It’s been a while since we’ve been over on this end of the Doctor Who pool, and with the Troughton era coming to an end imminently, it seemed like a good time to pop back over and look. Especially because last time we were looking at the World Distributors annuals, and this time we’re looking at the Polystyle TV Comics strips.
What’s funny, though, is that despite being a completely different company and publication, it’s tough to make too much out of the differences between the two sets of comics. This might not seem surprising given that they are both telling Doctor Who stories, and thus presumably have some unifying influence. Except that both are so wildly different from the television series that it ends up being mildly surprising to watch them end up more or less on the same planet given how far afield they are from the target.
And yet somehow the comics end up with an odd consistency to them. It’s tempting to allude to some vague sense of a proper order of things in Doctor Who here – the occasional and uncanny sense we’ve had before that this ship is not as rudderless as it should be. But in this case, it seems to me there’s a much more prosaic option – given what British comics were, there was only one way the strip could have been, and both World Distributors and Polystyle did it that way.
For an American comic book fan, there is a lot about the British comics industry that is puzzling. But the thing that should be noted first is that virtually nobody talks about British comic books. It’s not that there aren’t any. It’s just that there aren’t very many, and fewer still that actually matter. Instead, the primary form for British comics is the anthology magazine. The most famous of these are probably, in terms of children’s comics, The Beano and The Dandy, and in terms of science fiction, Eagle and 2000 AD. (Though some would make a case for Eclipse, those people are inevitably Americans who forget that the British comics scene extended beyond Alan Moore. Or, more depressingly, Brits who forget that.) The format of these was generally simple – a couple strips of maybe 4-8 pages each, published weekly.
I could – and really should some day – write a book about how this format shaped British comics. But one of the big things is that it meant that comics often had a bit of a house style. A magazine still had to feel coherent, after all. Furthermore, there’s a fairly tight structure to these strips. With eight pages, fitting a cliffhanger, resolution of last week’s cliffhanger, advancement of the plot, and some exposition to catch people up who have forgotten since last week is a challenge. And so the pace of any action-based strip had to be fairly frenetic.
Even in a setting like the World Distributors Annuals, which don’t serialize stories, the structure this implies is prevalent simply because it’s the structure people expect action comics to be in. And so it’s not a huge surprise that World Distributors’ Annuals and Polystyle’s TV Comics ended up with similar seeming Doctor Who comics – that was just how comics were.
How are they, by the way? Well, grabbing a random strip – a serial called “The Witches” from when the comic was a two-pager, here’s a summary of a strip: The annual universe-wide reunion of witches is going on on the planet Vargo. Two late arrivals talk animatedly about the Grand Witch talking, and eagerly await her sharing new spells. Instead she offers a demonstration of her power, turning a tree into stone. Immediately thereafter the TARDIS arrives, with the witches speculating that it might be the Grand Witch’s doing, but she denies it. Inside the TARDIS, the Doctor tells his grandchildren John and Gillian (Oh yes, them. I should maybe have mentioned these two strange characters) to hide while he investigates. He puts on his utility belt, then proclaims himself the Wizard of Omega. The Grand Witch declares she will test his power, and summons a giant monster to attack him.
Characterizing all of this is a lot of spoken exposition – not just technobabble, but characters loudly explaining what they are doing while they are doing it – and a lot of scenes that almost but not quite connect together. But it’s pretty standard as British comics go – not a highlight of the medium by any stretch of the imagination, but not unusually bad.
The larger question might be why Doctor Who would take such a strange shape. A utility belt? The Wizard of Omega? John and Gillian? What the heck is this? Certainly the comic exists in a sort of orthogonal reality to the television series. Jamie takes ages to appear, and is the only companion other than John and Gillian that the Doctor has. Ben, Polly, Victoria, and Jamie simply don’t appear in the comics. The Doctor also never really develops, being pictured with the stovepipe hat that Troughton in practice abandoned in The Underwater Menace long after that story had aired. He’s hardly the only one, though – the Cybermen stay stuck in Tenth Planet form, for instance.
