We’re back, with another novel review! For the holidays, here’s another standalone novel review (well, almost standalone—let’s say one of two). We’ll get back to the New Adventures soon, but not just yet. Today we’re looking at the first of the two novels from the “Time Lord Victorious” multimedia project, Steve Cole’s The Knight, the Fool, and the Dead. Published in October 2020, this book takes place shortly after the events of The Waters of Mars, and features the Tenth Doctor on the run from—and yet embracing—the decision he made in that story.
I want to go ahead and mention that for the moment, the only part of Time Lord Victorious—hereafter abbreviated as “TLV”—that I’m covering is this novel and its sequel, All Flesh is Grass. For now, anyway; I may try to check out some of the other installments, but at the moment all I have at hand are the two novels. Fortunately, they form a coherent story by themselves, and supplementary materials seem to indicate that they form the core of the entire TLV narrative; so I think we’ll be okay for now.
And with that, let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead! Here on Reddit, I omit a summary of the plot (if you would like a summary, you can check out the relevant TARDIS wiki page), or you may read this review on my blog, The Time Lord Archives, where a summary is included). However, some spoilers are unavoidable even without the summary, so read at your own risk!
The Doctor has already broken the most important rule—that you cannot change a fixed point in time—so why not break some more?
Thus he travels back, further back than any Time Lord is supposed to go, to the Ancient Days, the era when the universe was young, a time his people referred to as the Dark Times. He finds them anything but dark, though; for here he finds a universe where death is unnatural and rare. Every species is immortal, barring accidents; no one grows old, no one dies by natural means. But that is before the Kotturuh arrive.
The Kotturuh bring death—but not just by killing. Instead, the Kotturuh introduce death. They grant each species a peculiar and dark gift: the gift of a lifespan. For some it is short, for some long, all according to the Kotturuh’s Design. When they come to a world, those above the prescribed lifespan die at once; those beneath age to the point they would have reached had they been born with this lifespan. It is horrifying—and yet they deem it necessary.
The Doctor meets allies here. There is Estinee, the young survivor of an early encounter with the Kotturuh. There is Fallomax, the scientist and scam artist who saved and recruited Estinee. There is Chalskal, the self-proclaimed ambassador and would-be conqueror who seeks Fallomax’s Lifeshroud technology so that he can equip his armies to withstand the Kotturuh’s gift. And last, there is Brian the Ood, a rather strange and possibly insane Ood who claims to have arrived here in the Doctor’s TARDIS, under a different incarnation of the Doctor—and who works as an assassin.
And yet, it may not be enough. For the Doctor, drunk with his own power as the last of the Time Lords, the Time Lord Victorious, has decided to take on the greatest enemy of all—death itself—and cut it off at the source. If he can defeat the Kotturuh here, the universe will never know death as a force; and perhaps its greatest evils—the Daleks, the Cybermen, others like them—will never arise.
The Doctor takes charge of the Lifeshroud project—but he does more than make the life-preserving technology functional. With the help of his friends, he turns it into a weapon, a system that will turn the Kotturuh’s gift back on themselves, and bring death to the dealers of death. The Kotturuh will have their own lifespan, and their power will be cut off from this universe, and life will prevail.
Except…the Doctor’s past lives want to stop him.
The Eighth Doctor and the Ninth Doctor—each accompanied by some of their greatest enemies—arrive at the ultimate moment, and attempt to dissuade the Tenth Doctor from his course. And yet he will not listen, for he is the Time Lord Victorious—and he fires the weapon.
I’ll be brief, and for the very simple reason that this book is not a complete story by itself. I’ll be able to say more when I post part two of this review, concerning All Flesh is Grass.
After so many seasons of the next three incarnations of the Doctor, and all of the elaboration we’ve had on the Time War, the Moment, and the Doctor’s character, it was a bit of a challenge to put myself back in the mindset of the way things were at the end of The Waters of Mars. In some ways it’s a pity that the Time Lord Victorious arc (if we can call it that) was contained to one episode, because the Doctor was forced to go from pride to remorse so quickly. (I realize an argument can be made that other episodes figure in as well, in terms of the influences that led the Doctor to that moment, and in terms of the consequences; but I’m saying that his entire time as the “Time Lord Victorious” was contained to one episode.) That creates a bit of a problem when trying to start this storyline, because the Doctor immediately seems to backtrack. His remorse is forgotten, except for the occasional fleeting memory; he’s right back to be the proud, arrogant Time Lord he was when he decided to save Adelaide Brooke.
