5 years, 6 months ago
So, I'll admit, part of why I've been dragging my feet on ever doing a comics entry post-Tom Baker is that I knew that I was going to get pilloried in a way I haven't been pilloried since pointing out that Inferno's pacing is a complete shambles. Because everybody points to the Sixth Doctor comics, and particularly the Steve Parkhouse-penned/John Ridgway-drawn ones that are the ones I'm really focusing on this entry (The Grant Morrison ones will get a look when we cover The Invisibles, which will be next year), are apparently widely praised as the best Sixth Doctor stories in existence and as highlights and classics.
And, I mean, they're good, but… they have real and massive problems of their own. Or, actually, not of their own. For the most part their problems go hand in glove with the problems we noted last time in the series in general. What is good about them is largely (though not exclusively) that they are ambitious and epic in a way that the television series was not in the mid-1980s, and that they have a level of consistent aesthetic and atmosphere that the series lacked.
The thing is, both of those are in many ways functions of the medium. One of the advantages that comics have over other visual media is that the budget and what is depicted are utterly unrelated. Whereas if Steve Parkhouse were to try to write "Voyager" (his most acclaimed story) for television, well, one doesn't imagine he'd have gotten much further than "EXT. VAST FROZEN WASTELAND - NIGHT," and if he somehow had, "an ice covered tall ship rests among the frozen peaks" would have been the end. Similarly, when you're only dealing with a writer and an artist as creative personnel it's not exactly the same challenge to get them all on the same creative page as it is to get a bunch of designers, musicians, costumers and actors on the same page as the writer, script editor, and producer.
So yes, both of these things are accomplished by the Parkhouse comics quite well, but to use them as the basis for a comparison with the television series is a bit pointless. It's one of the basic differences between the media. The real question is whether these are good comics.
Certainly it's easy to see the appeal. ""Voyager"" rightly gets the bulk of the credit - it's an absolutely gorgeous and lush story full of creepy and haunting images. (I'm usually skeptical of colorization of black and white comics, but IDW's color version of "Voyager" is absolutely gorgeous) There's a long-standing train of thought within Doctor Who in which the Doctor is cast into hallucinatory or surreal realms, dating back at the very least to The Celestial Toymaker and, I would argue, all the way back to The Edge of Destruction. But there can be no doubt that "Voyager" is one of the most successful applications of this.
Much of its success comes from excellent taste in what images to use. "Voyager" is, like all great comics, focused in part on making sure the artist has impressive things to draw. Parkhouse conceives of situations where Ridgway will get to juxtapose vast and sprawling landscapes with vast and sprawling starscapes. It's a subtle thing, but everything in the story looks uncannily large by virtue of Ridgway's decision to clutter his skies with planets, distorting all sense of proportion and making images like a lighthouse in space not seem like a small, tiny object drifting through the void but like a towering monolith at the center of things.
Parkhouse also has a strong sense of contrasts, using period objects like lighthouses, tall ships, and Da Vinci-style flying machines alongside giant robots and the vastness of space. This is a trick good enough that an entire aesthetic subculture - steampunk - is focused on it. This is in turn reflected in the plot, with Astrolabus moving smoothly between serious epic menace and broad comedy. Even the basic setup provides these strong contrasts - for all the epic sweep of the story it's worth remembering that the Doctor's comic strip companion for this era is Frobisher, a shape-shifter who has semi-permanently adopted the guise of a penguin "for personal reasons."
Without any budgetary restrictions, then, "Voyager" is able to be a story that looks like the nightmarish dreamscape that a lot of people always wanted Doctor Who to be in. But even this was, to a great extent, lightning in a bottle. After an intervening sillier, lighter tale Parkhouse took another shot at the dreamlike and epic with the two-part "Once Upon a Time Lord." But this time his imagery is just bits and pieces of children's literature and fantasy, and the story has none of the eerie frisson of "Voyager." (Although its four-page Rupert the Bear pastiche is pure charm.)
And this gets at why the comics fall just a few crucial inches short of actually working. The underlying fundamentals are all there, but they don't quite add up to anything. The villain - Astrolabus - is conceptually a tour de force. A renegade Time Lord from the distant past who is pursued by a force of nature, with the Doctor getting caught in the middle of their struggle. But like a Baker and Martin script, all the actual good parts of these ideas are elided. In the final strip of the Astrolabus saga it's suggested that Astrolabus knows he's in a comic and has been the author of the Doctor's stories. (It's telling that this is also Parkhouse's last Doctor Who script) This is a phenomenal implication, but it's been almost absent for the preceding nine stories.
