You Were Expecting Someone Else: Titan Comics

(30 comments)

My my, it’s been a while since we’ve checked in with the comics, hasn’t it? The last time we looked was back at the end of the Smith era, where I did a quick check-in on IDW’s Farewell to the License comic, Paul Cornell’s “The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who.” Since then, the comics line has been in the hands of Titan Comics, the comics publishing arm of one of the two the Forbidden Planet chains of comic shops. This had a number of effeects, the most prosaic of which was that Titan successfully negotiated an actual distribution license for the UK, thus ending the bewildering curiosity of a US-only line of Doctor Who comics.

Titan has done a number of interesting projects in its time. Paul Cornell’s fascinating Third Doctor comic is dealt with in the newest edition of TARDIS Eruditorum Volume 3, for instance, and I’ll deal with the Al Ewing-cowritten Eleventh Doctor series in the Matt Smith book. But both of these were daliances with the past, even if the Eleventh Doctor book had a good number of issues out before Deep Breath had aired. It was with this series, or, technically, triptych of series, as Titan relaunched the title as The Twelfth Doctor Year Two and The Twelfth Doctor Year Three at various points, that the line got to engage directly with the Doctor Who of the present.

Comics have always been a weirder fit for Doctor Who than one might expect. On the surface they should be a near-perfect fit for the series,  freeing the underlying concept from the limitations imposed by television budgets. There are of course other media that offer similar promises, with varying degrees of success. Prose has been the most successful of these, creating a bespoke era of Doctor Who that can stand among the highlights of the television show. Audio has had a more modest track record, but much of that is due to the deep problems with the specific company that produces the bulk of it. And though experiments have been limited and mostly confined to remaking the visual components of lost 60s episodes, animation has obvious promise in its ability to combine visual storytelling and performance in a way that, while still tremendously expensive, at least doesn’t really see a huge budgetary difference between “swamp monster the size of a building” and “two people arguing in a basement.” But comics, even among this set, seem to have a unique set of strengths, balancing visual storytelling with cost in an appealing way.

And yet a brief perusal of the various times I’ve checked in with the comics lines over the years will reveal that it is staggeringly rare for them to actually be any good. Occasionally they have a weird vitality, most obviously in the 1980s Doctor Who Magazine stuff, but even then the success was a sort of thrilling indiscipline as opposed to anything that could concretely be called good Doctor Who. For the most part Doctor Who comics have batted below the already fairly meager average of Doctor Who spin-off material.

Titan, it must be said, does not really break this streak. There are isolated moments of charm across the run—most obviously giving Rachel Stott a professional debut. Stott is straightforwardly the standout artist of the era, offering an expressive, communicative style that feels like the characters without sinking into the drab quicksand of photorealism. It is no surprise that she gets the two most formally expressive issues, the “Boneless attack via comic books” plot that it would have been criminal not to do and a two issue riff where the Doctor gets temporary companions who are a writer/artist team working on a book called The Time Surgeon that liberally rips off of UNIT’s files on the Doctor.

Other high points include… let’s see… basically anything by George Mann, but especially the stories where he gives the Doctor a temporary companion named Hettie who’s a punk rocker from the future and a black woman to boot. Though the one where the temporary companion is La Maupin is pretty satisfying too. Clara is generally well-written (indeed mostly better than Capaldi’s Doctor), even if she’s never used especially cleverly. And, well, we’ve already started qualifying our praise, so let’s just move on.

The problems, meanwhile, are mostly in the writing. Robbie Morrison, the initial writer, is mostly just a bit flat (although he is responsible for both of the aforementioned Rachel Stott stories, his 1-2 issue arcs generally being superior to his 3-4). Mann, as mentioned, was decent, although in a fairly pedestrian way—think reliably Gatiss-quality. And the third writer, Richard Dinnick, is a fountain of fanwank that puts the late Craig Hinton to shame. One of his two stories features the Flood from Waters of Mars vs. the Ice Warriors, with a second issue reveal that the real villain is Fenric and the vikings that had been in the story thus far are the ones from Curse of Fenric. And that’s the restrained one of his two stories, with the other roping in Missy the Judoon, the reborn Blon Fel-Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen, and the angel robots from Voyage of the Damned before a late reveal of the Weeping Angels. And yes, to answer your question, he has written for Big Finish.

