You Were Expecting Someone Else 14 (The Seventh Doctor Comics)

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I will confess that the comics posts have increasingly become some of my least favorite to write. The reasons are fairly straightforward - there are basically no points in the history of Doctor Who where comics were the primary medium for the series, and they were often treated disposably as a result. When they had serious talent attached to them it tended to be incidental, and because the talent in question was in the earliest days of their career, and was thus taking assignments as rubbish as the Doctor Who Magazine strip. More often the Doctor Who comics were done by artists who never broke out more widely. For instance, yes, there’s a Grant Morrison/Bryan Hitch comic from 1988, but it’s Morrison when his only major credit is Zenith in 2000 AD and Hitch in some of his earliest work ever. There are scattered exceptions - John Wagner and Pat Mills most obviously - but for the most part the Doctor Who comics look like the disposable page-count ballast that they have been for almost every publication that has ever run them.

That’s not to say they haven’t been good at various times, but rather that their quality is almost completely independent of what’s on screen. Indeed, their content is almost completely independent of what’s on screen. Steve Parkhouse did the same sort of hazily plotted phantasmagoric stories with Peter Davison that he’d been doing with Colin Baker. The Mills/Wagner stories juxtapose meaningfully with Season Seventeen nowhere except in Lawrence Miles’s childhood. The story of the comics is very rarely related substantively to the story of the series at large.

That makes these entries, even when I’m writing about a good stretch of comics, frustrating, as they become “we interrupt your history of Doctor Who for a complete tangent having nothing to do with any of the blog’s current themes.” I mean, I have an actual coherent (at least in my own head) arc worked out for the blog through to Love and War or so. I’ve got this really nice parallel track going between the fact that the show, at the moment of its cancellation, needed to evolve and the fact that it needed to find a way to exist within the contemporary television landscape instead of as a cult oddity, and I’m all set to go through months of tracking what was compelling in genre fiction and what was compelling in mainstream British television, and how the New Adventures were constantly trying to negotiate that and come up with a new vision of Doctor Who. And now I have to interrupt all of that for another post about this backwater aspect of Doctor Who’s history where I struggle to find two thousand words to say about largely mediocre comics. Which is a minor complaint, as things go, but in practice this paragraph largely exists to set up a rhetorical turn in the next one.

The one exception to the backwater nature of Doctor Who comics came in 1990, the first year since 1963 in which there was simply no Doctor Who on the air whatsoever save for the endearingly awful “Search Out Science” episode featuring Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, and John Leeson as K-9. This lack of televised episodes will, of course, be true of 1991-95 and 1997-2004 as well, but in all of those years it’s relatively clear what the “proper” continuation of the series is (with a bit of ambiguity to be had over what to do with McGann’s Doctor once 2001 comes around). In 1990, on the other hand, the phrase “wilderness year” seems utterly apt; for the first chunk of the year it wasn’t even entirely clear that the series had been cancelled. The BBC spent a tremendous amount of time lackadaisically kicking the can down the road, and nobody quite knew what Doctor Who was at that point in time.

So for a fleeting moment, the only new Doctor Who that was coming out with an official license was the Doctor Who Magazine comic. Unfortunately, broadly speaking, it was in no shape whatsoever to manage this weight going into 1990. The period while the Sylvester McCoy era was actually on the air was, up until that point, the nadir of the DWM comic. John Ridgway was occasionally stepping in to provide decent pencils, but the comic’s most puzzling aspects - its utter refusal to use any of the televised companions and its complete lack of any attempt to accurately characterize a given Doctor - remained in place while its actually interesting aspects - the fact that Steve Parkhouse had a vivid imagination - faded. It was sheer filler for the magazine, with the point where Death’s Head, a character from the larger Marvel UK stable, is shoehorned in for an issue’s cameo being typical of the creativity, or lack thereof. The Doctor Who strip was visibly just another set of pages to be produced by the Marvel UK studio every month, and was clearly not one of the sets they actually enjoyed.

