First off, an announcement: I’m funding the second edition of the William Hartnell book via Kickstarter. The link is here. Please, contribute, spread the word, et cetera. There are some lovely perks available – most of the tiers amount to “pre-order the book,” but if you’re interested in signed copies, that’s up there too. Also, for all the people who have ever requested that I cover something in one of the future volumes, here is your chance to make me. Plus there’s a Kickstarter-exclusive essay to be had at any donation level.
You might fairly ask why I’m funding the project this way. The answer is pretty simple: I know the financials on a new book. I know how much a book makes in its first month and how to balance production costs against that. But I have no idea how to budget an updated edition, and I don’t want to put out a bunch of money on production and then have the book take six months to earn out. So I’m trying to fund it via presales. If the Kickstarter falls through it doesn’t mean the book won’t happen, but it’ll mean some… reevaluating.
Also, I have some really fun stretch goals if it funds, so, you know. There’s that. So, yes. On to today’s post.
As we said on Wednesday, there are six Eighth Doctor eras, abortive as some may be. And with this we come to the final one of them: the Doctor Who Magazine comic. It’s telling that of the eight Doctors to have had a comic in Doctor Who Magazine the only three where the comic is highlighted as a specific and important part of the era are the ones that coincided with what is widely, if not universally, considered a problematic era elsewhere. The Mills and Wagner Tom Baker strips provided a desired tonic to the controversial levity of Season Seventeen. The Parkhouse/Ridgway Sixth Doctor comics were valued in a large part because of how problematic the era itself was. And here we get the third era of Doctor Who Magazine comics that people are very invested in: the Eighth Doctor comics.
They’re not the salvation of the Paul McGann era. I mean, nobody expected me to say they were, right? They have some charming ones – most notably “Where Nobody Knows Your Name,” a one-off strip featuring the return of Frobisher. Several of the moments of high drama work quite well – when the Doctor’s main comic strip companion, Izzy, gets turned into a fish person there’s some lovely emotional beats. And a fake regeneration into Nicholas Briggs’s Audio-Visuals Doctor is delightfully cheeky, as plot twists go.
There are, in other words, lots of bits to love. But it’s still a Doctor Who Magazine comic strip, which means characterization is at a minimum. The Eighth Doctor is as featureless here as ever, running firmly as “generic Doctor” with occasional outbreaks of fight scenes. As with the previous two times there’s been a selection of people who think that the comics are the “real” version of the Doctor, it’s more a criticism of the rest of the era. The Doctor Who Magazine comics are fandom’s protest vote, and the degree to which they are beloved is curiously unrelated to what’s going on in the comics themselves.
That does not, however, mean that they haven’t had some genuinely significant ideas. As we’ve noted, the Alan Moore comics carry a strange appeal, albeit one in excess of their actual quality, and thus presumably largely due to Moore’s name. And, of course, there’s Frobisher, who is a ludicrously charming enough idea that he became part of the series’ lore, albeit only among a fairly dedicated fans. (But, of course, who else is buying Doctor Who Magazine?) And there’s always Abslom Daak, Dalek Killer. The comics were always reasonably long on ideas, in other words, to the point where they have their own genuinely loved and nostalgia-producing continuity.
And what jumps out about the Eighth Doctor run is that the comics draw more on this continuity than on the television series. I mean, yes, it opens with that great classic of people who have run out of good bits of Doctor Who to mine, the return of the Celestial Toymaker. And there’s an Evil of the Daleks sequel – though that’s actually an absolutely fantastic idea that never got adequately followed up on, so it’s tough to criticize that. But far more often than there are references to television stories there are references to past comic strips: Frobisher shows up; Shayde, the sphere-headed robot assassin from the Davison era, is a major recurring character; Alan Moore’s Black Sun sect appears; Steve Moore’s creation of Kroton, the Cyberman with emotions, not only appears but becomes a companion; a parade of Miles/Wagner villains appear, with Beep the Meep gracing the pages twice; and, inevitably, we’re back to Stockbridge. This is the most referential the comic ever really gets with its own past.
What’s interesting is that the Eighth Doctor comics also mark the dividing line on that past. Since the debut of the new series the comics have been almost entirely cut off from the past of the Doctor Who Magazine comics, with only a story where the Tenth Doctor drops by Stockbridge to provide any connection to the past of the comics. And so the Eighth Doctor comics are in an odd way an elegy for this entire line and style: the last flourishing of this part of Doctor Who’s heritage. Realistically, we’re never going to see Kroton the Cyberman again in Doctor Who Magazine again, except maybe in some anniversary celebration. In that regard it’s nice to see a final hurrah. As marginal a facet of Doctor Who as it was, it was also a facet full of some of the maddest ideas ever to be passed off as official Doctor Who. That they got a victory lap, and a victory lap that was actually important to the Eighth Doctor’s era, is genuinely nice. (After all, in an era where everything was basically for fans only the comic is fundamentally less marginal than usual.)
But there’s also something just a bit odd about it. The Eighth Doctor, in all of his iterations, is oddly trapped by the spectre of continuity and the series’ past. Which is all well and good, but what’s really striking about the comics is that he’s ensnared in such a strange bit of continuity. It’s one thing to get caught up in the history of the television series that one is working in the fandom of. But to get caught up in the history of the fan magazine’s comic strip feels almost pathological – like something about the series in this particular era just can’t resist the pull of wallowing in the past. Even the Radio Times comic that ran for a year after the TV Movie – a comic that presumably was actually intended to reach a mass audience and capitalize on the assumed success of the TV Movie – started off with returns of Cybermen and Ice Warriors. Admittedly, it was Gary Russell, so, you know, what do you expect, but still. The gravity of the cult approach is deeper-seated in the Eighth Doctor era than we’ve really given it credit for, which is impressive given that it’s been one of the major themes of the blog these past four months.
