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Sunday, 3 April 2011

THE GREAT BRITISH COMIC BOOK WEEKEND -ADVENTURES IN TIME AND SPACE

Ben Willans is the man I refer to when I want to know anything sci-fi related. I initially got to know him online via our mutual appreciation of The Beatles, and when I mentioned Doctor Who in passing I discovered that he was a fan too - that's the beauty of Doctor Who. It crosses generations and when Ben was born, young wippersnapper that he is, the show wasn't even being produced - man, now I feel old.

I can think of no one better to write a piece on Doctor Who in the comic books for the Archive's Great Comic Book Weekend and so - over to Ben.



The best comics I have ever read are Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. Unfortunately, I don't have all of them and I haven't re-read them in an age. So when Gary asked me to write a piece for his blog I had to go to Doctor Who instead.

To your average Who fan the comics tend to rank at the very bottom of a hierarchy which goes Classic Who-New Who-Big Finish-Books-Comics. Or, for the newbies New Who-Classic Who-Big Finish-Books-Comics.

This is a very short sighted attitude. The comics have produced some of the greatest stories and Characters in Who history and were certainly highly influential on the RTD era of New Who. The comics can also tell stories that cannot be told in any other medium and the Who cannon would be a poorer place without the comics.

In the early days of Hartnell and Troughton the comics were a blatant cash in bearing only the slightest resemblance to the TV show. Even during this era there were some bright spots. The Daleks had their own strips and although the stories have dated poorly for the most part, the artwork of those strips remains a joy to behold. The Daleks were never as grand in the Classic era as they were in the early comic strips. It was only with Bad Wolf and The Parting of Ways that the TV series finally caught up to the splendour of those early strips.

The Pertwee era strips were a marked improvement over the Hartnell and Troughton eras. Although the environment in which the stories took place was an ersatz version of the TV show, the characterisation of the third Doctor is much more faithful to the TV show.

It is not until we get to the fourth Doctor era and the Doctor Who Weekly strips that the comics take on a life of their own. Here we get stories that finally strike the balance between taking advantage of the comic strip medium and maintaining the style of the TV show of the era. We are also introduced to Beep the Meep an utterly brilliant monster who is basically an super-intelligent, psychopathic guinea-pig type creature. Beep has re-appeared several times in the strips and in a one of audio and I would easily put him in my top ten Who Monsters. 

The entire run of Davison comics were produced by the writer/artist team of Steve Parkhouse and Dave Gibbons. They diverge considerably from the TV shows of the era and dispense with the companion line-ups of that time. Instead we have a number of companions who feature for individual stories. Two of whom, Maxwell Edison (majoring in UFOlogy) and Shayde have gone on to become mainstays of the strip and have also featured in audios. This is wholly to the advantage of the strips and the Characterisation of the fifth Doctor. This divergence results in stories which are considerably more imaginative and entertaining than many of the TV stories of that era.

John Ridgeway picked up the artistic duties for the entire sixth Doctor run and he was joined by several writers. Ridgeway's are is distinctly British and in an earlier era you could see his style being employed to illustrate Enid Blyton's books. Previously the Who strips had tended towards the very basic, the Dan Dare, American super hero style and 2000AD knock-offs. With the sixth Doctor era the comic strips become a hybrid of illustrations and storyboards which show far more style than the under-budgeted, brightly lit video of the TV show at that time. For the most part the stories themselves are superior to the fare being offered by the TV at the time. Voyager is particularly brilliant, a seemingly free-form chase/quest through time and space that does the “all powerful” entity concept better that the Celestial Toymaker and Guardians offered on TV. The sixth Doctor of these strips is clearly the character that Colin intended (and eventually would) go on to play. Brash and Verbose, but not as harsh as his early post-regeneration days. Its strange, but depending on who you talk to the books or the Big Finish audios will get the credit for this version of the sixth Doctor, but for those that don't ignore the comics, he has existing ever since the 1980s. Best of all is the character of Frobisher, a shape changing Whifferdill, a wise cracking gum shoe who becomes stuck in the shape of a Penguin. 

The creative highs of the comic strip could never last forever and it was perhaps inevitable that the upturn in the creativity and quality of the TV series during the McCoy era was accompanies by an inconsistent run of comics. The show was unloved by the beeb at that time and it may well be that in previous years a Ben Aaronovitch would have written a Remembrance of the Daleks type story for the comics rather than being able to get it on TV instead. Similarly the unity of purpose and personal the strips had from the fourth Doctor's era to the sixth's was gone and replaced by a more chaotic production system whereas the TV shows production team were mostly on the same page for the first time in a decade. The McCoy era in strip form runs from the sort of stories that were barely better than the fare offered in the days of the Hartnell strip, to stories which would have fitted the TV series perfectly bud for budgetary issues. The Mark of Mandragora, released as a trade paperback, is a perfect example, being a story that would have fitted into seasons 25 or 26 brilliantly if only the show had a budget of one million an episode.

