14 April 2021

Voyager (From Stockbridge to Segonus: A Doctor Who Magazine Comics Marathon, Part 6)

Collection published: 2007
Contents originally published: 1984-85
Acquired: January 2008
Read: January 2021

Voyager: Collected Comic Strips from the Pages of The Official Doctor Who Magazine
by John Ridgway, Steve Parkhouse, and Alan McKenzie

After souring on Steve Parkhouse's approach to Doctor Who across the course of The Tides of Time, I was pleasantly surprised by this volume. I don't know if it's because Parkhouse found his enjoyment of the series revitalized by a new Doctor, or if it's because he was now writing toward the talents of John Ridgway (in the introduction, Ridgway discusses how Parkhouse tailored the strip to his interests), but suddenly the whole thing feels fresh and energetic in a way entirely unlike 4-Dimensional Vistas.

The Shape Shifter, from The Official Doctor Who Magazine #88-89 (May-June 1984)
script by Steve Parkhouse, art by John Ridgway, letters by Annie Halfacree

This picks up right from The Moderator; the Doctor, having regenerated between strips (it's this kind of thing that makes the strip feel like a parallel universe to the show rather than something that slots in between it) is tracking down whoever hired the Moderator to kill Gus. But it doesn't just pick up in terms of plot but also style and tone: just as The Moderator was dominated by colorful, humorous narration from its title character, so too is The Shape Shifter. This story introduces us to Avan Tarklu, a shape-shifting private investigator who decides to find the Doctor for Dogbolter and turn him in for the reward money. The narrator is a delight, and yet again, I found myself wishing Big Finish's comic strip adaptations lasted longer than a single box set, because I would have loved to hear Robert Jezek read some of this aloud. The story is filled with a lot of genuinely humorous shape-shifting antics; I laughed out loud more than once. This is definitely one of those strips where story and writing are totally simpatico. Avan becoming a burger or hijacking the TARDIS, the panels where they imagine how Avan could make the Doctor's life hell hiding in the TARDIS, it's all a delight. After a number of one-off artists, John Ridgway has debuted as the strip's new long-term artist, and he nails it from the off; his Colin Baker isn't perfect, but otherwise, he has a great sense of tone, both grim and humor, and his storytelling is always clear.

I did find there was one big leap I didn't quite follow: why does Avan agree to collaborate with the Doctor to fool Dogbolter and split the reward money? We go from Avan having the Doctor over a barrel to the two teaming up to take down Avan's ostensible employer! But hey, it's a fun con, and I'll take it.
from The Official Doctor Who Magazine #90
Voyager, from The Official Doctor Who Magazine #90-94 (July-Nov. 1984)
script by Steve Parkhouse, art by John Ridgway, letters by Annie Halfacree
In the time since The Shape Shifter, Avan has taken the name "Frobisher" "in deference to the Doctor's love of all things English" (and it's implied Avan might not actually be his real name, either); here he also adopts the penguin form that will become his default. His presence maintains the moments of humor that Parkhouse introduced with The Shape Shifter. (There's a great gag where Frobisher decides to disguise himself by putting on a fake mustache, for example, and I liked the bit about the gun the Doctor threatens Astrolabus with.) But otherwise this is very unlike what has come so far.

Reading The Moderator and The Shape Shifter, you might think the strip was moving off into a new storyline about Dogbolter in a sort of noir universe, but Voyager is a surreal, weird fantasy epic. The Doctor has a dream about being lashed to a doomed sailing ship, then he finds the ship, along with the mysterious Astrolabus, who's fleeing the strange entity known as the Voyager, apparently for a past crime.

It's weird stuff. I don't quite entirely get it. But it's excellent stuff, too; Parkhouse's occasional moments of surreality in The Tides of Time were great, and with Ridgway as his partner, this story leans into it completely. But unlike some surreal stories, you really feel a sense of danger and mystery. Astrolabus's da Vinci helicopter is awesome; the true identity of his TARDIS is awesome. This is Doctor Who as grandiose mythology, and I wish I got it just a tad more, but I otherwise enjoyed it a lot.
from The Official Doctor Who Magazine #96
Polly the Glot, from The Official Doctor Who Magazine #95-97 (Dec. 1984–Feb. 1985)
script by Steve Parkhouse, art by John Ridgway, letters by Annie Halfacree
Ivan Asimoff of The Free-Fall Warriors reappears, having made his last DWM appearance nearly forty issues prior; I think this makes him the first original strip character to recur after an absence, and leads to a feeling of a DWM universe being built up. 
Shortly after Voyager, the Doctor and Frobisher bump into Asimoff at a busy spaceport; Asimoff asks for help freeing a spacefaring life-form called a zyglot from captivity in his capacity as treasurer of the Save the Zyglot Trust. The plan the Doctor and Frobisher come up with is to kidnap Asimoff and send off a ransom demand so that the public will donate to the Trust to help fulfill the ransom demand! This plan seemed a bit wacky, and I was feeling uncertain about the whole deal, but once the three of them go about an Akker zyglot-hunting ship, the strip sparkles with the kind of humor that has partially defined it of late; the dull Akkers are great, the janitor robot pretending to be a warrior robot is a delight.

In the end, the Doctor donates his share of the money he and Frobisher ripped off from Dogbolter to the Save the Zyglot Trust. It's not a total tonal shift into the humorous, though; the moment where Polly the Glot is freed from captivity is one of beauty, and Astrolabus turns out to the president of the Trust, giving the Doctor glimpses of doom throughout the story, and then kidnapping the Doctor at the end. I think it would be easy for a writer's approach to seem tired as he approaches the end of his tenure (Steve Moore's did after just over a dozen strips), but Parkhouse I think has totally reinvented himself as a writer to play to Ridgway's strengths. (In the introduction, Ridgway said Parkhouse had grown tired; he wasn't even scripting even more, he'd just call Ridgway on the phone and tell him what to draw on a panel-by-panel basis, and then he'd do the dialogue once Ridgway submitted his art.)
from The Official Doctor Who Magazine #98
Once Upon a Time-Lord, from The Official Doctor Who Magazine #98 / The Doctor Who Magazine #99 (Mar.-Apr. 1985)
script by Steve Parkhouse, art by John Ridgway, letters by Annie Halfacree
Steve Parkhouse departs the DWM strip in a story that wraps up the Voyager/Astrolabus storyline. This one too is a delight, as things all get a bit meta when Astrolabus uses his storytelling powers to slow down the Doctor, converting the strip into a children's story book! Surely "Frobisher Eats a Worm" and "Frobisher Wishes He Hadn't" is a highlight of the strip. When Astrolabus thinks he's escaped, he literally escapes the confines of the comic page, running across a blank space with no panel borders. In the end, though, the Doctor turns Astrolabus over to the Voyager, freeing himself from the feeling of doom he's had, but leaving him unsettled. This one is a little too quick to be as satisfying as Voyager, but I still enjoyed it.
from The Doctor Who Magazine #101
War-Game, from The Doctor Who Magazine #100-01 (May-June 1985)
script by Alan McKenzie, art by John Ridgway, letters by Annie Halfacree
Alan McKenzie, formerly editor of the strip, takes over as write from this story, which sends the Doctor and Frobisher to a barbarian planet where they meet a Draconian who crash-landed and set himself up as a local warlord. The comedy is the best part of it, my favorite gag being one where the Doctor and Frobisher get wine, but then reveal they don't have any money. The Doctor says, "I'm sure I can explain.... After all, what can they do to us?" Next panel: the Doctor and Frobisher are being auctioned off as slaves. In this story, Frobisher is back to shape-shifting, making himself look like a barbarian. When they attack a castle, Frobisher makes himself big... only to discover that makes it easier to be stabbed in the leg.

Outside of this, though, I found this one to be fairly dull stuff.
from The Doctor Who Magazine #103
Funhouse, from The Doctor Who Magazine #102-03 (July-Aug. 1985)
script by Alan McKenzie, art by John Ridgway, letters by Annie Halfacree
The TARDIS materializes in a weird sort of space entity that takes the form of a haunted house; it feels like McKenzie trying to give Ridgway the kind of surreal stuff to draw that he did so well under Parkhouse... but I didn't really find it interesting, a couple nice moments aside. (I liked the Doctor's attempted use of an axe to resolve the crisis is fun; the use of string for the actual solution is cute, but feels like nonsense even by Doctor Who time travel standards.)
from The Doctor Who Magazine #106
Kane's Story / Abel's Story / The Warrior's Story / Frobisher's Story, from The Doctor Who Magazine #104-06 / Doctor Who Magazine #107 (Sept.-Dec. 1985)
script by Alan McKenzie, art by John Ridgway, letters by Annie Halfacree
I wanted to like this story. Alan McKenzie takes a stab at the epic, with a four-part story about creatures called Skeletoids invading the Federation of Worlds. The Doctor and Frobisher are among a team of six who unite to stop the invasion; most of the other characters have very detailed backstories and become the strip's viewpoint characters... only it's three-and-a-half issues of set-up and just half an issue of actual action! All the set-up is made totally irrelevant, and the way the Skeletoids are defeated feels far too easy; I think you're supposed to feel bad about one character's sacrifice, but you barely know or care about him. One of the six is the Draconian warlord from War-Game, but at an earlier point in his timeline. If I had cared about him in War-Game, I might have found that more interesting.

Another of the six is Peri, making her strip debut-- which makes her the first human-played companion to appear. Peri doesn't do much, though the way she's folded in is interesting; the Doctor goes to pick her up, where she's working as a waitress in 1985 New York; she says, "I never thought I'd see you again!", so whatever circumstances she left the Doctor under, it felt like a final exit rather than a temporary break. I don't think Frobisher knows here, though, based on how he answers Kane's question about who she is. I don't know where you would wedge the Doctor's travels with her into the strip's continuity; before The Shape Shifter, I guess, but that would disrupt the way The Moderator flows right into it. I'm curious to see what kind of use the strip makes of her going forward; it didn't exactly make great use of its previous human companion.