There are a couple of reasons. First, the comics were done fast and on the cheap. The Cybermen were probably drawn by someone who hadn’t seen the show, or at least hadn’t paid much attention to it, and who had photoreferences that happened to be from The Tenth Planet. Second, we’re lucky they had Cybermen at all, since generally the strip avoided the actual TV characters because they would require royalty payments to use. Which also explains John and Gillian.
Stranger are things like the utility belt. Or, for that matter, the witches themselves. Who are, a perusal of the rest of the story suggests, actually witches, with the Doctor having to find a proper spellbook to defeat them. Especially when you learn that the strips were usually written by the assistant script editor of the series – which meant at one point Terrance Dicks was writing these. So it’s not that they were written by somebody with no clue of what Doctor Who was. This meant that occasionally the strip would even tuck nicely into continuity – at one point in the Hartnell era the Zarbi made an immediate sequel appearance in the strip. More strangely, late in the Troughton era, after The War Games had aired but before Pertwee was announced as the Third Doctor, the strip managed to come up with the bizarre conceit that the Doctor had adventures between his trial and his actual regeneration. (In truth, apparently, his regeneration was at the hands of a bunch of scarecrows. Really.)
Which suggests again that what’s going on is simply that the sorts of comics being written simply nudged the show in particular ways. After all, it’s not like the Doctor behaves completely wrong in the strips. Yes, he’s more violent than the Doctor should be, but if you look at the things he actually does, they’re still somewhat Doctorish – he’s still an unpredictable, chaotic figure who is in constant action – which is what Troughton plays. They even have him correctly being good at chemistry and the like. The problem isn’t quite that they don’t get the Doctor. It’s that they don’t seem to get what a Doctor Who story is. In fact, they seem almost hell-bent on not doing Doctor Who stories.
No, really. The logic behind the comics seems often to specifically be that they should do what the TV show can’t. Not just in terms of budget, although they are happy to enjoy their lack of one. But also in terms of approach – stories about, for instance, witches, or, less absurdly, stories that are about action sequences with giant robot or reptile monsters. These fit within science fiction, but they don’t fit within Doctor Who, because Doctor Who is a low budget television show that requires that the Doctor usually defeat a menace by talking to it or by touching some wires together.
But look at what that requires. If the plot is going to involve more action – and both to distinguish itself from the series and to fit in with the expectations for a British comic strip of its genre, the plot is going to have to involve more action – the way the Doctor interacts with it will have to change too. The comics aren’t so much mischaracterizing the Doctor as accurately characterizing what would happen if the Doctor were in action hero plots all the time. (And if we’re being honest, Venusian karate is just a different way of approaching the same problem.)
Perhaps most significantly, we should note that the comics retain a certain degree of Doctor Who logic. Remember what I said earlier about the way in which the comics don’t quite fit together correctly? The way events do not necessarily seem like rational responses to one another, and that exposition is shouted out at random because there’s nothing else that would make it clear? Right. But think about it for a moment – much of what is effective in Doctor Who comes from the careful and memorable use of set-pieces. Robert Holmes, in particular, is going to master this someday, but even this season, look at something like The Seeds of Death, which chains together its space travel setpieces and foam setpieces with a perfectly pleasant but not particularly logical plot that involves Ice Warriors with really dumb invasion plans that rapidly multiply to incorporate new elements that appear out of nowhere, often to provide cliffhangers. This is how Doctor Who works – it smashes together some odd ideas (Pirates, cowboys, and space travel! Martians, teleporters, and rockets! Cybermen, London, and the military!) and then works its way through the implications, stringing the cool bits together with some basic plotting. The comics are the same way, only with a completely different pool of set-pieces because of their action tropes. But the basic logic – that a series of interesting and memorable impressions is more important than a coherent plot – is familiar to Doctor Who viewers.
The Polystyle comics, in other words, don’t so much get Doctor Who wrong as get Doctor Who right through the strange looking glass. Which is, perhaps, why people care enough about the comics that an entry like this is worthwhile. Because for all their freakish wrongness, there’s something oddly appealing about them. Indeed, Gareth Roberts has twice nicked plot concepts from Troughton-era TV Comics for his Doctor Who episodes. They are unmistakably Doctor Who, and unmistakably part of Doctor Who history.