In which the blogger hopes that folks might stick around while he discusses a thoroughly fine and not unimportant story which many of you probably haven’t read, but which you really might want to, regardless of whether you enjoy Doctor Who or not. However, I’m afraid that to sell the story, I’m going to have to spoil it. So please consider the flag of the spoiler warning unfurled.
We’ve talked about the narrow range of emotions typically expressed in the action-adventure comic book. One of things that I’ve been doing since then is collecting together some examples which might show that the essential pleasures of such comics don’t need to be in any way compromised by the introduction of a greater breadth of intimacy and warmth into the narrative. For there are a string of comics which show that the traditional “heroic” strip doesn’t need to be substantially modified in order for considerably more human and moving tales to be told. Because of this, the reader who prefers their comics marked with more than a touch of heroic derring-do and excessive jeopardy needn’t fear that the business of making their stories less entirely repressed will inevitably ruin their traditional pleasures. “Action-adventure” and “emotion” aren’t, of course, mutually exclusive pleasures. And of all the many comics that I can think of which might be put to use to discuss this, the most telling of them all is Jonathan Morris and Roger Langridge’s “Death to the Doctor”, from Doctor Who Magazine #390 (2008), in which one single brilliant panel transforms a witty and enjoyable romp into something else, into something which is quite genuinely moving.
There’s always a danger of making a comic strip seem worthy and hollow through over-analysis when it’s nothing of the sort. And “Death To The Doctor” is anything but furrow-browed, let alone pretentious. It’s the best of Pop, because it’s saturated with cleverness and intent, and yet it makes no attempt to draw the reader’s attention to anything but the pleasures of its narrative. Everything else that it offers is there if the reader cares to note it, but the story itself does all and more that’s required of it without obliging the reader to fill out their experience of it with any of that fuss of sub-text and inter-textuality. In truth “Death To The Doctor” is so very smart that it doesn’t need to draw attention to its cleverness at all. In that, it’s perfectly Pop.
The first nine pages of Morris and Langridge’s tale detail an apparently-straight-forward, if wittily told, comedy-drama. A crew of super-villains are gathering for a conference in the far-off Research Station Truro in order to plot the downfall of their mutually-loathed arch-enemy, the Doctor. From the off, there’s an absolute contradiction played out in how they’re presented in script and art. In Mr Langridge’s wonderfully playful cartoons, the likes of “Kraaan … of the Kraagaaron!”, “Valis, High Arbiter of the Darkness”, and “Bolog” are daft, contemptible and ultimately unimpressive. Yet Mr Morris’s script constantly reminds us by contrast that these vainglorious buffoons are also cruel and loathsome creatures . As a consequence of this opposition between words and pictures, between what they think of themselves and what we’re shown of them, no reader can be in any doubt that disaster awaits this cackle of caitiffs, and much of the pleasure of the narrative lies in anticipating how these vicious monsters will get theirs. They are, quite obviously, not up to the job where the role of universal tyrant is concerned. And so, as the decrepit power supply of their secret HQ starts to short out and kill off some of their number, they of course jump to the erroneous conclusion that the Doctor must be among them in disguise. Of course, they’re wrong, as the reader knows they are, because it’s not the way of the Doctor to murder his opponents, horribly or not, which means that in the end it’s their own derangement and hatred which defeats them. The Doctor himself doesn’t even need to come near them, and wasn’t even aware that their association ever existed. It’s a neatly-constructed and ably executed morality tale which bears no trace of the lectern and the pulpit.
But there’s also a sense that “Death to the Doctor” is a fond tribute to a great many of the conventions associated with the TV show. There’s the ridiculous and yet convincingly threatening aliens, the endless wandering around mostly-deserted secret bases, the references to continuity, the good humour, the depictions of a science-fiction world which even now isn’t always as visually convincing as the equivalent American product would be, even as it’s often far more imaginatively designed. Most enjoyably, there are the ways in which a particularly British sense of humour is reflected in the narrative, such as when the villain’s first meeting begins somewhat as a session of Alcoholics Anonymous might, which deftly establishes that these are characters who know their lives have been entirely subsumed by their obsession with their nemesis. In such a way does the narrative set up the comic-tragedy of their end, in that they can see something of their fatal flaw, but not enough of it to protect themselves from what’s inevitably closing in on them.
