Time Lord Victorious, the first Doctor Who multimedia crossover event, has begun. Promising to chronicle how the Tenth Doctor tries to become the master of death, it looks like a fun and creative way to tell a truly expansive Doctor Who story. With the event fully underway, what better place to begin my coverage than with the first novel – The Knight, The Fool, and The Dead. Written by Steve Cole, it’s a pretty solid Doctor Who story and lays some intriguing groundwork for the Time Lord Victorious event, but as a stand-alone story, it’s a bit lacking. It’s got great characters, a great premise, and some solid writing, but the whole thing is undercut by a criminally low page count that prevents Cole from examining any of his ideas with the depth they deserve. (3.5 out of 5 wands.)
NOTE: There are mild spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk.
Doctor Who: The Knight, The Fool, and The Dead by Steve Cole
The Doctor travels back to the Ancient Days, an era where life flourishes and death is barely known… Then come the Kotturuh – creatures who spread through the cosmos dispensing mortality. They judge each and every species and decree its allotted time to live. For the first time, living things know the fear of ending. And they will go to any lengths to escape this grim new spectre, death.
The Doctor is an old hand at cheating death. Now, at last, he can stop it at source. He is coming for the Kotturuh, ready to change everything so that Life wins from the start.
Picking up some time after The Waters of Wars, The Knight, The Fool, and The Dead sees the Tenth Doctor in a melancholy mood. He is nearing the end of his life, and he’s recently undergone a series of personal tragedies. So, he’s taken a brief refuge in the Dark Times – a time in history before the Time Lords rose to power. And, as it turns out, a time before Death was ever-present. In those early days of the universe, death was a rarity. It happened, to be sure, but only in rare cases. Until now. Vacationing on Andalia, the Doctor comes face to face with the bringers of death – the Kotturah. And he’s none too happy about what they’re up to.
Honestly, it’s a clever idea. Having the Doctor who most didn’t want to die face off against the beings literally responsible for introducing the concept of widespread death to the universe. This is a Doctor who’s let the weight of his lives get to him. He’s the Last of the Time Lords and he wants to act like it. The elements of The Knight, The Fool, and The Dead that explore this concept are some of the best parts of the book. I love a morally ambiguous Doctor and he’s rarely been as morally ambiguous as he is here. His desire to stop the Kotturah before they can usher death upon the universe seems like a noble cause, but does he have the right? It’s not the first time Doctor Who has grappled with the Doctor’s right to meddle in the affairs of the universe, but it is, perhaps, the most consequential one as he seeks to literally end death. This conflict is at the heart of both this book and the Time Lord Victorious event itself – and it’s the thing that most interests me.
Unfortunately, the book doesn’t explore this conflict with anywhere near as much depth as it should. The Knight, The Fool, and The Dead is about 190 pages long, and it feels even shorter than that. There is a lot crammed into such a short amount of space, and none of it gets thoroughly explored. There’s a lot of plot to get through, and it’s all dealt with in a very breezy, naturalistic way, but very little time is spent on anything, thereby robbing many events of their weight. We get a brief glimpse at the aftermath of the Kotturuh gifting death to a society, but we don’t get to spend enough time in that aftermath to truly feel the weight of this event. The same is true throughout the entire novel. Lots of interesting things happen – we visit what seems to be the Kotturah’s home planet, where there are caves filled with mysterious glyphs that drive you insane, and we see the Doctor hatch his plan to stop the Kotturah, among other things – but we never spend enough time with any of this to truly dig into it. It’s like riding a rollercoaster: things keep happening in rapid succession, but we’re just along for the ride. It makes for a fun read, but not one that leaves a huge impression.
The same is true for the characters. There’s a cast of intriguing characters, none of whom are given any real development. Brian, the Ood assassin, makes his first appearance here – and it’s an eye-catching one. But you can tell most of Brian’s development is being saved other stories (either the Big Finish audios or the final book in the event, All Flesh is Grass). The Kotturah, especially, are wildly underdeveloped. Described as a mixture of the traditional image of a Grim Reaper and an eldritch horror, the Kotturah are basically the boogeymen of the Dark Times. The very idea of a being who can literally bestow death upon an entire civilization is a great one and it’s a shame they’re not utilized more. In the book, they’re essentially left in the shadows. Cole teases at their origin, their methods, and their motives, but he doesn’t do much more with them. Again, maybe this is being saved for later in the event, but all of this adds up to a book that doesn’t feel like an entire story. It ends on a cliffhanger that feels like the kind of cliffhanger you’d get in the first half of a two-episode story. This works very well for weekly television, but it’s less enjoyable in literature.
Doctor Who: The Knight, The Fool, and The Dead is less its own story and more the opening salvo of the entire Time Lord Victorious event. It lays an effective and intriguing groundwork for all of these other stories to exist in, but I do wish it had a little more weight to it. The writing is quick and easy to read, the plot is immediately captivating, and the characters are engaging, though underdeveloped. It’s a fun read, but it goes by so quickly that you’ll feel like you just started it as you finish the final chapter. You won’t really understand more about what’s going on. If you approach this book as merely the opening chapter of a bigger story, I think you’ll get more out of it. But if you’re expecting an entire narrative here, as you’d normally get in a Doctor Who book, you’re gonna be sorely disappointed.
3.5 out of 5 wands.