Tony Fyler forgets which timeline he’s in.
Do you remember how some Classic Doctor Who plots, somewhere just past the halfway point, would turn out to be utterly barking mad? When the Cybermen emerged from the sewers because there were reasons. Or when, come to that, they poisoned everyone on Nerva beacon except three people so they could strap bombs to the survivors to blow up Voga, the planet of gold. Or when (sorry, it’s pick on the Cybermen day) they crammed an army into a space freighter, then decided to vapourise most of their own troops by crashing it into the Earth? Or when, for that matter, the Master decided to hijack Concordes from a base at the dawn of history, all the while dressed a kind of overweight Charlie Chan, for, also, reasons.
Turns out that spirit of absolutely barking madness is alive and well in the timey-wimey age.
Issue #4 of Paul Cornell’s Four Doctors comic-book takes the plotting in a direction that sounds like it might have made sense after a number of glasses of really good wine. It just about holds up in the sober light of day, and involves timeline-crossing, hundreds of years of moping about the Tardis, finding some solace among a people who’ve nicked a Dalek weapon and decided to play hide and go seek with the universe, deciding this is the best thing since sonically sliced bread, and therefore making sure that only that precise timeline is allowed to come to pass, so as to ultimately invade the universe. If you’ve ever wanted a pathway to turn the Doctor into the Valeyard, this would pretty much be the way to do it. Grandiose, glorious and barking mad.
It would be fair to say though that there’s less actual action in this issue than practically any of the three that preceded it. I mean, yes, the Tenth Doctor jumps to his death at one point, but I mean, relatively speaking, it’s light on action and heavy on ‘This is me explaining the backstory of the plot.’
There is one piece of affecting companion action though, and when I say affecting I mean it’ll knock you back on your heels and leave you with one remaining hope for a happy ending, which pretty much involves collapsing timelines. But there is a kind of ‘here’s all the stuff you didn’t know, that makes sense of all that seems senseless’ vibe to much of the storytelling in this issue, a retrospective tone delivered while, for the most part, our heroes simply stand there and listen. What they listen to is barking mad on two separate levels, really, but they both fit into the established post-Time War history – there’s mention made of several key points the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctor’s history, most notably the crack in time and space and the moment in Dark Water when the Twelfth Doctor told Clara ‘Go to Hell,’ and for one horrifying moment, fandom held its breath – was the ‘Am I a good man?’ arc leading to this? A Doctor refusing to help his friend even at the hour of her greatest need? Cornell’s storyline has played in all its issues with the idea of what the universe might be like if the Doctor didn’t take the difficult path, as though the difficult path is what defines someone who earns the right to call themselves the Doctor – a notion first promulgated in the Fiftieth Anniversary story, when the War Doctor essentially took a sabbatical from the moral standards of his once and future selves in order to become the universe’s warrior, and so essentially ‘lost’ the name of the Doctor. Here it finds a new expression – we’ve seen a Tenth Doctor who saved himself from the Vinvocci machinery at the expense of Wilf Mott, and an Eleventh who saved himself and River at the expense of the universe, but here we see a Twelfth who saves himself the pain of continuing to trust Clara Oswald after she’s betrayed their friendship – and where it leads him reveals just how much that Twelfth Doctor relied on and needed her friendship and her validation, before the encounter with Missy seemed to bring him clarity as to his place on the moral spectrum, as an idiot with a box and a screwdriver.
There isn’t actually any mad diabolical laughter in this issue. There is a good deal of machination and mad planning, and that’s all very well, but the ending feels just a little off in its ‘choice of shots.’ One of the greatest adages in writing is ‘show, don’t tell,’ and making a cliff-hanger out of telling the reader what’s seen off-screen might be classed as a breaking of this cardinal rule. Certainly it’s less effective than actually seeing the thing referred to would have been, because that would be pretty scary. As it is, while Neil Edwards’ artwork remains sumptuous and rich throughout, using a broad palette of colours to bring both the past and present of the story to life, and making occasional use of a kind of warm sepia to help differentiate between them, he is rather saddled here with a lot of standing around and finger-pointing, and the artistic choice, whether Cornell’s or his own, for that final shot leaves him no option but to almost replicate an ending that we’ve seen at least once before in the previous three issues – leading bad guy speaks as if straight to the reader.
There’s still some dooziness here from Edwards, though – his Page 19 interrogation, ‘oh no not the mind-wipe’ set-up is beautiful, and the top of Page 20’s no slouch in the ‘world-beating comic-book art’ department, either.
Bottom line, in terms of a Doctor Who story, this is pretty much typical Episode 3 territory, where the villain explains his masterplan, does a bit of torturing, pretty much wins everything, leaves one thing undone to give us hope, but then gets it done just in time for the ‘Oh no, now there’s no hope!’ cliffhanger. But it looks very pretty, and the plot itself is elevated to grand Doctor Who nonsense (let’s not take ourselves too seriously – after all, we’re talking about a show in which a future version of the Doctor once tried to kill a past version of the Doctor to take all his remaining lives. Go figure!) with a consistency of theme thudding away like a metronomic heartbeat underneath. One more issue to go before all is revealed, all is resolved, and the end of the Cornell-Edwards Four Doctors comic-book event is nigh.
How will our heroes get out of the situations they’re in? Especially those who don’t survive this issue?
Tune in next time for another episode of Stuff You Can Only Do In Doctor Who. Meanwhile, get down to your comic-book store and buy it!
Issue #4 of Four Doctors is out now.
To find your local comic store visit www.comicshoplocator.com/, and then run there quickly.
You can find out, check out all the variant covers here, and
watch the trailer here.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk