07 December 2022

The Flood (From Stockbridge to Segonus: A Doctor Who Magazine Comics Marathon, Part 29)

The Flood: Collected Comic Strips from the Pages of Doctor Who Magazine
by Scott Gray, Martin Geraghty, Mike Collins, John Ross, et al.

Collection published: 2007
Contents originally published: 2003-05
Previously read: August 2008
Reread: September 2022

And here we come to the end. Not just the eighth Doctor, but the end of an unprecedented era in Doctor Who Magazine history.

Something I've tracked in this project is for how long the strip functions as a self-contained narrative. For example, you can read from #1-60 and it all makes sense... but then the Doctor changes appearance between #60 and 61! Peri spontaneously disappears between #129 and 130. Benny appears suddenly in #193, and Ace disappears; Ace reappears in #203; and then Ace and Benny disappear after #210. The tv programme and other external factors prevent the strip from working as a totally self-contained story, even if it almost gets away with it at times. (The Shape-Shifter picks right up from The Moderator even though the Doctor changed his appearance!)

But from #244 to 353, we have a continuous story (side-strips like The Last Word or Character Assassin aside): over a hundred strips, not quite ten years' worth, that you can read without interruption. The characters, the themes, the ideas, develop from story to story. It had never been done before in Doctor Who Magazine history—no one prior to Alan Barnes, Martin Geraghty, Scott Gray, and company had ever had such a canvas to work on, and thus far, no one has ever had one again. Even more amazingly, it's clear this could have kept on going. This volume introduces Destrii as a new companion, only to immediately wrap up the narrative of her and the eighth Doctor. The universe where Doctor Who didn't come back to tv is probably a darker one overall, but its DWM strip could have kept going for another five years at least, I bet.

from Doctor Who Magazine #329
Where Nobody Knows Your Name, from Doctor Who Magazine #329 (Apr. 2003)
story by Scott Gray; pencils, colours & lettering by Roger Langridge, inks by David A. Roach
The eighth Doctor, a bit mopey after the events of the Ophidius/Oblivion arc, ends up in a bar that is—unbeknownst to him—run by Frobisher—who doesn't recognize the Doctor either. It's a great one-off, with some good character moments and strong comedy and heartfelt writing. The idea that they don't recognize each other is good; as Gray says in the end notes, "it avoided becoming a cosy, nostalgic reunion then and made it a bit more poignant." Not to spend my time here complaining about Big Finish, but compare this to the obnoxious sentimentality of something like the eighth Doctor meeting the Brigadier again in Stranded: UNIT Dating.
from Doctor Who Magazine #334
The Nightmare Game / The Power of Thoeuris! / The Curious Tale of Spring-Heeled Jack, from Doctor Who Magazine #330-36 (May-Nov. 2003)
stories by Gareth Roberts and Scott Gray; art by Mike Collins & Robin Smith, Adrian Salmon, and Anthony Williams & David A. Roach; colours by Dylan Teague and Adrian Salmon; lettering by Roger Langridge
For me, the DWM strip is always a bit less interesting when it becomes continuity-light. These aren't quite a series of one-offs, but they are pretty close to it. We have a story of the Doctor involved in a goofy plot involving aliens and football, one about Osirians in ancient Egypt, and one about an alien acting as Spring-Heeled Jack in nineteenth-century London. The Nightmare Game didn't work for me; I think it wants to be The Star Beast, but it doesn't have the energy or inventiveness of that story, and Gareth Roberts's Doctor's voice doesn't feel like Scott Gray's—too stiff and old-fashioned. Even the usually reliable Mike Collins seems to be having a bad day. The Power of Thoueris! is fun if slight—hard to go wrong with Adrian Salmon—but Curious Tale is again kind of a plod.

The first and third stories here both try to fake you into thinking you're meeting a new companion. I guess, anyway; Roberts claims in the end notes it was his intention to make readers think the pointless kid character was going to be a companion? Goodness knows why he wanted to do that, or why anyone fell for it. Gray pulls off a similar twist to much better effect in Curious Tale.

I do like the recurring gag across #330 to #338 about the Doctor turning up everywhere in a new, often ludicrous hat.
from Doctor Who Magazine #337
The Land of Happy Endings, from Doctor Who Magazine #337 (Dec. 2003)
story by Scott Gray, pencils by Martin Geraghty, inks by Faz Choudhury and David A. Roach, colours by Daryl Joyce and Adrian Salmon, lettering by Roger Langridge
Has anyone had to come up with more "celebratory" strip concepts than Scott Gray? He certainly had to do it a lot of times, and in the end notes to these collections, he sometimes comes across as increasingly desperate. Here it's Doctor Who's fortieth anniversary, and he would still be doing it ten years later for the fiftieth! This is surely one of the better ones, a tribute to the pre-DWM comics framed as a dream of the depressed eighth Doctor. The actual story is bonkers and charming, the coloring is beautiful, and the end is poignant.
from Doctor Who Magazine #344
Bad Blood / Sins of the Fathers, from Doctor Who Magazine #338-45 (Jan.-July 2004)
stories by Scott Gray, art by Martin Geraghty & David A. Roach and John Ross, colours by Adrian Salmon, lettering by Roger Langridge
And suddenly, the ongoing story is back. Bad Blood is the return of Destrii—who becomes a companion—and her uncle Jadafra—who becomes a villain. I remember this not sitting well with me the previous time I read this collection; way back in January 2008, I wrote, "I feel the return of Jodafra was bungled; the one-dimensional villain here is nothing like the enjoyable fop from Oblivion." Fourteen years later (!) I think I was wrong: Jodafra is an enjoyable fop if he thinks he can use you, but an awful bastard otherwise, and Bad Blood does a great job drawing that out, and establishing what makes him distinct from Destrii. A strong story with lots of great characters and concepts; after a minor slump, the strip is once again firing on all cylinders. This continues into Sins of the Fathers, which mostly is there to set up Destrii as a companion, especially the logistics of her holo-disguise, but is another solid story. Like the late Moffat/Smith era, Gray and his artists make it feel like a new movie every time.
The Flood, from Doctor Who Magazine #346-53 (Aug. 2004–Mar. 2005)
story by Scott Gray, pencils by Martin Geraghty, inks by David A. Roach, colours by Adrian Salmon, lettering by Roger Langridge
from Doctor Who Magazine #350
The end of the eighth Doctor's comic run is surely also one of its best stories. An amazing setting, a great use of the Cybermen, some real meaningful, human stuff from both the Doctor and Destrii, perfect artwork. So good that Russell T Davies cribbed from it two different times (the Doctor absorbing the Time Vortex in The Parting of the Ways, the Cybermen as ghosts in Army of Ghosts), but of course he did, because this is operating right in the same ethos as him, my preferred ethos for Doctor Who, where the fantastic crashes right into the ordinary. The Cyberman plan—to make people want to by Cybermen by making their emotions unbearable—has never been bettered. The Doctor's increasingly desperate plans and ploys are done amazingly well. The new Cyberman design is fantastic. Martin Geraghty is on fire as much as the Doctor is during the climax. The narration by Izzy is the icing on the cake, and the cameos from her, Maxwell Edison, and Grace are well-placed. The ending isn't a regeneration, but it could have been, and it works either way.

Even the coda with the cows is great. I'm sad it had to end, but it couldn't have ended better than this.
from Doctor Who Magazine #353
Stray Observations:
  • There's never been much sign that DWM cares about the Big Finish uses of their concepts; the woman Frobisher is married to here is seemingly not the one he settled down with when he left the Doctor in The Maltese Penguin.
  • #337 was, fact fans, the very first issue of Doctor Who Magazine I ever picked up, meaning The Land of Happy Endings was my first-ever DWM strip. I picked up that issue so I could get ahold of its exclusive Big Finish audio drama, Living Legend, written by Scott Gray himself! It would be a few years before I would become a regular purchaser of DWM... I own The Coup / Silver Living, which came free with #351, but the cover to that one doesn't strike a chord; I think I might have just bought the CD on its own on eBay in that case.
  • Normally I think Gray does a great job capturing the Doctor in general and Paul McGann specifically, but I don't care for a Doctor who makes scalping jokes and thinks Native Americans went around saying "How!" and calls them "Red Indians." Ugh.
  • One thing I don't like about The Flood: the bit where Destrii is inadvertently racist. It's just not what I want to read about a companion doing? I think the story might get away with it if Destrii or anyone else acknowledged it, but all the only reaction comes from someone who's been emotionally compromised by the Cybermen. Similarly, I don't quite buy that you could watch as much Earth tv as Destrii has and not know about money!
  • Can I just say, Martin Geraghty has always drawn Paul McGann as kind of tall... but in reality, McGann's only a couple inches taller than the "short" Sylvester McCoy. I feel like this is surely because of those TVM promo photos where McCoy hands McGann the TARDIS key, where McGann is clearly way taller. Supposedly McGann was standing on a box! Can we assume that even if McGann is average height, the character of the eighth Doctor is tall, and thus Martin Geraghty draws him correctly?
  • The "Flood Barriers" behind-the-scenes here, about how DWM almost got to do the regeneration, and their pitch of Ninth Doctor: Year One, is really fascinating to read. I totally see the reason neither panned out, but it does seem a bummer that DWM could be offered something so titanic yet not get to do it, and I bet Scott Gray and Martin Geraghty would have made The Ninth Doctor: Year One something special. But they made the right call—especially once Night/Day of the Doctor came along!

This post is the twenty-ninth in a series about the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip and Marvel UK. The next installment covers The Cruel Sea. Previous installments are listed below:

  1. The Iron Legion
  2. Dragon's Claw 
  3. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume One
  4. The Tides of Time
  5. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume Two
  6. Voyager
  7. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume Three
  8. The World Shapers
  9. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume Four
  10. The Age of Chaos
  11. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume Five
  12. A Cold Day in Hell!
  13. Death's Head: Freelance Peacekeeping Agent (part 1)
  14. Nemesis of the Daleks
  15. Death's Head: Freelance Peacekeeping Agent (part 2)
  16. The Good Soldier
  17. The Incomplete Death's Head
  18. Evening's Empire
  19. The Daleks
  20. Emperor of the Daleks
  21. The Sleeze Brothers File
  22. The Age of Chaos
  23. Land of the Blind
  24. Ground Zero
  25. End Game
  26. The Glorious Dead
  27. Oblivion
  28. Transformers: Time Wars and Other Stories

05 December 2022

Hugos Side-Step: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1960-1966: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson / Way Station by Clifford D. Simak / Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes / ...And Call Me Conrad [This Immortal] by Roger Zelazny
edited by Gary K. Wolfe

I read the Hugo Award for Best Novel winner for 1964, Clifford Simak's Way Station, in a Library of America collection of "four classic novels" of American sf. One of the other books in the volume was also a Hugo winner, This Immortal by Roger Zelazny, so I'll get around to that in a couple more years. If I was reading half of the book, I might as well go all the way, so I decided to follow Way Station up with Poul Anderson's The High Crusade (1960). The High Crusade was a Hugo finalist itself in 1961, but lost to A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (This I did not read and review as part of this project, because I had read it already.)

Collection published: 2019
Novel originally published: 1960
Acquired: February 2022
Read: September 2022

Poul Anderson isn't an author I have much experience with, but I did love his time travel fantasy There Will Be Time (1972), which I read many times as a kid. But on the other hand, my copy was part of a Signet double with The Dancer from Atlantis (1971), which I never even got through the first chapter of despite several attempts! LibraryThing tells me I own many anthologies with his stories in them, but most of the time I don't mention his contributions in my reviews, so I must not have found them notably good or bad. Thus, I was very curious how I would take this book.

It turns out that I took it very well! The High Crusade opens in medieval England, where an alien spaceship lands in a country village, ready to frighten the locals. However, guile, brutality, and sheer luck lead to an upset when the villagers manage to slaughter all of the aliens bar one and take over the ship. The local baron loads most of his village's population onto the massive ship. He intends to fly the ship to the Holy Land and "liberate" it, but the surviving alien tricks him and engages the autopilot, taking the ship back to the alien colony from whence it came, with no reference coordinates to enable a return to Earth.

It's hilarious and charming. The humans are outclassed and outgunned, but keep going anyway. The baron doesn't even know how to use a napkin, but manages to outwit aliens who have hand-held nuclear weapons through superior strategy and a propensity to bluff outrageously. The novel is narrated by a monk named Brother Parvus. Would the novel's plausibility hold up to strict scrutiny? Perhaps not, but it's such a joy to read that you won't want to hold it up to strict scrutiny. It zips along (only 140 pages long in this edition) and doesn't outwear its welcome, as it continuously escalates. Soon the baron is organizing an interstellar alliance against the invading aliens and converting other aliens to Christianity! Jo Walton has a great tribute to the novel here, and says it better than I can.

It is a bit funny that this lost to A Canticle for Leibowitz, also a science fiction novel about a Catholic monk (or monks) recording information for posterity. Must have been something in the air in 1960! I think it would be pretty difficult to argue that Canticle wasn't the right choice—it's certainly the one of the finalists I would have voted for—but this is a worthy finalist for sure, and well worth reading, and I'm glad editor Gary K. Wolfe included it in this Library of America anthology of 1960s sf. Poul Anderson was a finalist for Best Novel seven times, but never won, which means I won't read much more of his work as part of my Hugo journey, but I do feel it would be nice to seek it out otherwise. (He did win many times in the various short fiction categories, however: twice in Best Novella, thrice in Best Novelette, and twice in Best Short Story.)

I read an old winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel every year, plus other Hugo-related books that interest me. Next up in sequence: City by Clifford D. Simak

02 December 2022

Reading The Lost King of Oz Aloud to My Son

The Lost King of Oz by Ruth Plumly Thompson, illustrated by John R. Neill

Famously, L. Frank Baum wrote The Tin Woodman of Oz because young readers kept writing him, wanting to know what had happened to the Munchkin girl that the Tin Woodman had intended to marry after he received his heart in Wonderful Wizard, but who was never mentioned again. I don't know if something similar happened here, but it feels to me like it must have. Baum established in Marvelous Land that the Wizard stole the throne from Ozma's father, Pastoria, and delivered his baby daughter, Ozma, into the hands of the witch Mombi, to be hidden. He provided slightly more detail about this in Dorothy and Wizard, but never followed up on what might have happened to Ozma's father. Did kids write Ruth Plumy Thompson asking about Ozma's father? It seems like the kind of thing that might have happened.

Originally published: 1925
Acquired and read aloud: July 2022

The Lost King of Oz provides the answer. We follow a couple parallel narratives. In one, Mombi has become the castle cook in the Gillikin pocket kingdom of Kimbaloo following her forced forgetting of her knowledge of magic at the end of Land. The goose she's about to roast for dinner reveals himself to be Pajuka, the former prime minister of Oz who she enchanted alongside the king. Pajuka demands she restore him and the king, and she agrees to track down the king in exchange for getting her magic back; she sets off with Pajuka and Snip, a Kimbaloo button boy who has the misfortune to overhear her conversation with Pajuka. I enjoyed this storyline a lot. Mombi is a fun character, but one we haven't seen in a long time; like a lot of enjoyable villains, she's smartest one in the room. I like Thompson's idea that Mombi would be dissatisfied living in a cottage even if Ozma was providing for her, and that cooking is the next best thing to making magic potions is a fun idea. Mombi solves all her problems through cooking ingredients: purple pepper to make forest beasts sneeze, gelatin to solidify a sea so she can walk across, baking powder to make things rise. She might have forgotten her magic, but she's no less clever for it. Her, Snip, and Pajuka make for an unlikely adventuring trio; I don't think we've ever seen an Oz book before where one party member is an out-and-out villain.

