August 20th, 2012
Before we get going with this, a quick question — I’ve been thinking of releasing this series of posts, when finished (some time next year), as a book. Would anyone actually buy and read such a thing, or is it a bad idea?
I’m asking now, because here is where we head into a totally different realm of Doctor Who. I’ve done sixteen of these posts so far, and there are thirty-three after this. But fourteen of the sixteen previous ones have been about TV shows, with only two (Dr Who And The Daleks and Doctor Who And The Cave Monsters) dealing with non-TV stories. Of the thirty-four stories from 1979 to 2012 I’m dealing with, only fourteen of those essays will be talking about stuff that was actually on TV in those years. Four of them won’t even be about Doctor Who.
Because much of the 23,717 words I’ve done in this series so far has been setup. It’s only now, as we get to the close of the 1970s, that I can really start talking about what I want to talk to. From now on, these essays will be getting much longer, and much less in the “this happened, then this happened” vein. I have things to say. You have been warned…
Everything about Doctor Who changed in 1979, because Doctor Who Weekly started. As Doctor Who Monthly and then Doctor Who Magazine it continues to this day, and has had a profound influence on the development of Doctor Who fandom. These days, it’s aimed squarely at the ‘geek demographic’ — this month’s issue, for example, has a ten-page feature in which they ask Matt Smith the same interview questions they asked Patrick Troughton in the mid-80s and compare their answers, a five-page article on an unmade SF TV show from 1989 that Jon Pertwee would have been in if they’d ever got as far as shooting the pilot, and an eleven-page look at the making of a story from 1985, along with a free poster showing every different design of Dalek the show has ever had. However, it actually won an Eagle award this year as best British comic.
And that’s because it still has, as a vestigial feature of its evolutionary history, a short comic section. Because it started out as a Marvel UK comic edited by Dez Skinn.
In 1979 Doctor Who on the TV was not at its best. Well, that’s slightly inaccurate — City Of Death is the best Doctor Who serial ever made, by quite some way. But that’s because it had a script by Douglas Adams, Julian Glover as the villain, a cameo from John Cleese and Eleanor Bron, and a budget, along with onscreen chemistry between Tom Baker and Lalla Ward (Baker and Ward were a couple for about three years, about two years and eleven months of which was spent fighting by all accounts. City Of Death was filmed during a brief period when they could actually stand to look at one another.) The Horns Of Nimon or Nightmare Of Eden don’t have those (or any other) advantages.
Meanwhile, Doctor Who Weekly was started by Marvel UK, in the belief that all those seven-year-olds who loved Star Wars and were buying Marvel’s Star Wars comic would also buy anything else with space and robots in it.
So they started a cheap weekly comic, with little attention paid to what was in it, so a bunch of young nobodies, most of whom had been in the business a couple of years at most, were asked to work on it. Nobodies like John Wagner, Pat Mills, Alan Moore, Steve Moore, Steve Dillon, Dave Gibbons…
There had always been Doctor Who comics, of course — pages in TV Action or Countdown with someone who looked nothing like Patrick Troughton or William Hartnell defeating the Dal — ahem — “Trods” for the twentieth time, and actual Dalek comic strips in the mid-60s. But this was the first time the comics had been good.
Not that they’re great, you understand, but they’re on the level of the stuff from the first few years of 2000 AD, unsurprisingly given the people working on them. And that meant that they had a basic level of competence that was missing from many stories in the TV show at the time.
So while Doctor Who was soon restored to a higher level of quality, it was now even more of a multimedia series than before. People were used to the idea that you could get old Doctor Who stories in book form, after they’d been on TV, and that the books were sometimes even better. But now here was a new source of Doctor Who stories — proper ones, that were recognisably the same thing as the TV show, but had never been on TV. There was competition.
And the comics were recognisable as the same thing as the TV show. In The Iron Legion, the first story to be serialised in the comic, they get a lot wrong — there are only a handful of lines in the thirty-five page story that one could imagine Tom Baker saying, and a lot of standard Wagner/Millsisms (nervous robots leaking oil everywhere) that seem like they’ve just been cut-and-pasted from a leftover Judge Dredd or Robo-Hunter script. But they get more right.
In particular, there’s a cliffhanger where the Doctor is thrown into an arena, to be eaten by a deadly slavering alien monster — but the Doctor can remember the alien’s language, and tells it a joke and doesn’t get eaten.
That’s not a particular clever resolution of the problem — in fact, like much of the comic, it’s the kind of thing a bright child would think of, which is the point, one supposes — but it’s perfectly in character. It’s not how Han Solo or Judge Dredd would solve the problem, but it fits the Doctor perfectly, with the programme’s emphasis on seeing past appearances, on solving problems with thought rather than violence, and in particular on speech and dialogue rather than action sequences.
But of course, at the same time, the comic takes on its own identity. Doctor Who was a dialogue-heavy show in large part because that was the way TV was made at the time — you couldn’t have hundreds of CGI Daleks floating across London, but just John Scott-Martin in an old wooden prop, and instead of bullet-time wire fighting, you’d have Jon Pertwee shouting ‘hai!’ and a quick cut to Terry Walsh in a wig flailing his arms about a bit and trying to cover his face up.
The comic doesn’t have that disadvantage. And so here we get a story of a kind which the TV show could never dream of doing — the Doctor arrives in a parallel universe where Rome never fell, discovering the Roman Empire is now a galaxy-dominating force led by thousands of robot troops, who are now invading other dimensions and killing all humans. After stints as a galley slave on a giant airship and in the arena, he manages to uncover the aliens who are posing as gods and foment a rebellion. All within thirty-five pages. And the people who were going to write the TV show in future generations were reading this…
Many of the stories in the early Doctor Who Weekly were hugely influential (the forty or so pages of backup Alan Moore wrote before quitting the comic over how it was treating another writer may make him the second or third most influential person on the development of Doctor Who post-1989, and he doesn’t even like the show), but The Iron Legion was the most important of them, because it showed fans for the first time a Doctor Who that wasn’t wholly dependent on its TV incarnation, and which could do things in other media that couldn’t be done on TV.
That would become important, soon…