Anyway, this means this volume, which begins quite strongly, ends with a fizzle. But, you know, tell John Ridgway to draw an ancient valley, and he will draw the hell out of it.
Stray Observations:

  • Pedants should note that the first installment of Voyager claims the story title is The Voyager... but even I am not pedantic enough to do something like list it as The Voyager / Voyager. Interestingly, it is the first story where each individual part has its own subtitle ("It Was a Devil Ship.." / "The Light at the Edge of the World..." / "The Lighthouse" / "Dreams of Eternity" / "The Final Chapter"). Also, the cover of the first twelve DWM graphic novels usually used the title strip's unique logo as the cover logo, but the way "VOYAGER" is rendered on the cover is not the way it's rendered in the strip itself. These are the things that I notice and wonder about...
  • In part two of Voyager, the TARDIS materialization noise is rendered as "VOORP! VOORP!" Boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.
  • In the introduction, Ridgway talks about how Parkhouse gave Frobisher mono-morphia so he couldn't actually change form, probably because as a shape-shifter he had virtually unlimited power... Ridgway also complains that McKenzie ignored this, most prominently in War-Game. But as far as I noticed, the word "mono-morphia" is never actually used here! There are just a couple Parkhouse stories where Frobisher acts a bit awkward when someone asks him to shape-shift. I think if you weren't paying attention, it would be easy to miss. (Though, given McKenzie was editor on most of the Parkhouse/Ridgway strips, he should have been paying attention!)
  • There was a small reference to the Freefall Warriors in The Moderator, but the reappearance of Ivan Asimoff in Polly the Glot definitively ties The Free-Fall Warriors to the home era of Dogbolter and Frobisher, beginning the creation of DWM cosmology of sorts. There's a reference to Dogbolter's company, Intra-Venus, Inc., in Abel's Story, implying that sequence (and thus War-Game) takes place in the same era, too, which would make this the same time period where Davros is active as Emperor of the Daleks (i.e., between Revelation and Remembrance, though at the time these strips came out, that would not have been known).
  • I feel like on tv, the sixth Doctor was always bumping into old friends, so the appearance of Asimoff is appropriate. Except that on screen, they were always old friends we'd never actually met before (Azmael in The Twin Dilemma, Dastari in The Two Doctors, Stengos in Revelation of the Daleks, Hallett and Traves in The Trial of a Time Lord), but we actually Asimoff already!
  • Steve Parkhouse departs the strip after a venerable run as writer (and sometimes artist) spanning three Doctors! I will see as I go, but I suspect no one will repeat this feat. After leaving DWM, he would go on to illustrate DC/Vertigo titles such as The Sandman and The Dreaming. He would also make one small but important contribution to Marvel UK's Transformers strip, writing its first original story, which was also the only UK story Marvel reprinted in its US book.
  • For the last six strips, Alan McKenzie is credited as "Max Stockbridge." The pseudonym of "Maxwell Stockbridge" was first used back in 1981 according to the Tardis wiki, but this was its first use in the main DWM strip itself. Poking around in the Grand Comics Database informs me it was previously used on DWM back-up strips, in DWM specials, and in other Marvel UK titles such as Marvel Super-Heroes and Savage Action. I had thought the pseudonym was inspired by Maxwell Edison and Stockbridge, but given those didn't appear until late 1982, the pseudonym must have inspired them. (Tardis wiki also claims it was retired by 1984, but these strips were published in 1985.)
  • In Kane's Story, Kane suggests fixing the damage done to the TARDIS in Funhouse by replacing the busted temporal component with the intact spatial one; Kane says they'll only need the spatial one for their mission to defeat the Skeletoids. But then they promptly travel back in time to 1985!
  • Some people seem to think that Kane's Story indicates Frobisher had already met Peri, but I think it indicates exactly the opposite. The Doctor and Frobisher encounter an illusory version of Peri in Funhouse, which turns into a demon. The Doctor expresses concern for her but Frobisher says nothing to her; in Kane's Story, basically the same thing happens again. When Kane asks who Peri is, Frobisher says, "I just hope she doesn't change into anything more comfortable this time!" This makes me think Funhouse was Frobisher's only previous experience of Peri.
  • It is sort of weird to note that the sixth Doctor had about half as many tv adventures as the fifth... but twice as many comic ones! As a helpful GallifreyBase commenter elucidates: "Davison was squished at both ends as Tom Baker was the lead in the strip right up to December 1981 and Davison didn't start until Castrovalva was broadcast. However with Twin Dilemma on air at the end of season 21, Colin went straight into the strip straight after Caves was broadcast and remained the lead until Time and the Rani went out, so he got both the gap between seasons 21 & 22, the hiatus and after 23 went out. Giving him much more time as the current Doctor." Good fact!

This post is the sixth in a series about the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip and Marvel UK. The next installment covers The Transformers Classics UK, Volume Three. 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

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