Meanwhile, Dorothy has left Maybe Mountain, where she visited Percy Vere from Grampa in Oz, and accidentally wishes herself into America, where she accidentally brings a motion picture stunt dummy to life, and then begins to age to her natural age if she hadn't moved to Oz. She bursts her clothes open as she ages fifteen years in moments! She wishes herself back to Oz with the dummy, who she names Humpy, and eventually meets up with Kabumpo, and then Snip, who Mombi dumped down a well to dispose of. Snip has joined up with an old tailor with detachable ears in the interim. They catch up with Mombi and Pajuka, who decides that the dummy must be the enchanted form of the old king. (Because she forgot her magic, Mombi also can't remember what she actually did to Pastoria.) This plot has some fun stuff, too; I like the idea of Dorothy becoming old again, and the perils she and Humpy encounter are fun ones, like the Back Talkers of Eht Kcab Swood. Also, it's nice to see Kabumpo back; he's Thompson's second contribution to the recurring Oz cast after Sir Hokus.

Meanwhile meanwhile, Princess Ozma and her friends at the Royal Palace (e.g., the Scarecrow, Scraps, Betsy and Trot, the Wizard) receive a cryptic message that sends them to an abandoned palace in the Quadling Country: it had been one of Pastoria's hunting lodges back in the day, and Pastoria and Ozma had hidden from Mombi there. They discover a clue about how to disenchant the lost king and then set out in search of them. As usual, Thompson is a bit more attentive to emotional lives than Baum usually was. Ozma is excited to finally meet her father for the first time since infancy; the Wizard feels awkward because he was the one who handed Ozma over to Mombi to begin with; the other characters wonder if a new ruler for Oz will be as kind and welcoming as Ozma. I think maybe more could have been done with this, especially the Wizard's guilt... but the Wizard's guilt is something that Baum himself had literally never mentioned since bringing the Wizard back to Oz, so Thompson is doing much more than him! But the scene of them visiting the hunting lodge manages to be sad and spooky all at once, a typically affecting piece of writing by Thompson.

In the end, it turns out that Tora the Tired Tailor of Oz is the king, not Humpy—they try a number of other people, including the Soldier with the Green Whiskers, before they figure that out, though. The renewed Pastoria is happy to remain a tailor, though, and so abdicates as soon as he is restored. (Thompson never uses Pastoria again.) It's another one of Thompson's endings that misdirects you with someone being enchanted, and though it's pretty obvious to an adult reader, my son was suitably surprised when it turned out to not be Humpy, and then perplexed.

My main issue with this book is the very end. Ozma wonders what to do about Mombi. Dorothy suggests melting her, and Ozma is like, "Good idea!" and then the Scarecrow and Sir Hokus dump her into a fountain, killing her! Baum's Ozma was decisive and pacifist; Thompson's is often indecisive but violent. One may remember (but it doesn't come up here) that Ozma promised to take care of Mombi in her old age in Land. I made a major edit while reading this aloud; I had Dorothy suggest dunking Mombi in the fountain, but this inspiring Ozma to give her the Water of Oblivion from the Forbidden Fountain, so that Mombi forgets not just her magic, but also her wickedness. (Similar to what happened to the old Nome King.) If nothing else, it seems a shame to take such a great character as Mombi off the board! But up until this point, it's another strong Oz adventure from Thompson. We've read five so far, and I've really liked two of them, and found a third pretty creditable.

I'm always tantalized by the hints about what Oz was like in the era of the wicked witches, when the Wizard first arrived, and Lost King provides some interesting hints. That Ozma remembers hiding in her father's hunting lodge from Mombi would seem to indicate a period after Pastoria had been deposed, before he was caught, with the two of them (and Pajuka) on the run. By the time the Wizard arrived, Pastoria had already disappeared according to this book, but eventually Ozma must have come into the Wizard's possession for him to hand her over to Mombi as well. A dark time that I think it would be interesting to see fleshed out more... and I'm sure many fan writers must have done so.

This is the third SeaWolf Press "Illustrated First Edition" of an Oz book that I've read, and it's the worst. The book is filled with bad typos that seem to derive from poorly proofed OCR, like "Queers Highway" for "Queen's Highway," and lots of missing line breaks in conversations, and incorrect deployment of quotation marks. The other two I read were of much higher quality.

Next up in sequence: The Master Key

01 December 2022

Reading Roundup Wrapup: November 2022

Pick of the month: Beyond Lies the Wub by Philip K. Dick. Not content with reading fourteen Philip K. Dick novels in one year, I've moved on to his short stories. This was a nice collection of short sf that I very much enjoyed, and I look forward to future volumes.

All books read:

  1. The Collected Short Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume One: Beyond Lies the Wub by Philip K. Dick
  2. The Child of Time: Collected Comic Strips from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine by Jonathan Morris, Martin Geraghty, Dan McDaid, et al.
  3. The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 8, Old Is the New New by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, et al.
  4. Legion of Super-Heroes: The Millennium Massacre by Paul Levitz, Mike Grell, Vince Colletta, et al.
  5. The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 9, “Okay” by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
  6. The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold
  7. The Chains of Olympus: Collected Comic Strips from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine by Scott Gray, Mike Collins, Martin Geraghty, Dan McDaid, et al.
  8. The Golden Enclaves: Lesson Three of the Scholomance by Naomi Novik
  9. Hunters of the Burning Stone: Collected Comic Strips from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine by Scott Gray, Martin Geraghty, Mike Collins, et al.

A very comic-heavy month!

All books acquired:

  1. The Flash by Mark Waid Omnibus, Vol. 1 by Mark Waid et al.
  2. The Golden Enclaves: Lesson Three of the Scholomance by Naomi Novik

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 684 (down 4! my biggest decrease in two years!)

30 November 2022

Doctor Who: Trading Futures by Lance Parkin

Doctor Who: Trading Futures
by Lance Parkin

This book is kind of "Doctor Who does James Bond"—you can get that as soon as you look at the cover, which could come out of a Bond film title sequence.  But though it has its goofy moments, and definitely owes something to the Pierce Brosnan films in particular, it's not a parody. Rather, Parkin does that thing Doctor Who does so well: crash the Doctor into the conventions of a different genre and see what happens. Parkin explore the consequences with seriousness. Well, as serious as Doctor Who ever gets, anyway.
Published: 2001
Acquired: August 2022
Read: September 2022

What would a Bond villain look like in the Doctor Who world? Bond villains, when not Soviets themselves, were often trying to incite conflict between East and West for their own reasons. Parkin gives us a new Cold War in the twenty-first century, and then thinks of a Doctor Who way an arms dealer might trying to make money off this conflict: selling time travel. The result is a fast-paced action story, but one firmly in the Doctor Who realm. Especially early on, the way the Doctor gets out of James Bond-esque jams nonviolently is inspired, and a sequences where the Doctor stages a bank robbery to protect people from a tidal wave is delightful, a perfect extrapolation from the eighth Doctor in the tv movie. The Doctor's sort-of companion for the story, Malady Chang, feels exactly like a female ally character from a Pierce Brosnan film.
Parkin always does well by Eight, I reckon, and he also has a good handle on Anji, who here gets to plausibly bluff her way into the confidence of the villain. The subplot about Fitz pretending to be the Doctor probably could have gone further, but was enjoyable anyway. Some people praise Parkin for his Big Ideas about Doctor Who, and while he does indeed have them, he can also write solid Doctor Who books without them. A perfect example of the kind of fun you can have with a "regular" Doctor Who book.

I read a post–New Doctor Who Adventures novel every three months. Next up in sequence: Blue Box

28 November 2022

Hugos 1964: Way Station by Clifford D. Simak

American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1960-1966: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson / Way Station by Clifford D. Simak / Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes / ...And Call Me Conrad [This Immortal] by Roger Zelazny
edited by Gary K. Wolfe

Every year, after I vote in the Hugo Awards, I then read the oldest book to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel I haven't previously read. In 1964, the award was given to Clifford Simak's Way Station. Simak is an author I haven't read much of; last year, I read his 1967 novel Why Call Them Back from Heaven?, but other than that it's just pieces of scattered short fiction in anthologies like The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. (I do remember liking his story "Immigrant" in Galactic Empires, Volume I.)

Collection published: 2019
Novel originally published: 1963
Acquired: February 2022
Read: September 2022

Way Station is an odd book: after the American Civil War, a Union soldier named Enoch returns home to Wisconsin and is recruited to operate a "way station" for Galactic Central, a place where aliens can materialize and rest on their way to destinations further out in the spiral arm. For this, he is essentially granted immortality. At the time the book takes place (much of it is told in flashback), four things converge: the CIA discovers and takes an interest in this immortal man, a political faction in Galactic Central wants to close the way station on Earth by any means necessary, Enoch takes a woman into his home when she's abused by her father, causing the locals to end their longstanding policy of ignoring him, and an important peace conference is breaking down, meaning the Cold War may be about to turn hot.

Like Fritz Lieber's The Big Time (1958), also a Hugo winner from this era, it has big ideas, but takes a subdued, personal, perhaps even slow approach to them. That said, many like to point to Simak's style as "pastoral sf." (Searching "pastoral, science fiction" as a tagmash on LibraryThing brings up sixty-nine works, though only the top dozen would really seem to count. Simak is its top practitioner with his 1965 novel All Flesh Is Grass, and Way Station itself comes in sixth.) It's a defense I buy: I imagine that even in 1963, this felt like a story from another era. Simak's style captures the emotions Enoch must feel as a man out of his own time and the tone really communicates his isolation without slipping into being maudlin. The flashbacks we go into about Enoch's life over the years, encounters he's had with various aliens especially, are effective and Simak manages to evoke a world that is beyond Enoch's comprehension (and ours) but tantalizing and promising. Probably one of the most admirable parts of the novel is the way Simak communicates Enoch's orientation toward the universe, one of wonder and hope.

Given that even good contemporary sf often seems to want to emulate streaming television programs rather than play to the strengths of prose, I appreciated how different this book was. (Oddly, a Netflix film adaptation of this book was announced in 2019, though nothing has been heard since.) That said, I occasionally found myself wanting to skim—the pacing is a bit too languid from time to time!

There is, in the end, a lot going on here, and at the novel's conclusion, all those things kind of collide. Simak handles this very effectively, as elements of different plots and strands cross with one another in unexpected ways. But there's not just a unity of plot but also one of theme. People these days like to talk about "hopepunk" (thanks, I hate it), but sf has always provided us with hope. In Way Station, hope comes from caring: Enoch cares of course, but so does the woman Enoch rescues, and so do many of the various aliens Enoch meets, and so does Enoch's postman, and even the CIA agent assigned to shadow Enoch does, and without all of these people caring about things, the ending would have gone much differently. Near the end, Enoch thinks this:

A million years ago there had been no river here and in a million years to come there might be no river—but in a million years from now there would be, if not Man, at least a caring thing. And that was the secret of the universe, Enoch told himself—a thing that went on caring.

It's a sentiment worth awarding.

(I read this in a Library of America edition, collected with three other early 1960s sf novels, all of which were Hugo finalists, and one other of which also won. More on that in the next post in this sequence.)

I read an old winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel every year, plus other Hugo-related books that interest me. Next up in sequence: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

23 November 2022

Transformers UK #180–89, 199–205, 219–22, 228–34: Time Wars and Other Stories (From Stockbridge to Segonus: A Doctor Who Magazine Comics Marathon, Part 28)

I read IDW's five Transformers Classics UK volumes alongside Panini's Doctor Who Magazine collections because they lead into Death's Head's appearance in A Cold Day in Hell! I then followed Death's Head out of A Cold Day in Hell! into his own series, and I even picked up The Sleeze Brothers based on its connection. But it was always my intention to eventually go back to The Transformers UK and find out what happened after volume five.

This, however, was made more complicated by the fact that IDW's reprint series stopped with volume five. The UK-original stories from #180 to #289* are available in three different ways:

  • Titan did a series of reprints of almost all of the Marvel UK material, but organized thematically, rather than by publication order
  • IDW reprinted some key UK storylines under the Best of UK branding, though mostly early stuff later collected in the Classics UK series
  • Hachette reprinted every G1 comic in a 100-volume partwork, The Definitive G1 Collection

The Hachette reprints appealed, especially as they integrated the UK and US strips, but they are expensive... if you can find them for sale at all! So I ended up going with the Titan ones, even though their reprints of the black-and-white strips (#215 onwards) are in the manga-sized "digest" format, about half the height of the UK originals! Except I couldn't find a copy of the Titan Time Wars collection anywhere, but thankfully IDW had a Best of UK: Time Wars I could use instead. The digest-sized ones have a cover price of $9... for some I have paid over $30 on the secondary market!

(There are two UK stories I will never read, because Titan reprinted both in collections that otherwise entirely contained stuff I already read, so it's hard to justify paying so much for single stories. These are "Cold Comfort and Joy!" from #198, reprinted in Second Generation, and The Fall and Rise of the Decepticon Empire from #213-14, reprinted in City of Fear.)

I worked out a somewhat idiosyncratic order for them: I didn't want to be jumping from volume to volume too much, so I tried to balance original publication sequence with fewer transitions between volumes. If Classics UK had continued, it would have run three more volumes, so I've divided the run into three roughly equal chunks to review here on my blog. Today I'm covering the first of those chunks, thirteen stories from twenty-eight original issues (plus one annual) distributed across five collections.

from The Transformers #180
The Big Broadcast of 2006 / Space Pirates!, from The Transformers #180-87 (20 Aug.–15 Oct. 1988), reprinted in Transformers: Space Pirates (Titan, 2003)
scripts by Simon Furman; pencils by Lee Sullivan, Dan Reed, and Dougie Braithwaite; inks by Dave Elliott, Dan Reed, Dave Harwood, and Lee Sullivan; colours by Steve White and Euan Peters; letters by Glib

"The Big Broadcast of 2006" was actually a US story (reprinted in Classics, Vol. 4), set in the future era of The Transformers: The Movie. But while the US comic never did anything with the future era other than this story and the movie adaptation, the UK comic had by this point depicted a robust and detailed future history—which was completely contradicted by this tale. UK writer Simon Furman solved this problem by writing a two-page frame to "Big Broadcast" that established it was a story being told by Wreck-Gar, full of lies to mislead his Quintesson interrogators: "Wreck-Gar's whole account is full of absurdities and contradictions." As the Quintessons point out, by this point in the UK continuity, Galvatron, Cyclonus, and Scourge were all in the 1980s, not the future. And besides, the UK continuity was up to 2008, not 2006. It's a clever conceit, though I imagine it will have more impact if I ever read it where it "goes"; this just reprints the two UK pages.

It leads into the next UK future epic, Space Pirates!, one of those future stories that actually doesn't intersect with the present-day timeline. I wasn't really convinced this one held together, to be honest; the maguffin that everyone is chasing after didn't make a ton of sense to me, and the story requires seasoned warriors to make dumb decisions for everything to hang together. I do like a bit of Rodimus angst, but I feel like such angst was done much better in IDW's original continuity two decades later. Now, arguably a lot of Simon Furman epics probably wouldn't make sense if you delved into them, but this one didn't grab me the way some of those others did, so I'm less apt to forgive it its mistakes.

from The Transformers Annual 1989
"Firebug!" / "Dry Run!" / "Altered Image!" / "All in the Minds!" / Time Wars, from Transformers #188-89, 199-205 (22-29 Oct. 1988, 7 Jan.–18 Feb. 1989) and The Transformers Annual 1989, reprinted in The Transformers: Best of UK: Time Wars (IDW, 2009)
plot by Simon Furman; scripts by Dan Abnett, Ian Rimmer, and Simon Furman; pencils by Jeff Anderson, Lee Sullivan, Dan Reed, Andrew Wildman, and Robin Smith; inks by Jeff Anderson, Cam Smith, Lee Sullivan, Dan Reed, Stephen Baskerville, and Robin Smith; colours by Euan Peters and Steve White; letters by Tom Frame, Glib, Annie Halfacree, Glop, and Peter Knight
This is a couple smaller stories, and then another big Transformers epic. Most of the small stories lead into the epic Time Wars, aside from one about the Wreckers battling a fire creature. There's Shockwave using the resurrected Megatron as a weapon against his future self, Galvatron, with the aid of Cyclonus and Scourge, also from the future, and then a Galvatron/Megatron showdown... which turns into an alliance, truly a delightful thing. I guess the one about Scorponok also leads into Time Wars, but it feel disposable.

Anyway, it all leads into the cross-time epic of Time Wars, which honestly I don't think makes sense even by Transformers time travel standards. A bit too much noise and fury, and not enough for someone to actually grab onto, once again, though it has its moments.

from Transformers #222
Survivors! / "The Hunting Party", from Transformers #219-22, 229 (27 May–17 June, 5 Aug. 1989), reprinted in Transformers: Way of the Warrior (Titan, 2005)
scripts by Simon Furman; art by Dan Reed, John Stokes, and Simon Coleby; letters by Glib

After Time Wars, the UK Transformers comic changed gears, going small scale—and black and white! Survivors! picks up from the end of Time Wars, chronicling the Wreckers, who haven't been given new orders since those events. They end up teaming up with some former members of the Decepticon Mayhem Attack Squad, Carnivac and Catilla, to take down the deranged Skids. All the characters, all feeling like abandoned warriors, join up together at the end. I'm curious to see where this goes, as "The Hunting Party!" indicates that the new Mayhem Attack Squad has orders to hunt down Carnivac and Catilla for going AWOL. Bad Transformers who become good Transformers is probably one of my favorite tropes (see Dinobot, Blackarachnia, MtMtE Megatron), so this has some real potential if it gets follow up on.

from Transformers #230
The Big Shutdown! / A Small War!, from Transformers #230-33 (12 Aug.–2 Sept. 1989), reprinted in Transformers: Perchance to Dream (Titan, 2006)
script by Simon Furman; art by Lee Sullivan, Jeff Anderson, and Geoff Senior; letters by Helen Stone, Stuart Bartlett, and Glib

These two stories are united in being about Thunderwing, who is rising to power as Decepticon leader on Cybertron. (I think there is a power vacuum because of the events of Two Megatrons!, which was actually published later!) The Big Shutdown! is a delightful hardboiled pastiche, as the Autobot detective Nightbeat must stop Thunderwing from committing a series of murders on Earth as part of a test being administered by the Decepticon leadership back on Cybertron. The end confused me, but I greatly enjoyed the rest of it, and I hope we get more Nightbeat in this series.

A Small War! jumps ahead to when Thunderwing does lead the Cybertronian Decepticon forces, and it introduces the Micromasters, a group of Autobots who are tiny (i.e., human-sized). The Micromasters get captured, but escape anyhow—only the Decepticons, led by Thunderwing, now also have the secret of their construction. This is fine; it mostly seems to exist to set up the Micromasters' first US appearance in a story I haven't read yet. (It appears in Classics, Vol. 5, but I've only read up through vol. 4.)

from Transformers #234
"[Double] Deal of the Century!" / "Prime's Rib!", from Transformers #228, 234 (29 July & 9 Sept. 1989), reprinted in Transformers: Earthforce (Titan, 2005)
scripts by Simon Furman, art by Andy Wildman, letters by Stuart Bartlett and Helen Stone

Finally, we have two small standalone tales. "[Double] Deal of the Century!" introduces Double-Dealer, the Transformers who plays both sides; to be honest, I was thoroughly confused by it because I'm often bad at recognizing Transformers, and that's even harder when they're in black-and-white. "Prime's Rib!" is a random future story, set in 1995 (so about halfway between the 1980s "present" and the 2005+ "future") explaining how there can be a girl Transformers in Arcee if Transformers don't have gender. Optimus Prime had her built to appease angry feminists on Earth! Hilarious if you can take it ironically, I guess. But also pretty stupid.

* The UK comic continued to #332, but from #290 on it was all reprints of US content.

This post is the twenty-eighth in a series about the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip and Marvel UK. The next installment covers The Flood. Previous installments are listed below:

  1. The Iron Legion
  2. Dragon's Claw 
  3. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume One
  4. The Tides of Time
  5. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume Two
  6. Voyager
  7. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume Three
  8. The World Shapers
  9. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume Four
  10. The Age of Chaos
  11. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume Five
  12. A Cold Day in Hell!
  13. Death's Head: Freelance Peacekeeping Agent (part 1)
  14. Nemesis of the Daleks
  15. Death's Head: Freelance Peacekeeping Agent (part 2)
  16. The Good Soldier
  17. The Incomplete Death's Head
  18. Evening's Empire
  19. The Daleks
  20. Emperor of the Daleks
  21. The Sleeze Brothers File
  22. The Age of Chaos
  23. Land of the Blind
  24. Ground Zero
  25. End Game
  26. The Glorious Dead
  27. Oblivion

21 November 2022

Hugos Side-Step: The VALIS Trilogy by Philip K. Dick

VALIS and Later Novels by Philip K. Dick: A Maze of Death / VALIS / The Divine Invasion / The Transmigration of Timothy Archer
edited by Jonathan Lethem

So every time I vote in the Hugo Awards, I read the oldest Hugo-winning novel I haven't already read. If I like it, I tend to pick up other stuff in the same series or by the same author. Hence, my reading of The Man in the High Castle (winner for 1963) has caused me to spend the year working my way through every single Philip K. Dick novel that was republished by the Library of America. So after eight months and thirteen novels, these three stories finally draw my Dick journey to a close.

Collection published: 2009
Novels originally published: 1981-82
Acquired: August 2014
Read: August 2022

The so-called "VALIS trilogy" is more of a duology plus a third book with thematic links to the first two. VALIS (1981) and The Divine Invasion (1981) are both science fiction novels where people have encounters with pink laser beams that impart to them the existence of God, and where the existence of the movie-within-a-book, VALIS, is discussed. On the other hand, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982) is a non-sf novel about an Episcopal bishop trying to find proof of the existence of God. But in terms of how the novels work, I think VALIS and Transmigration are closer together, and Divine Invasion is the outlier.