But this also captures a lot about the nature of Doctor Who Magazine itself in this period. Throughout the early to mid 80s DWM was the major mouthpiece for the “official” history of Doctor Who, working hand-in-glove with John Nathan-Turner. But as he began to distance himself from the program the magazine started to transform. Without an in-production television series to govern it the magazine became increasingly independent. It was no longer the expanded comic of the Doctor Who Weekly days, but was instead a behind the scenes magazine on a television show. Now, with no television show, it became an increasingly esoteric publication that plumbed the depths of historical production information. I do not mean the word “esoteric” as a criticism - Doctor Who Magazine was, in the wilderness years, a phenomenally good resource that is responsible for a lot of why Doctor Who’s production is as well-documented as it is. When you have a monthly magazine that spends fourteen years with next to nothing to do besides meticulously document the past of the series you get a staggeringly well-documented past.

This shift in the magazine’s focus coincided with a shift in its role within the larger context of Marvel UK’s business. John Freeman, the editor of DWM when the program went off the air, was the last editor to come from the larger Marvel UK end of things. The next editor, in 1992, was Gary Russell, who was firmly from Doctor Who fandom. By 1995 the title wasn’t at Marvel UK anymore, but was part of Panini Group, a much larger and more diversified company that had little problem treating Doctor Who Magazine as an oddball thing it owned that didn’t have to actively fit into the same line as Death’s Head II and Knights of Pendragon.

This shift played out in the comics. As I said, the McCoy comics that coincided with the television series were largely bland messes. They might feature returning villains from the series, but even this was rare. Typically they were generic sci-fi comics starring someone dressed as the Seventh Doctor who, on good days, actually looked vaguely like Sylvester McCoy. When they did attempt to play on the series’ history they did so in a way that only made it clearer that nobody was trying very hard, as in the two part “Planet of the Dead” story, which attempts to feature the Doctor being haunted by his dead companions, but apparently thinks that both Peri and Jamie are dead (though the latter of these is consistent with Doctor Who comics continuity, the former is difficult to reconcile under any theory). I point this out not out of some investment in getting all of the continuity right, but rather to note the deep and abiding cynicism involved in doing a story that trades on the apparent reappearance of a bunch of companions while paying no attention to the details.

But come 1990 things began to change. Dan Abnett began writing the comic somewhat regularly, and while he’s not one of the most recognizable names among Doctor Who fans (and is more famous for other work), it’s clear, reading his comics, that he is actually a fan of the series. Similarly, Paul Cornell notched his first professional Doctor Who publication in a 1990 comic called “Stairway to Heaven.” And stories appeared like Richard Alan’s “Nemesis of the Daleks,” which delved into the strip’s own history by giving the first actual meeting of Abslom Daak and the Doctor, complete with a pleasantly sharp credit box offering Raymond Cusick equal billing with Terry Nation for creating the Daleks.

This last detail may seem like a small thing, but it’s substantial in the context of the strip. That kind of specific reference to a detail of the actual series was something that hadn’t ever really appeared in the comic before. That it happened at all is, in hindsight at least, a clear marker that things were changing for the strip. From there it was only two months until “Train-Flight,” which, aside from having a rather cheeky title, attempts to do what School Reunion did in resolving the Doctor/Sarah Jane relationship some sixteen years early.

Yes, 1990 also has strips like the dreadful “Doctor Conkerer,” in which we have to sit through the Doctor creates a causality paradox around the invention of conkers when he nips into 5th century Britain to pick up some horse chestnuts for a conkers tournament he’s on his way to. But a strip like “Doctor Conkerer” is an odd exception in 1990, whereas in any previous year it would have been par for the course. And it’s followed the next month by the first part of “Fellow Travellers,” a storyline that not only moves the comics firmly back in line with the television series status quo by reintroducing Ace, as well as marking the first time someone actually involved in the production of the series - Andrew Cartmel - wrote a comic, but that is terribly atmospheric and well done to boot. And after that began the leadup to “The Mark of Mandragora,” a Dan Abnett-penned sequel to The Masque of Mandragora that is similarly impressive.

In other words, over the course of 1990 the Doctor Who Magazine comic underwent a bit of a secret history, in which it visibly geared up and improved itself to the level of quality it needed to be at in order to serve as the proper continuation of the series. In practice, of course, this effort was largely unnecessary. 1991 brought the New Adventures, and within a few months those established themselves as a major force. The comics quickly receded to following the New Adventures continuity, with strips set inside of or as immediate prequels to the Virgin books. The strips in this era were still good - indeed, some of the best Doctor Who Magazine ever published, with Cartmel, Cornell, and Platt all putting strips in. But they weren’t setting themselves up as a new possible primary future of the series.

