Part of this article was first published November 7th 2016. Warning: lots of spoilers for Supremacy of the Cybermen issues #1 through #5 ahead.
“What have you done?!”
The General, Supremacy of the Cybermen, vol. 4
I suppose this was inevitable. After The Doctor banished President Rassilon in Hell Bent, it was only a matter of time before that act came back to haunt them both. The comic event series “Supremacy of the Cybermen” is intended as a follow-up to Rassilon's banishment, which, spoilers, has pretty severe consequences. Notice, dear readers, that I say it was intended as a follow-up. The actual series is less of a coherent storyline and more of a lazy fanfic writer's idea of what a Regeneration-trauma-induced nightmare looks like. I literally do not know where to start with this one, so let's start at the beginning.
The story begins with Doctors Nine through Twelve discovering that Time has been rewritten and that everything, every-when, and everywhere has been converted into Cyber-creatures. The Ninth Doctor, Jack Harkness, Rose, and Jackie are fighting a Cyber-converted Earth in 2009. The Tenth Doctor is coerced into leading the last of the Sontaran battle forces in what is clearly Sontar's last stand against an army of Cyberkings. The Eleventh Doctor is on prehistoric Earth running from Silurians (Cylurians?) and Cyber-dinosaurs. Yes. Cyber-dinosaurs. It's up to the Twelfth Doctor to return to Gallifrey to figure out what is going on and how to stop it. I'll come back to that. Right from the outset, the story is uneven and the artwork reflects the storytelling. I don't know if it was intentional or not. I don't think it really matters. I will admit that the artwork for the scenes that take place on Gallifrey are quite stunning, giving the reader flashbacks to Hell Bent and taking the reader to the Citadel, the Panopticon, and the Eye of Harmony itself. If the artwork for the rest of the Doctors' arcs matched the quality of the art in Twelve's arc, maybe the series would be more readable. Or at least not as painful from an aesthetic perspective.
It doesn't help that none of the characters, Doctors or otherwise, are particularly good likenesses. On a related note, the writing itself lacks any distinctive voicing of the characters. The only two in the entire series who have their own clear, television-canon voices are the Twelfth Doctor and the General. The other three Doctors are written almost generically; their story lines could be exchanged for each other, and unlike with Twelve, I don't hear their voices, accents, or speech cadences when I read their lines.
I could almost, ALMOST forgive these shortcomings if those were the only ones. It's difficult to write a multi-Doctor, multi-Companion Event Series and give everyone equal attention, so the majority of the focus and attention to detail must lie with the Twelfth Doctor's arc. There is, however, one final drop of water in the bucket that turns my irritation with this series into pure disdain: Rassilon. Twelve returns to Gallifrey to find that Rassilon has resumed his Presidency, and he is different. I would assume that being banished from one's own planet by a renegade who had no intention of staying in the first place would be a bit off-putting. But when The Doctor meets Rassilon for the first time since banishing him, he meets a Rassilon who has joined forces with the Cybermen, become cyber-converted, and is now half-Time Lord, half-Cyberman. Almost like a Hybrid, one might say.
I'll admit that when I first saw this, I was hoping that he had been captured. But no, he voluntarily joined them. Most horrifyingly, not only did he join them, he has subjugated his entire planet to their rule. The Time Lords are not the equal partners of the Cybermen. They are a second-class race on their own home planet and many are being captured by their own Lord President, forced into a state of perpetual Regeneration, and are being used to power the Eye of Harmony so that Rassilon can recreate the universe in his image. And of course, the Cybermen being what they are, they reveal that they had no intention of working with Rassilon, so he and the Doctor are now in the same situation as the rest of the Time Lords.
