Any moths threatening to eat Tony’s Doctor Who scarf will be unceremoniously told where to go.
There are such things as OmniDoctor stories – stories into which you could more or less implant any Doctor without much in the way of rewriting. Then there are those stories, usually later in a Doctor’s run, which are written with a fuller knowledge of the particular incarnation and the particular actor, their strengths and how to play to them, that seem quintessentially to belong to that particular incarnation.
You could write the Fourth Doctor’s first comic-book adventure in a few decades with other Doctors in it, absolutely. But the pacing, the dialogue and more or less the entire feel of the thing would have to have its gears changed – up for Davison and the other Baker, down for McCoy and so on. As it stands, what Gordon Rennie and Emma Beeby have written in this comic-book series is a quintessentially Fourth Doctor story, with a companion-strand that feels absolutely right for investigative journalist Sarah-Jane Smith.
In Victorian London, the Doctor and Sarah-Jane have been separated after tangling with what to all intents and purposes look like cyclopses. The Doctor, meeting ‘chronautology’ enthusiast Odysseus James and his daughter, Athena, settles in for a handy spot of backstory and housebreaking, while Sarah-Jane, having tea with the veiled lady who appears to have statues of ordinary Victorian folk scattered about her property, tries to not freak out about what she’s discovered, and get the woman to talk about where the statues come from. Both sections neatly dovetail back and forth, building up a picture of the shared history of Odysseus James and the veiled woman, who reveals herself as the Lady Emily Carstairs, in the multiply-motivated discipline of chronautology – that’s time travel to you and me. The story centres around an elegant MacGuffin called the Lamp of Chronos, which has proved itself capable of opening time windows into the past (is that sounding familiar to anyone?), but which has had an unfortunate effect on Lady Emily after she and James parted company, he having proved incapable of locating the precise chunk of the past that most mattered to her.
The net result of all this is that we have a much better understanding of what’s going on, and, due to some particular callousness on her part along the way, we come to really rather dislike Lady Emily, despite the sympathetic motivation that’s revealed for her desperate acts.
But what makes it so quintessentially a Fourth Doctor and Sarah-Jane story then?
Tone, mostly – the Fourth Doctor is captured with a brilliant ear by Rennie and Beeby, so that even seemingly innocuous Doctor Who phrases like ‘Come on!’ bristle with Tom Baker’s performance in these pages. Wit, for another thing, and not only in the case of the Fourth Doctor. Lady Emily’s dismissal of the Doctor as having ‘a buffoonish, servile look about him’ is comical in itself, because we the reader know the truth. A conversation between Athena and her father about the young gentleman she admires is both witty and nostalgic when we discover he’s a ship’s surgeon in the Navy, whose name is not ‘Henry’ – we wonder briefly how far back the salt ran in young Harry Sullivan’s veins. And then of course, there are the visuals.
There’s a degree to which Rennie and Beeby’s story plays uniquely to the Fourth Doctor’s strengths in that to some extent it prints the legend of a Saturday night in the mid-seventies – the Doctor swanning about in a cloak and deerstalker, dank Victorian streets and passageways, great townhouses with villainy lurking in their parlours, trans-temporal adventuring through steampunk portals. In some respects, it couldn’t get more Weng-Chiang without a giant rat in a sewer. But firstly, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and secondly it allows the Fourth Doctor comic-books to appeal to a wide market, even including people who, through some natural perversion or a tragic circumstance in their youth, have no real idea about the Tom Baker years.
It would be tempting to claim that in printing the legend of the Tom Baker years, you can’t really go wrong.
That would be arrant nonsense and tomfoolery of course. Legends become legends because they key in to something subliminal in the audience’s brain, and because they’re easily accepted. Everyone thinks they understand a legend, and everyone does – slightly differently. That means Brian Williamson’s job, of delivering the visuals that make the Fourth Doctor and Sarah-Jane live again in a relevant, familiar, believable way could go wrong with every move he makes – it’s technically like painting tripwires in a minefield.
So be grateful.
Be grateful for renderings of Baker’s Doctor that are for the most part spot on down to the expressions, allowing the man’s voice to come almost unbidden from the page. Be grateful for a Sarah-Jane that’s true to life and story. Be grateful for Williamson’s gift of richness, imbuing the Victorian scenes with a scale, an opulence and where necessary a grimy realism that pull you into the storytelling and lets this feel like nothing more than a great Saturday night in 1975. That’s important because the plot elements – Victorian veiled ladies turning to stone, giant one-eyed monsters in the garb of Victorian gentlemen - are outlandish in a way that’s suited to that period, and you need Williamson’s visuals to convince in order to anchor them sensibly in your brain, rather than simply letting them feel like bits of madness flung together on a page. Everything deserves for them to be better than that – the real Baker and Sladen, the work they did together in the seventies, and the legend that everyone carries of that period, it all deserves that anchoring, and Williamson seems to understand that responsibility. He nails it, page after page after page, getting that combination right of fast, compelling storytelling through visual art, and richness that makes the reader want to stick around on any given page to examine it with a fine-toothed comb. If you’ll forgive me a sentence I never thought I’d write, his one-eyed beasts in particular are a thing of beauty and power.
There should be nods of sincere appreciation too heading to Hi-Fi, taking colourist duties here, because the combination of the dingy Victoriana and some of the more exotically bright storytelling elements here – there’s a sequence in Odysseus James’ memory in particular – could, for a less experienced colourist be a challenge to get right without the reader feeling like the bright elements are suddenly too bright. But no, there’s a balance here that makes you greedy for pages and makes the Fourth Doctor comic-book feel like a faster read than you might expect.
Overall, there’s an elegance in issue #2 of the run, in particular its intersplicing and overlapping of backstory elements from two different points of view, while Sarah-Jane for the most part sits still and the Doctor takes the necessary steps to effect a rescue, that has an authentic and distinctive Fourth Doctor feel to it, and makes your Inner Eight Year-Old want nothing more than to devour the issue, then go out into the street and play Chronauts and Cyclopses in the dying hours of the long summer sunlight. If the Fourth Doctor comic-books are intending to hit a nostalgic note, they succeed. If they’re looking to introduce newbies to the Fourth Doctor’s signature style from the mid-seventies, they succeed. If they’re looking simply to tell an interesting story in a dynamic way, they succeed at that too, and all with the added bonus of Williamson’s anchoring, surreal but clotted cream-sumptuous illustrations to give an added panache. Go now, and indulge yourself in a comic-book treat. Then grab your Fourth Doctor sonic screwdriver and go fight the Cyclopses of Time.
Go on. It turns out you’re younger than you think.
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