REVIEW: “Doctor Who: All Flesh is Grass” by Una McCormack (Time Lord Victorious)

So far, the Time Lord Victorious event has been a bit of a mixed bag. The first novel, The Knight, The Fool, and The Dead, set up a solid premise but didn’t explore any of its ideas with the depth needed to make them memorable. The two comics were well-written and illustrated but short and seemingly-disconnected from the larger story. And, as of this review, I haven’t listened to any of the Big Finish audios, so I can’t speak on them. But those parts of Time Lord Victorious that I have consumed have left me conflicted. I really want to enjoy Time Lord Victorious—I like a lot of the ideas and many of the stories are solid on their own, but the whole event hasn’t felt like it was coalescing into anything yet. So, I hoped that this second (and final) novel, the conclusion of the storyline, All Flesh is Grass, would tick those boxes. And it sort of does—it deftly ties together the seemingly disparate elements of the story into an explosive conclusion. However, it also maintains all of the flaws of the first book and wastes the intriguing premise set up in that novel by devolving into another Doctor vs Dalek story. (3 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: There will be some spoilers for the book within. I wouldn’t consider any of them to be major ones, but your mileage may vary. Read at your own risk.)

Doctor Who: All Flesh is Grass by Una McCormack
A wasteland. A dead world… No, there is a biodome, rising from the ash. Here, life teems and flourishes, with strange and lush plants, and many-winged insects with bright carapaces – and one solitary sentient creature, who spends its days watering the plants, talking to the insects, and tending this lonely garden. This is Inyit, the Last of the Kotturuh.

In All Flesh is Grass we are transported back to The Dark Times. The Tenth Doctor has sworn to stop the Kotturuh, ending Death and bringing Life to the universe. But his plan is unravelling – instead of bringing Life, nothing has changed and all around him people are dying. Death is everywhere. Now he must confront his former selves – one in league with their greatest nemesis and the other manning a ship of the undead…

Picking up exactly where the previous novel, The Knight, The Fool, and The Dead left off, All Flesh is Grass sees the Eighth and Ninth Doctors confronting the Tenth Doctor over his actions at the end of the previous novel. There is quite a bit of tension between the three of them—the Eighth and Ninth Doctors obviously do not approve of what the Tenth Doctor has done but the Tenth Doctor feels justified in his actions. However, the Eighth and Ninth Doctors are too late to stop him from using the Kotturah’s gift against them. All three incarnations of the Doctor quickly find themselves tangled in a web of consequences from all three of their actions. The Eighth and Ninth Doctors did not travel back to the Dark Times alone—the Eighth Doctor journeyed back with the Daleks (a story that is explained in the Big Finish audios) and the Ninth Doctor journeyed back with the Great Vampires (a story that is explained in the Doctor Who Magazine comic Monstrous Beauty). Both Doctors soon realize that their enemies-turned-companions are probably not to be trusted—especially the Daleks.

And that’s mostly what the novel is about. The Kotturah take a backseat to the three Doctors’ (and Brian the Ood and the Great Vampires’) quest to stop the Daleks from destroying all life in the Dark Times and ruining the future. And, in all honesty, it’s where the whole book falls apart a bit. Compared with a villain intended to be Death personified, the Daleks just aren’t that interesting. We’ve countless stories featuring them and I don’t know that Time Lord Victorious needed to be another such story. But that’s mostly what All Flesh is Grass is. Sure, it explores a bit of the Tenth Doctor’s personal fallout from his actions, but a lot of that gets glossed over as the impending threat of the Daleks has to be dealt with. What could’ve been an interesting look at a Doctor going too far over the edge and subsequently having to be rehabilitated by his past selves instead devolves into another bog-standard Doctor vs Daleks story—except this time there’s a Dalek Strategist who wants to create a Dalek mutant with DNA from creatures who lived and died in the Dark Times. This could have been interesting if the book explored that idea more. To be fair, I don’t blame McCormack for the Daleks being the ultimate villain here; I suspect that’s an edict that came from on high. That’s the trouble with these big multi-media events—the story is all planned out ahead of time and the individual pieces just have to work towards that end, regardless of whether or not it’s the best thing for the narrative. I will never understand why the powers that be created a villain like the Kotturah only to have the big climax of the story be the Doctors vs the Daleks. But that’s what they did.