Still, these latter McCoy strips featured some significant stories, most notably Paul Cornell’s epic “Emperor of the Daleks,” a triumph of continuity porn that meshes televised Dalek history in with Abslom Daak, what is these days described as “timey wimeyness,” and adds in a brief multi-Doctor crossover for good measure. It’s a delight - exactly what the Doctor Who Magazine comics should be. It’s aimed at an insider audience, but actually has a plot that someone has thought about how to execute.

But already, after a brief flirtation with significance, we find the comics fading into the background again. Reportedly, and I’ll get there, there are some spectacular Eighth Doctor comics. But they are firmly supporting players in the Doctor Who landscape again. As the comics always are, really. Save for this one, strange moment where, fleetingly, they prepared to step in and take over, leaving only a strange gesture to a future that never was.

Comments

Stuart Ian Burns 4 years, 9 months ago

Although interestingly the Eighth Doctor comics were almost to feature the regeneration into Ninth as their last gasp, pages drawn and everything (see the graphic novel) but they decided to keep their work as self contained as the novels, apart from Destrii's leather jacket in the final story being the leather jacket Ninth's wearing on television.

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Grant, the Hipster Dad 4 years, 9 months ago

You can add my report to the others you've heard about the quality of the Eighth Doctor comics. After enjoying maybe two BBC novels and one Big Finish, I quit throwing good money after bad and stuck with the comics, which are consistently entertaining, surprising, ahead of their time, and feature some tremendously good cliffhangers. That's the life and the story of the Eighth Doctor prior to the Time War. And, collected in just four $22 graphic novels, it's a heck of a lot cheaper to follow than the other lines.

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elvwood 4 years, 9 months ago

Regarding Doctor Conkerer!, there's a reason it doesn't fit. It was never intended for DWM in the first place, having been produced for The Incredible Hulk Presents - which was aimed at a different audience - and it only got moved when TIHP was cancelled. So yes, it is an odd exception - but explicably odd.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 9 months ago

"I point this out not out of some investment in getting all of the continuity right, but rather to note the deep and abiding cynicism involved in doing a story that trades on the apparent reappearance of a bunch of companions while paying no attention to the details."

If I may take a tangent here...

To me, this is why continuity matters. Simply put: If you're going to reference the past in a story - and all stories in a serial work reference the past, at least to the extent of "there is a status quo" - you should get that past right. Otherwise, it'll blunt the effect - whether emotional ("the death of my friends was my responsibility, and my failure weighs on me - except, um, I didn't fail these people") or cerebral ("Both I and the audience know you're a fake, because you only knew me as 'Colonel'!" "Hey, this is the audience; you're thinking of the wrong dude"). Simply put, continuity matters because it's a storytelling element like all the others.

(Which is not to say you can't consciously play with it, changing the past, ignoring bits, or just being loose with your references - but you should be doing it consciously, not just because of lazy, sloppy apathy.)

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Ununnilium 4 years, 9 months ago

And as for the comics themselves...

So where have these ones been collected, again? >.> <.<

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Cameron Dixon 4 years, 9 months ago

Re: "Planet of the Dead" -- actually, Jamie had died in an earlier Sixth Doctor comic strip, "The World Shapers," and I believe the Doctor did call out Peri for not actually being dead, which turned out to be a clue that his "dead companions" weren't what they seemed.

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ferret 4 years, 9 months ago

A young British fans perspective again, One thing that should be noted is that DWM as a monthly purchase was relatively cheap, well within the price-range of many a young fan. At this point - about 13 years old - I suddenly discovered DWM, and it was a saviour in this time of no-Doctor-Who-on-TV. I purchased as many back-issues from the back room of the local Newsagency as were available (and quickly realised that was indeed a backwards step as far as the comic strip went) but for many young fans in the UK the comic strip was still a major source of Doctor Who adventures, if not the only source within regular financial grasp.

To say the comics faded into the background is to make some huge assumptions about the demographics of the native audience at the time. I don't know if you'll mention the period between the 7th and 8th Doctors comic strip adventures where new stories featuring past Doctors were the norm, but to my young self this was more significant than the "5 Faces of Doctor Who" repeats period that I was a dash to young to appreciate.

