Let us first stipulate that there is relatively little reason to care about these particular comics on their merits in either Alan Moore’s ouvre or the Doctor Who canon. Bits of them – particularly “Black Death,” may have credible cases for placing in any given top ten list of Doctor Who comics, but they’re not self-evidently the best Doctor Who comics ever or anything, as one might hope from the combination of Alan Moore and Doctor Who.
On the other hand, there’s something fundamentally irresistible here. I mean, obviously there is – I wouldn’t do a post like this if there weren’t. But I’m also hardly the only one. Russell T. Davies himself namechecks Alan Moore’s Deathsmiths of Goth in a text piece published about the Time War. Miles and Wood argue that it was Moore’s take on Time Lord history in “Star Death” that shifted the consensus view of the relationship between Rassilon and Omega. And more generally speaking, starting from 1987 and continuing to the present day, Alan Moore has been a massive influence on the show whether directly or indirectly. (For the purposes of this statement remember that Neil Gaiman is in many ways the quasi-authorized successor to Alan Moore) Much like Douglas Adams before him and Neil Gaiman after him, Alan Moore carries a massive fanbase that is separate from Doctor Who, and thus the intersections between the two of them carry odd and peculiar resonances.
This doesn’t change the fact, however, that we are talking about a mere 28 pages of comics here, all drawn with David Lloyd, later to be Moore’s artist on V For Vendetta. His first two stories consist of four two-page installments, and then he did a set of three interconnected one-parters at four pages each. That is it. We are necessarily not talking about a huge contribution to Doctor Who here. Furthermore, all of these were published in 1980 and 1981. These predate anything that it would be fair to call a major work of Moore’s. This is Alan Moore, in other words, before he was even one of the very goods, little yet before he was one of the greats.
It shows, most particularly in his second offering, “Business as Usual.” He’s reliant on clunky and awkward thought bubbles to convey exposition, for instance, having a character explore an industrial plant and think “This must be the warehouse section. It seems to be full of kids’ toys. I suppose it figures… after all, our reports say that toys are Galaxy Plastic’s main product…” It’s a case of poor mechanics – simply put, Moore isn’t using the medium well enough to get the exposition out organically. The pacing, similarly, is badly flawed. This is one of Moore’s first multi-part stories, and he hasn’t yet figured out how to make each two-page installment a distinct experience. It’s really an eight page story with four cliffhangers as opposed to a story comprised of four two-part installments.
But although Moore’s mechanics are still clunky at this phase, even in this – by far the weakest of his Doctor Who efforts – there’s quite a bit that’s sharp. Moore has a solid handle on what makes Auton stories fun, and the touch of evil toy soldiers that actually shoot people is worthy of a Robert Holmes Auton story. And under the hood the story has a good idea – treating the routine nature of alien invasions (the fact that they’re “business as usual” in Doctor Who) as linked to the sociopathic excesses of corporate culture, and using the plastic, manufactured Autons to tell a story about that. The basic idea is sound and there’s a good story to tell there.
He’s even got a solid handle on the idea that the dual word/image nature of comics means that you can juxtapose information. The first part has a running narration provided via captions that muse, over two panels, that “it was quite normal for a man in Blunt’s position to appoint his successor… / after all… what if something should happen to him?” But the second caption is over a panel in which a character panickedly announces “It’s Mr. Blunt.. H-He’s shot himself!!” Neither the panel nor its caption on their own reveal what’s happened, but the juxtaposition between two channels of information provides story enough. It’s a good technique – one that Moore would eventually make much use of in Watchmen. All of this suggests that Moore has a solid handle on what the medium can do, and that he’s just yet to completely master its mechanics. He can pull of virtuosic moments, but the overall flow of his writing is still choppy.
Or maybe it’s just that Autons aren’t a particularly inspiring subject for him. His story from a few weeks earlier, “Black Legacy,” is altogether more solid. An exploration party of Cybermen hunting for an “Apocalypse Device” are slowly hunted and picked off by that device. In this story Moore manages a density of ideas that rivals that of Bob Baker and David Martin: Cybermen haunted by bad dreams and prophetic visions, a weapon that wants to be used, a society of weapon makers who killed themselves to stop their own doomsday weapon, a disease that rots away Cybermen bodies, a base under siege story where the Cybermen are under siege – all of this is very solid. Unlike Baker and Martin, he manages to wrap it around character moments. Yes, it’s a stock character – madly hubristic military leader whose arrogance dooms everyone around him – but it’s a character with a distinct arc. And he manages moments that are genuinely chilling and unsettling throughout the piece.
What’s interesting about “Black Legacy” is that it shows Moore finding ways to push the basic fabric of the Doctor Who narrative and universe. The story is specifically interesting because it’s the Cybermen who are being hunted and scared, and they’re not supposed to be scared. The story would lose all power if it were greedy humans seeking the weapon because greedy humans getting prophetic nightmares is business as usual. But by putting the Cybermen in a story that is ostensibly wrong for them the story becomes considerably more powerful. This may sound like an obvious point, but if one looks at the “classic monster” stories of Doctor Who up through 1980, when this was published, really only the Whitaker Dalek stories come anywhere close to building a story out of a frisson between the monster and the setting. It seems like a wholly obvious sort of idea in 2012, but the fact of the matter is that writers up to 1980 hadn’t figured out how to use that idea on Doctor Who’s own core monsters. (Maddeningly, they really don’t get it figured out until the show gets taken over by Alan Moore devotees, at which point it immediately becomes standard.) To be fair, Steve Moore had been doing things like this from the beginning with the comics, most obviously with Kroton the Cyberman, but Alan Moore takes it by and large further. Steve Moore comes up with an interesting twist on the Cybermen. Alan Moore writes a story about a limit case of the Cybermen.
