It’s strange, I’ve been writing about the Tennant era for nine months now, and yet reading the compiled Tenth Doctor comics from Doctor Who Magazine the thing that jumps out most immediately is the amount of time enveloped in them. It helps that there’s a change in editors and a late change of direction as a result, but even without that there’s a sense of size and history here that is perhaps lost when looking at the story-to-story changes of the Tennant years.
Actually, let’s start with that change in editors. The majority of the Tenth Doctor’s comics are edited by Clayton Hickman. No account of of Doctor Who is ever going to allege that Hickman is one of the great and most important figures in the history of the series, which is true in a sort of blandly factual sense, but obscures the fact that on the occasions where Clayton Hickman does enter the margins of the story he inevitably acquits himself marvelously. Whether as the talking head who obligingly filled in context so that some washed up 70s actress or another appears to actually make sense in Doctor Who Confidential, as Gareth Roberts’s funnier writing partner on audio, television, and ideally, a bizarre and inscrutable DVD extra for The Masque of Mandragora, as the cover designer for the classic series DVDs, as the terribly sweet seeming judge for Companion Academy, or just as that nice man on Twitter who keeps mistakenly saying good things about my blog, Clayton Hickman is very possibly the figure in Doctor Who it is least possible to say mean things about without feeling like a complete and utter bastard.
But one thing that becomes clear reading the commentary at the end Panini Press collections of Tenth Doctor comics is that there is nowhere in his contributions to Doctor Who that Hickman is more in his element than editing the comics for Doctor Who Magazine. None of this is meant as a knock against the last run of Tenth Doctor comics, edited by Tom Spilsbury. The final run, an ongoing story with a comics-exclusive companion, is a satisfying homage to the way comics were before the arrival of Doctor Who as a global megabrand, and the final Donna story, “The Time of My Life,” is both clever and terribly moving. But nowhere in the Panini books does one get the sense of Tom Spilsbury as an editor who lived and breathed the details of the comic. (Although it’s certainly possible he’s actually just less prone to talking about himself.)
(It’s also worth briefly acknowledging the second line of comics in Doctor Who Adventures – over five hundred pages of short done-in-ones that tended to pick up with the Doctor and Rose already in some sort of danger, and to romp madly through absurd premises. Good fun, but not something I’m going to cover in detail.)
Hickman, on the other hand, is clearly the sort of nightmarish editor a good writer dreams of: one who is going to challenge detail after detail, who has no tolerance whatsoever for crap, and who is going to make damn sure anything that goes out under his editorial name is going to be brilliant. This being a monthly comic strip for a spin-off, a 100% hit rate is not actually achievable, but throughout the Tenth Doctor period the Doctor Who Magazine comic is far, far better than is in any way had to be.
The obvious highlight is of course issue #368’s “The Lodger,” in which Gareth Roberts imagines the Tenth Doctor stuck for several days rooming with Mickey, much to Mickey’s chagrin. It’s warm, funny, and exactly the sort of thing the comic is for: doing stories that add new shades and concepts to Doctor Who but that could never or would never be taken seriously as proposals for television episodes. But to reduce the run of Tenth Doctor comics to a single one-issue strip, however brilliant, would be unfair.
Especially because what’s really impressive is how many other good bits there are. Actually, what’s really impressive is how many different ways of being good the strip had. It’s worth spending a few paragraphs looking at some highlights, in fact. “F.A.Q.,” by Tony Lee, manages to step into the grotesquely oversignified “virtual world overseen by an insane master” genre and actually find something new to do within it. Between it and The Forgotten one would be forgiven for suspecting that Tony Lee actually only has one idea, but he executes it competently here, and there are some very nice late game twists.
“The Futurists” is a brutal attack against the Italian aesthetic/proto-fascist movement of the sort that could only come from letting artist Mike Collins write a strip. There’s a strangeness to it – it’s admittedly not entirely self-evident why, in 2006, twenty-eight pages of comics should be spent attacking a defunct and discredited ninety-year-old artistic movement. But this is in many ways the source of the strip’s weird charm. There are surely very few people who, given their big occasion to create a Doctor Who story, would go to “the evils of Futurism” as their first idea, but this is in many ways the point of the exercise: it’s such a strangely idiosyncratic and personal project that it is almost automatically compelling.
“The Warkeeper’s Crown” takes the rather frustratingly unnecessary “the Tenth Doctor meets the Brigadier” concept and manages to do something interesting with it, playing with the actually very good observation that the Tenth Doctor, having fought in the Time War, would have a kinship with the Brigadier that no previous Doctor could have. Along with some quality comedy bits involving an inter-stellar mix up in which a UKIP-esque M.E.P. is confused with the Mike Yates we all know and love, it’s a marvelous strip, and one where Hickman’s meticulous editing plays concrete dividends. “I was determined to have the Doctor hug the Brigadier at the start, and salute him – a proper, respectful salute – at the end. Two things the Doctor had never done, and really, two things only the Tenth Doctor would do,” he explains in the commentary, and yes, if you’re going to go with the big fan-fetishizing “bring back the Brigadier for the Tenth Doctor” idea, you may as well take advantage of the fact that the Tenth Doctor actually has new avenues open to him that no previous one really did.
And of course there’s Nev Fountain’s outrageously funny “The Green-Eyed Monster,” which I am almost loathe to describe in detail simply because its twists and clevernesses are so giddily over the top. Somewhere around the point where Jackie Tyler confesses her love of a tracksuit-clad Tenth Doctor on an alien parody of the Jerry Springer show, however, it becomes self-evident that one is reading a work of outright genius. But what really stands out about the strip is the decision to focus it on the larger supporting cast of the Tyler era. The use of the auxiliary media to add depth and nuance to the supporting cast is on one level obvious, but it still seems strange simply because there’d never been an era of Doctor Who before where a story like “The Green-Eyed Monster” was possible.
The loss of this supporting cast was, as one might imagine, something of a downer for the strip. There are several good Martha strips, including “The Woman Who Sold the World,” a bit of political anger that channels the countercultural excess of vintage 2000 AD, complete with an obvious Margaret Thatcher stand-in, and “Death to the Doctor!,” which featured editorial work by both Clayton Hickman and Tom Spilsbury, the latter of whom (quite correctly, actually) reversed the former’s opposition to a bunch of single-panel comedy flashbacks featuring previous Doctors. But on the whole the Martha strips, much like the astonishingly short run of Donna strips (just five issues) ended up back in the territory of generic Doctor Who strips. Stories like “The First” (evil aliens and the Shackleton expedition) and “The Widow’s Curse” (return of the Sycorax) feel almost exactly like what someone’s first guess as to what a Doctor Who comic should be.
But on the whole there’s a level of properly joyful care being taken with the strips in this period. And perhaps more to the point, taken as a whole one can see the arc of the Tennant era, from its imperial confidence in the Rose Tyler days to its routine but perhaps less ambitious competence in its middle period, to its long running out of the clock after Journey’s End. And on the whole, whatever we might say of any given moment in the process, it is rather wonderful. For all that, by 2009, it was time for a change, this is worth remembering and stressing: change was needed because that’s what mercury demands. Not because the Tenth Doctor era was anything less than an absolute golden age for Doctor Who. And certainly a golden age for the comics.