Monthly Archives: May 2016
Last week saw the publication of issue 500 of Doctor Who Magazine, marked by a celebratory event on Saturday 28 May attended by several past and present contributors. I’ve been a reader of Doctor Who Magazine for most of my life, and have more recently contributed to its sister publication The Essential Doctor Who. I came on board with issue 2 of Doctor Who Weekly, cover dated 18 October 1979. ‘Marvel Comics presents Doctor Who Weekly‘ was an intriguing collaboration. I was familiar with Marvel through its UK reprint range as well as occasionally glimpsing US originals distributed in UK newsagents. As a devoted fan of the series and reader of the Target novelisations the idea of a weekly publication aimed at my age group – I was eight, nearly nine, at the time – it seemed a development which I couldn’t miss.
I was a week late as I hadn’t had the extra 2p to pay the cover price of issue 1 and so supersede the 10p TV Comic. I’d remained loyal to Polystyle’s slowly ailing anthology title – a slender sixteen pages by spring 1979 – out of what I suppose was even at the age of eight a scholarly interest in its progress, even though its Doctor Who comic strip had finished in May 1979. Indeed, as I later learned, some of the oddities I’d encountered in Doctor Who‘s last year in TV Comic were explained by the stories being reprints of first, briefly, Patrick Troughton and then Jon Pertwee stories. Such cost-cutting would never affect Doctor Who Weekly in the same way, where reprints would appear but never as the main title strip narrating the Doctor’s adventures. I was intrigued by the Marvel Classic Comics reprints in the centre pages, retitled Tales from the TARDIS and introduced by an intense portrait of Tom Baker, but clearly reminiscent of American film and television in their realisation of the British novels they retold. The back-up strips were imaginative applications of science-fiction comic values to the monsters of Doctor Who, often allowing them an emotional quality absent from many of their television appearances. The main comic strip itself, written for the first four eight-part stories (excluding the midway two-part filler Timeslip) by Pat Mills and John Wagner and drawn by Dave Gibbons, shifted the Doctor Who paradigm, worldbuilding with a breadth the television series could rarely attempt and a flair guaranteed to win fans of cinematic storytelling and children with aspirations to intellectualism alike. I can still remember the shock of seeing Latin (and I didn’t go to a school which taught it, but recognised it from reading about royal history and coins) appearing in a speech bubble in a Doctor Who comic.
The highlights, though, were the text features. I was at first apprehensive of Doctor Who non-fiction which didn’t come from the comfortingly authoritative pen of Terrance Dicks, whose Doctor Who Monster Book I’d read some years before. It was soon clear from the articles on the Doctor’s alien adversaries, largely written by Gordon Blows, that they substantially shared my childhood assumptions about how the fiction of Doctor Who worked. I was however wary of the occasional reaches beyond what I’d read in the novelisations or remembered from television. Gordon Blows’s imagining the Doctor anguishing over whether he should eliminate the Krynoids in issue 12 is lodged in my memory as something that didn’t convince. Perhaps this was because I couldn’t find the sentiment in the novelisation Doctor Who and the Seeds of Doom.
Most influential on me, of course, were Jeremy Bentham’s articles telling the story of Doctor Who from the beginning. On the autumn and winter Thursday evenings at the end of 1979 and the start of 1980, I was transported to the mid-1960s and devoured tales of the Aztecs and the Sensorites, of the imprisonment of Barbara and Susan in the Conciergerie and the Doctor’s rout of the Dalek invasion of Earth. I respected too Jeremy’s brief ‘Comment’ boxes which sought to put each Hartnell-era story in historical context. These also alerted me to the existence of fan disputes: The Romans for example, was cited as a counter-example to arguments that comedy had only entered into Doctor Who in Tom Baker’s era. Sometimes Gordon and Jeremy collaborated, for example on the tw0-part ‘Inside the TARDIS’ feature, which one week featured Gordon’s interpretation of the capabilities of the TARDIS and another Jeremy’s.
