Doctor Who as Warden in the 50th Anniversary “Prisoners of Time” Series

IDW’s comic series “Prisoners of Time”, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Doctor, is a twelve-parter devised with an overarching plot to hold the tales of each respective regeneration of the Doctor in tandem. Meanwhile, each issue itself contains a very different adventure with plenty of homage to each Doctor’s tenure on the Television series. With multiple covers for each issue, including the master pulp artist Francesco Francavilla divvying up his features to comprise, in total, a poster tribute to all 11 Doctors so far, it’s a highly collectible series geared toward giving long-term fans of Doctor Who a sense of celebration that the character has reached his 50th milestone and also providing a manageable introduction for new readers to the many incarnations of the Doctor and the companions associated with each era. With so much to accomplish, is it possible that the series could also manage to deliver a significant thematic contribution to Who mythology as well? While the soon 49-year-old comic strips featuring the Doctor have been known for their increasingly action-adventure content, “Prisoners of Time” has a lot to live up to on that front as well, but the TV series, and for the most part, the comics is widely known for delivering some basic messages and concepts that help define the Doctor and his mission in time for their audiences. Without that, would the Doctor, in any medium, really be the Doctor?

Issue #1 of “Prisoners of Time” sets up the basic premise, full of well-guarded secrets of course, that a mysterious hooded being is surveying the Doctor’s many incarnations and plotting a method of separating him from his trademark companions. Why? That is not entirely clear, but he seems to operate with a sense of conviction. He accuses the Doctor of operating “without rhyme or reason” and existing with a mandate that he must never be alone. The hooded figure also comments on the Doctor’s many companions, defining them as “lost souls” who rather passively follow him, and the Doctor, in turn, “needs them”. One other detail is interesting in this monologue. The figure lists a few of the Doctor’s key features consistent with the different personality traits he exhibits in his various regenerated states: Educator, Soldier, Madman, and Oncoming Storm. All this talk about roles, combined with a discussion of the exact relationship between the Doctor and his companions begs a somewhat radical question: are all beings aside from Time Lords prisoners of time, trapped and limited by it? And if so, what does that make the last of the Time Lords who chooses to move among them? Let’s suppose, for the purposes of argument, that the Doctor functions in some ways like a Warden of this prison system.

To state the obvious, he travels in vehicle resembling a Police Box. The iconography isn’t subtle: the Doctor almost always comes forward on the side of justice and order. He is consistently cast in the role of protector, not just of humanity, but of many types of beings of good will and less good will. That might indicate that he’s “one of us”, but someone who uses a superior power for the good of his fellow beings. But what if, as the last of his kind, he’s simply mingling with the prisoners, lonely and devoid of a sense of purpose otherwise? The “Prisoners of Time” series puts the relationship between the Doctor and his companions under the microscope. It’s an overt theme in the TV series to question whether the Doctor ought to have any companions at all, given the fact that they face great danger and it seems self-indulgent of him to drag them along with him into the unknown. But the hooded figure of this comic series really takes off the gloves by looking down on the Doctor’s neediness and on the sheepish followers he attracts. It’s enough to suggest that the Doctor is behaving in an unseemly manner, descending from some kind of more appropriate role into one less appropriate. As a Time Lord, he can move freely in time and space and also has extreme longevity. He attempts to extend the former experience to his less robust companions, but only for brief intervals. They must return to linear time, age, and death, at some point; he merely prolongs the inevitable for them. Is he merely diverting the prisoners from contemplating their final fate? Or distracting himself from the reality that all his companions, every being who is not a Time Lord, are prisoners, unlike himself?

In his self-defined role, evolving over the 50 years that the Doctor has been operating in science fiction, he has shown himself to be a regulating influence on the behavior of various sentient species at a wide range of points in their development. He regulates time and space as best a single being can, still upholding many of the principles of his vanished race. He’s the last Warden and he’s alone. There’s nothing he can do to set the prisoners free since he can’t extend them Time Lord status, but the best he can do, and perhaps for his own benefit, is to give them a glimpse of that kind of existence. What they see, often, is the weight and burden of that role. For all its attraction, it’s not enviable to feel responsible for everything that happens in space and time that violates ideas of order and harmony. And yet they are the prisoners, not the Doctor. Prisoners don’t have to regulate other prisoners, generally. They carry on their sentence with as much good behavior as they can muster given their situation and think upon their shortcomings, perhaps.

