Image Credit: BBC (Fair Use)
Image Description: The Time Lord Victorious promo image
By John Salway
With Time Lord Victorious having drawn to a close, our TLV reviewer has been wrapping up his coverage of the multimedia event. Following on from last week’s look at each of its parts now the full context is known, he now considers TLV as a whole.
What is Time Lord Victorious as a whole trying to achieve? In a short article explaining TLV, producer James Goss described the event as “like a Doctor Who festival” with individual, standalone stories forming a bigger picture. The plan seems to have been to try to appeal to different audiences: one, people like me who are willing to commit to trying to follow the whole saga; and two, a more casual audience who might try one story, and then be hooked into considering more purchases. Unfortunately, I don’t think they’ve quite gotten the balance right to appeal to that second group, with TLV appearing from the outside to be quite complicated and intimidating.
Part of the problem for this has been the structure of the story. TLV has a complex, time-bending tale, with different characters entering the narrative at various points in the timeline, and not all moving in the same direction – the best example of this is Echoes of Extinction, a story that features the Eighth Doctor’s first TLV appearance and the Tenth Doctor’s last. This makes it very difficult for the casual fan to know where to begin. What should be their starting point? Personally, I would recommend the two novels (The Knight, The Fool and the Dead & All Flesh is Grass) as a suitable introduction point, as they feature the core of the story, but they’re not at the top of either the release schedule or the chronological story order. A more straightforward, linear storyline might have made it far simpler to encourage potential purchases by simply pointing towards the beginning.
That’s not to say the puzzle-box structure of the project hasn’t paid some dividends to those fully invested in the ongoing storyline. It’s been really interesting to see intriguing loose threads in some releases be tied up further down the line. My favourite example of this is Master Thief, a tale that initially seems completely unrelated to the TLV storyline but is later revealed to be connected to the Eighth Doctor story The Enemy of my Enemy. But while these links have provoked some brief “a-ha!” reactions, I’m not sure anything revelatory or game-changing enough occurs within the overall narrative to justify potentially confusing potential audience members.
In many ways, the multi-stranded nature of TLV has caused it to suffer the worst of both worlds – both by appearing too complicated for many fans to bother with, yet lacking in meaningful plot and character development across the saga. So many of the individual stories are designed to function as standalones, which means they don’t contribute a great deal to the overall narrative. For example, while I enjoyed The Minds of Magnox, you could skip it and not notice a gap. That doesn’t prevent it from being a highly enjoyable story, but what’s the point of an overarching narrative if large chunks can be skipped?
There are also certain releases that can be thought of more as TLV adjacent than really part of the saga, despite their inclusion in the official story charts and content maps. For instance, the first on the release schedule, A Dalek Awakens, launched before TLV had even been announced. Although someone was canny enough to produce an audio drama tying into it, I can’t personally see this escape room as a fully integrated part of TLV. I like it, but I can’t give TLV the credit. The same is true of Time Fracture, in which there are certainly some references – as TLV maestro James Goss told Tides on Twitter:
“The Doctor’s actions in The Waters of Mars create the fracture on Davies Street, which the temporal disruptor then opens. But for the show to spend time explaining it would be a chore when there is fun to be had.”
Ultimately, however, it’s more of a Doctor Who show in general than an innately Time Lord Victorious one.
Something that is very much integral to TLV, however, are the monsters. The main original villains, the Kotturuh, are a very well thought out race with a killer (no pun intended) gimmick that is easy to intuitively grasp, and a strong visual design. They are sinister, implacable and have a strong motive for their actions, believing their actions to be necessary for the universe. As well as proving a strong image of the race as a whole, the range has also done a great job of adding some complexity to this species with individual personalities amongst the group to ensure we don’t just see them as a bunch of identical drones. While I have been impressed by this new creation, I think it was also the right decision to give them a definitive end that pretty much prevents them from re-appearing outside the world of TLV. They have reached the natural conclusion of their storyline, and that’s okay.
The re-invention of the Daleks is another aspect that has been a triumph, with the individual personalities and designs of the Restoration Empire succeeding where the New Paradigm Daleks before them had failed. By keeping the much-loved silhouette of the Bronze Daleks, but with new colour schemes and tools, you’ve got a sleek looking bunch. The personalities have also been well judged, with each Dalek model having a clear function represented clearly in both its visual design and easily distinguishable voices. The undoubted highlights here are the Emperor Dalek, a large-domed, booming force of nature with a gleaming gold casing, and the Dalek Strategist, a battered old Dalek whose casing dates back to the very first Dalek story with the most well-thought out personality of all. He’s cunning, self-serving but ultimately fiercely loyal to the Emperor, and has been given the freedom to enact unorthodox plans. Across the entire range, the Restoration Daleks have boosted every release that they have featured in and their internal politics have been a joy to track across the timelines. I think it would be very foolish for such a well-planned and executed set of characters to be ignored after the end of TLV, and so I have my fingers crossed they will re-emerge in the future.
