Tony Fyler will try to play well with others this festive season.
George Mann (wizard of the War Doctor and the Eighth Doctor’s comic-book guru).
Cavan Scott (proper comic-book geek and writer of the Ninth Doctor’s comic-book adventures).
Mariano Laclaustra (responsible for some of the best new artwork in the Twelfth Doctor comic-books of 2015).
Carlos Cabrera (as yet an unknown quantity to many of us – surely unlikely to remain so very long, sharing billing with these three).
You need to take a deep breath at this point. We’re only on the cover of this year’s Holiday Special, and that’s what greets us – one hell of a Who comic line-up. The Doctor Who Christmas Special has become, over the last ten years, a staple of the festive TV line-up. How do you compete with that in two dimensions with your first proper, dedicated holiday special comic-book?
Oh, you had to ask, didn’t you?
Page 1 will undoubtedly freak you out. It will especially freak you out if you’re a Big Finish fan. The story, by Mann and Scott, is called “Relative Dimensions.” It’s set at Christmas. I’ll just pause there while you run out to buy it, just in case what you think is happening is happening.
The first words of dialogue spoken by anyone other than Clara or the Doctor will send a Christmassy shiver down your spine. And the artwork you’ll be looking at within half a second is mind-boggling. It’s every fanboy and geek-girl’s dream Doctor Who Christmas, laid out in front of you. Come to that, it’s probably the Doctor’s dream Doctor Who Christmas too.
Fortunately for those who like their Doctor Who Christmases full of peril and running, the dream Christmas is merely a precursor to a horrible, horrible trap with a rather familiar feel to those who’ve been watching Doctor Who for decades. Familiar it might be, but the first moment you see it here, in Laclaustra’s art and Cabrera’s colourwork, it hits you like a suckerpunch. There’s something so intentionally over-the-top about the trap, betraying the mindset of the character who set it, that having bathed you briefly in a lovely warm holiday glow, the sudden visuals that twist the loveliness into something threatening give you that stomach-twisting moment of sadness and loss without which, to be fair, no Who Christmas Special would be entirely complete.
What follows is madness. Utter madness, of a very particular kind, perfectly suited to Laclaustra’s inventive approach to panels and pages. Here you’ll find environments sideways on, pages split into fan sections, monsters breaking from one panel or section to another, characters leaping from page to page, every trick in Laclaustra’s considerable book to add life, urgency, movement and energy to the story, which he does to great effect. It’s also particularly gratifying that here we have no concerns, as we sometimes do with other Doctors, about recognising the Doctor beyond his outfit – Laclaustra has Capaldi down very well, and also delivers a great Clara, a highly recognisable villain, and plenty more besides. In the opening sections, it’s worth playing a game of ‘Oh my word, it’s them’ in this story – oh and look out for the Krampus, a particularly fine creation – possibly Laclaustra’s finest creature-work since The Swords of Kali.
If this is the first time we encounter Cabrera’s colourwork, we’re prepared to bet it won’t be the last. The challenges of this particular storyline are enormous, the sheer volume of environments he has to deal with and interestingly colour, immense. Plus of course it’s a holiday special – people would particularly remember a dull or ineffectively coloured panel. They won’t remember that here, because there isn’t one. No, really, stop looking, I’ve checked. Even relatively simple panels are given a flow and a richness of colour that make them welcome, rather than allowing the eye to get bored. I know this is going to sound intensely art-geeky, but when Clara and the Doctor are running across a highly polished wooden floor, check out the logical mirroring effect. I know, I know, but believe me, it makes a difference when your artist and colourist think about these things.
Mann and Scott are of course both experienced story-wranglers, so while there’s utter madness and running, we’re also learning about the dilemma the Doctor and Clara find themselves in – it’s a particularly New Who storytelling technique, present in everything from World War Three, with the Doctor continually narrowing down what could be happening, right through to Heaven Sent, with dropped eyeglasses testing local gravity, thrown chairs giving distance readings etc. Here, you’ll need to read the comic twice – once for the pacing of a straightforward, run-like-mad adventure, and the second time to pick up all the clues that inform you of where we are and what’s really happening.
When the big reveal comes though, there’s a joy, a total, Classic fan, punch the air joy to the moment – so much so it warrants a full page illustration, which is a thing of elating beauty. A cheeky Hitchcock moment and the story begins to make some sense (pretty much for the first time), tying events, personality and plotting together into a conclusion that both nods to the past and acknowledges the pacing and the evolution of New Who. The art and colourwork actually becomes part of the story as it drives along (there are some glorious eyebrow shots here, but they’re all to a purpose), and as forces range for battle, there are three superb pages that must have been tremendous fun to write down (and which, through the inclusion of a New Who element, will make you go back and rewatch an Eleventh Doctor story with fresh eyes). But ultimately, the story goes to the psychological heart of its chief villain, their need for absolute control revealed as a kind of almost childlike fear, manifested as the cruelty of the lonely, afraid of the other.
The Doctor, being the Doctor, takes pity on the villain of this piece, and gives them what they want, because the alternative is to watch them suffer, and he can’t bring himself to do that, even to this villain, and at any time, but especially not during the holidays. The resolution delivers that festive warmth we were hoping for right at the beginning, but it does it the intelligent way round. If the story had only delivered on that initial glowing promise, it would have been like a typical Christmas dinner – over-rich, overmuch and bloating. But this story’s cleverer than that – it grabs us by the hand, makes us run off our festive torpor, makes us do all kinds of mental somersaults to keep up with the madly changing environments and dangers through which it takes us. And then, only at the end, does it really give us our mince pie, a sweetmeat of celebration with at least a little hit of something else – that almost intangible pinch of sadness for those who prefer solitude to the wide society of the universe at large, even at a time when hearts and doors and tables are supposed to be more open than usual. It’s a thing of festive beauty, and it reminds us not only how special Doctor Who is, but in some respects, of the challenge of fandom – if we find inspiration in the Doctor, then hopefully, as here, his lessons are simple to say, and harder to enact: to meet malice with understanding, to meet spite with compassion, and to meet loneliness, however it manifests itself, with kindness. That’s the satsuma at the bottom of this gorgeous, rich, colourful, inventive, Classic, New Christmas stocking of a story. In most of the Titan Who comics, you get far more than you pay for, in terms of great stories written by leading Who writers, and rendered by some of the best up-and coming artists and colourists in the comic industry. That’s rarely been more true than it is in this holiday special. Be extra kind to yourself (and possibly others) this holiday season – be more Doctor. Also, buy a handful of extra copies of this special, and have happy geeky friends this year.
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