So what we have is another flabby disappointment of both Doctor Who in comics form and the modern spinoff media. And this one, unlike BBC Books and Big Finish, from a company that actually had to hustle for the license and has some reason to try. And look, to be fair, as a line they have, or at least they’ve tried more than BBC Books or Big Finish. The Al Ewing co-written Eleventh Doctor stuff was great and inventive and loved using the medium. Getting Paul Cornell to do a Four Doctors crossover and a Third Doctor miniseries is a great idea. And even in the Twelfth Doctor comics in particular, there are numerous individual moments of charm and style. This is a line that’s trying. So why is it too failing to amount to much?

It’s easy to get overly nostalgic about spin-off materials of years past. The occasional “World-Shapers” or “Black Legacy” aside, we’re mostly left with stuff like “The Lair of the Zarbi Supremo,” The Pestacons, or The Infinite Quest, some of which may spark nostalgia, but very little of which is actually even remotely good. But most of that comes from an era where spinoff material was done by largely unsupervised companies looking to make an easy quid. We’ve already talked about the way that the modern series has collapsed all of this into a Doctor Who Industry that, for a long time, had a dedicated brand manager (and still has its act sufficiently together to do pointless shit like imposing the current logo on all releases of past material), and the way in which it has made the product altogether blander. But it goes further than that, and the Titan Comics are indicative.

Take the Doctor and Clara—the most emotionally fraught and complex Doctor/companion relationship in the history of the series. Although Clara and, eventually, the Doctor are both written pretty well (the first few issues clearly predate the airing of Deep Breath), their interactions basically never spark. Cornell unsurprisingly does a grand job of it in The Four Doctors by having Clara open the story with more knowledge than any of the Doctors, but that’s about it. There’s no story arcs that are about their relationship. And that’s only sort of a criticism. For the most part, stories about this relationship aren’t possible because all of the major turns in the relationship are already written and on television.

There’s no easy solutions to this. Fitting extra stories into a character-based arc is just harder than a fully episodic anthology arc like that of the classic series. It leaves the spinoff material necessarily having to be lesser, and that’s before you don’t let them touch anything that the showrunner thinks he might be using anytime soon. Compare to eras where, for instance, you could give the Doctor two grandchildren neither of whom are Susan, or blow the tone of the series as hard as “The Iron Legion” or “Voyager” did, and the degree to which this sense of being stuck in the tight orbit of the television series, by rule unable to stray outside its bounds.

And yet it feels strangely hard to believe that it has to be this way—that spinoff material has to be so frustratingly crap. It feels like having minor leagues in which writers can work on Doctor Who without the stakes of the TV series must be a good idea in which we get new ideas and new voices. This can’t actually be as pointless and sterile an operation as everyone to try it makes it look. And I’d love to come to a clear account of this—an explanation of why it’s so universally mediocre. I don’t actually think the explanation of the TV show’s eating up the emotional space for character arcs and fixing everything in its orbit is sufficient. It should be possible to do something like (and I don’t believe I’m citing this as a positive example) Under the Lake/Before the Flood in which the Doctor/Clara relationship drives the plot without experiencing any major shifts in their status. The use of the Boneless makes it clear that follow-ups and expansions on series concepts are fair game. There’s space to play well here and I honestly don’t understand why it’s so hard to find writers who can take advantage of that. 

It’s not the top priority for any new showrunner. And heck, the change might originate perfectly well from the bottom, with editors at the companies that make these things deciding to, you know, actually make good Doctor Who. I don’t know. But good lord it’s frustrating to have gotten through the sixth one of these posts for the era (thirteenth if you decide to count Class towards the problem, and it’s not like its quality breaks the pattern) and have had nothing to do but marvel at the basic lameness of it all. The spin-off materials have never ben the thread of this project I’ve most enjoyed, but in the Capaldi era they’ve been genuinely infuriating. And making it not like that seems worthwhile. Making the spinoff materials have some weight and some worth—to actually feel like they have ambitions other than selling for a price point—seems like a good goal. On a basic level, it just seems like a nice idea, y’know? We could have a bunch more Doctor Who a year that was actually worth consuming. We could have venues for writers without extensive television credits to play with an adaptive format that enables cool ideas. Give a decent editor reign over a line with an open submissions policy. It’s worked before. Whereas this sure as fuck isn’t. 

