Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor: A Matter of Life and Death
Although a comic is the perfect format for more adventures for a version of the Doctor cut short by time and format, I was a bit disappointed by the first issue of this miniseries. I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because by the end, I realized it had done more than I gave it credit for. The five issues that make up this run, taken together, are like a perfect sample pack of Doctor Who story styles.
My biggest problem was one that, frankly, many comics share: the Doctor didn’t have a unique voice. As written by George Mann, his dialogue sounds more to me like the Fourth or maybe the Seventh. This is a tricky situation, though. The Eighth Doctor was played in one TV movie in 1996 by Paul McGann. It was an American/UK joint production, and as a result, it was a bit damaged. There was more action, less care with the history of the concept, more romance (which caused quite the outcry at the time), and a plot involving the Master, street gangs, and Y2K. I have a weird fondness for it (since I remember how exciting it was to watch it at the time), but I know many people don’t like it.
More to the point, that one glance isn’t enough to get an idea of how the character would develop over time or the details of his personality beyond “ready for adventure”. So I”m not sure it’s fair to expect Mann to do more than he does here. That was the source of the disappointment I mentioned, but also, the character grew on me as I read on. I found his first-issue slam on the Third Doctor — “Old one, white hair and frills. You wouldn’t like him, Josie. Had no appreciation of art. Spent all his time taking things apart and leaving bits lying about.” — quite amusing.
The new companion, Josephine “Josie” Day, is quite attractive, and in more than a visual sense. She’s stubborn, good-hearted, artistic, and her own person. We meet her squatting in the Doctor’s house, where she’s been painting pictures that incorporate various monsters of the Doctor. When they start coming alive out of the pictures, the Doctor has to find a way to stop his villains and save the village. It’s a very Doctor Who premise, a simple concept dressed up as science fiction, but it nicely gives her a chance to save the day.
The art, by Emma Vieceli, is more lightly inked than the other Doctor comics, giving the work more emphasis on colors, done by Hi-Fi in softer tones than I expected. It suits the story, since it focuses on painting, and the “charming romantic” approach they’re taking to the Doctor’s character. (It also helps cover up the lack of background, although the establishing shots for the scenes are nicely detailed.)
The second issue leaves behind the “traditional piece of England invaded by monsters” for another Who classic story type: stopping an alien war. Crystalline invaders are using weapons that turn the planet’s catlike inhabitants into crystal statues. Of course, Josie risks getting infected.
This also gives the Doctor a chance for a couple bits of monologue about how war-weary he is, a nod to what he would become, and how stupid these battles are. It’s short and familiar but affecting all the same, as the character work shines through. Although I’ve only seen these people for two issues, I am rooting for them.
Issue #3 is a spooky Victorian mystery. A magician’s theater show, which involves sending people into one mirror and out another, is changing their personalities. When the Doctor investigates, he discovers an alternate dimension. There’s also a horrific chase from reflections of random body parts.
This is a packed story, with lots of concepts stuffed in. It could have been a two-parter easily, but I appreciated the economy and the rapid pacing, which gave it more excitement.
The fourth issue involves a fancy party where Josie says, “I feel like we’ve walked into a scene from an Agatha Christie novel,” but the servants are summoning behind doors. The surrounding trees are coming alive and attacking in revenge, according to an old family legend, of the house building angering local spirits. But it’s actually ancient technology, and the sprites are really aliens, who must be prevented from taking over. As a bonus, there’s a short interview at the back with the guy who owns the Eighth Doctor’s TARDIS console.
The final issue, #5, brings the adventure to a close at a future spa in deep space. The very rich come to this spaceship to be resurrected into a synthetic body, but someone has murdered a technician. In a story that tackles class distinctions with a thin analogy, the synthetics are rebelling against their oppressors, leading to speeches about the value of life and debates over who deserves to live, since their lives will mean someone else dies. Plus, we learn Josie’s secret and pop in with a special guest.
I know there were more prose and audio adventures with this Doctor that I’m not familiar with. I’d love to know what a fan of those thought of this comic, because it really grew on me. The five issues will be collected as Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor: A Matter of Life and Death in May. (The publisher provided digital review copies.)
Update: The collection is now available in paperback.
Aside from the one TV movie with the Eight Doctor, there are several years worth of the UK “Doctor Who Magazine” comic stories, audio stories from Big Finish, along with several novels – so it seems a bit odd that the writer George Mann didn’t get his distinctive voice.
I’m in two minds about the Titan Comics Doctor Who series – I love the Doctor Who Magazine comics and their approach of concentrating on the current Doctor (whoever that may be), but find the Titan ones less appealing, and the sheer number of them frankly puts me off buying any of them – because 1/ I don’t want to buy middling to mediocre stories, and 2/ if I rely on reviews to find which ines are goodones, then I’ll invariably end up missing issues…which I would also dislike…
First world problems eh?
Maybe I’m wrong about the voice, and he’s purposefully written to evoke the previous versions. I agree with you that there are an awful lot of Titan Doctor comics. It’s very easy to get behind on keeping up with them. I finally caught up over the past weekend, and it’s all kind of blurred together for me. I did like the Tenth Doctor story with the immortality device, although it went on longer than I thought it should. That’s one reason this miniseries was appealing — a defined length.
Yes, I agree with you about the “defined length” point. I read your old post about the Panini published ‘The Tides of Time’ 5th Doctor collection of UK Doctor Who strips. You mentioned that you found the storytelling very ‘dense’. That sparked the thought in me (and gives me a possible explanation) since I find the Titan comics a bit unsatisfying because in comparison they seem to drag and lack pace and tension – I’ve been reading 2000AD and Doctor Who monthly magazine strips for *ahem, nearly 40 years and I’m very accustomed to their breakneck 5 to 8 pages per story installment pace. For the same reason I think too, I find many US comics drag too..
Anyhow, food for thought, thanks Johanna.
The novels featuring the Eighth Doctor varied wildly in quality. He usually comes off as a prototype of the modern take on the Doctor in the way the adventures often focus on making him vulnerable and foreshadow his possible fate – he loses one of his hearts, loses the Tardis, gets amnesia again.. the most-interesting books, concept-wise, were written by Paul Magrs and Lawrence Miles. Notable new characters introduced were Iris Wildtyme – a character that resembles a farcical prototype for River Song – and the Faction Paradox – a cult of Time Lords that merged science with voodoo and indulged in time paradoxes. Most of the authors who wrote the books have admitted in the past that they saw the 8th Doctor as a blank slate and they felt free to do as they pleased, following a loose continuity. Consider that it’s clear in the film that he’s wearing a “Wild Bill Hickock” costume that the morgue attendant had in his locker, but the books retconned this as a “Lord Byron-esque ensemble”.