Flicking back through the beginning of the Eighth Doctor comic strip era, we meet amoral cowboys, guards in dramatic collars and a lesbian spy… and if you haven’t read them, there are spoilers ahead.
The Doctor battles a fanged monster in Tooth And Claw, ably assisted by his trusty companion. But it isn’t Rose. It’s Izzy. And again, it’s Izzy assisting him as the Daleks prepare to rip their way into other Universes, not the blessed Donna.
In the years between the Doctor Who TV movie and the 2005 revival, these scenes were part of an epic – and unfairly overlooked – era of the Time Lord’s ongoing saga. The Doctor Who Magazine comic strip had entered an exciting new phase, and with no new episodes on the horizon, the writers and artists had the creative freedom to go almost anywhere and when they desired. And they did.
On television, the Seventh Doctor was shot down by gangland teenagers. The response of Doctor Who Magazine was to end his comic strip era by killing off popular mainstay Ace, as she and the Doctor saved the world from inter-dimensional parasites. It was an audacious move, no doubt designed to usher in a braver, more bombastic and more free-willed time for the strip.
In the closing moments of the same story, this was underlined by a confrontation between the Doctor and Isaac, an agent of the mysterious Threshold. We’d be seeing a lot more of them, and the sudden twists that Scott Gray and Alan Barnes et al had waiting up their sleeves.
It was 1996. Paul McGann had been and gone on television, but he was now the Doctor in print and pictures. As BBC Books premièred him in The Eight Doctors, DWM introduced his bright and breezy demeanour with a fanciful tale that also brought us new companion Izzy. With them pitted against old fan favourite The Celestial Toymaker, it’s a story that could comfortably sit aside Smith & Jones or Partners In Crime at a party and not be the quiet one sitting in the corner hogging all the twiglets.
Introductions out of the way – along with fan-pleasing comic strip locations – the serious business began. The next story, The Keep, was an introductory story to the giant arc that would dominate the strip for some time.
Set in the dying days of Earth, the idea of an artificial, yet sentient sun being created was set up for the following adventure, Fire And Brimstone. As the Doctor and Izzy arrive on the man-made satteloids orbiting said fake sun two hundred years later, the Time Lord soon realises someone is manipulating his life (and no, there isn’t a Bad Wolf reference in sight).
Could it be the Daleks who turn up at the end of Part One? Not this time. It was the end of Part Three that provided me with the first big shock during this story. Sister Chastity wasn’t the Julie Andrews-style nun we were led to believe, but another agent of The Threshold in all her tetradot glory (we’ll return to that later).
This, I believe, was when the comic strip came into its own. Bear in mind, each part of a story comes once a month. By the time Sister Chastity had been revealed, it was way, way down the line from Isaac’s warning to the Seventh Doctor. It was a brilliantly stage-managed twist that added new depth to the comic strip tales.
Suddenly, we were aware that something far larger was going on than a vague threat from a villain who might return some day. The recurring character of the duplicitous android Marquez reiterated it.
Added to this was Sister Chastity scrabbling for the box with the Gallifreyan seal on it as all is destroyed around her, and a second enigmatic warning to the Doctor in the aftermath. “We’ll be just around the corner,” she smiles as she blinks out of existence. We were left in no doubt that we would be seeing them again. And that the stakes would be very high, indeed.
Tooth And Claw
During the Eighth Doctor comic strips, recurring characters – or versions of them – would become a bit of a theme. And so, it was in the next story, Tooth And Claw, that saw the return of Marwood (or rather his possible grandfather) who was last seen in the ‘season opener’ Endgame.
This story also introduces second companion Fey Truscott-Sade as an undercover agent of the crown and subtly-alluded to as a lesbian. The Doctor met her before in an unseen adventure involving “the psychic weasels of Russel Square”, which sounds like a rather fun story and it’s one I wished we’d been to privy to.
The coming of Fey signalled a change in the character of Izzy. From this story, we began to see a more rounded development of her character beyond that of a science fiction fan enthusing about space travel. She’s still ardent about adventure like all good companions, but little bits of personality start to bleed through; she’s bashful and blushes when first meeting Fey and has no qualms in reading The Devil Rides Out in bed while spending a night in a spooky house.
Pairing her with the loyal and strident Fey during this stand-alone creepy tale set up the dynamic beautifully for things to come. Particularly as the Doctor is near-fatally injured at the end and the twosome decide to take him to Gallifrey for treatment.
The supporting cast, too, are bolder. Not only the malign Varney and his sinister monkey servants, but Miss Snitching (effectively a royally-appointed prostitute) and the rancid Canon Pincock. Sometimes a name is all you really need to know.
Tooth And Claw was the point at which the Eighth Doctor’s strip exploits gained more confidence through the collaboration of Alan Barnes and artist Martin Geraghty, and the promise of a story set on Gallifrey only served to heighten the expectations.
