Tony goes green.
Issue by issue in the Eighth Doctor comic-books, George Mann and Emma Vieceli deliver a representative cross-section of the kind of adventures Doctor Who can take us on. Having given us creepy walking artworks, mysterious space war on a beautiful world, and the gothic horror of reflection in Victorian Edinburgh, in issue #4, as the Doctor continues to tick items off the To Do List left to him by his third incarnation, they cover two bases – creepy plants and alien technology disguised and mythologised as supernatural phenomena. Briarwood is the story of a wealthy family in 1932, and the mythology of fairy sprites in their history. Arriving for a party, the Doctor and Josie are on hand for the rise of the Nixi – forest spirits that rise and take vengeance ‘whenever a child of the Bingham family is naughty.’
On one level, it’s the easiest story you could imagine: take the premise of the bogeyman back to its (ahem) roots as the thing that keeps children in line, and then give it some alien flesh and substance underneath the generations of padding. But if you boil any Doctor Who story down to its bones, you’ll find something simple. As in many cases, here, much of the enjoyment is about the nuance, the characters, and the lessons learned along the way.
We recently interviewed George Mann and he gave us an insight into writing Doctor Who. ‘The key is getting the tone right and remaining true to the character of the Doctor. Get those two things right, and you can do pretty much anything you want.’
This is sage advice from Mann, who above all things has shown himself in these four issues to know the tone and the personality of the Eighth Doctor inside out and back to front. In Briarwood, it’s almost impossible to read the Eighth Doctor’s dialogue without hearing Paul McGann in your head, the combination of the slight overplay in the vocabulary and the undercutting with peculiar, impish humour rings from the dialogue Mann gives him here, as does that Tiggerish sense of grabbing a friend by the hand and embracing adventure. McGann’s Doctor balances rationality with boyish wonder whether dealing, as last time, with a world beyond the looking glass or as here with fairies at the bottom of the garden. While it doesn’t take an enormous leap of imagination to uncover the story that will unfold before us when people start being entwined with vines and shoots during an elegant party at Briarwood, there’s still a solid logic to the steps the Doctor and Josie have to go through to solve the puzzle and save the guests from a close encounter of the arboreal kind. There’s also a rightness about the familiarity of feeling in the story – there’s what amounts to an elven king, sleeping beneath the forest, who will rise unless he’s appeased, all of which has an agreeably fairy tale feel to it that anchors the story in both the mythology that’s sprung up around an alien truth, and our familiar shorthand about Doctor Who, where fairy tales usually turn out to be alien tales in the end.
While the Doctor and Josie play their part in the solution of the problem, there’s also a good amount of hero-questing for young Bertie Bingham, the boy who believes he’s brought the wrath of the Nixi King on the house of Briarwood by his youthful indiscretions. There’s a cost to the adventure, with one noble character making the ultimate sacrifice along the way, and there’s a deeper, sleeping wrong righted in terms of ownership of an important heritage, so Briarwood’s by no means a flimsy fairy tale – as Mann said, get the tone right, and the Doctor right, and you can more or less do anything, but clearly, he also ascribes to the idea that if you’re given the chance to write Doctor Who (in fact, if you’re given the chance to write anything for a paying readership), you’re under a moral obligation to make it as good and real as you can, because while the ingredients are familiar – alien as mythological figure, angry plant life taking back its territory, sacred duty to protect people from the threat of the unknown etc, Mann delivers a take on all of it that manages to feel fresh in 2016, and which allows all these other strands to play out – the hero-quest, the noble sacrifice and so on – while still giving the Doctor and Josie enough to do, so that we feel like we’ve just had an Eighth Doctor adventure.
In terms of the artwork, Vieceli here is workmanlike, delivering the atmosphere and mood of the early thirties, and particularly the post-Downton, pre-War charm of a still-functioning English country house. Her signature panels in this issue though are a little sneaky – you won’t realise quite how good they are the first time you encounter them because you’ll be swept along by the story, and they let you take that journey. But once you’ve read the whole comic-book, go back and look at it again with slower eyes, and the panels of the Nixi King will impress you with their folkloric, almost fairy tale woodcut feel, but most specifically, the first time you encounter the Nixi-infected humans in the ‘Downstairs’ portion of this Upstairs, Downstairs tale, you’ll skim past them because the tone is building to a kind of pre-credits climax. Go back and look at them again, these servants round the kitchen table, and their smiles will unnerve the bejesus out of you, and the almost wind-blown delicacy of the leaves that extend from shirt collars will creep you right the hell out. In fact, that’s something of an oddity about the issue – Vieceli’s rendering of the threat before it steps up to the front and centre and gets its full Triffid on is actually more shudderworthy than it becomes when the major attack happens, despite the visuals achieving a level of squirming viscerality in those moments that, if filmed, would be on a par, say, with the ‘human-becomes-an-Ood’ sequence from Planet of the Ood.
With the best will in the world, Vieceli’s rendering of the Eighth Doctor is less successful, with some panels needing the speed of the storytelling to let the Doctor pass muster as a representation of Paul McGann. But as with Mann and his idea of getting the tone right, Vieceli certainly gets the Eighth Doctor’s style of movement right, like a Victorian Bambi, and that too helps sell the overall sense of who we’re looking at, allied to Mann’s more on-the-nail dialogue, making this an Eighth Doctor who is familiar to look at, despite our only having had one adventure on film to show us how he looks and moves.
Doctor Who has dealt with unfriendly plant life many times in its history – Fury From The Deep, Seeds of Death, Planet of the Daleks, Seeds of Doom, Terror of the Vervoids and so on. There’s a sense in Briarwood that the story could well work as a longer adventure – with a slower pacing and plenty of opportunity to build the threat and the body-count. The Nixi, while starting life as a tale told to children of the Bingham family, have enough about them in their plant-mastery to deliver the shocks and scares, while bringing an extra dimension much beloved of Who since the days of Holmes and Dicks and Hinchcliffe, and still a fundamental plank of the show today – making the ordinary into something scary. A longer, broadcast version of Briarwood would be able to unnerve a generation of children who previously had been entirely sure that their parents tales of bogeymen were nothing but stories.
As a single-shot comic-book, Briarwood’s ideas are solid, its threat delivers, and as mentioned, there’s plenty for everyone to do and a cost to the solution. But it also delivers that sense of potential – comic-books are a thing all their own, but were you to take them as audition-pieces, Mann and Vieceli have proven with each issue of the Eighth Doctor comic-book so far that they both have the vision to deliver longer, deeper, more complex stories and images too.
Oh and one other thing – before the actual story of Briarwood begins, there are a few panels of what seem like foreshadowing. Panels in the ‘now,’ if Briarwood was ‘then.’ They repay your investment in and of themselves, because a) they seem to relate to nothing we’ve seen so far in this series, or anything that follows in the body of Briarwood, b) there are a couple of teasing images in there, and c) they seed a future adventure in this five-issue series that’ll keep you guessing for the next issue.
Go get the Eighth Doctor #4 today, because Briarwood has more than enough to get your pulse racing and engage your brain, while in its prelude, it’ll get you salivating for issue #5.
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