VALIS and Transmigration are both about the search for God and the search for meaning. VALIS begins with a story about the science fiction author Horselover Fat, but the first-person narrator quickly admits that Fat is him, it's just that these events are too painful to recount directly. But as you keep reading, it seems that the narrator must be a separate person from Fat because they have conversations, and then you realize that the first person narrator is Dick himself! But eventually all this is explained (well, as much as anything is explained in a Dick novel), and I really enjoyed the play with narration. I also just really enjoyed the story in general: Fat is someone with marriage issues, with drug issues, but most of all, with meaningfulness issues. He's chasing after meaning, and maybe he finds it in VALIS... but then there are aspects of VALIS that turn out to be disappointing. Like the best Dick novels, it balances trippiness with ordinariness, and it's definitely in the top tier of his work.

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is very similar to VALIS in many ways: it's about our desperate search for religious truth and our disappointment when we think we've found it. It is also, like VALIS, told in the first person—maybe I am forgetting something, but I think these are the only two Dick novels to be? If so, it's a real shame, because it's highly effective here. The narrator here is Angel Archer, the daughter-in-law of Timothy Archer, a radical bishop who soon becomes involved in a sexual relationship, a discovery of the origins of Christianity that might disprove the divinity of Christ, and supposed communications from the spirits of dead loved ones. What do we chose to believe in, and what do we not? Angel is a great narrator, with the strong sense of personality and voice; the events of the novel are tragic but often kept at a remove, in a way that feels very emotionally honest. There are lots of great bits: I really liked a conversation between the bishop and a car enthusiast about making the link between cause and effect; I liked how Angel (who was an English major in college) continually reflected on the way that literature gave her something to believe in, how it served as a sort of substitute religion—but also how that substitute keeps her at a remove from reality. As an English major (and, now, English professor), I can empathize, and I find the critique interesting. The last bit of the novel is really great.

Dick believed himself to have experienced a divine revelation in reality, but you wouldn't know it from these two novels. They're both about the limitations of belief in a way that I found very interesting. VALIS is technically sf, but I felt you could probably read it as a realist novel if you wanted to; on the other hand, there is the possibility that something supernatural actually did happen in Transmigration. (Angel doesn't think so, though, and neither did I.) Though they grapple with similar themes to much of his early work, I had a real sense that Dick had "leveled up" as a writer.

The Divine Invasion is different from the other two, because instead of being about belief, it's about the things one might believe in. It's also more like Dick's earlier novels, being set in the future, about colonists on other planets. A space colonist has to marry a woman who's undergoing a virgin birth; the child is God apparently. The child undergoes an experience much like the Temptation of Christ, though Dick puts a nice little spin on it. This book had its moments. Probably my favorite is that much of the novel is a flashback that the colonist has while he's in cryogenic suspension, only a malfunction in the mechanism means that his tube is picking up a radio station broadcasting string versions of music from Fiddler on the Roof. So the whole time the story is unfolding, he keeps asking other characters if they can hear the music. Which means we never see how things "actually" went! (If you believe Dick's VALIS cosmology, though, I think everything happens all at once, so there is no difference between the actual events and the recalled events.)

I liked all the stuff about the colonist; it was solid, mid-tier Dick, about an ordinary guy trying to stay afloat, work through a bad marriage, and deal with extraordinary things happening to him. A lot like, say Martian Time-Slip (1964) or Now Wait for Last Year (1966), both favorite novels by Dick. On the other hand, the religious discussions between the kid and other characters were frequently dull. I prefer reading about someone searching for truth, I guess, to hearing what Dick's supposed truth actually was. VALIS and Transmigration are skeptical in a way that Divine Invasion is not. So a decent work, but clearly (to me anyway) the weakest of the three.

Dick died after he wrote Transmigration but before it was published. It's a real shame for any number of reasons, but particularly because you have the impression Dick was about to kick into a third phase of his literary career. After the early write-tons-of-novels-and-some-will-be-great-and-some-will-not phase (1955-70) and the drugs-have-slowed-me-down phase (1970-77), he was picking up the speed again, and also developing his technique and talent in ways he had not done before. Alas, the final phase consists only of these three novels. I would have loved more sf novels like VALIS and more realist novels like Transmigration.

I've really enjoyed this journey... but I also have the vague sense that even though Dick published some thirty-plus novels while he was alive (and several more were published posthumously), that in these thirteen I've read the best of what he has to offer, and I'd be better off not chasing down, say, Time Out of Joint (1959) or The Penultimate Truth (1964). But if anyone thinks there's some Dick novel I haven't read that I really ought to, let me know! On the other hand, I've never read any of his short fiction except "The Minority Report," and it's been collected in its totality in five volumes, so I will be going through it. Not immediately, though; I need to take a break and tackle (now that I've voted in the 2022 Hugos), the Hugo-winning novel for 1964...

I read an old winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel every year, plus other Hugo-related books that interest me. Next up in sequence: Way Station by Clifford D. Simak

18 November 2022

Reading L. Frank Baum's The Enchanted Island of Yew Aloud to My Son

The Enchanted Island of Yew by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by George O'Connor

By the time my three-year-old and I had finished Grampa in Oz, our copy of The Lost King of Oz was still a few days away, so I pulled out my four remaining non-Oz fantasies by Baum and asked him which one he wanted to read, and he picked this one, and we made our way through it while we waited.

Originally published: 1903
Acquired: ???
Read aloud: July 2022

Yew was added to the map of the countries near Oz by the International Wizard of Oz Club, but my memory of the book was that Baum made no explicit connection between it and his other fantasy milieu; no one from Yew, for example, attends Ozma's birthday party in The Road to Oz. But my memory was wrong. The book uses ryls and knooks, immortal forest creatures that Baum most prominently used in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, and the book even indirectly mentions Santa Claus when a fairy says that only one mortal has ever been made into an immortal. So it connects to Life and Adventures at least, and Baum made explicit links between that and his Oz mythos.

(I wonder if it was a fortuitous coincidence or a purposeful reference, that in this book, a fairy cannot be turned invisible by a magic mirror, and that in Lost Princess, the Wizard says fairies cannot be turned invisible against their wills. On the other hand, it was jarring to read this book's statement that humans can't be turned into fairies right after Grampa, where a human is transformed into a flower fairy.)

Anyway, this is about a fairy who requests that a mortal girl transform her into a mortal boy for one year so that she can go on adventures. If it wasn't for the fact that it was written and published after Wonderful Wizard, it would read like a dry run for it: Yew is segmented into five countries, one for each compass point with one in the center. "Prince Marvel" even meets an ordinary man who rules by pretending to be a wizard. But what worked in Wizard seemed to me less effective here. Dorothy's adventures in Wonderful Wizard are strung together by her wanting to get home, and Baum's better Oz books have a similar thread holding them together. Prince Marvel goes some interesting places—I liked King Terribus of Spor, and the Hidden Kingdom of Twi, where everything exists twice over, is surely one of his best executed magical communities—but his motivation is to just... have adventures. As a character, Marvel falls flat. You could do something interesting with the idea of an immortal fairy having to learn how to cope as a mere mortal, but in fact, Marvel only solves two problems without drawing on fairy powers. Throughout the rest of the book, he casts spells, or calls on ryls and knooks and goblins for assistance, or depends on his fairy immunity to others' magic, which seems to undermine the whole idea of the book.

I also felt like Baum was making this up as he went along, and his pacing rather got away from him. The book has twenty-seven chapters, and by the end of the nineteenth, Prince Marvel has got out of the second of Yew's five countries, meaning the last three countries must be covered in just eight chapters! So the book's problems get easier to solve, instead of harder, and Marvel amasses a large group of travelers around himself, most of whom do nothing.

