Thursday, January 7, 2010

Graphically Speaking: Doctor Who Classics, Volume I

Words: Christopher Irving

Just last week David Tennant, the tenth actor to play The Doctor on England’s long-running science fiction time-travel show Doctor Who, took a tragic bow off the stage, leading his successor, Matt Smith, on.

Unlike Star Wars, Star Trek, or any magnum opus sci-fi/space opera series here in America, Doctor Who has gone pretty straight since its first broadcast (or, as our more proper cousins across the pond would say, transmission) in 1963. But before the string bean David Tennant became a cult figure who reinvigorated Doctor Who within the past few years, or even before his under rated predecessor Christopher Eccleston took the role of the oft-reincarnating Doctor (who, mysteriously, regenerates into a new body whenever the actor playing him is ready to go), the popular image of Doctor Who was a mop-topped gentleman with a beakish nose, weak chin, and impossibly long knit scarf.

Actor Tom Baker took the role in 1974 and held onto it for seven years, leaving in 1981. Because of his long and amazing run as the oafish/screwball/madcap/clever Doctor, as well as the overseas broadcast on PBS stations everywhere, Baker became the face most associated with Doctor Who.
Marvel UK printed a black and white Doctor Who strip in short increments in their Doctor Who Weekly, and they are all reprinted (with beautifully subtle coloring by Charlie Kirchoff, nonetheless) by IDW under the banner of Doctor Who Classics.

I have to admit: I’m not usually a huge fan of comics adaptations of TV or movie characters. They usually fall flat for me, static, and just plain boring and stiff (the likeness police have been known to ruin otherwise kinetic art with an imposed stiffness). But with art by Dave Gibbons (Watchmen, The Originals) and Paul Neary (The Ultimates), I knew any faults would be in the scripts by Pat Mills and John Wagner. The writing in Doctor Who Classics, Volume I are on par with the then-current television show in that they’re flat-out fun. Don’t expect the Citizen Kane of comics in these episodic sequences, but do expect a darn good read that captures the spirit of the zany Tom Baker Doctor Who adventures.

The initial story, "Doctor Who and the Iron Legion", follows the Doctor’s involvement in a parallel universe where Rome never fell, and became a military juggernaut run by harpy-like creatures and their robot armies. The high point of Legion, for me, is in the character Morris, a simpleton slave who is mauled in each escape attempt, and then patched up with bionic parts by his captors, creating a patchwork of metal and flesh, punctuated by a large zipper-like seam running down the bridge of his nose and top of his head. While it’s a clunky story with a dues ex machina or two, it’s more a warm-up for "City of the Damned", a ridiculously fun story where The Doctor lands on a dystopian and emotionless future that churns out pseudo-Orwellian themes fused with a bit of Logan’s Run.

The real meat of this volume, though, is in "Timeslip", written and drawn by Paul Neary. This simple and quick story features more photo-referenced work, kept from being too robotic by Neary’s fluid art style, where The Doctor is stuck living backwards, devolving into his prior three incarnations in reverse order until he figures a way out of a chronally-challenging space amoeba encapsulating his time-travelling ship the TARDIS. "Timeslip", in all honesty, is less of a story than the prior two, but more of a geek-out for Who fans interested in those earlier incarnations who mostly lived in black and white episodes.

The final story, "Doctor Who and the Star Beast", feels the most like an episode sequence of the old show, as the Doctor lands on Earth to save a fuzzy blue cat-like alien from its lobster-like alien captors. But, as in the best Doctor Who stories, it’s full of twists and turns and innate silliness (partly due to the inclusion of The Doctor’s robot dog, K-9).

Top notch stuff for Who fans.