Andrew East looks back at an early Doctor Who Weekly comic strip featuring the Fourth Doctor and the Sontarans.
Originally published in Doctor Who Weekly, way back in the Summer of 1980, the Fourth Doctor adventure Dragon’s Claw is, frankly, a huge disappointment.
The majority of the story is a beautifully depicted visit to China in the 16th century. The ‘kung-fu’ monks and their monastery are a fun and unusual group for the Doctor to find himself amongst. The three main monk characters have some depth and come across well in the dialogue. The inclusion of a group of Sontarans – all military honour and cloney – fits well with the honourable monks and their ‘shaved head’ likeness. But the strip ends on something of a whimper.
The Doctor, K9 and his comic strip companion, Sharon, arrive in China and soon make the long journey to the Shaolin Monastery to investigate the mystery of violent monks with anachronistic weapons, who have attacked a group of Japanese pirates. There they discover the presence of the Sontarans and, having also uncovered a plot by the Abbot, Yueh Kuang, to become Emperor of China, set about defeating both the Sontarans and the Abbot.
The main problem with this story is that the Sontarans don’t even play second fiddle to the machinations of Yueh Kuang. They are barely playing third or fourth fiddle and could be any non-descript alien race you care to mention. Apparently they have crashed on Earth in a scout ship (which is clearly a larger ship than seen in The Time Warrior as it can hold twelve Sontarans, whereas Linx’s only had room for one). They are hidden at the monastery in the hope of gaining quartz crystals to repair their communication device so they can contact the fleet, and are using Kuang’s ambition to become Emperor to gain access to a large amount of quartz they know the Emperor to be in possession of. But they are presented as no different to any other ‘stranded alien race’. There is no reference to their interminable war with the Rutan or why they were in the vicinity of Earth. The whole aspect of retrieving the quartz they need seems to hinge on the enormous coincidence that: 1) the Emperor has a large chunk of the stuff; and 2) the Abbot of the local monastery has ambitions to depose the Emperor. Add to this the fact that they hardly appear in the story and worse still, their defeat happens ‘off page’, so to speak, and you are left with a very unsatisfying ‘Sontaran’ story.
The Sontarans depicted here are also fairly stupid. The Doctor escapes because they cannot shoot at him whilst he stands in front of a computer bank. Why, when there are twelve of them against one of him, do they not just take him by physical force? It’s not as if the Doctor could defeat them by himself – he’s unarmed and there’s no way he’s going to get at their probic vents when there are twelve of them and his has no allies hiding behind them (a la Professor Rubeish in The Time Warrior or Donna in The Poison Sky).
On the positive side, the characters of Yueh Kuang, Chang and Hsiang the Ancient (the previous, deposed Abbot) leap from the page. Kuang, it could be argued, is a little 2 dimensional in his villainy but he serves the purposes of the plot. Chang, a young monk who aids the Doctor and Sharon, shows companion potential – honourable and strong-willed, he is even able to resist, to some extent the hypnosis Kuang is using to control the other warrior monks. Hsiang the Ancient is a fun character, buried up to his waist in the ground and constantly demanding food from whoever happens to be nearby.
The undetermined fate of Chang at the close of the story, however, does add to the disappointing ending involving the Sontarans, particularly as, after doing the Doctor’s job for him – however violently – the Doctor is seemingly unconcerned about his fate and whether he will recover from his injuries. It does seem a little heartless on both his, and Sharon’s, part. It’s almost as if there was no more page count for the story, it just had to end as quickly as possible, with as few frames as possible!
The regular characters are as expected. The Doctor does utter a few lines I found difficult to imagine Tom Baker saying and K9 is little more than a mobile laser (although he does come in handy when breaking the monks’ hypnosis). Sharon is potentially more interesting, but this story sees her stand in the background quite considerably. I’ve always found the fact that Doctor Who Magazine (or Weekly as it was at the time) was the first branch of Doctor Who to feature a black companion interesting. It took the TV series till 2005 to feature a regular black character (Mickey) and 2007 before a black female had ‘proper’ companion status aboard the TARDIS (and even then Martha was technically just a guest for the first half of the season!). DWM had Sharon blazing a trail for equality in 1980.
Beginning as a teenage schoolgirl, Sharon was aged to womanhood by the Time Witch and eventually stayed on an alien planet to shack up with the local hunk. Although nothing is made of her ethnic background (and rightly so), the monks refer to her as African and her angry reply of ‘I’m British’ strikes an interesting note of some depth for the character. What I also like about Sharon is that she clearly loves travelling with the Doctor and although she does very little in Dragon’s Claw, I look forward to touching base with her again in the future.
Still not entirely sure why it’s called Dragon’s Claw though….
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