We’re back, with another novel review! Here we have the second of two reviews of the novels from the Time Lord Victorious multimedia project: All Flesh is Grass, by Una McCormack. You can check out my review of the first novel, The Knight, The Fool, And The Dead, at that link.
Just a reminder: For the moment, the only parts of the Time Lord Victorious project that I’m covering are these novels, for the simple reason that I haven’t acquired the rest yet. Fortunately, they form the backbone of the project’s story, so this is as good a place as any to start. This post will read a bit like a “part two” of the previous post, as the books are so tightly intertwined; wherever it may matter, I’ve assumed that you’ve already read the previous post.
This novel, published just over a year ago on 10 December 2020, picks up immediately after the end of The Knight, The Fool, And The Dead, and features the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Doctors in the Dark Times near the beginning of the universe. None of the regular companions are featured here; however, Brian the Ood fills the role for us. 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!
We last saw the Tenth Doctor leading a mercenary ship, with Brian the Ood assassin at his side, against his Ninth self accompanied by a fleet of vampires, and his Eighth self accompanied by—believe it or not—an attack force of Daleks. The prize is the planet Mordeela and the death-dealing Kotturuh—and the Tenth Doctor just gave the order to fire!
The weapon is no small matter. It turns the Kotturuh’s judgment back on themselves, giving them a lifespan, and a rather abrupt one at that. They begin to die off at once. But that isn’t enough to satisfy the Time Lord Victorious. Mordeela is the source of their power of death, and so he attacks the planet itself; and though his fleet is cut down to just one ship by the Daleks and vampires, it manages to strike the fatal blow, reducing Mordeela to rubble and sealing, as it were, the gates of death. The Doctor then manages to depart for other locales, leaving his past selves to hold their coalitions together. They set off in pursuit.
Elsewhere, though, one Kotturuh has escaped the worst. Many years ago, Inyit sensed the coming doom of her people, and hid herself away on Birinji, the first world the Kotturuh doomed. There she maintains her garden inside a biodome, the one spot of life on the dead world, and waits for an end she knows must come.
After weeks of adventurous but undocumented skirmishes against the dying Kotturuh, the Tenth Doctor and Brian find themselves seeking an audience with the Brokers of Entranxis, iron creatures who deal in weapons…and sometimes more interesting things. And the Brokers have something for the Doctor, but it’s not what he expects: it is Madame Ikalla, the leader of the vampires, who was captured while escaping the battle at Mordeela. She is much abused, but the Doctor determines to rescue her. He is interrupted by the arrival of his past selves, who intend the same plan; altogether…well, they botch the job pretty thoroughly. Ultimately Brian and the Tenth Doctor are forced to extract the Eighth Doctor, whose TARDIS is being held by the Daleks; the Ninth Doctor in turn rescues Ikalla, and in the process hears an intriguing mention of a planet called Birinji. But before any of them can escape, the Kotturuh—still trying to carry out their Design, even in the throes of death—come to judge Entranxis. They will fail; they are intercepted and killed by the Daleks. It seems the Daleks intend to replace the Kotturuh as the dealers of death.
Brian, Eight, and Ten make their way to the vampires’ remaining Coffin Ship, and find that all the lesser vampires are dead; the other Coffin Ships in the small fleet have escaped. However, there is a squad of Bloodsmen aboard, the highly trained and powerful bodyguards of the Great Vampires who usually use the ship to travel. They grudgingly ally with the Doctors to try to recover Madame Ikalla. Meanwhile, she—along with the Ninth Doctor and a dying houseplant named Hector (don’t ask)—have landed on Birinji, and there discovered Inyit, who will very soon be the last of her kind. Inyit welcomes them; she has some things to teach them about her experience with life and death, and her own regrets. But perhaps the most urgent thing she tells them is what will reputedly happen if the last of the Kotturuh dies: the gates of death will open, releasing all the remaining power of the Kotturuh at once.
The other Doctors arrive, and a conference ensues. And at last, the Tenth Doctor is properly chastened for his choices—though he still believes in his cause: the fight against death itself. But things have become more urgent; for Madame Ikalla reveals that there was, in fact, a Great Vampire—the old enemy of the Time Lords—aboard her ship. And it has been captured by the Daleks. The possibilities are horrifying.
Ikalla stays with Inyit (and Hector the houseplant) while the Doctors, Brian, the remaining mercenaries, and the Bloodsmen go to war against the Daleks…to rescue the Great Vampire. The ridiculousness of the situation is lost on no one. They soon find that the Daleks have experimented on the Great Vampire; they kill it in the process, but they successfully create Dalek-vampire hybrids, extraordinarily deadly creatures. Soon enough their ultimate aim is revealed: They plan to use the hybrids to destroy Gallifrey here in the Dark Times, long before the native Gallifreyans become their hated enemy, the Time Lords.
And so, the final battle begins, at Gallifrey itself. And it is a very near thing; the Daleks are on the verge of winning. But then, as Inyit’s long life fails, a single Dalek hybrid comes to ensure her death…but before she goes, she pronounces the Kotturuh’s final judgment…on the Dalek hybrids. At once they begin to die, screaming. The pure Daleks aboard their ship are thrown into a panic, as they feel the judgment tugging at their own genetics; fortunately, the Eighth Doctor returns to them at that time, and with a little push from the Tenth, he drags them out of the Dark Times and back to their own time. As Inyit dies, Gallifrey—and the future—are saved.