Then there are the three stories set around the war between Gallifrey and the Order of the Black Sun. There are several things we should note before diving fully into these. First of all, we should note that Moore ceased working for Doctor Who Magazine in solidarity with Steve Moore and that there is no particular reason to think that he was “done” with the Black Sun as a setting. We are in essence loking at three fragments from a whole of unknown size here. Second of all, we should note that there’s equally little reason to think that there was some organized master plan on Moore’s part that he had mapped out. We don’t have a full story here as such, but to treat this as the beginnings of a radical reconceptualization of Gallifrey is also misguided. For one thing, Moore does not appear to have been a fan of Doctor Who ever, really, and certainly not since the Hartnell era. (He’s said that he thinks all of the post-Hartnell Doctors feel a bit too pedophilic for his tastes) Which is to say that he’s hardly the type to want to do a thorough continuity-laden job like sorting out Time Lord history. More likely, as Miles and Wood suggest, he chatted up a Doctor Who fan over a few pints and wrote from that research, hence his establishing that Rassilon and Omega were part of the same event in Time Lord history (a fact that was in no way clear in the television series at this point, or, indeed, any other).
But that Moore was not overtly planning a revamp of Gallifreyan history doesn’t mean that his stories don’t clearly gesture towards a vision of it. Given his relative detachment from Doctor Who it is surely coincidental that both he and Terrance Dicks/Christopher Bidmead turned towards a more fantasy-like conception of the Time Lords at almost the same time. Or, rather, both State of Decay and this are symptoms of a larger process, since in hindsight Shada turned more towards a view of Gallifrey as a source of ancient power than as a technological marvel. Nevertheless, it is worth noting explicitly that Moore’s conception of Rassilon is overtly as a wizard, that the name “Order of the Black Sun” comes from an occult/mystical background (and Moore wasn’t even anywhere near converting to snake-worship yet), and that these stories are overtly placed in Gallifrey’s ancient past. This is flat-out science fantasy in the “long time ago in a glaxy far far away” sense.
Also significant is the fact that Moore is playing with the nature of time travel more overtly than the series has ever really dealt with. The idea of a temporal war in which one side is attacked before they commit the act that is seen as kicking off the war is an interesting and complex one. More, though, than taking a particular monster and pushing them into a new type of story based on the nuances of their concept, this begins looking at the consequences of the very premise of the show. The series hadn’t played seriously with the consequences and nuances of time travel since Day of the Daleks, so the idea of a story with complex and non-linear causality was heavily overdue.
And it’s equally worth noting that Alan Moore and the production team hit on this at almost the exact same moment, with Bidmead putting out Warrior’s Gate and Logopolis in quick succession right around the time Moore was doing these comics. There’s a temptation to suggest that this means Moore isn’t nearly as ahead of his time with these comics as his fans would like to think, but I think we can afford to be more charitable to the man. Being in step with Christopher Bidmead in 1980-81 is, in fact, being ahead of your time. One of the things that is notable about Bidmead’s Doctor Who is that it is an era that has seemingly increased in stature over time as more and more of it turned out to be prescient. That doesn’t mean it lacks flaws – narrative logic is not always Bidmead’s strong suit, and he can have a bit of a tin ear when it comes to speech patterns – but it does mean that the style of fantastic science fiction that Bidmead favors is something that the rest of the world eventually caught up on.
And Alan Moore, more than any other writer in Doctor Who comics, and in many ways more than almost any other writer period in 1980, was right in step with Bidmead. Like Bidmead he had some weaknesses in storytelling mechanics, at least in 1980-81. But unlike Bidmead his future career is famous. And his Doctor Who work points towards it. He hones his style over the next few years, but as soon as 1982 he’s doing work like Marvelman in which his instincts on how to write a story that cuts to the heart of an existing concept get their first really successful airing. And eventually he takes those skills to American comics to do revamps of Swamp Thing and, indirectly, the Charlton Comics stable of characters before expanding his horizons away from licensed characters and towards whole swaths of literary and cultural history. Followed by sketching out an aesthetic and magical philosophy with revolutionary potential that better understands and describes how stories work and what they do in the general case than just about any other out there.
But, of course, this isn’t his story. This is the story of Doctor Who, which he never came back to after 1981 and has made clear he never will. (Though to be fair, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969 has three Doctor Who references in it, one of them pleasantly obscure.) Nevertheless, this fleeting point of intersection is telling. Moore was thoroughly in step with what Doctor Who was doing in his early career. The 1980s are far kinder to Moore than they are to Doctor Who, and Moore quickly comes to outpace Doctor Who in quality by some miles. But this in turn means that when the pendulum swings back and Doctor Who begins being influenced by Moore in 1987 there is something natural to it – a case of Doctor Who being influenced by an outgrowth of itself. It is not, obviously, that Moore was influenced by Doctor Who itself. By all appearances he wasn’t. Rather it is something subtler – the fact that Alan Moore and Doctor Who are, in many ways, different tellings of the same story. Though they share only one landmark, they are vividly and clearly two derives through the same psychchronographic landscape.
Even if the 28 pages of it he wrote are mediocre.