addition to everything else great about the new season, is just one more reason to keep watching.

Doctor Who airs Sundays on BBC America.