Fish-headed alien: “My name is Zargath and I was defeated by the Doctor!”
Frog-headed alien: “My name is Bolog and I was defeated by the Doctor!”
It’s tremendously good humoured, straight-faced, silly and satisfying, making the business of watching a gang of inter-galactic reprobates wiping themselves off the slate as enjoyable a comicbook experience as might be desired. Yet, for all of that, there’s a rather fierce sting in the tale for the reader’s conscience, as the final page of the story delivers.
For if the first nine pages of “Death of the Doctor” is a fond farce, delivering all the ray-guns and space-fleets and continuity implants that a fan might demand, then the final page is something else entirely. In a way, it’s not the last act of the story so much as a coda, and as such its mood is entirely different. With the conference’s “delegates” wiped out by a combination of faulty wiring and their own paranoia, the Tardis arrives to find a station littered with, as Martha Jones declares, “Dead aliens!” All of a sudden, the reader who’s been laughing at the fragments of super-villain’s fish-tail and the be-cloaked and headless bodies suddenly sees events through the eyes of the Doctor and his friend, and to them, there’s nothing funny and everything that’s tragic about such suffering. For just as the Doctor doesn’t murder his opponents, so he doesn’t exult in their passing either.
“Something terrible happened to the people, Martha,” says the Doctor, “I can feel it.” And all of sudden, the central nature of the Time-Lord falls into perspective, and in doing so, the character performs his essential function, which is to remind us to be humane, to be tolerant and compassionate and concerned. To the “monsters”, who of course are suddenly no monsters at all, the Doctor was the man who had thwarted their absurd schemes, embarrassed them with bananas, and allowed them to be mocked by talking penguins. And to us, he’s their opposite, in that we expect the Doctor to serve as our protagonist, to save the day, clear up the mess and allocate the rewards and punishments of the story as best he can. But that, as “Death of the Doctor” makes perfectly clear, is only what the Doctor so often does. But it’s not who he is.
It’s to the absolute credit of Mr Morris and Mr Langridge that their “Death to the Doctor” throws some of our most familiar assumptions into something of doubt. Their tale makes us realize that the Doctor isn’t so much a protagonist fulfilling the requirements of the plot as a man who takes on such responsibilities in the hope of preventing more harm than might otherwise occur. For there’s a world of difference between a character who exists to help us experience the joy of another’s defeat and once who stands to remind us that even having to fight in the first place is something to profoundly regret. For all that we take pleasure in his victories, we know that the Doctor would much rather have found a compromise, an honourable resolution to the conflict, a way in which all that stupidity and violence was avoided through the application of a good heart, or two, and the very best of intentions.
And the intimacy? The touch of the humane which transforms this tale from one which is at first funny and then thought-provoking into something else entirely? It arrives in the very final panel of the tale, where we’re given the smallest frame on the page and the constrained and cropped figure of a Doctor who’s wracked with guilt and regret;
“If only we had gotten here sooner, I might have been able to save them,” he says, and all that rubbish about heroes and villains and the schadenfreude generated by a station of dismembered bodies falls into perspective. The reader watches the Doctor as Martha Jones does, struck by how sorrowful and alone he is, inspired by his decency, touched by the weight of responsibility he’s assumed, and thoroughly, thoroughly, moved by how much better than all of the rest of us he is.
“Death to the Doctor”, a great big Pop experience masquerading modestly as a ten-page comedy-drama, can be found in Panini’s Dr Who: The Widow’s Curse and in the IDW collection Dr Who: Agent Provocateur. Or you may be able to find it for less in an old copy of Dr. Who Magazine #390. TooBusyThinking recommends it highly.
Reposted from TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics.