The concept of The Four Doctors is pretty much everything Day of the Doctor could have been, and most of the things it wasn’t. Proper argumentative Doctors together, like the original Three Doctors, barely letting up for a second, and yet when they do, working together to save everyone – and probably, when all is said and done, the universe – from the Big Bad, and from themselves.
Given the freedom Titan Comics has these days to use him, and the nature of the plot developments in issue #2, one thing that strikes you immediately is that there’s no Ninth Doctor involvement in this story. There was too much going on in the first issue to notice his absence, but given the nature of the threat that dogs the Doctors through much of this second issue, his absence becomes more noticeable, especially as the threat seems to specifically target post-Time War Doctors. There’s just the faintest whiff of Tom Baker in The Five Doctors about the fact that, for no especially identifiable reason, this is actually The Four Doctors, rather than The Five Doctors…erm…II.
But it’s remarkable how quickly you get the hell over that – the pacing of this issue and this story so far would outrun a Dalek ray in a straight line. There’s a little Gabby Gonzalez artwork to get through as a soft opening (with which you’ll be familiar if you’ve been following the Tenth Doctor’s comic-book adventures. If not, just go with it, he travels with an artist now) and then bang! The verbal sparring while dealing with a terrifying threat made more terrifying by the freedom of comic-book art than they managed to be on TV – and they managed pretty well there!
There’s a lot of running and banter and bile-spitting here, with the kind of edge that ‘Sandshoes and Grandpa’ never really mustered – there’s a lovely Spice Girls moment which hopefully I haven’t just ruined for you. The barbs are sharper from writer Paul Cornell than they ever were in Moffat’s TV version of the multi-Doctor phenomenon (I can hear the cries now – Cornell for Showrunner!…Hmm, actually, not a bad plan), and the combination of his acid wit, (most frequently vented through the natural conduit that is the Twelfth Doctor, but occasionally, just for the look of the thing and the fightback, distributed Bugs Bunny and the Bow-Tie boy), and Neil Edwards’ great gift for spatial artwork allows for some superb moments, not least of which is a journey through a couple of Tardis console rooms, and possibly the best ever comeback to what is now a time-honoured gag. Edwards’ Twelfth Doctor is a little less realistic than some that have appeared in the latest incarnation’s dedicated comics, but again, the combination of the gorgeous broader visuals – from Paris to Tardises, to space, to a planet of apparently forgettable provenance – and the pace and wit of the dialogue means you can pretty much forgive him for being less than pin-point in the capturing of the Twelfth Doctor’s face.
The action of the first half of this issue is frenetic – hence the running – as the three post-Time-War Doctors try to outpace the Big, Scary Monsters trying to erase them from existence. But when Clara sentences them to some ‘Me Time’ – something akin to the Tower of London scene in Day of the Doctor – the three behave in a way that’s entirely believable for each of them at once, and ultimately, as we all knew they would, go running into trouble on the world of the great First Doctor enemies enjoying a heck of a renaissance in recent years. The cliff-hanger is surprisingly downbeat, like the pushing of a plunger that will, somewhere down the line, cause a big, big explosion, but which has yet to deliver its full impact. But the combination of these three Doctors – the War Doctor’s at least visually absent from this issue – remains satisfying in a way that Day of the Doctor, for all its brilliant moments, wasn’t. John Hurt’s War Doctor was a scarred, tired man, wanting the war to be over, with no stomach for the acid that, for instance, the inheritor of his ‘Older Doctor’ mantle is. Bringing the Twelfth Doctor into the multi-Doctor mix gives it a bite that wasn’t possible on the fiftieth anniversary, when all was celebration of the show’s history and legacy. This is a more combustible, more daring and frankly more fun mixture of the three Doctor-personalities, and again, much of that is down to Paul Cornell’s way with a witty line and his knowledge of Who old and new. The storyline promises much in the way of cataclysm and devastation, though much of the actual plot development in this issue is done as the Doctor would probably expect – on the run. The pace is still fast and furious, but here, there’s excellent, rich Doctor-chocolate in terms of character development. Two issues in, this is still a must-buy. Grab your sandshoes and Bugs Bunny your butt to your comic store now. Your future self is really going to kick you if you miss it.
The Eleventh Doctor comic-book has so far been a ridiculous, barmy, complicated back-and-forth [HORRBLE PHRASE ALERT] timey-wimey touching madcap masterpiece.
And now it’s ending.