It is with the eight Doctor's run that the strip reaches its zenith. To do the whole run justice would be an article in of itself. Indeed the trade paperbacks for the eight Doctor run to more volumes than Doctors four through seven combined. With the eight Doctor having only the one outing the novelists, audio and strip writers had a blank canvas on which to develop both the character himself and the mythos. At the time the books, audios and comics all went their own way in terms of continuity, but looking back the character of the eight Doctor feels authentically the same across all of those media. Halfway through the run the strips are finally produced in colour for the first time since the Pertwee era. What is noticeable is that the producers approached colour with gusto, the palate and use of colour is as striking and stylish as the RTD era of the TV show (which apparently had the most varied colour palate of any show on TV at the time). For the first time since the Davison run we have long running story arcs and for the first time ever in the strip (although not the books) “season finales” and a recurring cast of characters. A character leaving the TARDIS does not mean them leaving the strip and by a similar token companions have their own lives and families and story arcs of their own. Sex and sexuality become a part of the strips (in a more mature fashion than the books managed for the most part). All of this would be bread and butter to the RTD era, but was practically unknown in the Classic era of the TV show.

As I said before a proper overview of the eight Doctor strips is worthy of an article or several of its own. So I will focus on the final story of the run, The Flood, which is both one of the all time classic stories of any medium of Who of any era and which is also provides the template and raw materials for the RTD era of new Who.



When the flood calls
You have no home, you have no walls
In the thunder crash
You're a thousand minds, within a flash
Don't be afraid to cry at what you see
The actors gone, there's only you and me
And if we break before the dawn, they'll
use up what we used to be.

Lord, here comes the flood
We'll say goodbye to flesh and blood
(Peter Garbiel - Here Comes The Flood).

The Flood is a Cybermen invading the Earth story. I'll put my cards on the table, I am not a fan of the Cybermen generally speaking. Conceptually speaking their most interesting appearance was their first ever story “The Tenth Planet”. They arguably worked better in the Troughton era, but from Tom Baker to Sylvester McCoy they were stupid, macho, tin men rather than logical cyborgs without feeling. New Who has fared a little better with them, but I think it is telling that New Who completely rebooted them and played on the conversion process to get the most effect from them.

The Cybermen in The Flood are AWESOME, cunning, relentless, unemotional, purely logical. They are revealed in the cliffhanger to part one and her is the kicker, the invasion is already underway and they are invisible, you might say an “Army of Ghosts”. The design of these Cybermen is stunning, the best ever. As with the new series (more so in fact) its clear that the only human element left is the brain. The conversion process is not shown in full but the cliffhanger to part 2 shows us a Cyberman with a buzz saw on its thumb and various other spiky stuff on its other fingers. The Doctor gets out of the cliffhanger by sonic screwdriver in a manner that was ripped off in Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel. When the Cybermen finally reveal themselves, its not in a “lets go an invade the home counties way” but in a “lets materialise our bloody great spaceship over Big Ben and swarm the skies” way. This one panel of artwork lead was echoed in: World War Three, The Christmas Invasion and Doomsday. The invasion is then reported on the news (John Kerry was president instead of Dubya!) which was probably echoed in every single non-historical episode of the RTD era.

Over and above these stylistic points is the brilliance of the Cybermen's plan and I do mean brilliance. In a startling break with past form their plan isn't from the Wile E. Cyote book of utter idiocy, but is instead logical and basically successful. They use our own emotions and neurosis against us so that we are literally begging to be converted.

The Doctor only saves the day by a desperate gamble, offering the Cybermen his death and time travel. He uses this to gain access to the vortex which he uses to destroy the Cybermen in exactly the same way that Rose destroys the Daleks in The Parting of Ways. Moreover in one version of the story this lead to him regenerating into the ninth Doctor. The writers ultimately turned down RTD's gift of the regeneration because they could not do it without destroying the integrity of the story they had built up around the eight Doctor and his then companion Destiri. The Doctor is shown to become angry and then somewhat omnipresent. That he doesn't regenerate as his future self needed to, or become an “angry God” as suggested in Utopia, is not as inconsistent as it might seem. The eight Doctor being half-human has enough humanity in him to pull back from becoming an angry god and needing to regenerate.

The denouement gives a nod of the head to the recurring characters (including Dr. Grace Holloway!) in the way that the New Who would go on to do with The End of Time Part 2 and ends with a scene between the Doctor and Desteri that harkens back to the epilogue of Survival.

This may all sound like The Flood's only function is to serve as a template for scenes and tropes that New Who would employ. But as I said before it is also a classic story in its own right. Its just also happens to be one of the single most influential Who stories ever written and the single greatest example of everything that is great about Doctor Who in comic format.

The return of the series has inevitably clipped the wings of the comic strip. It is now only free to create its own character and story arcs in the gaps in the TV shows continuity. Most recently the ten Doctor's post Journey's End life has allowed the DWM and IDW strips to introduce and develop their own companions and arcs.

It may well be that the strips will never be free to develop the Doctor and his companions in the way the eight Doctor strips did. It may also be that they will rarely be able to develop epic story arcs again. But if that is so, the strips will still have open all those stories that cannot be told on TV for reasons of budge and style and the strips thrived on telling those stories for years before the eighth Doctor came along. I see no reason why Doctor Who comics can't continue to thrive in the same way for years to come.

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