But the flashpoint in all of this really comes with the Eighth Doctor’s regeneration. Or, you know, the lack of it. The only one of the Doctor’s regenerations we know nothing about, the default fanon seems to be that it’s the Eighth Doctor who fought in the Time War and regenerated shortly thereafter, and that Rose is essentially the Ninth Doctor’s first adventure. Rose itself is rather more ambiguous on this point – it’s certainly possible that all of Clive’s scrapbook clippings of the Ninth Doctor post-date Rose, but if so it’s odd that she appears in none of them. The scene of the Doctor eyeing himself in a mirror vaguely implies that he’s just regenerated. But the matter is thoroughly up for debate, at least in terms of Rose.
This issue is really more one about the nature of the gap between the Eighth and Ninth Doctors. Simply put, Russell T Davies, for entirely well-grounded reasons that nobody reading this blog can possibly have any trouble understanding, made zero effort to connect the Eighth and Ninth Doctor eras directly. The default decision of having the Time War also serve as a regeneration is a sort of Occam’s Razor approach to the minimal guidance that the actual text afford you: you don’t need to come up with an additional traumatic event for the Doctor. But in practice there’s no reason to go one way or the other. Imagining scads of Eighth Doctor stories leading into a Time War and Rose as the first Ninth Doctor story works just as well as imagining that the Eighth Doctor hits his head on the TARDIS console ten seconds after the end of The Gallifrey Chronicles and that the restoration of Gallifrey and buildup of the Time War were all early Ninth Doctor stories.
I mention all of this because Russell T Davies did make one move to document the Eight/Nine transition: he offered the regeneration to Doctor Who Magazine. Obviously they did not end up taking Davies up on the offer, though they considered ending their final story, The Flood, with a regeneration. The Flood is one of the better Eighth Doctor comics – an eight-parter with some decidedly creepy Cybermen that did a quite solid job of tying up the whole Eighth Doctor comics era. Like most Doctor Who Magazine comics it feels a bit like a Baker and Martin story – an unceasing flood of ideas with a relative lack of exploration of any of them. But they’re good ideas, so, really, the basis to complain is minimal. It’s what the strips are good at.
But, as Clayton Hickman and Alan Barnes quickly realized, this made it a poor choice for a regeneration story. Especially since the Doctor had a companion with a story arc at that point in time. With no way that they could possibly lead straight into Rose – especially with the Time War in between – they would have been forced to regenerate the Doctor and then leave a gap with the Ninth Doctor and Destrii that was never going to get filled. Hickman and Barnes proposed a “Year One” comic with Eccleston set before Rose, but, of course, that wasn’t going to work either.
I say “of course,” but it’s perhaps worth pausing and explaining exactly why that’s true. It’s actually fairly simple: nobody cared. The new series was debuting the Doctor and Rose, and it was debuting them as huge popular culture icons. To go back and do the Ninth Doctor without Rose would defeat the purpose. The new series was being designed to have a massive audience who were primed for those two characters. As created, the Ninth Doctor without Rose is essentially unthinkable. To put Ninth Doctor stories before Rose is as silly as pre-Unearthly Child stories. A pre-Time War Ninth Doctor doesn’t make any sense. The character isn’t designed to do that, at least, not in an actual storytelling way.
Which is to say that the entire idea of connecting the Eighth and Ninth Doctor eras is ultimately ludicrous. Because they aren’t made to connect. The new series is designed with a traumatic break from the past. As we’ve noted, this ends up making the Eighth Doctor era look particularly silly, simply because it has so many traumatic breaks of its own, all of which are ultimately rejected in favor of a brand new traumatic break. And no amount of fractal history quite repairs that problem simply because it’s not really a problem with the nature of the Time War. It’s a problem with the fact that the Time War is designed to be a radical and traumatic break with the past of the series.
In that regard “what happened during the Time War” is the wrong question. Or, at least, it’s a very easy question: what happened during the Time War was that Doctor Who got cancelled for sixteen years save for an unsuccessful TV movie. That’s what the Time War really is. Doctor Who’s cultural continuity collapsed, and as a result its internal continuity did. This gets literalized within Doctor Who as a war between the Daleks and the Time Lords, but that conflict is a metaphorical figleaf. At best the Time War is a war between what the Daleks and Time Lords represent within Doctor Who, but really it’s just that the Dalek/Time Lord conflict is the best way to literalize that gap – in a way that none of the previous “drafts” of the Time War possibly could. The Time Lord/Dalek conflict is the only narrative anchor large enough to hold the scar of cancellation. We will, of course, return to this.
But for now let’s appreciate the odd gap – the regeneration that could not be told. Because, of course, the consequence of this reading of the Time War is that it renders the wilderness years irrelevant. Perhaps worth mining for decent ideas, in much the same way that, say, the Peter Cushing movies are, but fundamentally not a part of Doctor Who’s history. They may have been a necessary chrysalis – although the question of whether the Cartmel era could have thrived had the BBC realized what they had remains one of the greatest what ifs of Doctor Who – but they were still a dormant phase. Yes, the transition from Survival to TV Movie to Rose was one that requires looking at the years in between each step to understand. You can’t jump to either the TV Movie or Rose without some context.
But we should still remember: the wilderness years were so marginal they couldn’t even show the Eighth Doctor’s regeneration. That’s how far they’d fallen from touch with the brilliance of Doctor Who’s cultural legacy: it actually made more sense to skip the Eighth Doctor’s regeneration entirely than it would have to depict it. And if we do grant the claim that the comics were the best version of the Eighth Doctor, we must grant it in the larger context in which that claim always is tacitly made: the Eighth Doctor era was so blighted by failure that the Doctor Who Magazine comics may well have been the best it had to offer.