Tony’s building a wall. A great wall. S’gonna be great. And Tibet’s gonna pay for it.
There is a perverse temptation when it comes to writing Doctor Who.
Given the possibility of going anywhere and anywhen, of telling any story you can possibly imagine, the temptation is to do something…ordinary. Something run-of-the-mill. Something uninspired.
Understand, this isn’t about settings – you can tell the most amazing stories in a modern contemporary setting and still make them into gripping Doctor Who. But the temptation, more or less a child of fear, is to be too simple, too literal, and as a result to deliver a story that just marks time. Sticking closely to an initial brief can frequently be the death of excitement in Doctor Who. ‘Let’s do a heist story’ can give you Time Heist. ‘I know, let’s put some…dinosaurs…on a spaceship!’ can give you Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. ‘What about a story that’s just all the maddest Daleks ever?’ can leave you hollow in the wake of Asylum of the Daleks…and so on.
Let us make one thing absolutely clear. Nick Abadzis wouldn’t know ordinary if he fell over it, twisted his ankle, and got captured by this week’s baddie. Or rather he would know it, but more as that thing he stays the hell away from on pain of death and ankle-pain.
At the end of the last issue, Cindy Wu was captured by a living, bigger-on-the-inside bunch of tentacles that had, for reasons as yet unknown, disguised itself as a red Tardis, and together, she and it had flown away into the time vortex. Naturally, the doctor, Gabby and Noob…the…erm…noob in the Tardis, jump on board and head off into the cortex in pursuit – but then what? Prolonged space-battles with Squidworth the Scarlet Tardis? Giant many-toothed monster-unveiling against a backdrop of stellar wonders?
Not even close. After a brief time ram, Abadzis takes the opportunity to play with story form, and to re-engage us in the wonder of Doctor Who, to re-ignite our awareness that this story of a lonely wanderer in a blue box can go anywhere. Be anything.
Just as he did with the ‘Arena of Death’ storyline which began by riffing on the likes of Clan of the Cave Bear, Abadzis takes the storytelling duties out of his own direct hands, and puts them in the voices of two locals in the place where the Tardis crew are landing, and tells the story of the Doctor’s arrival like a tale from ancient ‘Chinese’ legend – because yes, we’re not in science fiction land any more, we’re in Zhonghua, ancient ‘China.’ And so the tale of the mystical arrival of a wise man, a princess with butterfly wings and a…well, a Noob, is told by an old man to his son. And suddenly, Doctor Who fades a little into the background, and we’re in the territory of ancient Chinese legends – river dragons, elemental sentinels, strange lords who appear from Heaven and speak without using their mouths, then erect great walls from nowhere in a week (using non-earthly construction methods, and being, in terms of great walls, in entirely the wrong place). It all takes on a super-mythic quality, especially since the old man tells the story of the arrival and hardships suffered by the Doctor and his friends as a thing known to him, more or less contemporaneously as they happen. There’s some suggestion that the old man, whose name incidentally is also Wu, has met the Doctor before - or possibly will meet him in the future, there’s a suitably enigmatic sense of mystery on that point. And with the implication clear that the mysterious wall-building lord is actually Squidworth in a new form, we’re off to the legendary races: a ‘people’s army’ helps the Doctor keep the sentinels of the wall terminally busy, while, just possibly, inventing rock paper scissors in the process. Meanwhile, Gabby finds a way over the wall into the domain of the new lord, rescues Cindy…annnnd then discovers that her life’s about to get a whole lot more complicated than she thought it was.
Abadzis delivers plenty of action here, plenty of story, and some nice meaty characterisation too, but yet it’s all encapsulated in a storyline that stretches Doctor Who into new areas of what it can be and do. It’s Who as Chinese legend, which feels fresh and yet authentic.
And then there’s the art.
We’ve mentioned before that with a writer like Abadzis, you’re going to need to be right up there to do him justice, because he seems to have an inexhaustible supply of ideas, and he’s not shy in flinging a whole bunch of them into any given story or issue. He also seems to write filmic techniques – or they’re the work of his artists, interpreting the vision of what his stories need. Either way, Abadzis, Georgia Sposito on art and Arianna Florean on colour have gooooood things going on. Last issue they gave us dystopian dream-fiction in an utterly convincing way.
You can imagine what they give us in the land of Chinese legend, can’t you? Subtle costume changes, adventures rendered as if on papyrus scrolls, with authentic-feeling artwork of bamboo and cranes, a geometric precision in Sposito’s built environments, matched with a stylised, martially artistic feel when depicting the battle sequences, but maintaining the realism of the characters in moments like Gabby’s would-be rescue of Cindy. Florean washes the whole thing in tones of texture and watercolour, so as to make it look old but well-preserved, suitably mythic and legendary and of the period. Again, between the three of them, they’re stretching boundaries and perceptions of what Doctor Who can do, and it’s exciting that they’re doing that in the comic-book medium, fighting the ever-present temptation to do something that’s just ‘OK’ and seeming to trust and feed off each other’s skills, to push the level of what they offer to fans of the show. Doctor Who has often found itself well served in media other than its TV home, and that those media have re-shaped, expanded and broadened the experience of fans who’ve experienced them. The comic-strips in Doctor Who Magazine have, over the decades, been graced by some of the best comic artists in the business. The Virgin New Adventure books were frequently written by people who would go on to be ‘Big In Television’ or in their own writing careers, and indeed some of them came back to re-invigorate the show, giving it its ‘New’ generation. Big Finish certainly broadened and deepened the scope of what the show could be, and continues to do so to this day. But in work like this issue, Titan’s writers, artists and colourists stake a solid claim to be evolving the nature of a TV legend too, not overplaying the Tenth Doctor’s cheeky chappie slickness, but letting the style of Chinese legends infuse right through the work and, while keeping it very much a Doctor Who story, veering away from the obvious, the commonplace and the ordinary, to prove that the format can still deliver surprises which are utterly absorbing.
Pick up issue #3.3, brew some tea, and prepare to get legendary with the Tenth Doctor and friends.
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 day, he 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