Comments

Annie 3 weeks, 6 days ago

For me, the problem can be summarised simply in three words: straight white men.
Most of the spin-offs have been directed and controlled by straight white men, though I will admit that they have been making attempts at diversity and inclusion recently which I applaud them for.
spin-off material like comics should be the perfect place for more diverse writers with their unique experiences, to write for Doctor Who.
Imagine stories where we get to experience futures featuring Indian and Chinese people, who if the demographics of the planet remain stable, will be the majority out there in space, not just white people.
Or the doctor could visit African societies in the past, or South America instead of just London in England.
The possibilities are endless, but right now the comics just seem dull and sterile like the visual equivalent of big finish.

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David Moran 3 weeks, 6 days ago

Annie, I entirely agree. I was listening to radio 4 at the weekend and caught Mike Pence's speech about America returning to the moon in the next five years, and that the next man and the first woman on the moon will be American. I not only thought " Who are you trying to kid ? " but also " are you even successfully kidding yourself ? "

What's that got to do with a bunch of mediocre tv spin-offs ? Because I think that certainly when it comes to Big Finish, probably when it comes to the comics, possibly with the magazine we are looking at a bunch of privileged white middle aged men, and let me be clear here that this perfectly described me too,trying to convince themselves that they can still shape the telos of Doctor Who. It's still there in the programme too, of course, but that's because while the production went radical in its casting, it doubled down on the conservatism of the show runner.I

Same with Pence, trying to convince his core group that this is going to be another safely American, and in This administration I think we can now undoubtedly take their default as "white American", century. I really don't think it will be.

This will change. Hopefully, it'll be a joyful, inspiring change. Me ? I'm pretty positive it will be, both for the show and our culture.

This marvellous, giant project is drawing to a close, I believe. It's been a mad, inspiring, annoying, infuriating, joyous, revealing thing to witness over the years.

Thank you, Elizabeth. Bravo.

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Przemek 3 weeks, 6 days ago

You've had to deal with a lot boring/disappointing parts of the DW universe over the course of the Capaldi Eruditorum, haven't you? I wish there was something more interesting for you to cover instead of this sea of mediocrity. Thank you for powering through it. Here's hoping you'll at least have some fun dissecting the Chibnall era.

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Lambda 3 weeks, 6 days ago

As well as the issue that writing stories in the gaps is a lot less likely to be inviting to creatively ambitious writers than writing the continuation of Doctor Who in which we can do more or less whatever we want for the NAs, I think there are huge issues with moving between photographic and drawn media.

I do admittedly have virtually no experience of reading comics, but good animation always seems to make great use of the way it doesn't really look like real things. I can't imagine how with all the money in the world you could get animation to work properly if you were constantly expecting one of the characters to look like Peter Capaldi, so my guess is that comics will have a similar problem.

(Or even maybe a more serious problem, because looking at the article image, it does successfully remind me of Capaldi, which you're more likely to be able to do if you only have to draw a few images, while an animation might just give up on the idea of looking remotely like the actor and create a virtually new character design well suited to being animated.)

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CJM123 3 weeks, 6 days ago

Would it be possible to focus a You Were Expecting Someone Else on some big-hitters in fanfiction instead of the official stuff if the official stuff won't change?

I really don't want to tell someone what to do with their blog (especially as I'm not even a Patreon), I'm just blue-sky thinking about where the actually interesting Who material is.

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taiey 3 weeks, 5 days ago

whispers "lyricwritesprose"

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CJM123 3 weeks, 5 days ago

Cheers. I'll look into it.

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Przemek 3 weeks, 5 days ago

That would be interesting. But I personally feel like the problem with fanfiction is that it's neither official "Doctor Who" (like the comics) nor something that has influenced it in an important way (like, say, some of the more obscure parts of the Wilderness Years). It's visions of what DW could be, but isn't, just like our personal headcanons. I think there's a limit to the usefulness of such visions as a tool for exploring what DW is. But again, it's interesting and I'd gladly read such essays.

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tachyonspiral 3 weeks, 6 days ago

I wonder if part of the problem isn't that - despite claims that there is no canon - there's an assumption going on that every spin-off has to take place in this sprawling expanded universe based on a decades-old TV series. In the words of the late Dwayne McDuffie, excessive continuity is always a mistake.