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Sean Daugherty 4 years, 9 months ago

To be fair, "Planet of the Dead" only got Peri's death wrong, presumably by ignoring the last part of "The Trial of a Time Lord" (and who, really, can blame them). Jamie's death is likely a reference to Grant Morrison's "The World Shapers" comic strip, which reintroduced the character and promptly killed him off. The idea of comic-exclusive continuity wasn't unusual, even then.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 9 months ago

The Doctor doesn't quite call Peri out, but yes, good point on Jamie. I'd forgotten, having decided to hold the Grant Morrison comics until I deal with The Invisibles off near some Lawrence Miles stuff. Entry corrected.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 9 months ago

The first chunk are in IDW's Doctor Who Classic Volume 7, but IDW has jumped back to Sixth Doctor comics since then, and many of these are, at least in the US, not reprinted. Unfortunately, the point where IDW left off coincides almost perfectly with when the comics started getting good.

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Stephen 4 years, 9 months ago

There are licensing issues at work here. IDW only have the rights to reprint stories that have already been reprinted by Panini. And the Panini graphic novels were put on hiatus for a couple of years soon after they published the first volume of Seventh Doctor stories. Which means there won't be any more seventh Doctor reprints until they've caught up with new series ones.

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Cameron Dixon 4 years, 9 months ago

Ah, details... :) Okay, I'm actually looking at the strip now, and when the Doctor first sees Peri, he asks, "How did you get here? I left you on Thoros Beta with Yrcanos!" Then later, when Peri accuses him: "You never wanted it, but we died anyway," Sara Kingdom turns on her: "Idiot. *You* didn't die. Another mistake like that and he'll abandon all of us!" So, yes: I think that the continuity in the strip is better than you're giving it credit for.

Except... then Frobisher shows up on the next page, and he definitely *hadn't* died. So your point may still stand with a bit of tweaking.

On the other hand, however: given that the "dead companions" turn out to be evil shape-shifters who are trying to trick the Doctor into taking them away from the planet, it was never really necessary for the actual companions they were impersonating to be dead. Frobisher's appearance may therefore not make much sense in terms of the plot, but since he is himself a shape-shifter, the writer may have chosen to use him as a hint towards the real nature of the enemy. So again, maybe there was more thought put into this than is immediately apparent.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 9 months ago

Ahhhh, sadly makes sense.

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Stephen 4 years, 9 months ago

Which reminds me that the shape-shifters in "Planet of the Dead" are also an import from the rest of Marvel UK. And, like Death's Head, they originated in Transformers (which was probably their second most successful title ever). However, whilst Death's Head started out as a character in the main strip, the Gwanzulum were originally from Combat Colin - a humorous strip cartoon by Lew Stringer.

I'm not sure if this says anything about their respective DWM stories though. Well, apart from the obvious fact that seeing a certain Freelance Peacekeeping Agent face off against the Doctor was fun, yes?


(and, yes, I was a Transformers fan before I was a Doctor Who one).

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Dougie 4 years, 9 months ago

I was also a big fan of the DWM Eighth Doctor strips. They were consistently more enjoyable in the late 90s- early 00s than the EDAs with the tedious Exiled on Earth and Sabbath arcs. Izzy was a much more accessible companion than dreary fun-vacuum Anji too.

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encyclops 4 years, 9 months ago

I couldn't agree more about continuity. I understand why we as fans decide that caring about continuity is impractical and futile, since there are so many people and so many years and so many media involved that the odds are against it working in the long run. But I don't understand why continuity WITHIN a self-contained story is taken for granted as part of solid craft, and continuity BETWEEN stories is something only contemptible geeks should ever care about.

As for the comics: I've never seen any Doctor Who comics I felt were worth my money, including the Mandragora one (which I did pay money for), and I'm glad to hear that for the most part I was right. I have a few individual issues featuring "the Fifth Doctor" that are crushingly, depressingly awful.

That said, whenever I read the word "backwater" I always picture a Draconian with an impressive sword hissing, "Your fame has sssspread even to thissss galactic backwater!" So that's got to count for something.

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Symphonic5 4 years, 9 months ago

There was a collection of 7th Doctor strips published in the early '90's that collected Train-Flight through Mark of Mandragora. Take a look for the "Mark of Mandragora" graphic novel.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 9 months ago

Ooooh, looks like there's a couple copies on abebooks.com...