But he plays it well, though. He really commits to this new course of action, and he immediately finds a challenge he considers worthy of his status: the removal—prevention, even—of death from the universe. And he turns his considerable personal energy to that goal in very un-Doctorish ways. He blusters and brags; he bullies his friends into doing what he wants; he runs over their objections and refuses to listen; he threatens (okay, that’s Doctorish enough, I admit). And in the end, he decides that the ends justify the means here. He decides—over Estinee’s objections—that doing to the Kotturuh what they’ve done to other species is not just okay, but admirable, if it means stopping them.
And that’s where we get to the real conflict of this book. It’s the infamous Trolley Problem, but writ large, and in Doctor Who terms. If the Doctor does nothing, every species in the universe will experience death. But if he acts to prevent that from happening, the Kotturuh will die (as well as every species they’ve already touched). And yet it’s not quite the same problem, because the Kotturuh aren’t just potential victims; they’re the perpetrators of death for everyone else. So it would seem like an easy choice—make the Kotturuh pay for their actions, kill them, and their many would-be victims can live. That’s the choice the Tenth Doctor makes.
But…it’s not that clear, either. We’re clearly intended to think that what he’s doing is wrong. Not only does Estinee—who is the innocent in this story, the tiny moral compass, the role that is often filled by a companion—disapprove; but also, the Doctor’s past selves disapprove. The Eighth and Ninth Doctors, appearing at the last moment, are here to stop the Tenth from carrying out this strike on the Kotturuh. They even tell him that he thinks he is doing the right thing, but he isn’t. The only catch here, is that we don’t yet know why it’s the wrong decision.
And that’s the exciting part! It could go several ways. It could be that something worse will be unleashed. It could be a “MCU Thanos” scenario, where the future universe can’t support all this life if there’s not death. It could be that death is necessary for the existence of the Web of Time. A million possibilities—and we just don’t know yet. And it’s in that environment, with so little knowledge, that the Tenth Doctor arrogantly makes his decision to strike.
I can’t wait to see what happens!
As for the experience of reading this book, I had only two complaints. For one, it’s very short, 178 pages in hardback. It took me about two hours to read. Not that I mind shorter fiction—I don’t—but It’s a pretty abrupt change from every other Doctor Who novel I’ve read. Of course there’s the sequel still to go; despite being from a different author, it could almost be regarded as the second half of the same book. The other issue was that the characters—specifically the three Doctors, since they’re the only familiar characters—don’t really feel or sound much like their usual selves here. One can picture them doing the things they’re doing, but the dialogue is very different from what we usually get for those characters, and it comes across jarringly. After recently reading (er, listening to) Scratchman, which really nails the characterization and dialogue, it was a bit of a letdown.
But none of that is a dealbreaker, and I still recommend the book.
Continuity References: Obviously there are many references to The Waters of Mars. The Tenth Doctor refers to several “old one” species: The Jagaroth (City of Death), the Exxilons (Death to the Daleks), the Racnoss (The Runaway Bride), and the Eternals (Enlightenment). He uses the term “walks in eternity” to refer to himself, as did the Fourth Doctor in Pyramids of Mars. The Ood Brain is mentioned several times (Planet of the Ood). Chronolocks are mentioned (Face the Raven), as are the fallen civilizations of Ascinta and Perganon (School Reunion). The rise of the Daleks (Genesis of the Daleks) and Cybermen (Spare Parts) are mentioned. The Doctor alludes to the rejection of his name in The Night of the Doctor. He remembers his conversation with Mr. Copper, though not by name (Voyage of the Damned). He puts on his Time Lord robes and says he is dressed for the occasion; the Master did the same in the TV movie. The Dark Times are referenced in a way reminiscent of the short story The Guide to the Dark Times. Brian reports arriving in the Dark Times in the TARDIS (What the TARDIS thought of “Time Lord Victorious”). And, most importantly, there are three interludes, each of which features a scene from a different Doctor’s life; in each instance, he tells the fairy tale of “Godfather Death”. In the first, the First Doctor and Barbara talk in the Cave of Skulls (An Unearthly Child–using that title for the serial, not the individual episode). In the second, Rose and the Ninth Doctor talk (no particular episode cited). In the third, it is the Eighth Doctor with Brian the Ood (again, no particular episode).
Okay, I lied about being brief…oops!
Overall: Despite the heavy topic, this is fairly light reading for Doctor Who. Still, if you’re interested in the TLV series, you should definitely pick it up—and even if not, I think you’ll find it entertaining. After the most recent run of television episodes, it feels like a palate cleanser, and at this point that’s a welcome change.
Next time: All Flesh is Grass, by Una McCormack! See you there.
The Knight, the Fool, and the Dead is available at many booksellers.
You can read the TARDIS wiki entry for this novel here.