Like if you were to liberate the spin-offs from that assumption, if you were to treat them as having no more obligation to slot into the mythos than, say, the Peter Cushing movies, perhaps we'd see some more innovation here?

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Przemek 3 weeks, 5 days ago

I think so. But would such obviously "non-canon" issues sell as well as the (kinda, sorta) canon ones? (It would be interesting to see how much money the "Unbound" BF stories made compared to their usual stuff). Because if not, well, that's never happening.

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tachyonspiral 3 weeks, 4 days ago

I would hazard that the DW brand, and iconic elements like the Doctor, the TARDIS and the Daleks, have more to do with sales than any nebulously defined "canon". But without seeing the sales figures there's no way to know for sure.

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David Moran 3 weeks, 6 days ago

...And as back up to my point above, I've discovered that a return to the Moon was suggested to, beautifully, Barack Obama as an idea to boost his ratings, and he nixed it with the reply "We've already been there." He pointed them towards Mars.

I just send them up,
Don't care where they come down
That's not my department
Said Werner Von Braun

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Aristide Twain 3 weeks, 6 days ago

Hello again!

As a regular reader of the Titan comics, I do wish the comics' plots were a little less run-of-the-mill (and all flattery aside, they could probably do a lot worse than just hiring you — from what else I've seen of what you've posted here, you know as much about how comics work as you do about "Doctor Who". I feel like if you'd started doing "Doctor Who" scholarship his during the Wilderness Years, you'd probably be an official "Who" writer by now, and one held in high regard. Reading through the archive, I loved every time you took a side-step from the pure scholarship to write down a snippet of Who fanfiction; do return to it some time!).

All that being said, I feel like they're definitely improving; their Thirteen Doctor line has been way better than Series 11 at doing what Series 11 promised to do, and unlike a lot of Tennant, Smith and Capaldi comic stories, I don't think you could swap the plots between one of those three's Titan stories and any Whittaker Titan story.

I wouldn't necessarily blame the excessive continuity for the creative sterility, at any rate; mashing unexpected but preexisting things together is a *shortcut* to being unique and memorable, sure, but it is at least an effective one. I remember that "Weeping Angels vs. Heavenly Host" story much more warmly and crisply than, for instance, that one with the seaweed monsters who turned out to, dun dun dun, be from… an alien ship that crashed under the sea centuries ago. (Gee, never saw that coming.)

Side note, I'm new to this site, so quick technical question: is there some way to do italics in these comments? Always writing "Doctor Who" is a bit ungainly, but I feel uncomfortable just leaving it in plain text — it feels like I'm talking about the Peter Cushing character.

Cheers, and thanks again for creating the Eruditorum!

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Allyn 3 weeks, 6 days ago

I'm enjoying the current storyline in The Thirteenth Doctor with the Corsair, though I feel a story in which the thirteenth Doctor meets another Time Lord for the first time is a story that the television series should have reserved for itself. That's just how it is with media tie-ins when there's a television series in active production; the television series takes the lead and gets to do the big, important things, which the tie-ins are limited to scribbling in the margins.

That said, I love how Jody Houser has the Corsair not even bat at eye at the Doctor's new gender; once the Corsair realizes who the Doctor is, they get right on to being flirty old chums. What I also like is how the Corsair and the Doctor read like old college friends -- the Corsair is the wild and crazy one, the Doctor is the sensible one (by comparison!), and they each see qualities in the other that they wish they had. And I liked that sorrowful moment at the end of issue #10.

As for italics, wrap the text you want italicized in HTML code -- <i> and &li;/i>

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Allyn 3 weeks, 6 days ago

Ugh. That closing HTML code should be </i>. Dang typo. :)

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CJM123 3 weeks, 6 days ago

13 meeting The Corsair has certainly made me more interested in Titan than anything else I've heard (outside of looking at the Paul Cornell stuff), but at the same time, that feels like a statement that Chibnell has little interest in doing Gallifrey stuff (which by itself is fine).

How on earth are they doing this story considering that the Doctor both can't want the Corsair to die, but needs them too that the Doctor can stop House? That feels like a weird take on the whole Demons of the Punjab/Rosa plotline.