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Ununnilium 4 years, 9 months ago

It's interesting that, for Transformers, the comics - and specifically, the UK comics - were where the vast majority of the quality ended up. I very much doubt it's on Dr. Sandifer's radar, but a Pop Between Realities to Transformers: Beast Wars would make an odd kind of sense - a point where the quality of the spin-off material was imported to the "main" line, giving it a future it didn't otherwise have. (Of course, that future lead to the Michael Bay movies, but still.)

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John Freeman 4 years, 9 months ago

Fascinating article, speaking as someone who was there at the time. If you're intrigued in any way by the history of Doctor Who comic strips then you should track down Vworp Vworp magazine, which covers them in great detail, including interviews with all involved.

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John Freeman 4 years, 9 months ago

Planet of the Dead was conceived as an anniversary story employing the shape-shifting Gwanzulum (creatures I came up with and Richard Starkings decided to feature across every comic he edited in one month, including Combat Colin, Ghostbusters, Thundercats etc - good luck trying to chase them all down). The Gwanzulum were drawing on the Doctor's memories to try and trick him: and because he began to doubt what he was seeing, inevitably their illusion began to fail and they started to make mistakes, like one of them appearing as Frobisher, who wasn't dead. That's my excuse for any continuity glitch trying to homage what was then 25 years of Doctor Who history into 14 pages of strip and I'm sticking to it! :)

As for the wider issue of comic strips in the Magazine, I didn't take over the editing of the strip as soon as I became the Magazine's editor: I think Richard wanted

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John Freeman 4 years, 9 months ago

(sorry, Blogger being a pain to post to this morning)... Richard Starkings the editor of the strip wanted to do out there stories, perhaps more atuned to TV Comic but with more thought. He was also working in the knowledge that he couldn't commission longform tales which he and I loved like Steve Parkhouse had written, because the threat of the magazine's cancellation or a decision to lose the costly comic strip from the Magazine was always on his mind. He couldn't commission epics. By the time I came on board to edit the strip the Magazine's situation had improved thanks to increased sell through despite their being no tv show to support it. I wanted to do stories with more nods to the show but we still had to pay for the use of companions (Equity rules) and TV monsters - so they have to be used sparingly. Daleks are particularly expensive. But it sounds from the above that many of you enjoyed the ride. The current stories in the Magazine, though, knock most of the onesI edited into a cocked hat - it's the only part of DWM I read religiously these days and am very glad there still is a Doctor Who comic strip in the title. Thank you for reaading...

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Stephen 4 years, 9 months ago

When it comes to the Transformers franchise, the term spin-off is almost impossible to define. The Marvel comic came first - it was, in fact, Marvel who came up with the characters and the backstory. So it is arguable that the cartoon was actually the spin-off. And in the UK, the comic probably had a bigger following than the cartoon. It was certainly a lot easier to get hold of for the vast majority of its run.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 9 months ago

True; one could argue that the primary medium is, in fact, the toys. That said, with the UK run, we're talking about stories literally meant to run in the gaps between US stories.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 9 months ago

Pretty awesome!

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Kit 4 years, 9 months ago

It's also worth noting that (at least in their floppies - I've not seen any collected volumes, but presumably the same files are used) IDW's DWM reprints are close to unreadable, given the shrunken pages, appalling line repro, and ugly, clashing colourisation. The Panini volumes are probably cheaper on Book Depository, anyway.

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GarrettCRW 4 years, 4 months ago

Budiansky was given charge to name characters and create personalities, but as with G.I. Joe, Sunbow (or, more accurately for the first two seasons of The Transformers, Marvel Productions) was just as free to ignore the frankly stupid shit that was conceived for the Hasbro tie-in comics, with the animated ads for the comic and the toys themselves serving as a more effective tool in advertising the cartoons than the comics. It came to a head with The Visionaries, where G.I. Joe comic writer Larry Hama was blasted in the form of the wizard Falkhama by Sunbow staffers.

I'd also argue that the UK Transformers comics weren't a matter of talent so much as dedication. Simon Furman was and is more dedicated to Transformers than Budiansky or the pre-movie writing staff (save for David Wise and Earl Kress), but if you claim that Furman is a better writer than the Transformers Season 3 writing staff (with story editing by Flint Dille, Marv Wolfman, and Steve Gerber, and scripts by Dille, Wolfman, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Paul Dini, Michael Reaves, and Mary Skrenes), you're facing an uphill battle.

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