What is the Timeless Child? And is the Master telling the truth?
For longtime fans, the second episode of Doctor Who season 12 will feel like a remix of every single huge Doctor Who season finale since the show came back in 2005. But the difference between "Spyfall Part 2" and the various nail-biting season finales of Who's recent past is that this is obviously not the end. We're right at the beginning!
In "Spyfall Part 2", the status quo of Doctor Who has changed significantly, but also, if you squint, this is kind of where we were in the David Tennant era of season 2 and season 3. This time, wrapped around the Time Lord mythology is a huge unsolved mystery from Jodie Whittaker's second episode ever, the moment when "The Timeless Child" became the biggest WTF concept in the Whoinverse. And now, nearly two years later, it looks like that idea — whatever it is — will be the lynchpin that has changed the Time Lords forever. (Again.)
Spoilers ahead for Doctor Who, season 12 episode 2, "Spyfall Part 2."
Like the TARDIS itself, "Spyfall Part 2" was an episode that was bigger on the inside, seemingly juggling about a million different plot points and themes that would be incongruent in any other science fiction series. Then again, if you like Doctor Who, you're probably totally down for a story that involves a time-traveling Ada Lovelace teaming up with Noor Inayat Khan and a plot in which international aliens try to rewrite human DNA through what is basically a loophole in user data agreements.
But we're not here to talk about that. We're here to talk about what the Master (Sacha Dhawan) reveals to the Doctor about the fate of their shared home planet, Gallifrey.
After the Doctor worries that the Master was telling the truth and that Gallifrey, the home planet of the Time Lords had been destroyed (again), she pops the TARDIS over to the "bubble universe" where Gallifrey currently exists, only to see its famous domed cities destroyed, just as the Master said. Then comes the bigger reveal. The Master claims he burned Gallifrey as revenge for some dark secret the Time Lords were hiding.
"They lied to us," The Master says. "The founding fathers of Gallifrey... everything we were told was a lie. We're not who we think. You and I... the whole existence of our species built on the lie of the Timeless Child."
Okay. So let's back up. What is the Timeless Child? Well, we actually have no idea. In 2018, in season 11's second episode, "The Ghost Monument," a species of scary flying paper called the Remnants messed with the Doctor about the notion of the Timeless Child. Taunting her, they said: "We see deeper, though, further back... the Timeless Child. We see what's hidden. Even from yourself. The outcast... abandoned and unknown."
At the time, many fans (like me) believed the idea of the Timeless Child would pop-up again in season 11, but it didn't. So, if you're confused about this, you're not crazy. This is the first time it's been brought up since then, so if you haven't seen season 11, you're all caught up now. This idea was only mentioned once, for like half a second. And, the Master essentially gives the same clue: whatever the Timeless Child is, it's something that has been repressed from the Doctor's memory. In this scene, we briefly see the Doctor being told about the TImeless Child by the Remnants, and, for an instant, a child that seems to be hanging out on Gallifrey.
So, that leads to the next question: What about the Timeless Child is something that would make the Master say that "whole existence" of the Time Lords was built on a lie? Well, to answer that question, it's best to try and answer this question: What is the current origin story for the Time Lords? Well, get ready for it: There's not a consistent origin story for the Time Lords.
The most basic version of the origin of the Time Lords culled from both books and TV episodes would be this: There were three founding Time Lords, Rassilon, Omega, and one Other. These people could be the "founding fathers" the Master is talking about here. Now, relevantly, although Rassilon is one of the OG Time Lords, and one of the people who created time travel and first built TARDISes, Rassilon was also, eventually, a total villain. In the final regular David Tennant episode, "The End of Time"; it was revealed that Rassilon (Timothy Dalton) had become a megalomaniac who was ruling the Time Lords as a tyrant sporting a slightly sleeker version of Thanos's power glove.
In "The End of Time," Rassilon nearly succeeded in bringing Gallifrey back into existence, which would have caused the Earth to be destroyed. Rassilon also used the Master (then John Simm) as a kind of portal to do this, which is very reminiscent of how the Master (Sacha Dhawan) was using the Kasaavin in this episode to get what he wanted. Plus, back in "The End of Time," we also learned that the reason the Master hears that certain drumbeat in his head is that it was planted by Rassilon and the Time Lords as a homing signal. This drumbeat is what the Doctor uses in "Spyfall Part 2" to contact the Master via Morse code.
So, the reason why Noor Khan tells the Doctor that it's not a real code to send is that Noor Khan doesn't know this drumbeat Time Lord heartbeat thing is actually a deep-cut Easter egg for both "The End of Time," and the season 3 episodes "The Sound of Drums" and "The Last of the Time Lords."
But, to get back to the larger question at hand: How does the Timeless Child make the Time Lords frauds, the bigger point might be, why did anyone assume the Time Lords were ever good? In fact, the origin story for the Doctor, specifically, is that the Doctor ran away from Gallifrey, and stole a TARDIS because the Time Lords generally forbade people like the Doctor with interfering in the affairs of other planets. This origin story was recounted several times, but it was most recently codified in the final Capaldi episode, "Twice Upon a Time," in which the 1st Doctor (David Bradley) makes it clear that he was acting against the wishes of the Time Lords.
In fact, although occasionally, the Doctor would work for the Time Lords (like in the 4th Doctor Tom Baker episode "Genesis of the Daleks") the fact is, the Time Lords are often deceitful, and sometimes, outright vindictive. The last time we even saw the Time Lords (in terms of on-screen chronology) was in the season 9 finale, "Hell Bent," in which it was revealed that Rassilon (now played by Donald Sumpter) had trapped the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) into a confession dial for like a gillion years. And to be clear, before that, all the Doctors (pre-Jodie Whittaker) had saved Gallifrey from destruction in the Time War, by placing it in a bubble universe in "The Day of the Doctor." This is why the Master says Gallifrey was in a bubble universe. And apparently, both he and the Doctor had no problem finding it.
This last detail is worth mentioning if only because it seems possible that either the Master is lying, or we're maybe dealing with more than one version of Gallifrey. In the season 8 finale, "A Death in Heaven," the Master (Michelle Gomez) also tells the Doctor (Capaldi) that she knows where Gallifrey has been hidden. But, at that point, it turns out the Master was lying. Could the Master be lying again? In this episode, we see the Master brandishing a sonic weapon that allows him to shrink people and things to tiny dimensions. And, weirdly, in the season 11 finale, "The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos," it really seemed like the Doctor had a shrunken version of Gallifrey, even if she didn't know it at the time.
At the start of the Christopher Eccleston era, we were told that Gallifrey and the Time Lords were all gone. It was a fact that all the Doctors repeated up until the Matt Smith era, when Gallifrey was saved in "The Day of the Doctor." In that episode, an implied far-future version of the Doctor named "The Curator" (Tom Baker) tells the Doctor (Smith) that he is supposed to go looking for Gallifrey.
In the Capaldi era, the Doctor found Gallifrey, but then the Time Lords basically kicked him out again. Now, it seems like the Master has burned it and killed everyone. But...if the Curator (who is also the Doctor) sent the Doctor to find Gallifrey, then, in theory, he would know all of this would happen. Which could suggest that the Master is totally lying, and perhaps, the Timeless Child isn't a betrayal at all.