The Time Lords have returned – but ‘Who’ are they?

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This article contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode “The End of Time, Part I,” which aired Christmas Day in the U.K. and the next day in the U.S. Part II airs Saturday on BBC America.

Doctor Who Time Lords Timothy Dalton

If you’re only familiar with the latest version of Doctor Who, you won’t have much experience with Time Lords. We’ve seen glimpses in memory montages here and there as the Doctor (David Tennant) has reminisced about his lost homeworld, Gallifrey, and its high-collared people … but nothing concrete. And his childfriend friend and nemesis the Master, as powerful as John Simm’s performance is, is not typical of his species — but then, neither is the Doctor. Both are outcasts who dared to interfere rather than observe, while the rest of their species have been described as “ancient, dusty senators” who guarded the universe from the powers of time travel — or, some say, greedily clung to it.

In the cliffhanger ending the first part of the season finale, “The End of Time,” the entire population of the Earth has been transformed into clones of the Master on Christmas Day, and a narrator — revealed to be former James Bond actor Timothy Dalton (pictured above) — literally spits out a declaration that it is “the day the Time Lords returned. For Gallifrey! For victory! For the end of time itself!”

The Time Lords of the original series (1963-89) were quick to punish the Doctor again and again for interfering in the affairs of the galaxy, but they weren’t ashamed to seek his help when such meddling suited their plans, such as when the fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) was manipulated into visiting the evil Daleks’ homeworld in the distant past to prevent their creation — a task he ultimately decided he had no ethical right to perform.

Time Lords in the original series
Time Lords in the original series

These Time Lords were sedentary, scheming, political, patrician and proud — leaving no doubt as to why the Doctor had stolen a TARDIS and fled Gallifrey for the great unknown. Yet, he kept finding himself entangled in their affairs — even being appointed president of the high council on more than one occasion.

Gallifrey in the original series, with its famously limited special effects budget, rarely consisted of more than an ornate council chamber or a gizmo-laden control room. The most interesting area we saw was the “Death Zone,” where ancient Gallifreyans played inhumane games using lesser species as pawns and the first Time Lord, Rassilon, was entombed in the Dark Tower. But the Doctor and the Master of the modern series speak of fields of red grass and majestic mountains with fanciful names like Perdition, Solace and Solitude, and a continent named Wild Endeavor. Gallifrey’s beauty was destined to be appreciated only after it was no more — probably a device meant to encourage audiences to appreciate what natural beauty still exists here on Earth.

Has the Doctor’s race truly returned from the dead to take their rightful place as lords ot time? It could be that they are here to stay even after the Tennant Doctor regenerates and the series is handed over to rising star Matt Smith. Outgoing showrunner Russell Davies may be trying to give his successor, Steven Moffat, something akin to the blank canvas he had when he brought Doctor Who back from obscurity himself in 2005. “Rebooting” the series to erase any lasting consequences of the Time War that rendered both the Time Lords and the Daleks extinct would give the new producer a way to appeal to old-school Whovians as well as build a new following by taking risks the way Davies did.

Time and again, Davies told us he wouldn’t bring back old foes like the Daleks and the Master — and even when he did, he killed them off and again said “this is it” — but like any good showman, deception is part of the act. The Master can return no matter what happens to him because the character’s entire reason for being is to cheat death at any cost. And the screeching Daleks are as much a part of Doctor Who as the TARDIS itself, having appeared in the show’s second serial back in 1963. The Time Lords, too, are a fundamental element of the series that has proved over and over that it can breathe new life into the old.

If you’re looking for more details about the Time Lords of old, check out the articles “A Brief History of Time Lords,” “Rogues Gallery” and “Celebrating 40 Years of Gallifrey” on the BBC’s official Doctor Who site.

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