Saturday, 7 May 2016

Why The Eighth Doctor Comic Strips are Some of the Best Comics Ever Written

This column has been taking a look at obscure comics for twelve months. For every every sixth month, instead of taking a look at a comic that nobody talks about, this special edition will take a look at a comic I feel not enough people talk about.


Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor Comic Strips by Scott Gray and various artists – Doctor Who Magazine 1996 to 2005

Contains Spoilers

It was a strange time to be a Doctor Who fan in the mid nineties. The series had been off the air long enough that people had basically assumed it was never coming back. Few official stories had been released within the decade by the BBC, but the desire from both fans and writers for a return was only getting stronger.

Then everything changed, and at the same time, nothing changed. The 1995 Paul McGann movie proved there was fertile ground for the character to move on to, but it was an abject failure at courting new audiences.

As a young kid who didn't really understand the peaks and troughs of film and TV politics, I was waiting, with bated breath, for the TV series to return. It was bound to happen right? Only a matter of time?

In a post Doctor Who The Movie world there was a great feeling of betrayal. We had something so close and had been denied. And so we sought solace in the only place we could, The Doctor Who Magazine's monthly strip. It was the closest thing we'd get to seeing Paul McGann back on the screen.

It'd be easy to look back on DWM's Eighth Doctor strips with nostalgic fondness when that's practically the only Doctor Who you were getting at the time. And that's true, I lapped up what I could as a kid. With no TV series in sight, to me the DWM strip was Doctor Who.

I slipped in and out of reading it over the years, and I mostly read the colour strips when my brother was buying it regularly. But my interest fluctuated, and I had an egregious, homophobic reaction to the later stories which we'll get in to later.

I was in university by the time Doctor Who was back on the screen. I'd started buying the comic's reprints but I never went back and reappraised the Eighth Doctor stories until 2013, when I decided to finally complete the collection and read them as a single body of work.

It wasn't nostalgia. I enjoyed The Eight Doctor Strips so much more the second time round. They are some of the best Doctor Who stories ever written, maybe even some of the best comics I've ever read.

The whole four volume arc is itself relatively self contained, so I'd be interested to see what a reader with no foreknowledge of the TV show would think of the stories (I think they'd come across quite well.)

But what is it about these strips, written predominantly by Scott Gray, that makes them all time greats? Well, there’s a sense that Gray is really trying to break new ground with these stories. Long before we saw Doctor Who return to TV under Russell T Davis, Grey brought us a breezy, hip, forward thinking Doctor Who that could drop pop culture references at any moment, but still keep one foot rooted in classic Sci-fi, maybe even more so than the TV series, before or since.

In the beginning we're introduced to the Doctor's newest companion, Izzy Sinclare, a tomboyish science-fiction fan who is practically thrilled at the prospect of space-faring adventures. She's a great match for McGann's Doctor, who is at once level headed and serious, but also so full of hope and curiosity. Izzy can irritate him at times, but he just can't help but admire her enthusiasm.

The early stories are rather throwaway in tone, but they build an important foundation for what was to come later. Endgame sees the return of the Celestial Toymaker, and does what comics do best by creating fantastical and wonderful scenes that a TV budget would never get you.

The Daleks return, in Fire and Brimstone, a story that really does it's best to try and make them ultimately terrifying again, albeit in a very 90's Rob Liefield kind of way. The story has cracking action, and the art is a perfect fit for high concept sci-fi. Even so, it's the character driven stuff that really draws the appeal here. 

Alongside Izzy we're also introduced to androgynous super-spy Fey Truscott-Sade, who, though easy to miss at first, Izzy seems to be rather smitten with. It's the story The Final Chapter though, where the strip starts gaining steam. Not the story itself though, which is a fairly by-the-numbers look back at Time Lord mythology, but it's the ending that worth talking about. An ending which would go on to be one of the greatest pieces of trolling in comic book history.

A little context. With no sign of Doctor Who returning to the airwaves many fans had taken it upon themselves to produce their own future Who stories. One such example were the Audio Visual fan dramas, where Nicolas Briggs (who would go on to voice the Daleks in the TV series proper) was becoming quite popular playing a future incarnation. He'd actually appeared a few times as “the Nth Doctor” in some of the earlier comics.

At the end of The Final Chapter, Paul McGanns's Doctor seemingly sacrifices his life, triggering a regeneration and announcing Briggs as the new, official Ninth Doctor.

Readers fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Angry letters were sent in condemning DWM for writing off McGann's Doctor so early, while others said they had no right outside the TV series to make that call.

It was all a ruse of course. The Doctor was revealed to have faked his regeneration in the cracking space western, Wormwood. Teaming up with Time Lord bioweapon Shayde, the gang battle an 19th Century industrialist and even more deadly bioweapon, The Pariah. The gang succeed, but not without Shayde being mortally wounded, forcing him to merge with Fay and essentially turning her into the Doctor Who equivalent of the Silver Surfer.

Wormwood creates the template that Gray would improve on over the subsequent years. It combined character drama with converging plot-lines and high concept stories with great action and visuals. It was all polished to a mirror shine, and the climax is great.

The next story arc, is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. The Glorious Dead saw the return of Kroton, a Cyberman with a soul reinvented as a sort of Luke Cage character (who he even drops a reference to), he's also joined by Katsura, a samurai robbed of a noble death by The Doctor, and The Master, back as a schemer more vicious than he ever had been before (or since).