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Allyn 3 weeks, 6 days ago

The Doctor knows their timelines are out of sync (there's a sequence in issue #10 about this), but the Corsair doesn't know that. And if I'm reading it right, the Doctor is happy seeing her friend again while also sad knowing what she knows.

I'm not sure which Corsair it is in the story. Probably the fifth.

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CJM123 3 weeks, 6 days ago

Funnily enough, 13 is the only New Series Doctor who would have that reaction. 9 would be unable to process his emotions. 10 and 11 would want to change history, but 10 would be punished and 11 rewarded. And 12 would be unable to accept the situation.

Which does make 13 different and interesting. It probably works better in this situation, which seems to present it as "Yes, sometimes people you love will die and you can't save them, but don't stop loving them or the people still around you" (which is what Demons was doing) over "The grand arc of history is built on slow suffering" (which is Rosa's weird philosophy which I shall now call Neoliberal Accelerationism)

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kevin merchant 3 weeks, 6 days ago

It's a bit like that new poster of all the Doctors that's just came out. It's tedious because the artist has just copied publicity photographs. Given the immense amount of visual (but moving) material out there, could an artist not come up with original interpretations for once?

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Sleepyscholar 3 weeks, 4 days ago

They probably could, and they would probably like to. However, given how many approvals are involved in this sort of thing, working on images that have already gained approval probably saves an enormous amount of hassle.

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TheSmilingStallionInn 3 weeks, 6 days ago

Well, considering how separate Titan is from the main production offices and writers, and how they're probably not apprised of future developments/relationships, aside from some minor notes that probably don't give too many spoilers about what's coming or what's happening during the show-they probably don't know about the changes or structure of the Doctor and companion relationship in the show itself, aside from general details.

There are months between the writing/drawing of a comic, after all, and when it's published, and it's being published alongside the developments of the TV show. Comic story arcs are usually stretched over several months, telling one story, while things are drastically changing and developing on the show while it's airing.

Then the show goes into hiatus, leaving the comic on a limb, only able to deal with what's occurred or hasn't occurred in the show-what can the comic do? Admittedly, the gaps between seasons of the show are more promising, though they have to acknowledge the status quo of the show a little.

The past Doctor issues are also great with the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctors getting new companions and new arcs to play around in, and a lot of exciting stuff happens there. But at the same time, they can't suddenly change course. Eventually, the Eleventh and Tenth Doctors return to their other TV show companions or future fates, leaving the comics companions on a limb.

Plus Titan Comics, with the arrival of the 13th Doctor, stopped publishing its past Doctors lines. Nine, Ten, Eleven, and Twelve are done with, they basically set them to the side after the final crossover. They could've done more, especially with how a companion or two were left hanging in the air, but I guess the budget and sales weren't there anymore.

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Tom B 3 weeks, 6 days ago

One of the best Capaldi comics I read was by Jac Rayner in Doctor Who Magazine, where the 12th Doctor runs into a fragment of Clara left over from The Name of the Doctor,

The Al Ewing 11th Doctor stories were good, with Kevin the Dinosaur becoming a companion being particularly inspired. A lot of the Titan work is definitely hum-drum, though. I will give them credit though for putting out more interesting 13th Doctor stories than Chibnall, especially the most recent story with the Corsair.

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Allyn 3 weeks, 6 days ago

Kevin was actually in the Tony Lee run from IDW Publishing. I loved the little short story where Rory and Kevin talk about how they both feel like they don't belong on the TARDIS but they each have a place.

Now I feel like pulling that one off the bookshelf... :)

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John G. Wood 3 weeks, 4 days ago

Oh yes, Blood and Ice (the Jac Rayner one) is my favourite DW comic story since... well, I dunno, but it's been at least 5 years since I read anything that good. (I got the GN from my local library.)

I'm with El that I can't really get excited about the comics - or recent books, for that matter. I've not read anything in either format past Capaldi's first year. I did buy the early Titan comics in a Humble Bundle, but still haven't got around to reading any of the 12th Doctor's. Maybe I'll dig out the PDFs and skip to the Stott and Mann ones.

P.S. George Mann has actually written as many audios for Big Finish as Richard Dinnick - but the line made me laugh anyway! I've heard a few of each, and while Dinnick's have always been below average, Mann's include an above-average Iris story, my favourite Holmes audio, and the delightful Rise and Fall. So I think their relative quality as writers applies across formats.