This particular arc, at least, is ending. The Eleventh Doctor with Alice Obiefume, Library Assistant Extraordinaire, John Jones, would-be one-day rock god and Bowie in all but lawsuit, and ARC, the Autonomous Reasoning Centre, or ‘chameleonoid robo-blob’ for the non-techies, which is the brain of the entity formerly known as…erm…The Entity. The Eleventh Doctor in full on ‘full Tardis’ mode.
Oh the fun we’ve had – back and forth through the timelines, Jones annoying the bejesus out of us like an Adric with pretensions of superstardom, ARC surprisingly saving the day any number of times, weird Chinese Dragon-Dog emotional-feeders, funfair worlds with something nasty in the basement, a regenerated Bessie, space wars won by misery in the face of awe, Robert Johnson, zombie towns, three Eleventh Doctors, including one Chief Executive, zombie planets, Roman Christian emperors and lights in the sky, Cybermen who wake you up on Sunday morning to ask if you’ve considered letting Upgrading into your life…
It’s been a truly wild ride, absolutely dripping with the character of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor in all his moods. In fact, as we welcome the second season of the next Doctor in line, it’s been refreshing to remember quite how many moods Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor had, and oddly, the comic-book version works better to remind you of them all than any episode-marathon or box-set binge would do.
And yet here it is. Ending.
The ending begins with the Doctor lost, alone, rejected even and especially by the Tardis, which appears to have run off with his mother. Yes, you read that right, his mother. With the Eleventh Doctor doing one of his infamously good sulks – you remember the cloud in the sky, right? – it takes Alice, ARC and Jones together to get the Doctor back on fighting form, because if there’s one thing this and all our Doctors are good at, it’s thinking on their feet, while they’re running away from giant chickenny-looking things.
Alright fine, that’s an Eleventh Doctor speciality, but it still works here to beat one last twist in the seemingly endless story of the Entity, and by the end of the issue, the Tardis is nearly empty again – just the Doctor and one of his companions, the other two left behind as memories.
That’s essentially the arc of this issue – it’s less madly frenetic than many of its predecessors, but it needs to be, to capture the emotional tones of the journey here – which is done through Simon Fraser’s artwork as much as Al Ewing and Rob Morrison’s script. In many ways, it takes us properly full circle to the original story of Alice Obiefume, grieving for her mother, walking through her days in pencilwork of greys and drabness, until the first burst of colour to penetrate the bubble of grief – the Doctor chasing a Chinese dragon-style belief-dog – allowed a little spark back into the panels of her life. That’s almost exactly replayed here, with the Doctor mourning the Tardis, his home, his life – the script talks of him being dead, and the artwork shows that through its ghostlike greyness, till a hand grabs him and there are multi-coloured chickenny dragonny things to chase and a Tardis to talk to, and fun to offer, and redemption for everyone on the skinny bloke in the bow tie.
And then there’s an ending. Each in their own way, the three companions have come back to their beginnings – Alice saves the Doctor as the Doctor saved Alice, and ends this issue acknowledging how much she misses her mum, but that it’s time to move on. John Jones, would-be megastar, has been transformed by his travels with the Doctor, has gone through plenty of changes of image and sound, but it he now ready to fulfil the destiny he was born to have, as a rock and roll legend? Or is there another destiny calling him now?
And ARC – well, ARC’s an odd one. On some levels it’s been difficult to warm to ARC, looking as he does like a lump of sculpted putty. On other levels, ARC’s simplicity of goodness has made it the heart of this Tardis team from time to time, and its ending here, while right, still leaves the tiniest lump in the throat.
As this great big fifteen-issue arc comes to a close, it allows us to wallow briefly in that sense you get, about two-thirds of the way through any season finale worth the name – that feeling that Doctor Who was always like this, and that there’s no way it can be different and still as good. But after all the ups and downs, it ends with the Doctor and one companion in the Tardis, going forward, looking for their next adventure, and whatever Titan has in store for the Eleventh Doctor next, it will soon enough feel like how Doctor Who has always been. That’s the irresistible will of this special programme, and it’s why it’s lasted as long as it has. Constantly renewing, constantly showing something fresh to the audience. The first Eleventh Doctor arc has shown that perfectly.
There’s a trick to good plotting. You should, if you do it just right, give just enough clues to the tuned-in audience, to allow them to get jussssst a little ahead of your reveal. One of the greatest things about Earthshock, Episode 1, was that it did that – you worked out who the Big Bads were just moments before they were first shown on screen, and then you went a bit nuts for the next week running around going “Oh my god, they’re back! AND I worked it out before they appeared. Yes, yes, yes, yes, I am SuperFan!”