The Final Chapter
It’s the two companions again who shine through in the Gallifrey-based story The Final Chapter. Fey proves herself to be a no-nonsense kick-ass kind of woman who likes to cut short maniacal speeches with a swift kick to the jaw in true secret agent style. She sees the need to get things done in the swiftest manner possible, and, as a result, it is she who is the driving force for the first part of the story. That’s not to say she’s cold-hearted at all. Her compassion towards Izzy and the Doctor is indicative of the loyalty the Doctor seems to inspire in others.
The Doctor’s precarious state brings out Izzy’s vulnerable side and illustrates her reliance – and love for – her good friend. As Castellan Tenion plugs the Doctor into the Matrix to heal him and intruding Doctor-fan Xanti is quickly subsumed, her concern switches to him instead. Empathy has become as important as her boundless enthusiasm, and thus she comes of age.
This being Doctor Who, though, there’s very little time to dwell on the emotional stuff as the titular baddies enter the fray, closely followed by strip returnee Shayde.
Eight-ball-headed and without a proper will or mind, Shayde was original Time Lord Rassilon’s hired assassin who hadn’t been seen in the pages for quite some time. Rather than just a fanwanky guest appearance, though, he soon becomes intrinsic to the overall arc.
While the story of evil Time Lord Luther constructing a massive TARDIS to rewrite Gallifreyan history into that of a fascist state is adequate enough, it’s the little hints in this story that are the most intriguing of what’s to come next… the secretive deal between the Doctor and Rassilon and the look on the Doctor’s face when Shayde says, “Doctor, must it really end this way?”
Keen eyes know from that frame that he’s planning something, and that once again, it’s what we don’t get to see that really matters. And what we don’t get to see is what lies behind the Doctor’s self-sacrifice at the end of The Final Chapter.
Acting as a conduit in Luther’s massive TARDIS, he saves the day… but the price is his life and he regenerates into a new man.
On first reading the last pages of this strip when they were published, I was gob-smacked. Utterly dumb-founded. Doctor Who Magazine had just regenerated the Doctor! Back then, there were no spoilers, and with any hope of a Paul McGann series (or any other) seemingly dashed on television, I could only believe that this new Doctor would be the main star from there on in. It was yet another brilliant twist I just didn’t see coming. And as we headed into what now could be regarded as the ‘Season Finale’, there would be another to come.
The beginning of Wormwood reminded me a little of Castrovalva with the companions in the TARDIS trying to get used to a newly regenerated Doctor. Again, though, we were not given long to contemplate this new scenario as the TARDIS touches down in a Wild West town on the Moon, the real home of The Threshold. It’s here where we meet the mother and father of the main baddies, Abraham White and living weapon the Pariah, a torpedo-titted monster.
The back-story of their origin is explained in lengthy exposition that could have, perhaps, been served better with another single part strip setting up the finale. It’s a minor point, however, as the action and revelations come thick and fast.
The Threshold’s appearance, which I always thought was a nice twist on the tetradot shading in some comic strips, is explained rather neatly and is tied in with the Pariah and even Shayde himself.
Sister Chastity makes a return (and exit) as her older and much heavier self, and it’s revealed the Threshold have been using an unwitting Fey to get the Doctor to the Moon on time. Their plan, too, is a good one.
By making outer space deadly, the Threshold then want to sell the Universe their own portal windows and make a massive profit. It’s an exercise in greed, and it’s one that is even more relevant in these dark financial times. Just think about a galactic credit crunch brought about by greedy banks and the scams they could pull to make more of a profit.
Action takes up most of the story in a fight between Shayde and the Pariah and the inevitable race against time for the Doctor and co to save the Universe. The highlight, though, is the final twist in which the new Doctor doesn’t turn out to be the Doctor at all, but Shayde. The real Doctor has been posing as one of the Threshold. It was a conceit that had me as shocked as the first switch and still remains a great idea that couldn’t really be done elsewhere.
Imagine Matt Smith turning out to be fake and for David Tennant to return three weeks later? It just wouldn’t work. Following the final reveal, it’s all over bar the shouting (and saving millions of lives). One has to admit, though, that the idea of destroying the Moon with a baseball bat is rather a nice one.
And so ended the first leg of an amazing era for Doctor Who. It pre-empted the fast pace and story arcs of the New Series and had the confidence enough to realise what could be done – not only with the comic strip – but only in the comic strip. And it was just the beginning.
Denied his own television exploits, the Eighth Doctor surely came into his own in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine. Fantastic scripts and neat one-liners coupled with lovely character names (Ptolemy Muttonchops among them) and highly effective plot twists had me hooked for years.
Alan Barnes and Scott Gray’s stories really kept Doctor Who alive for me, as did the gorgeous artwork and design by Martin Geraghty and Adrian Salmon and Robin Smith. Thanks to them, Varney’s island was dark and sinister and their vision of Gallifrey was the one that had always been in my head.
Doctor Who: Endgame is available from Panini Books. If you weren’t lucky enough to read these stories first time, then seek out the graphic novels because they’re well worth it. They’re dark and dangerous and above all fun. Just as Doctor Who should be.