After a little while the text features moved on from accounts of monsters, with a chart placing for the top twenty Doctor Who villains being followed by a history of UNIT. While UNIT were no longer part of the series they were familiar to viewers a little older than I was and to anyone who had read novelisations of early 1970s stories. The article used some licence in tracing UNIT’s roots to The War Machines, though the extrapolation seemed reasonable at the time. The second part of the history concluded with a promise that Doctor Who Weekly readers would soon be able to become UNIT members! This seemed an offer of doubtful merit, I thought at the time.
The launch of the UNIT club (which I didn’t join immediately) turned out to be part of a repositioning of the comic which took place over a few weeks either side of issue 26, promoted as the ‘1st great new look issue!’ Dez Skinn had left Marvel UK and as a result Paul Neary had become editor with effect from issue 23. Like Dez Skinn, he was deeply versed in the world of comics as a fan and a professional, but drew different commercial lessons from his experience. Cover designs changed, Skinn’s philosophy of frantic straplines framing a strong central image being overturned in favour of competing pictures, whether of posters or Movellans or shots of Tom Baker as the Doctor, before comic strip artwork covers became the norm for seven weeks from issue 30.
I didn’t like these changes. The prose style of the retellings of William Hartnell stories changed from The Time Meddler, with dialogue exchanges appearing which included details which led me to doubt their authenticity. The first Doctor referring to Gallifrey was an obvious error to someone who knew that neither the Time Lords nor their planet had been introduced by then. After Galaxy Four the synopses disappeared, to be replaced from issue 26 by new illustrated text stories featuring the current (fourth) Doctor which failed to capture the characters of the television series or of the adjacent comic strip, where scripts were still in the hands (just) of Mills and Wagner. They had now introduced their own companion character, Sharon, a black schoolgirl from industrial working-class probably northern England, whose retention in the TARDIS at the end of Doctor Who and the Star Beast had surprised me as I didn’t particularly expect to find child characters in Doctor Who, still less those who didn’t speak BBC drama serials English and made jokes about mortgages, and I am fairly sure that I regarded her as usurping Romana’s rightful place by the Doctor’s side.
The work of Mills, Wagner and Gibbons aside, Doctor Who Weekly seemed to have lost its self-respect, and I think it was only about then that I went back and cut out the pin-ups from earlier issues. If Doctor Who Weekly didn’t respect its own integrity, why should I? Ironically there was little from the relaunched title which I wanted on my wall. Worse was to come. The Marvel Classics reprints were replaced from issue 30 by hideously dated and often condescendingly written time travel comic stories from the Marvel archive. From issue 33 more and more pages were devoted to a comic strip of mysterious origins, The Dalek Tapes, whose pictures and script, in an old-fashioned but recognisably British style, had to be discerned through incredibly heavy greyscale or, later, were reproduced at a contrast level which led black lines to almost disappear from the page with consequences for legibility. I didn’t know where the strips came from, though would have realised if I had known that the Daleks had enjoyed the back page of TV Century 21 for two years, though I already knew that comic had existed and been dominated by Gerry Anderson characters. Within Doctor Who Weekly, The Dalek Tapes seemed at the time to be chiefly another blight on the title’s previously consistent production and content quality, though the better the reproduction the better I regarded the story – perhaps this is why so many of my generation of readers seem to have fond memories of the tale of Zeg and his attempt to dethrone the Emperor Dalek, as it’s one of the most successfully printed of these tales intended for colour photogravure rather than monochrome litho on low-grade paper.
