As much as they would like to present themselves otherwise, the Time Lords did not spring into being fully formed any more than the televised appearances of their species, the first of which other than individuals such as the Doctor or the Monk was almost a full six years after the first episodes of Doctor Who had debuted during the finale of the sixth season, The War Games, concluding Patrick Troughton’s run and the primitive days of monochrome broadcast.
Their story having accreted over the course of over half a century through the contributions of many writers, the perhaps unenviable task of chronicling them has fallen to Steve Tribe in A Brief History of Time Lords, and like history itself their path is one where for the most part those many hands have steered in different directions serving the immediate needs of the show rather than a greater underlying narrative.
Clouded in mystery to the point of self-mythologising, the Time Lords do not like themselves being known or seen by any species they consider their inferiors; that is to say, all of them. For that reason, Tribe’s volume necessarily takes the same attitude towards veracity as the Doctor himself often does on many occasions, and whatever truth there is will be divulged in a convoluted manner, if there is any truth at all and not just opinion and misdirection.
From the Dark Times to the end of time in seven chapters it acknowledges and explores – in fact it cannot escape – the contradictions and contrariness of that supposedly grand people who speak for an entire planet yet who make up only a fraction of the population; all Time Lords are Gallifreyan, yet all Gallifreyans are not Time Lords. Throughout the text, it maintains an appropriately flippant attitude towards the extant discontinuities, of which there are many.
An attempt to weave many stories into a coherent narrative through which the Time Lords are the driving factor, it becomes apparent how ridiculous and repetitive certain stories were down the years, though on the whole they do hang together with remarkable consistency, but like any fictional future history where the story still in progress, the latest season currently broadcasting, anything can be rewritten at any point and it is necessarily out of date as soon as it is published with no reference to any material beyond Hell Bent.
With little interpretation or extrapolation beyond the indisputable extant material, considering the sometimes rabid possessiveness with which many fans reject any deviation from their own personal vision of the show it is perhaps the prudent approach to ignore the wealth of ancillary material developed down through the years, The opportunity taken to retcon the appearance of the Seal of Rassilon on Voga in Revenge of the Cybermen while the established but ambiguous “Other” of Time Lord antiquity receives barely a mention, the end result is little more than an abstract, uneven and not particularly useful episode guide.
There is an ongoing convention for Doctor Who to be written to reflect the immediate era of the show raising the question of whether the book should be read in a Scottish accent, the use of the word “canny” and the reference to the Sisterhood of Karn as “Keepers of the Flame of Eternal Life and Utter Boredom” certainly in keeping with the dialogue and delivery of the current incarnation despite the Doctor being referred to in the third person; the eventual confirmation of the identity of the archivist as an established character of such minor consequence means the revelation is essentially pointless.
The debt to the work of others is enormous but uncredited; Terrance Dicks, Malcolm Hulke, Robert Holmes, Bob Baker, Dave Martin, “David Agnew,” Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat and Terry Nation to name but a few, those who shaped the stories of the Time Lords both on Gallifrey and elsewhere through The War Games, The Three Doctors, The Deadly Assassin, The Invasion of Time, The Five Doctors and on through the current run of the show, and of course their key adversaries and sometimes allies, the Daleks, the Racnoss, the Sisterhood of Karn.
At times the poor contrast of black text on mottled grey pages does not make an easy read despite Tribe’s sometimes lively commentary which carries a touch of Douglas Adams and a dash of Yes, Prime Minister, and although many of the photo illustrations are so small as to border on useless the bold and sometimes colourful drawings and sketches of Richard Shaun Williams are easier to appreciate and more deserving of it.
Most infuriatingly, like the prison of Shada or the time loop of The Armageddon Factor, A Brief History of Time Lords is guilty of repetition, events described within the chronology overlapping with multiple characters within the chapter on key Time Lord figures, and at only 159 pages of sparse text it is not likely that what was only said pages before will have slipped the memory of even a mere Homo sapiens. A literal rather than an imaginative or comprehensive work, the operative word in the title is regrettably the overly descriptive adjective.
A Brief History of Time Lords is available now from BBC Books