“Prisoners of Time” has only been published in four issues of the slated twelve so far, but already some interesting thematic elements are popping up. These elements do not suggest that the authors of the series intend for the Doctor to be portrayed as the Warden of time, but they do suggest that his companions are “prisoners of time” and remain ambiguous about the possibility that the Doctor, too, could be seen as a prisoner along with them. He’s gradually becoming trapped, mentally and emotionally, as his companions are removed from him, group by group, leaving him with the “void” the hooded figure hopes the Doctor will have to face in the end. This void, in some sense, is simply the truth of his role. He is alone and there are none like him left alive. He fraternizes with friendly prisoners as a means of distracting himself and motivating himself to pursue his chosen job of keeping order among the inmates.

Issue #1 deals heavily with the “Educator” role of the first Doctor, as he and his companions visit a Victorian university where several students of a brilliant professor have gone missing. They discover a subterranean alien threat and the Doctor’s companions are educated in some of the more horrific elements of insectoid aliens and even more pernicious slave-systems that exist on the extra-terrestrial level in the hands of the Animus. The Doctor also schools a fellow “man of science” about the realities of the universe, disturbing though they may be. The confrontation with the Animus meets a rather high-speed conclusion, but the entire episode seems like it could be a well-laid distraction so that the Doctor’s companions can be stolen from him more easily. What good is an educator without students? But his prize pupils have been relegated to prisoner status once more.

Issue #2 ingeniously opens with the TARDIS appearing in a vast department store among many other police boxes, and after some initial pondering of the situation, the second Doctor concludes that these other boxes are not TARDIS transportation, but merely police boxes. The visual is striking, seeing the TARDIS among so many varying styles of police boxes, one among many. It reinforces the law and order aspect of the Doctor’s role pretty heavily, even as it dismisses the appearance of the TARDIS as a fairly whimsical thing. When one of the Doctor’s companions is kidnapped, and he says it is “all as I anticipated”, there’s a somewhat eerie ring to that statement. Does he know his companions are being collected away from him by the hooded being operating throughout time? But no, it turns out that he means he’s aware of a slave-trading ring on the planet that he wants to take down and put an end to. Again, he’s the regulator, stopping what he considers to be unlawful limitations on freedom within time and space. But interestingly, he’s not above allowing his companions to be bait for his little projects. He might even need them a little too much for these counter-manouvers he’s planning in order to restore order.

Issue #3, set in the 1970’s, follows the Doctor as he rescues a friend, the Brigadier, from minor alien possession only to stumble upon an under-water alien plot to take over the world, but the dangers posed to the earth are even greater due to the trigger-happy nuclear proclivities of President Nixon. The Doctor has to save earth from the Remoraxian plot and also from itself in time to prevent the annihilation of Britain, if not the civilized world. Two birds with one stone as the equivalent of prison riots are breaking out on two fronts. True to the pattern so far, a successful operation to bring things back into balance concludes with the Doctor’s companions being stolen by the hooded figure, this time clearly using a vortex manipulator wristband (a nod to those fans who follow Torchwood and the adventures of Jack Harkness), which reveals that he’s not a Time Lord, but is a time traveller with limited methods. Does that mean the hooded figure, too, is a prisoner of time albeit with some handy evasion techniques? The military themes of this issue also fit in well with the police-based references already introduced in the series. The Doctor is not a military man, but he a friend to orderly military forces and a foe to those forces gone awry. He can enlist the aid of friendly forces for order among the ordinary denizens of space and time.

The last issue to be released so far features the fourth Doctor, and though it’s another extra-terrestrial episode, there are some overt discussions of police forces and their role. The Doctor and Leela find that the Judoon, “police for hire” are running rampant in search of a stolen jewel. Leela cannily remarks, “This is madness. This is law enforcement? These are your protectors?”. Clearly, local law enforcement, and for hire no less, are making a hash of it through using extreme measures over an important, but nonetheless far from life-threatening theft of a major tourist attraction on an alien world. The Doctor, of course, takes it upon himself to locate the missing jewel while Leela and K-9 hold the Judoon at bay. The Doctor delivers a firmly worded instruction to Leela, that killing is strictly forbidden on her assignment and she does her best to comply despite her rather violent enthusiasm for the project.

