06 June 2013

Beyond History’s End | 50th Anniversary Doctor Who Review 5 of 12 | The Tides of Time: The Complete Fifth Doctor Comic Strips written by Steve Parkhouse and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, Steve Parkhouse, Mick Austin and Steve Dillon

Most of my Beyond History’s End selections have required very little effort on my part. Since closing The History of the Doctor’s doors almost two years ago, there have been a flood of stories released across the media that I’ve been keen to talk – and invariably rave – about, most of them coming out of Big Finish Production’s incessant Who factory. However, determined not to let this fiftieth anniversary series turn into an ode to Big Finish, as is the obvious temptation, when it came to choosing the fifth Doctor’s story I decided to take a side-step into his often-overlooked adventures amidst the pages of Doctor Who Monthly, as collected together in Panini’s colossal 2005 volume, The Tides of Time. In so doing, I erred.

Having heard its collective tales described as “Some of the greatest Doctor Who comic strips ever published”,  I had high hopes for the heavy paperback – hopes raised even higher by two of the adventures’ Stockbridge setting. The quaint Hampshire / Mummerset village was used to astounding effect by Big Finish as the canvas for a trilogy of linked audio dramas in 2009, not to mention a stirring one-off instalment in 2006. My expectations were promptly dashed, however, as I soon found myself in a world that seemed to subscribe to the notion that Doctor Who is a kids’ show – and an exceedingly wacky one, at that.

The anthology’s seven-part title track is, admittedly, an incredible visual banquet, abounding with all manner of Dave Gibbons’ finest monstrosities and delights, which I imagine must have been even more liberating in their day, given the budgetary restraints that kept the television series’ writers’ imaginations in check back then. However, without context art is just art, and unfortunately the story that these enchanting pictures paint is not only bonkers, but bears little semblance to Doctor Who then or now.

The Doctor is a case in point. Save for his opening-scene batting and a passing resemblance to Peter Davison, there is nothing about this story’s Doctor that put me in mind of the series’ focal hero at all – a trend that regrettably extends across the whole volume. I recall writing reviews of stories in which I’ve felt that their Doctor was portrayed “generically”, but until now I’ve always meant that the Doctor in question could easily have been any of his incarnations - here I mean that he could be any quasi-scientific hero full stop. The Doctor’s world is arguably even more off-kilter – instead of the vice-ridden hegemony borne of Robert Holmes’ seminal Deadly Assassin script and perpetuated by the Gallifrey spin-off and even recently-televised Who, this Gallifrey’s “Time-Lords”, with their laissez-faire approach to hyphens, live inside the Matrix as “Matrix-Lords”, along with their Celestial Intervention Agency, and, apparently, Merlin. On occasion, this colourful, two-tone insanity does produce something fresh and exciting that works well within the Whoniverse as I know it, and especially so in the medium – take the removable-headed Gallifreyan construct Shayde, for instance –, but for the most part, it seems to shoot wide of the mark.

The Stockbridge strips, on the strength of which I’d purchased this volume, are much better, though my complaints about the Doctor’s dearth of distinguishing features stands in both. “Stars Fell on Stockbridge” is the lovely tale of the Doctor saving loveable misfit Maxwell Edison (sans silver hammer), and vindicating his Mulderish existence into the bargain. Whilst even Dave Gibbons’ finest sketching couldn’t measure up to the amiable performance that movie star Mark Williams gave in The Eternal Summer, the story is so very poignant that, even as someone approaching the media-sprawling Stockbridge saga backwards, I was considerably buoyed going into “The Stockbridge Horror”, which is probably, on reflection, the collection’s finest offering. Steve Parkhouse’s sophisticated tale plays with temporally-twisted elements that would unwittingly sow the seeds of audios the calibre of Neverland and particularly The Fires of Vulcan. Further, as far as I know, this strip boasts the Whoniverse’s first-ever battle TARDIS, and more notably still, throughout it boasts a level of implied horror that you’ll seldom find in any form Doctor Who, offsetting the juvenile vibes  thatI got from “The Tides of Time”. Like an X-File ahead of its time, Parkhouse and Austin’s artwork never actually shows the dreadful images of immolation that the dialogue refers to, and on which the tale turns, but this only makes it play on the reader’s mind all the more.

It’s downhill from there though, as the next two stories descend into utter anarchy. With the stalwart Steve Parkhouse leaving for bigger and better things, Mick Austin takes sole responsibility for the artwork, bringing with him a slightly surreal style that, whilst perfectly in keeping with the tone of the adventures, does little to aid their penetrability. “Lunar Lagoon” makes “The Tides of Time” seem straightforward, deliberately blurring the lines between ally and antagonist as well as one timeline and another, while “4-Dimensional Vistas” just blurs everything, pitting the Doctor and his newfound ally Gus against the interesting pairing of the Monk and the Ice Warriors. I desperately wanted to like both strips, as each contain elements that I think are inspired, but I struggled to follow either.

The final fifth Doctor strip, “The Moderator”, is more successful. Save for “The Stockbridge Horror”, it has the most adult tone of all the stories in the anthology - a feeling exacerbated by Steve Dillon’s spikier illustrative style. The villain of the piece, the frog-like mogul Dogbolter, is an especially magnificent creation, particularly in this medium and particularly in an era of rampant Thatcherism. The volume is then capped, rather abnormally, with a fourth Doctor strip of questionable relevance but fair spirit, bringing The Tides of Time to a discordant finish that somehow feels oddly appropriate.

Overall then, my fifth trip Beyond History’s End has been the most disappointing. I had assumed that Big Finish’s Stockbridge stories had shown me only the top of the proverbial iceberg, and that these evidently-inspirational strips lurked below like some great clandestine masterpiece. In the event, it seems that the Big Finish stories cherry-picked the most successful elements of the fifth Doctor’s DWM run, leaving the confusing and contradictory remnants festering frozen below water, where I wish I’d have left them.

The Tides of Time: The Complete Fifth Doctor Comic Strips is available in paperback from Panini. The cheapest online retailer today is Amazon, who are selling it for £9.67 with free super saver delivery.  

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