Gradually as the 30s wore on things began to recover. Jeremy Bentham seemed to have been banished to the new mock-news and factual snippets page, Gallifrey Guardian, and Gordon Blows was no longer required. However, Gallifrey Guardian started to carry occasional news stories about the forthcoming eighteenth season or new Target books and would occasionally hint at older fan circles beyond the weekly’s readership. Eventually in issue 40 the retellings of old stories returned, and it was more than a sufficient apology for their absence for the resumption of the synopses to be advertised on the cover, but no longer as a chronological progression through the Hartnell years. Regular allusions were made in the latter weekly pages to the Randomiser which during season 17 helped the Doctor evade the Black Guardian and this justified the mix of material. This allowed a theme of the ‘new look’ issues, photo-features on recently transmitted season 17 stories, to be extended back to the Key to Time season, or for the UNIT page (I’d eventually signed up to the UNIT club so as not to miss out on this aspect of the weekly) to spin off multi-page ‘special reports’ such as the article on The Green Death in issue 43, which also restored some of the historical contextualisation previously dropped. The prose style largely returned to that seen in the earlier weekly issues. The back-up comic strips Black Legacy and Business as Usual (starring the Cybermen and the Autons respectively) had a pleasingly grim character and I am sure I realised that the Moore who wrote these was probably not Steve Moore, who had from issue 35 taken over the main comic strip from Mills and Wagner.
Then, following issue 43, it was over. I remember digesting the news from the contents page editorial – apparently written and signed by the Doctor as an extension of the earlier ‘Letter from the Doctor’ feature – that ‘as of next week Dr Who Weekly will become a monthly comic – bigger and better than ever before!’ while walking round Waudby’s supermarket and contemplating the purple grapes which seemed identical in shade to the background colour on that final weekly issue. A letter from the editor on the letters page – Who Cares! – reinforced the message. Doctor Who Weekly thereafter turned into Doctor Who Monthly, which for its first issue came across even at the time as a hastily-assembled compilation of material already commissioned for Doctor Who Weekly. At least one unused weekly cliffhanger in the main comic strip, Dragon’s Claw, could be picked out. The longer reprinted comic strips from the 1950s and 1960s were happily removed and stopped from crowding out both the text features and the new comic stories which more closely reflected the tastes of 1980. Quite quickly, though, Doctor Who Monthly began to find an editorial direction which solidified after issue 50 and the adoption of a house style closer to Marvel’s science fiction and fantasy film magazine Starburst than to its mostly juvenile US reprint comic titles. In hindsight, moving to a less frequent publishing schedule just before a new series of Doctor Who started was an odd move, but Marvel had lost their way with the title and the move to a monthly schedule identified a sustainable forward path which probably calmed financial planners characterised by later writers as unnerved by the rollercoaster of fluctuating weekly sales. At the time, the new format certainly flattered the serious-minded child, such as myself.
Doctor Who Monthly first appeared in my local newsagent a week after the advertised publication date, and until 1984 it would often turn up in my region four and even six weeks late. It made up for its erratic distribution by building a closer relationship with John Nathan-Turner’s production office and making more information about the series available than ever before. Its presence and its dialogue with readers and programme-makers transformed Doctor Who from a well-loved television programme to a fully-fledged pop-folk-cultural activity, even if readers and programme makers weren’t quite ready for what that might mean. These, however, are other stories.
Considering that until recently I worked almost round the corner from the Cartoon Museum for nearly two years, it was a pity that I’d not visited it since the museum hosted an exhibition of Doctor Who comic strip art in 2013. This trip was occasioned by another Doctor Who-related project, a smaller but still informative and I hope influential exhibition of Doctor Who book covers, all commissioned for the range of novelizations published under the Target imprint in the 1970s or 1980s or in the case of three new covers for the BBC Books reissues in the current decade. Accompanied by my old comrade-in-Who Paul Dumont, we explored the current main exhibition, The Great British Graphic Novel, beforehand. As I wrote in the visitors’ book afterwards, perhaps reachingly, the museum displayed the work of Masters – Hogarth and Cruikshank and Achilleos and Cummins – alongside the Mistress, Marie Duval of Ally Sloper (a character about whom I first learned from an article on comics in the Look-In Television Annual published for Christmas 1976) but there were other masters and mistresses too, many of whom I’d not heard of before such as Carol Swain or Asia Alfasi, or those of whom I was dimly aware like Kate Charlesworth.
The Doctor Who covers were striking in their original forms, revealing a mixture of formats, materials and working practices. Several artists at times composed their covers on square boards rather than in dimensions which corresponded to those of the paperback cover, knowing that the logo and title and author straplines could be placed on a plain background above them. Some artists suffered from the editing of their work: Roy Knipe’s cover for Doctor Who and the Invisible Enemy had his signature trimmed off with the small but in the original welcoming detail of the button on the fourth Doctor’s coat cuff. On Doctor Who and the Android Invasion, we lost Styggron’s fingers. Knipe had a tendency to change the colours of the aliens, whether deliberately or because he lacked colour reference I don’t know, but Styggron is a memorable green rather than grey-brown as he was on television, where the Nucleus of the Swarm was a sort of mottled pale pink rather than the deep-cooked lobster red of and the Invisible Enemy‘s illustration. Others might undergo decluttering, such as David McAllister’s generic TARDIS-in-space used for Doctor Who and the Keys of Marinus. Paul particularly noticed Jeff Cummins’s original artwork for Doctor Who and the Tomb of the Cybermen, published in 1978, where the background was a more vivid blue and the light patterns across the glass of the tomb door a richer gold than any reproduction has managed. Indeed, the standard of reproduction on the Target covers varied over the years and some suffered from generations of copying as the books migrated from one printer to another and new reproduction methods evolved. Doctor Who and the Ark in Space, as Paul has also said, was a particular sufferer with the subtle beige-yellow of the Wirrn’s eyes in Achilleos’s original being reproduced as an intense and bright yellow-orange. Reproduction on the new impressions might be better, but Chris Achilleos’s new cover for Vengeance on Varos was altogether stronger with a noose around Colin Baker’s neck as was originally intended.
The collection encourages respect for craft. The ebb and flow of the ink on what appears as a solid purple border on Achilleos’s Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars is visible, as is the technique of his inking of the cosmic objects fizzing around the Doctor and his antagonists on his first three covers, Doctor Who and the Daleks, Doctor Who and the Zarbi and Doctor Who and the Crusaders. More impenetrable are the smooth washes of his early multi-coloured Daleks (very much based on the work of the last of the TV 21 Dalek artists, Ron Turner) and the methods by which he painted incredibly smoothly the features of Tom Baker on Doctor Who and the Genesis of the Daleks and Doctor Who and the Ark in Space.
The exhibition draws attention to the lost art of the book cover, but there was room for it to have made more of the links between the book covers and comic strip art. Chris Achilleos’s covers were initially intended as patterned after the style of Frank Bellamy, too expensive a comics artist for budget-conscious publishers Universal-Tandem to employ. Achilleos borrowed not only from Turner for his Daleks but famously from a Marvel Comics Fantastic Four Jack Kirby image when composing his cover for Doctor Who – The Three Doctors . Absent from the exhibition were the four mould-breaking but format-setting covers by Peter Brookes, which all appeared in 1975. At a time when the BBC Books reprint programme is associating the Target series exclusively with Chris Achilleos, the exhibition was a reminder that there were many other artists with the ‘family friendly’ image BBC Books have cited as their reason for using the Achilleos covers. I think a case exists for a Peter Brookes set of reprints, as well as a Jeff Cummins set and a Roy Knipe set. The use of light and indeed suggestion of reflections on smooth surfaces in the work of Cummins and Knipe wasn’t flattered by the reproduction of the covers during their original lifespan, but their imagery is surely something in which the current paperback market might have some confidence.
Though limited to one part of the upper gallery at the Cartoon Museum, and lacking some of the apparatus which other exhibits had, Doctor Who: The Target Book Artwork is more than welcome. Edward Russell, best known as a long-serving brand manager for latterday Doctor Who, deserves thanks for his effort in curating this exhibition, including sourcing the original artwork from several collectors, some well-known among fans veteran or otherwise, some not.