Finally, Brian the Ood is the last really successful monster design, although undoubtedly the simplest in concept and design. He’s an Ood that kills people. It’s an inherently simple idea that you can immediately grasp, with some great wit in the notion of this innately polite assassin. The decision to use his translator, nicknamed ‘Mr Ball’, as an outlet for his more homicidal thoughts is also a great way to increase the fear factor and unpredictability of Brian without casting aside what makes him an Ood. TLV uses Brian in a really interesting way, moving him from an enemy of the Eighth Doctor to a companion of the Tenth, and featuring a little bit of development as he is separated from his usual time, and employers, as he begins to develop a little bit of independence. At the same time, he embodies the morally questionable road that the Tenth Doctor has decided to venture down – the Doctor shouldn’t really be friends with an assassin, and it’s telling that Brian has chosen to stick around. Clearly, he foresees more opportunities for death in the Doctor’s future. Unfortunately, we leave Brian in a situation that makes it unlikely for him to make further appearances in the Doctor Who world – though it’s always possible, in a time travel series, for us to bump into him before the events of TLV…
It’s telling that when I think of the main players in the TLV saga, my first thoughts are about the monsters, because besides the Doctor there really aren’t any! This is a real flaw for the range, because it limits the room for ongoing emotional arcs and visible character development beyond individual stories, with the weight of all that material placed on the Doctor. And unfortunately, because we’re focusing on past Doctors in TLV, there’s only a small amount of freedom to develop them before they must resume their previous spot in canon. Everyone has to roughly end up at a similar point to where they entered. The Tenth Doctor, the main focus of the range, relearns a lesson that keeps popping up in modern Doctor Who, which is that he shouldn’t take part in large scale conflicts as that isn’t what being the Doctor is about. The Eighth and Ninth Doctors, meanwhile, don’t really change at all across their stories, simply arriving, being the Doctor for a bit, and then leaving the situation.
It’s really quite baffling that the current Doctor, as played by Jodie Whitaker, isn’t the main figure in this range. She does technically appear, making a few small cameos, but at a point where plenty of current Doctor Who fans are quite keen for some more Thirteenth Doctor content while the next series is produced, I don’t understand why she couldn’t have played an active role in this event. It is true that as the incumbent Doctor, Jodie Whitaker could perhaps be too busy to lend her voice to audio dramas and the like, and there may be licensing issues which make such things difficult. But given that the main thrust of the plot is contained within two novels, there’s no reason the Thirteenth Doctor couldn’t have appeared in those pages. If you don’t want to bring her companions along, that can be solved with a single explanatory line! Including the current Doctor would have done a lot to make the range seem more up-to-date and relevant to fans, rather than something that can be comfortably ignored as a side-event. Furthermore, it also gives you more freedom to play with the character, and potentially leave her changed in some way by the events, rather than trying to fit into pre-set canon.
Alternatively, this is where the range could really have done with an original companion character, or at least some relatable humanoid figures to re-occur across multiple stories. As it stands, Brian the Ood is the closest thing we get to a companion in TLV, and as a rather fixed character, there’s only so much that can be done to develop him. But if you create a new friend to journey with the Doctor (or Doctors!) then you have complete freedom to do whatever you want with them. They can change and develop as epic events move around them. You can include twists about their true origins, or revelations about how they personally tie into events. You can make the audience care for them, emotionally invest in their well-being before tragically killing them, or you can have them learn so much from the journey that they outgrow the Doctor. Including such a figure could have helped to ground the range a little bit more in relatable emotion rather than focusing merely on interlocking a series of events, and would also provide a reason for each story to be essential, to see how the character grows.
If ever the BBC choose to produce another large scale multimedia event of this nature, and I really hope they do, I think the best thing they can do is lean a lot harder into serialisation. Here they have attempted to keep a lot of elements separate, in the hopes of attracting more of an audience, but I feel that’s led to a lot of confusion in the general Doctor Who community about what exactly TLV actually is. Producing a simpler, linear set of stories that follow one after another, and making the order between them clear (preferably with numbers!) could lead to a more intuitive range that’s easier for the audience to grasp, even across novels, audio dramas and comics.
Such a structure would also help with my second suggestion, which is a more grounded, character based approach. TLV features a lot of epic elements but is often rather clinical in the way it moves them across the board. Huge events are happening on a massive scale but we’re given little reason to be personally invested beyond rooting for the Doctors. I recommend producing a story with a strong focus on (a) companion character(s), original or otherwise, that they have the freedom to develop across the range. Give us more figures to relate to, so we can be hurt all the more when bad things happen, or be even more joyous when they triumph. By the end of such a large adventure, I want to feel like the journey mattered.
And put the current Doctor in it! I would have thought that one was a no-brainer.
TLV has produced a lot of really interesting stories that I can thoroughly recommend (and indeed have), and introduced some iconic enemies that I truly hope will live on past the end of the range. But when I look at the saga as a whole, I see less than the sum of its parts. Like a puzzle box, there are moments of satisfaction seeing pieces slide into place until every gap is neatly filled in, but I don’t feel much of an emotional connection to the events going on. And Doctor Who is very much a show all about emotion. In the end, TLV feels very much a world unto itself, something self-contained that you can easily put on the shelf and forget about. Ultimately, I see a lot of missed opportunities.