The Glorious Dead really embraces it's wide spectrum of comic book influences. Katsura's origin story sees references to classic and contemporary manga, and the main plot involves the two Time Lords battling it out for the throne of the multiverse. There's literal homages to Peanuts, Doctor Strange, X-Force and Dick Tracy. It's a comic aficionado's dream.

Right here, DWM was really leaving it's TV roots behind and embracing it's legacy as a comic first and foremost. With no TV series in sight, Doctor Who was dead, long live Doctor Who.

Soon later the comic would hit full colour for the very first time, and the quality and intensity of the stories would only increase from there. Ophidious would see Izzy swap brains with the amoral fish alien Destrii, only for Destrii to end up getting vaporised, leaving Izzy struggling to cope living in an unfamiliar body. 

The Way of All Flesh would see The Doctor and Izzy, no joke, team up with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera to fight an alien art diva during Dia de los Muertos and it's a real doozey of a story. Then there's Children of the Revolution, voted one of the greatest DWM comics ever, that follows the legacy of a group of moralistic Daleks as they struggle to find a place in a universe that hates and fears them.

Things finally come to ahead in Oblivion as threads going all the way back to Endgame converge. Izzy, mistaken for Destrii, is summoned to her homeworld to take on the mantle of Primatrix. Meanwhile, The Doctor discovers that Destrii, in Izzy's body, isn't dead after all, and seeks to set right what once went wrong.

The story has action, adventure and political rivalries, but it is primarily concerned with Izzy coming to terms with who she is, as an outsider, an orphan and a lesbian.

In Scott Grey's commentary, at the back of Volume 3, he notes “I think we only got one angry letter (from an American reader) about Izzy and Fey's kiss. He cancelled his subscription in protest. I would have been deeply disappointed if we hadn't outraged somebody, so thank you, Mr Republican, wherever you are!” I think about that reader a lot, and the person I might have grown up to be.

For the young homophobic man that I was, the finale made me angry and confused. Going back in 2013, the story nearly moved me to tears. I didn't know it at the time, but Oblivion had played an important role in making me the person I am today.

The story ends with a big damn kiss with Fey, and a return to the day that Izzy first left in the Tardis. It's a neat and tidy ending, and would be the perfect place to finish, but Doctor Who wouldn't return to television for another three years, and there were still more stories to be told. It would have been easy, after Oblivion, for the strip to slip into a funk. It didn't, instead what they gave us was more of a victory lap.

The next run of stories are self contained but are some of the best homages in the entire run. The Nightmare Game is a cheeky, Roy of the Rovers inspired football adventure, The Curious Tail of Spring-heeled Jack is pretty self explanatory, and The Land of Happy Endings is told in the style of the old TV Comic Doctor Who stories from back in the 60's and re-contextualises them as The Doctor fantasising about a simpler, more childish world. 

We return to the long form epic arcs eventually with Bad Blood. Sitting Bull vs General Custer, the return of Destrii and Space Windigo. Jeeze oh man, is this story ever fucking awesome. Doctor Who, even now, has never had the budget to tackle western revisionism. But with comics? No problem. The TV stories have dealt with metaphorical stories of colonialism before, but here, it's front and centre.

As the kind of story Doctor Who was created to tell, it's probably be my favourite story of the whole bunch, even compared to The Glorious Dead.

Destrii joins the crew of the Tardis, finally, and so we reach the strip's grand finale, The Flood. The Flood isn't a particular complicated concept, reinvent a Cyberman story more suited for the modern age. It's interesting to compare The Flood with the TV's modern reinvention of the Cybermen, because they're like night and day in approach. 

When the TV series brought them back, the Cybermen were envisioned as hulking, boot stomping war machines. In The Flood the Cybermen look more fluid, more fragile. They don't stride towards their victims with menace, instead they glide and float. These Cybermen are eerie, truly alien.

The Flood finishes on another homage, one to Doctor Who itself. The last televised story before it's proper revival, Survival, ended with The Doctor and his companion Ace walking off into the distance, reminiscing of adventures gone by, and speculating on the ones to come.

The Flood's ending hits all those same beats. With Doctor Who returning to television this really was the Eighth Doctor's swan song and it decides to end in the same humble way the show did, reminiscing on the past, and looking forwards to the future.

I've never really felt the same way about a Doctor Who comic since the end of the Eighth Doctor's era. While there has been some exceptionally good work done by IDW and Titan and DWM itself, it's not quite got the same feeling now that the show is back on TV. The comics can't be quite as daring, or as experimental, as DWM was during it's wilderness years.

The Eighth Doctor Comics strips are some of my favourite comics. They're probably my favourite Doctor Who related stories period, and this is coming from a guy who's been a fan of the show since I was seven years old. They're ambitious and progressive, grand in scope yet warm and human. Paul McGann, despite only ever really having one proper TV appearance, is my Doctor, and that's in no small part due to what these comics mean to me.

Any Doctor Who fan, old and new, owes it to themselves to read the entire run, and even if you don't give a shit about Doctor Who the craft on display here is so finely tuned that there's a lot to love for a fan of comics in general. The Eighth Doctor strips show what Doctor Who as a concept is capable of when it's unburdened by budget and franchise limitations.

I grew up watching Doctor Who, but I never really loved Doctor Who until 1995. I'm still a fan, but I've never really loved it the way I did when Scott Gray was writing for DWM. You can probably figure out why.


Jack Harvey 2016. Doctor Who (c) BBC, published by Panini Comics for Doctor Who Magazine. Images used under free use.

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