In the aftermath, the survivors return to Birinji. There they find Inyit dead—but Ikalla remains, and she has been changed. Inyit’s final gift to her is a change in her biology; she is freed from her terrible urges. She is the last of the vampires—save for her scions and the Bloodsmen—and in a way, she is also now the last trace of the Kotturuh, and of the life of Birinji. But new life will come to Birinji; the mercenaries will settle here, as will the remaining undead, who can inherit the changes given to Ikalla. Brian, as well, chooses to stay—though not without acknowledging the unlikely-but-not-impossible chance that he might take over and run the place. The Doctors conclude that, in the wake of the Kotturuh, death will still come to the universe—but in accordance with life’s own patterns, not the Kotturuh Design. Some races will live but briefly; some will outlive the stars; but they will all have their own chance. Death can’t be beaten, perhaps; but sometimes you can outrun it.
And in the future, three men—three faces of the Doctor—meet for one last time.
Although this book picks up where the last left off, and continues the same story, its tone is very different. It’s much more lighthearted and comical, with many witty lines, puns, and jokes. I suppose that makes sense; the first book only features the Tenth Doctor in full Time Lord Victorious mode, and he’s not a very funny guy at that point. Here, though, we get Eight and Nine as well; and not only do they bring their own typical bouncy personalities with them, but also they begin to pull Ten out of his own pit. It isn’t only them, as well; Brian the Ood, the vampire Madame Ikalla, and others all get in some great lines.
But there are somber moments here, as well. Most notably, it becomes clear soon enough that the Eighth Doctor is from a point in his timeline prior to the start of the Time War; he’s fully unaware of it, and of Gallifrey’s destruction (well, he would be unaware of that, I suppose). His optimism and relative naivete are almost painful to watch when played against the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, who do know; it’s certainly painful for them to watch. Even though it’s acknowledged that he–and Nine as well–won’t remember these events once they end, Nine and Ten go out of their way not to tell Eight what’s coming.
That, in turn, begs the question of when exactly these Daleks originate from. Having arrived along with Eight, clearly they must also be pre-Time War Daleks; therefore they also can’t know of the future (despite having a Time Commander among their ranks). And yet, a Dalek is a Dalek is a Dalek; just as surely as their future Time War compatriots, they hit on the idea of destroying Gallifrey before it can rise to be a threat. Some things never change! I did find it interesting that they needed the Eighth Doctor and his TARDIS to get here; it’s stated that Dalek time travel tech has never been able to penetrate the barrier separating them from the Dark Times. It’s the first time I’ve heard of that barrier; I knew these times were forbidden to Time Lords, but I had not heard they were impossible to reach. Possibly this comes up in TLV stories I haven’t experienced yet; at any rate, it bears further investigation.
Overall, not a bad book; but it does have one fatal flaw: It never really resolves its main issue. The Tenth Doctor goes back in time and seeks to destroy the Kotturuh so that they can’t introduce death to a universe where no one ever dies. And yet, once the Kotturuh are vanquished, it really seems to make no difference. All races will still inherit death; they’ll simply come to their own lifespans without the interference of the Kotturuh. Of course the point is made that you can’t defeat death no matter how hard you try–which is not at all a new argument in Doctor Who–but…why was this ever an issue in the first place? It’s all very downplayed at the end. Throughout both books, a major point is that the Doctor has broken something fundamental in history by stopping the Kotturuh. It should have to be fixed–but instead, at the last few pages, we find out that it was never really broken at all. It really removes much of the impact of the story, and that’s unfortunate. Because it’s a hell of a good time getting there–journey before destination, to borrow a phrase from the Stormlight Archive series–and it’s regrettable that the destination is so anticlimax. Well, at least it’s a pretty battle!
Continuity references: Brian the Ood–who, incidentally, really steals the show whenever he’s onscreen–has an elaborate collection of weapons from ancient races: Racnoss (The Runaway Bride, et al), Jagaroth (City of Death), Grelsh, Uxaerian (Colony In Space, The Quantum Archangel), Daemon (The Daemons), and Kastrian (The Hand of Fear, Eldrad Must Die!). Nine mentions the Untempered Schism (The Sound of Drums). The Doctors telepathically join by saying “Contact” (The Three Doctors, et al). Ten, speaking to Nine, alludes to a child’s death (To the Death, Museum Peace). The Daleks use the phrase “philosophy of movement” when speaking of the TARDIS’s time travel (The Daleks). Ten reminds Eight that he started out by changing time to save his friends’ lives (TV movie). Eight thinks about meeting Brian (He Kills Me, He Kills Me Not), and about the TARDIS’s role in bringing them here (What the TARDIS thought of “Time Lord Victorious”). Inyit mentions Kotturuh legends regarding their activities (The Dawn of the Kotturuh). Gallifrey’s galactic coordinates are given (Pyramids of Mars, et al). The Doctors cite the Blinovitch Limitation Effect and caution each other against touching (and then promptly do it anyway, without consequence) (Mawdryn Undead). Eight mentions President Romana (Happy Endings, et al). Hector the Houseplant survives and ends up with the Ninth Doctor (Monstrous Beauty). Rose is mentioned, but is not present; she is on another planet, in the future, recovering (Monstrous Beauty).
Overall: I mean, why not? It’s not the most coherent novel, and it wraps up just a little too neatly (Just this once, everybody
lives! gets a new home!). But it’s still a lot of fun, and in the end, that’s why we’re here, right? So yes, check it out–and if you didn’t already read The Knight, The Fool, And The Dead, read that one first.
Next time: Who knows? Soon it will be a new year, new reading/watching/listening, and we’ll see where it takes us. I’ll catch you there.
All Flesh Is Grass is available from many booksellers.
You can read the TARDIS wiki entry for this novel here.