Like Rinkitink (which was originally drafted around this time, too), you can also see the Baum's tone is different here than he would later adopt in the Oz books. There's a lot more physical jeopardy than in the Oz novels, but more than that, even the hero goes around threatening to hang and flog people! When Prince Marvel defeats a band of thieves, he even has them up in nooses, ready to hang, before they convince him to change his mind, and later on, he really does flog the imposter sorcerer Kwytoffle. (It's weirdly harsh compared to how the Wizard was treated in Wonderful Wizard for doing the exact same thing!) Some of it I edited out, but thankfully my son just doesn't really know what "hanging" or "flogging" mean. Indeed, he reacted more strongly to the idea that Kwytoffle might turn our heroes into grasshoppers and June-bugs! I also had to edit out some racism around a "blackamoor" that Marvel wrestles.

detail of the Oz Club map showing Yew in relation to Oz
Still, there's stuff to like here. Twi, like I said, is one of Baum's best developed magical communities, one of those ones where he really builds a world out of a funny idea. But my favorite segment of the book was Prince Marvel's encounter with Wul-Takim, the king of thieves. When Marvel is going to hang Wul-Takim, the erstwhile king of thieves claims he's reformed, and since Marvel promised to hang fifty-nine thieves but they are thieves no longer, he can't hang them. And then Wul-Takim asks Marvel what he's going to do with the thieves' treasure, Marvel tells him he's going to give it to the poor; Wul-Takim points out that as Marvel has taken all their stuff, they are in fact the poorest people on the island of Yew! It marks Wul-Takim as a fun character, and I was glad he continued to aid Marvel periodically throughout the book.

I also really liked Nerle, Marvel's squire, the son of a baron who has been so accustomed to his every desire being fulfilled, that his greatest joy is in suffering and deprivation. It's a shame that these two characters don't inhabit a stronger novel, but they definitely enlivened this one. And reading the blustering Kwytoffle's dialogue aloud was pretty enjoyable.

Like I said, Baum never referred to Yew in his Oz works, and to my knowledge, neither did any of the other "Famous Forty" authors. This is probably because of the coda, which establishes that a hundred years after the time of the novel, Yew had been civilized, and thus was no longer a place of magic. This isn't really consistent with what emerged in the later Oz novels, that Oz was part of a larger collection of magic lands, but it is consistent with how Oz is presented in Wonderful Wizard and Marvelous Land, as a place quite close to the United States (hidden in the American West somewhere?) that is magical because it hasn't been "civilized" yet.

My edition is a Books of Wonder one from the 1990s. The book was originally published with illustrations and color plates by the highly regarded Fanny Cory, but these would have been uneconomic for Books of Wonder to reproduce, so the book was reillustrated by George O'Connor. They're perfectly fine illustrations, but nothing very memorable. However, he went on to be a New York Times–bestselling, award-winning illustrator of picture books and YA graphic novels a decade later. His Wikipedia page doesn't even mention Enchanted Island, which I think was his first published work.

Next up in sequence: The Lost King of Oz

16 November 2022

Oblivion (From Stockbridge to Segonus: A Doctor Who Magazine Comics Marathon, Part 27)

Oblivion: Collected Comic Strips from the Pages of Doctor Who Magazine
by Scott Gray, Martin Geraghty, Lee Sullivan, John Ross, et al.

Collection published: 2006
Contents originally published: 2001-03
Previously read: January 2008
Reread: August 2022

In my comments on The Glorious Dead, I wrote, "I don't have the feeling that the strip is trying to ape the storytelling style of the Mills & Wagner/Gibbons/Parkhouse era. Rather, I feel like it's forging its own identity a bit, trying to figure out what the shape of a late 1990s DWM story is on its own terms." Now that we're in the early 2000s, this is more true than ever. The tv show is dead, long live the tv show—now what can the strip be like without it? There aren't even really many callbacks to the previous history of the strip anymore, just its own immediate continuity.

2001 is the year I became a Doctor Who fan, though I didn't discover the strip until I started picking up these reprint collections a few years later. What made me a Doctor Who fan is the spiritual counterpart of this era of the strip: the Paul McGann audio dramas. Like the comic, the audios had a lightly serialized background story with strong character drama in the foreground... and every single installment felt big, like you were watching a movie, or if not that, like the writer was trying to make a statement about Doctor Who every week. Indeed, the very first issue collected here had a cover-mounted CD containing episode one of the very first Doctor Who audio drama I ever heard.

This volume consistently feels like it's cribbing in a way—it's cribbing from the tv show that hasn't come back yet. The audios and the comics of this time, like the show when it returned, reinvented Doctor Who to be like Buffy or Deep Space Nine, without ever losing what made it work in the first place.

from Doctor Who Magazine #303
Ophidius, from Doctor Who Magazine #300-03 (Feb.-May 2001)
story by Scott Gray, pencils by Martin Geraghty, inks & colours by Robin Smith, lettering by Roger Langridge

This is like an RTD series opener. Well, maybe more accurately, an RTD Year Five Billion episode: "okay, you like us, now here's some weird colorful stuff only we can do." The arrival of color to the strip works perfectly in this bold, exciting story that launches a new story arc for the eighth Doctor and Izzy. Ophidius is a great setting, the Doctor and Izzy are both on fine form, and new character Destrii is great—I never read this without foreknowledge of what her true purpose was, but I suspect it works well, as she bonds with Izzy only to betray her. In fact, it's a lot like Moffat's The Impossible Astronaut: you think you're watching a standard series premiere only to realize something much more unexpected and unusual is happening.

The bodyswap plot is a great idea, and would only work in comics. On tv, you wouldn't want to write out one of your leads temporarily like this; imagine Billie Piper being replaced! On audio, you'd have a new character with a new voice, and I think the continuity of personality wouldn't come across. You could do it in a novel, but I don't think it would work as well, as you wouldn't have the clear visual reminder of what had happened. But in comics, you can swap character appearances without worrying about actors, and you can get the same character "voice" but with a totally different appearance.
from Doctor Who Magazine #304
Beautiful Freak, from Doctor Who Magazine #304 (May 2001)
story by Scott Gray, pencils by Martin Geraghty, inks & colours by Robin Smith, lettering by Roger Langridge
This one-part story follows up Ophidius with the character implications. Scott Gray and Martin Geraghty are at the peak of their creative voices here: the character voices shine, the art is gorgeous. "I d-don't want to be strong... I w-want to be me..." is a devastatingly effective line; the sequence of the Doctor plunging Izzy into the TARDIS swimming pool is gorgeous. I don't really remember seeing much of the TARDIS interior in the McGann run up until this point, but they use it really well here. Again, this is the kind of story you could only do in the strip: with its highly variable story lengths, you can spend eight pages on a character moment and nothing else.
from Doctor Who Magazine #309
The Way of All Flesh, from Doctor Who Magazine #306, 308-10 (July-Nov. 2001)
story by Scott Gray, pencils by Martin Geraghty, inks & colours by Robin Smith, lettering by Roger Langridge
I remembered this one as being very bad, but upon reading it, realized I was confusing it with a different DWM story about artists in the early twentieth century, The Futurists. In this one, the Doctor and Izzy meet Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego, and discover evil aliens are using the Mexican Day of the Dead to harvest life-force. I don't have much to say about this one... in that it is yet again a solid, well-done story from the Gray/Geraghty team, enhanced by the way it plays off the ongoing character beats. Amazing visuals, nice conversations between Izzy and Frida.
Character Assassin, from Doctor Who Magazine #311 (Dec. 2001)
story by Scott Gray, art by Adrian Salmon, lettering by Roger Langridge
Another one of those largely continuity-free one-off strips celebrating something. (The last of the McGann era, if I recall correctly.) A fun but disposable adventure of the Master in the Land of Fiction.
from Doctor Who Magazine #313
Children of the Revolution, from Doctor Who Magazine #312-17 (Jan.-May 2002)
story by Scott Gray, art by Lee Sullivan, colours by Adrian Salmon, lettering by Roger Langridge
What can I say? Another strong outing from Scott Gray, this time joined by Lee "Best at Daleks" Sullivan on artwork. Opening with an extract with Izzy's diary is a clever move; it gives us some personality insight, but also lets us quickly and efficiently do some exposition. It has multiple great cliffhangers and several powerful visual moments. "Good Daleks" is a strategy many different Doctor Who stories have pulled (all the way back to Troughton's debut, but more recently Victory of the Daleks on screen and Dark Eyes on audio), but surely this is the only good "good Dalek" story? The way they are revealed and then that reveal is out-revealed is great; the humans' prejudice against Daleks being a driver for the story is very well done; everything looks fantastic underwater; there's a helluva cliffhanger; Izzy is once again on top form. Gray and Geraghty might be firing on all cylinders, but Sullivan can step up to the plate, too. The growing pressure on the Doctor as a character is nicely done as well; more on that soon.
from Doctor Who Magazine #326
Me and My Shadow / Uroboros / Oblivion, from Doctor Who Magazine #318-28 (June 2002–Apr. 2003)
stories by Scott Gray, art by John Ross and Martin Geraghty & David A. Roach, colours by Roger Langridge and Adrian Salmon, lettering by Roger Langridge

