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.