All Flesh is Grass is plagued by the same problem that plagued The Knight, The Fool, and The Dead—there are too many ideas to explore in too short of a book. The book is extremely short (it clocks in at around 200 pages) and there is just too much going on at any given time to explore any of it with any depth. It’s mostly just a collection of scenes that move us from point a to point b as quickly as possible. It’s a bit like reading a Wikipedia article, honestly. The book moves at a brisk pace, which isn’t necessarily an inherently bad thing, but it moves at too brisk a pace. There is no time to explore the ramifications of anything. The Tenth Doctor has sentenced an entire species to death and there is very little time spent on that. The Eighth and Ninth Doctors tell him off briefly, but they are all quickly forced to deal with other things and the weight of such a confrontation between the three of them is, subsequently, never felt. What should’ve been the heart of the story is relegated to an under-explored subplot in favor of repeating some of Day of the Doctor’s plot—three Doctors trying to save a world from the Daleks. Even then, the Daleks’ plan feels underexplored as well. There’s some mumbo jumbo about an Ultimate End, but its big reveal feels rather disappointing as it’s never set up as well as it could be and ends up being a retread of other Doctor Who stories. There’s just so much going on in the book that everything feels relegated to the shadows. The Daleks are up to something, the Ninth Doctor and a vampire are up to something with the last Kotturah, and the Eighth and Tenth Doctors and Brian are up to something trying to defeat the Daleks. But we don’t spend enough time with any of these plotlines to fully understand what’s going on in them. Everything mostly makes sense by the book’s climax, but I can’t help but wish more time had been spent with each plotline, developing it into something that had more weight. Instead, it just felt like a standard Doctor Who story and not a big, monumental crossover event.

Similar to the previous novel, All Flesh is Grass’ characterizations suffer from its lack of page count too. With even more main characters than the previous novel, there’s just not enough space in the novel to properly explore any of them. McCormack does a solid job of capturing the voices of each of the Doctors, but there’s not enough room for her to delve into who these Doctors are as people. Understandably, the Tenth Doctor gets the most focus—but even his arc is underexplored. I found it somewhat difficult to track the events that made him realize he’d made a mistake in ridding the universe of the Kotturah. He was stubborn for much of the book and then, suddenly, he’d acquiesced. The Eighth and Ninth Doctors end up being fairly stereotypical representations of who they are—which, again, isn’t inherently problematic, but is a bit disappointing in a novel where the opportunity to delve deeper into their characters is plenty. Brian, the Daleks, and the Great Vampires sort of just fade into the background. Even though the Daleks are the villains, we don’t spend much time with them. I guess some of their motivations are explored in the Big Finish storyline, but I’d have liked to see some of that here as well. These novels should contain the bulk of the storyline, but they frequently feel as though they are missing elements.

To be fair, I don’t entirely blame McCormack for these problems, either. I have read some of her previous work and have greatly enjoyed them. She’s had a good grasp on character and plot before, and her previous Doctor Who work has been executed strongly. So, honestly, I suspect the problem with All Flesh is Grass is its page count—the novel was doomed to fail from the beginning by restricting it to such a ludicrously short page count. Even in the context of other Doctor Who novels, it’s short. Most of them have at least fifty more pages than either of the Time Lord Victorious books have, with many of them having a hundred or more additional pages. And all of those books have explored their ideas more fully than Time Lord Victorious has. I don’t know why these Time Lord Victorious novels have been restricted to such short lengths, but this restriction has hurt them both in every way.

Ultimately, I found All Flesh is Grass to be as disappointing as the previous novel was. It does bring the events set up in The Knight, The Fool, and The Dead to a somewhat satisfying close, but its short length and determination to devolve a unique story into a standard Dalek vs Doctors one squander much of its potential. Still, McCormack is a more-than-competent writer, and her prose carries much of the novel. It moves at a brisk pace—which ends up being both a good thing and a bad thing. The quickness of the story keeps the energy high, but it also keeps the audience from investing in the story and feeling the stakes of it all. The characterization is a similarly mixed bag, with McCormack capturing the voices of the characters well but not having the space needed to explore them with the depth one might desire. It’s not a bad novel, by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s also not as good as it could have been—a statement which applies to all of Time Lord Victorious.

I had honestly hoped that Time Lord Victorious was building to something exciting, something that would expand upon all of the ideas that were so briefly touched upon in other parts of the storyline. But, in the end, that’s not what I got. All Flesh is Grass is as brief a story as all the other text-based parts of Time Lord Victorious have been. As a multimedia event, I feel like each part of Time Lord Victorious should have been engineered to feel like a wholly complete and satisfying experience. Instead, each aspect I’ve consumed so far has felt like a less part of a whole that never coalesced into something worthy of its potential. And that’s a real shame because there was a superb premise here that could’ve been mined. As it is, it’s not a bad experience. I still enjoyed it for what it was. But, compared to its potential, it’s a letdown.

3 out of 5 wands.

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