The Doctor, and his enforcing companion, have come upon the scene as a form of super law enforcement to trump the vagrant methods of the Judoon and restore order in a more expedient way. The Doctor, as in previous issues, seems to have some insider knowledge he doesn’t share with anyone, not even his companions, a suspicion that this quest for the jewel might be a liberating mission to right an unwitting wrong done to another alien race. If he does know all along, he’s leading Leela and others on a phantom mission, exchanging one form of justice for another. He’s not “police for hire”, but are his methods so superior to the rampaging Judoon? They result in less loss of life, but they do not function in good faith with his coopted troops. When the hooded figure appears and snatches this set of companions away from a celebratory feast, perhaps he’s right in saying, “Get used to a lifetime of empty tables, Doctor. It’s what you deserve”.

Why does the Doctor deserve to have his companions, unit by unit, removed from his missions? Is it because he lures them in to service under the illusion of equality, suggesting that they can evade their own fated roles as prisoners in time and space, when he is not? Or is it because he, with the TARDIS at his beck and call, seems to suggest that he does not need them at all, and is merely being gracious enough to allow them to be his companions for a time? One thing is certain, his role is unique whereas theirs is not. That’s not to say that companions don’t develop as appealing characters here in this comic series and beyond in the TV show. They are part and parcel of the appeal of the mythology. But in terms of the Doctor’s history, they are somewhat interchangeable, whatever emotional impact they may have on him. If some depart, he gets more in short order to fill their shoes. Why? Why can’t he be alone?

Loneliness is something which any reader or viewer can identify with, but there needs to be a greater reason behind this pattern for the Doctor’s long-term story to stand up to scrutiny. On some basic level, he’s trying to bridge the gap between the terms of their limited existence and his more expansive role. But the division intrudes into the uneasy balances he tries to establish. He’s still the Warden and they are still prisoners who must return to their condition. Of course, the reverse is also true. They have each other, in the end, their fellow beings, whereas he has no one to share in his position of responsibility. He can’t become one of them even if he wanted to and they cannot become Time Lords.

It remains to be seen what the mysterious hooded figure really intends to do by kidnapping all of the Doctor’s companions throughout time. The Doctor’s likely response will be to try to rescue them once he pinpoints their location and can improvise a plan. That’s not because he needs them necessarily, the prison-house is full of willing applicants, but because he’s responsible for them and their more intrusive incarceration and that’s what he does, he serves and protects. Ironically, he’s proving the difference between he and his companions by going after them, assuming he does. And maybe that’s what the Doctor’s pursuer intends to prove all along, that the Doctor allows his role to become too vague, and the established lines of protocol to become too blurry. Whether or not that’s what the Doctor’s adversary intends to do, that will almost certainly be the upshot of the Doctor’s experiences. What could be more appropriate to a 50th anniversary exploration of the Doctor in comics than a reappraisal of his identity and the parameters of his relationship to his time-challenged counterparts?

Works Cited

Tipton, Scott and David Tipton (w.), Simon Fraser (ill.), Gary Caldwell (c.), Tom B. Long (l.). Doctor Who: “Prisoners of Time” #1. San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2013.

Tipton, Scott and David Tipton (w.), Lee Sullivan (ill.), Phil Elliott (c.), Tom B. Long (l.). Doctor Who: “Prisoners of Time” #2. San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2013.

Tipton, Scott and David Tipton (w.), Mike Collins (ill.), Charlie Kirchof (c.), Tom B. Long (l.). Doctor Who: “Prisoners of Time” #3. San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2013.

Tipton, Scott and David Tipton (w.), Gary Erskine (ill.), Charlie Kirchof (c.), Tom B. Long (l.). Doctor Who: “Prisoners of Time” #4. San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2013.

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Hannah Means-Shannon is a comics scholar, medievalist, and the Editor-in-Chief of She has published articles on the works of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison in the International Journal of Comic Art, Studies in Comics, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, reference books, and upcoming essay collections. She is working on her first book for Sequart Organization about Alan Moore. She is @HannahMenzies on Twitter.

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Also by Hannah Means-Shannon:

How to Analyze & Review Comics: A Handbook on Comics Criticism


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