More broadly, there's the exact same set of pitfalls that plague the Saward years. The conflict between Voyager and Astrolabus is stunning, but there's not really room for the Doctor in that dyad. The result is that the Doctor, in an almost overtly Sawardian fashion, is stranded on the margins of his own story. It's a fascinating story, but it's not entirely clear that it's a fascinating Doctor Who story. Indeed, it feels like the story of the old man with the secrets of the stars tatooed on his body running from a force of nature that, instead of being submitted to 2000 AD, is being run in lieu of an actual Doctor Who story.
There's also an annoying failure of impact. "Voyager" builds Astrolabus up as a truly epic threat in a large part because of his mysteriousness. But there's no payoff to the idea of an ancient Time Lord criminal. All of the potential of the concept remains potential. At heart Astrolabus is just a generic creepy old man figure, and his compelling origin is little more than a skinning of the general case concept. Astrolabus ends up being a villain that is more interesting to think about than to see in action.
But the larger point is that there's no exploration beyond the profusion of cool images. Yes, every good comic gives the artist something interesting to draw, but that's merely necessary - it's not sufficient. There's very little to these strips behind the images. In the face of the wall-to-wall weirdness it's surprising to note that neither the Doctor nor his companion are providing any sort of grounding or cues on how the audience should be taking things. More broadly, it has to be said that even putting the audience in a position to be looking to a shapeshifting penguin for their cues on how to respond to a story is, if not an outright bad move, at least high risk. The strips veer dangerously close to the point where the Doctor's value is simply that he provides a recognizable lead character. Not, to be clear, one that the reader can invest in or learn about the story from - just a recognizable one.
(Part of the problem, of course, is that Parkhouse is writing for a very generic Doctor. One side effect of the decision to put The Twin Dilemma into Season 21 was that Parkhouse had to do virtually all of his Sixth Doctor strips prior to seeing more than The Twin Dilemma. That can't have been easy. On the other hand, the comics have never been great at capturing the tones of the various Doctors.)
Indeed, much like Inferno it's easier to love the idea of these Parkhouse strips than the execution. They're not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but they're not unrepentant and unambiguous classics. So why are they such massively influential pieces that have left me with so many readers I'm bitterly disappointing right now?
Part of it is timeliness. The mid-80s were a heyday of demented Narnias. We're right in the period of Labyrinth, The Nightmare on Elm Street, The NeverEnding Story (a film far more upsetting than it gets credit for being) or, perhaps most relevantly, Return to Oz, in which the respected editor and sound designer Walter Murch takes the beloved Wizard of Oz and makes a horrifically dark and creepy movie out of it that is widely cited as one of the scariest things ever seen by anyone fortunate enough to have seen it as a child. (It is probably the only children's movie to take heavy visual inspiration from the book Wisconsin Death Trip). In other words, a proper nightmarish dreamscape is one of the big things missing from the mid-80s of Doctor Who, and frankly The Ultimate Foe doesn't cut it.
In many ways this ties up some themes of the blog, really. I've talked a lot about how the best children's media scars children for life. And in the early and mid-1970s Doctor Who was exceedingly good at this. To some extent, for all its violence under Saward, one of the biggest flaws of mid-80s Doctor Who is that it rarely manages to present children with anything that's going to permanently damage them. This is, actually, one of the reasons why the Colin Baker era doesn't feel very children-friendly. It's not that it's too dark and violent, it's that it's not nearly screwed up enough. And that is painful in an era where dark fantasy children's movies were a boom genre. Especially because that's a period that should have benefitted Doctor Who tremendously given how much it plays to Doctor Who's strengths. It didn't really, and instead we have the Parkhouse strips.
There's also more links to the British comics scene at large. The Colin Baker era coincided with the period where British writers and artists were really starting to flood across to America in the so-called British Invasion of Comics. And a lot of the best stuff from that movement took a complex dark fantasy take - one that would quickly come to heavily influence Doctor Who, both in its last years on television and throughout the Virgin era. The Parkhouse strips share cultural DNA with Swamp Thing and Doom Patrol. And these are things that feed back into Doctor Who readily. Indeed, as the arc of Neil Gaiman's career shows, they're things that stem out of Doctor Who readily. And the Parkhouse strips are the one part of the mid-80s that feels like it has any connection to that strand of history. It's an important strand and one that people have a reasonable emotional investment in the idea that Doctor Who is involved with, and due to this, despite their flaws, the Parkhouse strips are classics.
But in the end, all of this is just another way of saying that part of what makes the Parkhouse strips so good is how bad the rest of Doctor Who was in these years. Yeah, they were the best Doctor Who on offer in the Colin Baker years, but let's be honest, that's faint praise.
There are, of course, other Colin Baker strips, including some decent ones by Jamie Delano, one of the most underrated voices of the 80s British Invasion comics scene. And, of course, the two Grant Morrison ones. But I think we can draw a curtain on the comics for a while now.
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