Saturday, 18 April 2009

Doctor Who - 4th Doctor Strips Vol 1

The fourth Doctor's comic strip era is the first to which the notion of "too broad and too deep for the small screen" really applies. This era has been lovingly republished by the folks at DWM in two volumes, the first of which I shall be covering in this post. Some of these stories have also recently been (or are slated to be) reprinted again by IDW comics in a colourised format. The DWM editions remain faithful to the original black and white stips that were published in the 1970s.

There are several notable points about these strips. The first is that the characterisation of the Doctor is far better than was previously the case with the comics. Throughout the run of these comics, the Doctor remains true to the zany portrayal of Tom Baker and there are plenty of good gags. The next point to note is that these stories are far more imaginative than the earlier comics. They have a scale and ambition and originality that dwarfs the paltry efforts of the Hartnell and Troughton strips. Some even go beyond the ambition of the TV too. By and large there is a real sense that these stories happen in the same universe as the TV show and even where the strip departs from the show (introducing its own companion), there is no real conflict between the continuities of the TV show and the strips. The strips also retain the sense of fun that the TV show had at this time and do not suffer with the dryness of the Pertwee comics.

This then is the point where we can say the comics got it right for the first time and before I go further I will plug the first of the DWM reprints, volume 1 - The Iron Legion, avaialble from amazon at this link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Doctor-Who-Legion-Complete-Fourth/dp/1904159370/ref=cm_lmf_tit_9_rsrsrs0

1) THE IRON LEGION is the name of first story in the Iron Legion collection and the first to be published by, what was then called, Doctor Who Weekly. Credited to Pat Mills & John Wagner (writers) and Dave Gibbons (art) this is a story that was rejected for TV by the beeb and it is easy to see why. Quiet simply they could never have made it in the 1970s, even today it would present real budgetary difficulties. The storyline deals with the Doctor discovering Robot Army of a Roman Empire from a parrallel universe that is trying to colonise the whole multiverse. The very first page is immediately striking as we see a hoarde or Robot romans and a tank invading and English village. This scene alone would've blown the budget of a 1970s TV episode in one hit, more remarkable is how immediate it feels. If this had been a TV episode at the time this scene would've been built up to, hell a few years earlier (ie Pertwee) it probably would've been the cliffhanger for an episode 1. The story doesn't let up from here as the Doctor almost immediately discovers the invasion, fools a robot with his alien phsyiology (Hooray they've realised he isn't a Human!) and then gets captured. Its then established that the Robots worship a God and it is this central mystery and its resolution that drives the rest of the story. All of this is dealt with in the first issue/episode in a matter of 5 pages. This represents an efficiency of storytelling that was unique in Doctor Who until the transmission of Rose in 2005.

The rest of the story is equal to the first episode and revels in a scope and scale that was simply revolutionary at the time. There are any number of things here that would become tropes of the 2005 revival. Issue two sees the story being told, in part, by TV news reports. We also have a style of storytelling in which secondary characters are fully fleshed out. On a shallower level we have proper crowd scenes, blimps being used as the primary means of transport (Hello Rise of the Cybermen!), the Malevilus as the baddies (Hello School Reunion) and the Doctor repeatedly calling one of the baddies "Parrot Face". This is a story which just gets bigger and bigger, starting in a small English Village and ending in a huge Roman City in a parrellel universe that is under the control of aliens! The only real critisism one can make is that the story is very A to B to C in terms of plotting. But given that it is essentially an action adventure required to be told in comic form, in very few pages, this is quibbling. The scale and wonder and ideas of the story more than make up for this minor shortcoming, especially when one takes into account the fact that 30 years have passed since its first publication. I would take this story over a Power of Kroll any day of the week.

2) CITY OF THE DAMNED. Another Mills/Wagner/Gibbons collaboration, this one isn't as revolutionary at The Iron Legion, but i think I like it more. Its certainly a great example of how much better the fourth Doctor strips reflected the TV show than the previous doctor's strips did. This is about more than merely maintaining continuity, its about maintaining and ethos whilst also being true to your own medium. This story, for the want of a better way of putting it, has the same flavour of the TV stories, but by virtue of being in a different media a different texture. Thus you can see it as the missing link between Doctor Who: The Sunmakers and Blake's 7: The Way Back/Spacefall. The storyline deals with the Doctor discovering a society in which emotions have been outlawed and erradicated, obviously he is not going to accept that and eventually the ruling baddies are overthrown by means of a Sunmakers Stylie revolution. Once again the story opens with a striking first page reminiscent of the sort of thing Blake's 7 would open with (only bigger budget!). There's a really good line in dark humour too eg the TARDIS materialises in the living room of two drones:

