Dead Man’s Hand only became available to me a while ago when I took advantage of a Humble Bundle deal. Up until then I’d written off the IDW comics as a spin-off I’d never get full access to; too much merchandise – not enough money; the eternal curse of the fan. Suddenly, though, I found myself with a lot of brand new stories for me to enjoy and, against all odds – because it’s a Western (a genre I am not fond of) – Dead Man’s Hand was very enjoyable.
Dead Man's Hand was a four-issue comic story published between September and December 2013, which meant it coincided with the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. It was also the first ever Doctor Who comic to feature the War Doctor, and the last multi-chapter story published by IDW under its licence from the BBC before Titan Comics became the comic book home of Who.
Story wise, it’s a bit of an odd one. It revolves around the Doctor and Clara discovering an alien that is going to recommend to a bunch of alien bureacrats that Earth is a failure and should be destroyed. So far, so Daemons. But this side of the plot isn’t revealed until partway through. Initially, the story is about a strange masked gunslinger killing people by just pointing his finger. This is all happening in Deadwood, famed Western town, and involves, in a cavalcade of celebrity guests, Calamity Jane, Thomas Edison, Oscar Wilde and an undead Wild Bill Hickock!
Oscar Wilde is another strange inclusion. He becomes a surrogate companion to the Doctor, but doesn’t really do much until the climax when he is brought in to do what he is best at – public speaking. I really didn’t feel like Wilde’s inclusion was integral and he really did feel like a spare part throughout a huge amount of the story, especially when the Doctor already has Clara and they are joined by Calamity Jane. There is an amusing section where Oscar ends up wearing the 8th Doctor’s costume (which was, ironically, a Wild Bill Hicock fancy dress outfit), but aside from that I don’t feel he works particularly well in the story.
Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock work much better. Jane is a great companion to Clara. She is spiky, determined and never quite sure whether she trusts the Doctor. Her determination not to give up on Bill is touching and his final sacrifice does hit home. Bill’s situation also provides some conflict between the Doctor and Clara when the Doctor is characteristically unsympathetic towards Jane’s feelings and protestations that Bill is still alive.
With A Town Called Mercy and The Gunfighters ticking an awful lot of the standard Western tropes, it is surprising that only the comic strips have involved appearances by ‘the Cavalry’. As with Bad Blood (a DWM comic strip featuring the 8th Doctor), the Cavalry arrive part way through the story to ‘save the day’ but here are massacred by the undead hordes, controlled by the alien responsible for the events happening in Deadwood.
The alien behind all these strange events is, initially, revealed to be T’Keyn – a member of a race of auditors who decide on the fate of planets, destroying the ones which are ‘failing’. The Doctor, however, is suspicious because the T’Keyn seems to know him of old. This lead me to believe we were going to get some grand, old foe reveal. As it is, we find out that the T’Keyn is being controlled by the mind parasite from previous IDW comic ‘The Forgotten’. Ironically, that is the only IDW comic I actually own as a hard copy but having only read it once, I had totally ‘forgotten’ the ins and outs of that story. To be honest, it’s a bit anticlimactic when this is revealed, but if I was a more avid follower of the IDW comics, then I’m sure it would have more impact (a bit like when DWM has their own creations popping up for surprise reveals).
What surprised me the most about this story was actually how long it is. I had settled down one evening before bed to read what I assumed was going to be a short comic strip. It ended up taking me three nights to read the whole thing. Now this is mainly because I tend to read just before bed time and on the first two nights I got so far and started falling asleep over my iPad! Not because it was dull, just because I was dog-tired. The length allows for some great cliffhangers and also for the structure, almost, of classic rather than new Who. The mystery of the first episode is quickly solved by the Doctor leading to the larger plot of the T’Keyn auditors which gives way to the even ‘wider’ plot of the revenge tactics of the parasite. There are some lovely frames of artwork; the arrival of the Cavalry, Clara being shot, the reveal of the undead Hickock and, the rather gratuitous fan-pleasing shot of all the Doctors, at the time of the 50th anniversary, in the T’Keyn’s nexus (a sort of Matrix).
Historically, this is all about the characters. There are the aforementioned Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickock and Oscar Wilde, and also Thomas Edison. Edison is being used by the parasite to create the machine by which it is killing people with ‘magic’: really an extrapolation of Edison’s expertise with electricity. When Edison is rescued by the Doctor, he doesn’t really contribute much else to the plot and suffers from being one real life person too many in a story that was already bursting at the seams.
Deadwood, itself, is a real Western town, and some of the characters within it also feature in the Ian McShane starring television Western series, Deadwood, which Clara references a few times in the narrative. Indeed, Seth Bullock who features in both the TV series and this comic strip, is a real person. This is a nice touch as it grounds Clara in the real world a little more than some companions can be. It also makes sense, considering Clara’s back and forthness as a companion (this story starts as a ‘day trip’ with the Doctor visiting her on a Wednesday, as he always does). Sometimes in the books and audios, companions will make a reference to a contemporary TV programme or film or person and I often find myself wondering if it makes sense for that character to have that thing as a frame of reference. Ace, in particular, suffers from this – she left Earth in the 1980s and yet authors often have her referring to things contemporary to the 90s or even 21st century because that’s when the story itself was written. It’s the problem, I suppose, with having some companions still being written for decades after they appeared on screen; the author will include references that will be familiar with the audience but, when thought about, wouldn’t be familiar to the character mentioning it – especially if they’ve been flitting around the universe in a time machine.
The historical whereabouts of Oscar Wilde and Thomas Edison also form part of the narrative. Wilde was indeed touring America at this time, trying to forget about a failed love affair. Edison’s rumoured presence in the locality is something which tips the Doctor off that all is not well, knowing that, historically, Edison should have been in New York in 1882.
One other piece of trivia: Dead Man's Hand was, I believe, the title of a rumoured Big Finish play, listed as upcoming for ages on their old, old website and then mysteriously disappearing somewhere along the way. I think it was going to be a 7th Doctor, Ace and Hex storyline.
I rather enjoyed this story and it is further evidence of the high quality of the IDW comics. I am increasingly pleased I took the plunge to grab these as e-books at a bargain prices as I have yet to be disappointed, even by a Western story! And it’s good to see the Doctor get some Stetson-action in again.
A primary school teacher and father of two, Andrew finds respite in the worlds of Doctor Who, Disney and general geekiness. Unhealthily obsessed with Lance Parkin’s A History, his Doctor Who viewing marathon is slowly following Earth history from the Dawn of Time to the End of the World. He would live in a Disney theme park if given half the chance.