I'm not sure if I'm happy or sad we're approaching the end of this Eruditorum volume - it seems to have been a particularly hard one to write, so while I will miss reading it I hope El can relax a bit and do something she finds more rewarding.

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Tom B 3 weeks, 2 days ago

Jac Rayner has written some of my favorite audios at Big Finish as well, with the Bernice Summerfield line as well as the Doctor Who line. In fact, Big Finish getting the Doctor Who license can probably be chalked up to her original work adapting Virgin New Adventures into Bernice Summerfield audios. She enhanced the first story immensely (Oh No It Isn't).

I'm somewhat surprised she hasn't gotten to write for the television show yet.

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Paul F Cockburn 3 weeks, 3 days ago

Firstly, for your information, I’m pretty sure all these Titan comic books are chiefly dIstributed in the US—and specialist bookshops on this side on the pond. Otherwise, why would they bother with a British-distributed reprint title which usually combines three different episodes in one slightly larger-format title.

Secondly, you just have to check the history of “Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen” to see a work of merchandise repeatedly put out under nigh on every Doctor Who logo apart from the one in the title sequence.

Thirdly, are the disappointingly unexciting – verging on fanwank – comic strips from Titan and audios from Big Finish examples of what happens when purely commercial companies produce Doctor Who? Capitalist businesses that assume the vast majority of their customers will be willing to pay to see disparate items/characters/situations from 20th and 21st century Doctor Who slammed together in ways that make even “Attack of the Cybermen” *almost* seem sensible?

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John G. Wood 3 weeks, 3 days ago

"are the disappointingly unexciting – verging on fanwank – comic strips from Titan and audios from Big Finish examples of what happens when purely commercial companies produce Doctor Who?"

I can't speak about Titan, but certainly many of the negative things I see about Big Finish are down to commercial decisions, so yes. Ludicrous numbers of releases per month? A way to keep costs down (source: Jason Haigh-Ellery). Slavish adherence to roughly 25-minute episodes for classic Doctors? It's what customers want (source: Nicholas Briggs, who would much prefer one episode per CD). Lack of diversity among writers? They aren't getting experienced ones approaching BF, so the regular writers & producers are having to actively seek them out and lure them in or train them up while still keeping up the output, which isn't easy (source: Matt Fitton). I haven't heard a BF source say that they keep including blasts from the past verging on fanwank ("it's Eldrad! / Morbius! / the Kraals! / Kamelion! / the Swarm! / maggots! / etc) because of sales, but I'd be amazed if it's not true.

If the proper BBC were doing it, you'd have different issues (I suspect mostly to do with bureaucracy and charters, but budget would still come into it). Capitalism is a harsh master - when BF came along the number of people buying the novels plummeted (source: Justin Richards iirc), and when the new TV series was announced BF nearly went out of business. They generally sell a few thousand copies of each release these days, which has to cover all the costs (source: Nicholas Briggs for both these last two points). You can understand why they focus on things that can grab a potential buyer's attention.

I'm less critical of BF than most people here, and that's partly because I can see why they are making certain choices even if I personally don't like the decisions. (The rest is because I disagree about the quality of the productions being poor, but that's far more of a personal opinion.) BF is a small business in a Capitalist society, and that fact basically makes a lot of the decisions for them, as it does for most wage-earners too. Though I still wish they were a bit further ahead on diversity and I have trouble with them hiring certain people.

I wonder how much of the above is true of Titan too?

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TomeDeaf 3 weeks, 2 days ago

This may not apply across all cases, but Briggs and JH-E definitely noticed a big spike in sales for "Wirrn Dawn", the McGann EDA, and realised this must be because fans ... really like Wirrn, apparently. That's what influenced bringing them back in "Wirrn Isle" a few years later.

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A Wannabe Subscriber 3 weeks, 2 days ago

I've been reading this (absolutely fantastic) blog for a while but I can't seem to find any sort of 'subscribe' button. Does one exist? Or is the only way to follow the blog checking the website every once in a while? Am I missing something obvious?

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Daru 1 week, 2 days ago

I’ll be honest, I haven’t really spent much time with the Titan comics as they didn’t really appeal to me. I remember reading the Cornell 4 Doctors one and liked it, but sadly not much more has grabbed me. Seems like they could be much more creative with their approach.

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