Technically, this is three separate stories: a one-issue prologue and then two big stories. But these eleven strips feel like the kind of three-part series finale that Russell T Davies and Steve Moffat would go on to write: this is the comic's "Utopia"/"The Sound of Drums"/"Last of the Time Lords" or its "Face the Raven"/"Hell Bent"/"Heaven Sent." A story even bigger than The Glorious Dead! Each part works fine on its own from a plot perspective, and there's a shift in approach and location between each installment, but in terms of theme and character, the stories all add up to one big story. Me and My Shadow is fine, a well-enough-but-a-little-confusing story about what Fey has been up to since she was dropped off at the end of Wormwood.

But then we launch into Uroboros and it's magnificent again. The reveal of Destrii in Izzy's body is great. We get more insight into Destrii as a character, and it very much intrigues. The characterization of the Doctor is excellent, being pushed in different directions but never becoming unrecognizable; I very rarely say this, but I would love to get to hear Paul McGann perform some of the anger here. The idea of following up a previous adventure and seeing its consequences is strong; at the time this was a Bush/Blair 9/11 allegory, but it reads even more prescient (unfortunately) these days. This is the kind of comics that just propels you from installment to installment.

It also propels you straight into Oblivion, the explosive finale: Izzy versus Destrii as we finally find out what exactly has been going on. I did get a bit muddled in the backstory of Oblivion and the nature of the threat here, but what really works is of course the character stuff. Izzy taking on Destrii is fantastic; the reveal about Izzy's sexuality, which makes sense of some pretty heavy-handed characterization from way back in End Game even moreso. Her decision to go home is great, and perfectly timed. The sequence paralleling the lives of Izzy and Desrtii is very well written and beautifully drawn.

from Doctor Who Magazine #311

Other Notes:

  • I was a bit surprised to recognize the Mobox in Ophidius: eighteen years later, Scott Gray would reuse them in a thirteenth Doctor strip adventure. When I read The Power of the Mobox, it had been over a decade since I first read this volume so I didn't recognize them at all, and so I experienced the callback in reverse order!
  • Did the strip skip issue #305? No, that was the VNA throwback The Last Word, not collected until much later in The Age of Chaos, though I read it much earlier. It did, however, skip #307, which ran a TV Comic reprint. The backmatter here doesn't mention any script or art issues, but I feel like surely there must have been some.
  • The appearance of what are clearly Martian tripods in "Character Assassin" is a bit cheeky—The War of the Worlds wouldn't come into the public domain in the UK for another sixteen years!
  • Surely Izzy is—by a wide margin—the strip's best original companion thus far. Though I guess the competition here isn't exactly fierce. I mean, I do like Frobisher, but well-rounded person, he is not exactly.
  • Making Izzy gay this way—not explicitly clear until her last story—probably feels a bit underwhelming to modern audiences who get much better representation on a regular basis. But she's Doctor Who's first clearly gay main companion, and dealing with that is made to really matter here. The tv show doesn't make it here until 2017; even the audios not until 2011. (I know all of these are arguable.) It does feel a bit like Scott Gray watched Willow come out on Buffy and thought he could do it too. In a good way.
  • Destrii's Uncle Jodafra is a fun one-off character, and I seem to recall he returns along with her in the next volume.
  • Interesting to note that in both Izzy and Destrii's stories, a picture of the Enterprise is used as a stand-in for escape. It's the sort of spot the TARDIS itself might be used normally, but of course they couldn't be watching Doctor Who, and I'd rather see Star Trek here than one of those dumb stand-ins the tie-ins use sometimes. So it's a bit jarring, but I also don't know what a better option would be. Anyway, I reckon Scott Gray would write an excellent Star Trek comic.
  • Pretty amazing to think that much of this was running in parallel with McGann's second audio season (Jan.-June 2002), which was doing much the same thing as I said above, and has almost as good a hit rate. (I rate five of its six stories highly; actually, the bad one is a bad "good Dalek" story.) Charley dominates the audio companions for much the same reason Izzy does the comics ones, and the run manages to do interesting stuff with the Doctor as well, just like this. What a time to be a Who fan in general, and an eighth Doctor one in specific. (And though I haven't read the eighth Doctor novels of this era very systematically, most of the ones I have read are also strong: EarthWorld, The Year of Intelligent Tigers, The City of the Dead, The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, Camera Obscura. I guess on the other hand, though, you've got Escape Velocity and Time Zero in this era; the McGann comics have never done anything that bad for sure.)
  • Uroboros/Oblivion is thus the Neverland of this run. I really like Neverland, but one thing that sticks out when comparing this comic run to the audios is that Gray is able to write big epic finales that don't need to draw on Time Lord mythology to have scale and scope. Though he did go to that well in Wormwood, neither this nor The Glorious Dead engage with that aspect of the Doctor Who mythos. I think the Time Lords can be crutch for writers looking for grandeur, and Gray is perfectly capable of working without it.
  • I feel like my reviews here have kind of undersold this run. If you just read synopses of it all, I'm not sure it would come across better than any other era of DWM history. What makes this era sing is less the big stuff (though the arc is very well done) or the premise of any individual tale (though there are some good ones), but the way the dialogue shines and the story is paced and the art is perfect. It's just well done; I may as well have been grinning all the way through reading this.

This post is the twenty-seventh in a series about the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip and Marvel UK. The next installment covers issues #180–89, 199–205, 219–22, and 228–34 of The Transformers UK. Previous installments are listed below:

  1. The Iron Legion
  2. Dragon's Claw 
  3. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume One
  4. The Tides of Time
  5. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume Two
  6. Voyager
  7. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume Three
  8. The World Shapers
  9. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume Four
  10. The Age of Chaos
  11. The Transformers Classics UK, Volume Five
  12. A Cold Day in Hell!
  13. Death's Head: Freelance Peacekeeping Agent (part 1)
  14. Nemesis of the Daleks
  15. Death's Head: Freelance Peacekeeping Agent (part 2)
  16. The Good Soldier
  17. The Incomplete Death's Head
  18. Evening's Empire
  19. The Daleks
  20. Emperor of the Daleks
  21. The Sleeze Brothers File
  22. The Age of Chaos
  23. Land of the Blind
  24. Ground Zero
  25. End Game
  26. The Glorious Dead