Ahem – just me, then?
The same was true to some extent in Utopia – the clues were there, and if you picked up on them, then right before it became obvious to even the moderately clued-in fan, you knew they’d gone and done it.
It happened again with Dark Water – all the speculation over who Missy was added up just before she spilled her bananas beans.
That’s the territory we’re in here, with Spiral Staircase, Part 2. And yes, it’s that big a Big Bad.
It’s on Page 6 that everybody finally gets what’s going on. Panel 3. But there’s a declaration in Panel 2, and if you haven’t got it already, Superfans (it was cooler than you think – there were capes and everything) will get it there.
From there on in, you know what you’re dealing with. Not, by any stretch who you’re dealing with – that’s the reveal saved for the final panel cliff-hanger – but what you’re dealing with, absolutely.
But before we get there, we have to give credit to Rachael Stott and Leonardo Romero on artwork duties this time out. For those just tuning in, there’s a big black flat triangular obelisk in the skies above New York, like the darkest chunk of Toblerone in history. As it begins to bark out its orders to the ‘primates of Earth,’ Stott and Romero borrow a trick from the TV show, and give us reactions from various viewpoints, all looking at the same thing. Page 4 is one great page full of reaction shots, with a background of what it is they’re reacting to – cops, newscasters, and several key people in the story, all looking up at the speaking slab of darkness in the sky. If you tried to do this on TV, it would look confused, and you’d miss things. Sometimes on screen, even the linear progression of reaction shots looks rushed and overplayed. But Stott and Romero take advantage of the whole-page format of comic-books to really deliver a reaction shot that really gives the sense of scale we’re dealing with here.
Once we know what we’re doing, is the excitement blown?
No more than it was in Power of the Daleks, Day of the Daleks, Death To The Daleks and so on. Knowing what you’re up against, if you’re up against something cool and deadly – as we are here – just allows the writer to ramp up the tension, throw us curve-balls, develop character and take us to unusual, unexpected places, both geographically and dramatically, en route to the inevitable, tingling cliff-hanger. Nick Abadzis is good at this sort of thing, and here he takes the time to really develop the characters of both regular Tardis-traveller Gabby Gonzalez, and more especially her bestie, Cindy Wu, who here comes into her own, tackling the Doctor to the ground when necessary, and providing the hip, flip likeably sarcastic guide to what’s going on, while also revealing what she thinks about her friend, and what she’ll do to anyone who hurts her – it’s enough to almost make us want her to go traveling with the Tenth Doctor herself. Gabby, meanwhile, is handholding the person everyone wants a piece of – faded, but now markedly reinvigorated movie star Dorothy Bell, who’s bonded with a piece of alien kit that the Giant Toblerone In The Sky is looking for. It’s a solid representation of the other side of the companion coin, the caring side that tries to make sure as few people are hurt or frightened as possible, and it’s enough to make us remember what it is the Doctor sees in this daughter of New York that makes her worthy of all of time and space.
There’s conflict and drama, space phenomena to put the Medusa Cascade to shame, the Janitor of the Gods, some great colourful art that shows us a key piece of historical information, and the Doctor, mouth as ever set to 90 words per minute, being massively disrespectful to just about all and sundry before the denouement of this issue, and even though you know what it’ll be, there’s enough entertaining hoop-jumping on the way to make the reveal when it comes something of an ‘Oooooh!’ moment.
The joy about that is that while it’s not exactly a returning villain, it is the product of a very rich backstory that’s been touched on recently in other areas of the Who universe, and which clearly still has much to give. And while the cliff-hanger here is not as gasp-worthy as some of those seen earlier in the Tenth Doctor’s comic-book run, it’s one to make you run around for a bit, pondering all the potential it holds for story development going forward.
Get issue #14 and you can be assured of artistic richness, sumptuous character development, a fun, quirky take on the ride with Cindy, and a new iteration of an old, highly exciting villain. What’s not to love?
You know what separates really great geek entertainment from all other entertainment?
It’s the thrill, and it’s the ache.
The thrill when a new episode or issue comes out – the brightness and brilliance of that day, because your new episode’s on, or your new issue’s in stock, available for pickup or download, and there to be relished and pored over, enjoyed however you like – whether you’re a guzzler, eyeballs glued to everything and gorging through every page, or sipping so it lasts longer, page by page or minute by minute, reveling in all the details, the in-gags, the art or the philosophical stance of the people you trust to give you what you need.