I am all in favor of a bit of character development for Rassilon. Given his influence, it's a shame he's not seen more. But if this is the way he will be treated from here on, I would rather he be relegated to the fond memories we have of him in Classic Who. This isn't character development, this is character assassination. Rassilon is so out of character that even the Doctor recognizes it as he challenges the cyber-Rassilon with,
“you, Rassilon, the one who's always banging on about Time Lord purity, wearing all that shiny bling.”He has a point. Rassilon has never been the most popular Time Lord with the fandom. At best, he's seen as a wise but very distant founder-figure, at worst, he's a megalomaniac of a dictator who is willing to bring about the destruction of Reality itself just so the Time Lords don't have to deal with their pesky physical bodies anymore. Until now, there has been no indication that he cares so little for his people that he would effectively enslave them for his own personal glorification. If anything, the opposite has been hinted at: that he would break rules and laws to protect them and bring Gallifrey back to its former glory. As for his deal with the Cybermen, Rassilon is much smarter than that, which brings us to a second reason his cyber-conversion makes no sense. Ultimately, Rassilon has been not only taken out of character, but dumbed down to serve the purposes of the narrative, pulling the reader even further out of the story. The disappointment in of all of this is that this story could have been so much better. The return of Rassilon, his choices, and his interactions with the Doctor are a solid basis for a storyline on their own. Rassilon is a perfect foil for the Doctor, perhaps even moreso than the Master or Davros, and a story featuring just the two of them on a conquered Gallifrey would allow time for much more development and possibly even parallel redemption arcs. But this gets in to specifics and personal preference.
The setup to this story is a writer's dream: a banished and defeated Rassilon, a Doctor starting to recognize the full consequences of actions taken out of grief and anger, and the very soul of Gallifrey in the balance. With a different approach, Supremacy of the Cybermen could have been an emotional and compelling glance into the Doctor and his home. It could have added depth and insight to the Time Lords, especially Rassilon. In short, it could have been something unique. But instead, by trying too hard to be an “event,” it becomes merely another tale like every other event series, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
ETA: I had hoped that the resolution to this nightmare would at least bring some kind of closure, perhaps even a brief moment of understanding between the Doctor and Rassilon. Alas, no such luck.
The technical flaws and failings of the final chapter are reviewed and discussed quite well in another article by my colleague Tony Fyler, so I will be keeping my focus on the emotional aspects of the finale. This does, or course, necessitate some spoilers. You have been warned.
I grudgingly concede that the end of the series provided more closure than expected. Far from the Doctor being his usual clever self and saving the day in all incarnations, it is actually Rassilon who finally starts acting like the Lord President of Gallifrey instead of a petulant child whose toy got broken. At the Twelfth Doctor's desperate plea, Rassilon manages to get them both into a safe mental space where they can Join Forces to Defeat the Common Enemy (TM). A brief moment of Contact between two long standing rivals, the Universe is put back in order, and everyone forgets about it except, of course, The Doctor, who is alone with “the burden of deaths that never happened,” as Mr. Fyler so eloquently put it. Insult to injury, the Doctor also remembers that his past selves tried to save the universe and all of them failed spectacularly.
It's common for the Doctor to be put in a tight spot. That's part of what makes him so loved: his cleverness and ability to get out of any situation, usually with a wisecrack or scathing remark directed towards the ones who put him in that spot in the first place. Supremacy of the Cybermen placed the Doctor in a situation where he was doomed from the start. If Rassilon hadn't agreed to assist, there would be no Whoinverse, at least not in comics form. And rather than treating him as the hero he becomes, Rassilon is a plot point, nothing more than a deus ex machina. Given Rassilon's attitude towards his own people in Issue 4, “Exactly, Doctor. They are my children, my creations to do with as I please” (I may be paraphrasing a bit here) for him to make a complete about-face just in the nick of time, hints at a sense of...laziness from the writers that creates more questions about Rassilon than his chance of hearts answers. When did his hearts grow three sizes? When, in four previous books, did he give any indication that he would be inclined to help the Doctor? While I am rather impressed that the story would allow even the slightest bit of redemption for Rassilon, the writers treat what should have been a stunning moment of revelation with the same forethought that they might put in to choosing what shirt to wear that day.
I wouldn't have as many complaints about the resolution of the story if the writing had been consistently bad and the characters consistently one-dimensional. But those two pages of Doctor/Rassilon interaction indicate an ability in the writing staff to write stories and characters that can be more than what television can show. Two pages out of five books actually manage to transcend the rest of the storytelling and almost redeem both the entire story and Rassilon himself. And then, at the end, there's a question of whether or not Rassilon even gets to remember all of it. It is this that is perhaps the most unkindest cut of all: giving Rassilon that redemption and not allowing him to remember it. All in all, I stand by what I said at the beginning. This series had enormous potential to be special and, barring a few bright spots, failed to live up to what it could have been.