"There is a strange box appearing in the corner "b""
"Yes, "A", ignore it. Perhaps it will go away"

Or on being told that "A" has a genetic flaw and will be turned into fertiliser:

"Goodbye "B"... Perhaps one day you and your new "A" will eat foodstuffs grown on me"
"And then again, perhaps we won't. Goodbye "A"".

best of all are the Doctor being told that he has an "illegal" sense of humour and the Doctor tying up a prisoner with his scarf!

This is also a story that couldn't have been done on the TV. Not so much because of budgetary concerns (although they would have been a problem) but because some of it would be too dark on TV. The society's acceptance of death provides for some moments which are effective and darkly amusing in the strip (witness one of the drones commenting on his being eaten alive); but on TV these same scenes would've been way to gory, bleak and downright disturbing!

Again there are any number of TV stories that are nowhere near as good or ambitious as this one.

3) STAR BEAST. The Mills/Wagner/Gibbons partnership follows up two epics with a more down to earth story, a comedic one at that. This one is still groundbreaking in its own right though. Firstly, it introduces a new companion, Sharon. When Martha Jones was introduced much was made about her being the first black companion the Doctor had had. And so many of the New Adventures fanboys and fangirls pointed out that this was wrong because Roz Forrester was his first Black Companion. Then the big finish groupies pointed to Erimem. But the truth of the matter is that Sharon was the first Black companion, introduced back in February 1980.

More important that this though, is that it is this story which introduces:



BEEP THE MEEP!

BtM is just awesome. A fuzzy-wuzzy ball of hatred and frustration that plays on the sentimentality and Animal Hospital empathy of us humanoids, when in reality he is a psycopathic, homicidal leader of an army hellbent on genocide. The strip shows us how the Meeps come to be this way (complete with charming execution ditty "hoppity hop! Boppipty Bop! who's next for the chop?) and there are numerous brilliant OTT Beep rants as the story goes along, eg:

"Never has the "Most-High" been so insulted! Before the "Most-High" leaves this planet there will be atonement in blood!"

"Work drones! Work until you die!"

"Hapiness is a stagnant pond! True Joy can only be found through inflicting Pain, Earth girl"!

You get the picture! Beep the Meep is a classic example of why I am not a fan of the whole canon debate. If you say the comics aren't cannon, then you are left with the absurdity of the Vogans, the mykra or the Taran Woodbeast being "proper" Doctor Who, whilst something as infintely cool as Beep the Meep, "doesn't count". Any philosophy that takes us to such a point is clearly nonsensical.

Anway, aside from that there a cool gag as the Doctor twiddles an alien's eyeball in the mistaken belief its a light swich. There's also the awesomeness of SOMBRERO-DOCTOR!!!!

4) DOGS OF DOOM. This is the first real let down of the Mills/Wagner/Gibbons team with a story that is unengaging and less than the sum of its parts. It relies heavily on the old base under seige storyline with a twist taken from Invasion of Time as the apparent baddies are shown to be controlled by someone else. The apparent baddies are basically werewolves the real baddies are revealed to be:
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wait for it.
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THE DALEKS!

So its pretty cool to see the Daleks against the 4th Doctor in the comic. But their plan is pretty rubbish and the way they are beaten feels cheap. Two things I do like though, the first is the Doctor resolving the cliffhanger of having become a wearwolf himself and enduring 3 months of hell in the TARDIS to do so. Secondly if you've ever wondered who would win in a fight between a Dalek and K9, the answer is K9 3 - Daleks 0.

5) THE TIME WITCH. Yikes! A huge drop in quality here and a rare blunder for this era. This may be attributable to the fact of it being writer Steve Moore's first bash. Basically this is a retelling of the Omega sections of the Third Doctor with a bit of Superman thrown in too. A throwback to the type of storytelling that was used for the comics of the first two Doctors. It also sees Sharon aged up by 4 years for no apparent reason (permantly so too).

Overall though this is an excellent collection with 3 brilliant stories, 1 decent one and the final crap one at least being short.

1 comment:

ARCHAVIST said...

Ben I think the pepper pots would slaughter K9 - Can the old K9 go up stairs?