And then the ache, because it’s over for another however-long – another week, another month, another x-amount-of-time before the thrill begins again. Geeks were the creators of concepts like box-set binging. Geeks understand the thrill and the ache.
Geeks love Death Sentence.
Death Sentence is that kind of entertainment – just as your favourite show is never ‘just on’ but you wait for it all week, think about it, talk about it, share ideas about what might be in it, then enjoy it, then talk about it endlessly until the thrill for the following episode begins, so Death Sentence never just releases an issue. It’s the kind of comic-book that you wait for with nothing even remotely approaching patience, that you revel in when it arrives, and that you want to go door-to-door with afterwards, asking your neighbours if they’ve considered letting MontyNero into their lives, because it might just make them better people.
Death Sentence London, three issues in, is taking the time to behave like the real world. Whereas the first Death Sentence series was pre- and right-freakin’-now- Apocalyptic, dealing with the idea of G+ – the sexual plague that hides inside you till you have six months to live, then turns your system all the way up to 11 – and in particular the idea of Super-Gs, who are granted remarkable powers by the virus, Death Sentence London is distinctly post-Apocalyptic – people have died in their millions, and the world, and London in particular, needs to find out how it gets back on its feet after that, and how it goes on to deal with the G+ and Super-G threats. In the middle of that, while plot-strands are certainly developing – Jeb Mulgrew, FBI agent, is preparing to go on a mission to infiltrate the island where the UK Government has a G+ research and containment facility, while getting so divorced by his wife he may be known as Jeb The Eunuch on future missions; London Mayor Tony Bronson is clamping down on organized and disorganized gatherings, and wants to stop sex between unmarried people (partly as a way to stop the spread of G+ and partly because some people are just born to be religious assholes who want to outlaw fun); there’s a rather more organized resistance movement on the streets, using a famous comic-book character as an avatar of dissent, and so on – while all that is going on and advancing issue by issue, Issues 2 and 3 have consciously turned down the pace of mayhem, to deal with characters. Last time, we spent the majority of the issue with Weasel, one of our two Super-G ‘heroes,’ who lost his son during the cataclysm of the first Death Sentence, and has spent the time since those events mourning in every which way he knows how. Here in Issue #3, we’re with Verity Fette for the majority of the time. Verity Fette, ‘Art Girl,’ who can now create pictures with the power of her mind and who also has an on-again, off-again relationship with visibility.
Neither of these are your typical comic-book heroes. Weasel’s a dick, almost guaranteed to fuck up everything good in his life, and Verity…
Verity’s a wounded heart and a brain that’s thinking clearer every day, but about which she can do nothing. In this issue, we go back with her, through the cyclic pattern of her relationships, examining why none of them ‘worked’ in any kind of long-term way. People are quite welcome to tell her why they dumped her, ranging from her flirting with everyone, to her scoping the room over their shoulder, to her potentially self-indulgent, self-revolving artistic nature, to the wilder sexual side she displayed, which men ‘don’t settle down and bake souffles with,’ because to be fair, many, many men are hypocritical cockwombles.
Did I mention – Verity calls a cockwomble a cockwomble. We love her for that here at WarpedFactor. But of the two of our Super-Gs, Verity is naturally drawn to appeal to us more – apart from her ready way with a cockwomble, she’s the especially articulate one, able to bring art and life and death and viruses and humanity and, as she puts it in this issue, ‘the whole sick joke,’ while still being able to put a smile on our lips with lines like ‘What is this constant need for approval? Am I fundamentally weak? Or am I just missing Twitter?’
The point is that Verity is the character that carries the intellectual oomph of Death Sentence with her, while acknowledging that her emotional past has been a minefield of disasters for one reason or another (and that possibly, just possibly, she’s selected specific ways of exploding every single connection she’s had), and also admitting that while her brain is increasingly clear, there’s precisely nothing she can do about her continuing base desires – which leads her back to her old haunts to sit, as she puts it, ‘with smouldering knickers in Southwark,’ while waxing philosophical about all the things that matter, and why, unless we’re very emotionally smart and switched on, there’s every chance we’ll miss them. As comic-book characters go, Verity’s something a bit special.
Verity, as it turns out, is also extremely special in one other crucial respect which draws the threads of the issue screaming together and ends on a cliff-hanger that’ll make you draw in a sharp breath and shout the word ‘Cockwomble!’ rather more than you’ve ever felt the need to do before.
Annnnnnd so the ache begins again.
Go get yourself some thrill right now, in the handy form of Death Sentence London #3.