"Doctor Who" has been entertaining television viewers for more than forty years, with the eleventh incarnation of the Doctor, played by Matt Smith, having only recently made his debut in the latest series. However, this eccentric time traveler's adventures haven't just been confined to the small screen. He's also made appearances on film, in books and audio plays, and, of course, in various comics.
The first comic strips featuring the Doctor appeared soon after the character made his debut on British television in 1963. From 1964, "TV Comic," a British publication that featured comic strip versions of popular television shows, had an ongoing strip that charted the adventures of the Time Lord. And if the characterization was sometimes a bit off, well, that wasn't the end of the world.
"[In this regard] the second Doctor was perhaps the worst 'offender' in that he sometimes used a gun or explosives, and took delight in destroying his enemies without due provocation," said Paul Scoones, the author of the forthcoming "Comic Strip Companion" from Telos Publishing. "What I find remarkable about this is that it was repeatedly approved by the 'Doctor Who' production office. I've seen the paperwork with sign-offs on storylines from the likes of Gerry Davis, Peter Bryant and Terrance Dicks [Bryant was one of the show’s producers, while Dicks and Davis worked as script editors on the program]. All I can conclude from this is that they were perhaps too busy or disinterested to properly examine the content of the strips.
"Things improve with the third Doctor," Scoones continued. "He may not be working with the Brigadier and UNIT most of the time and instead spends his exile living in a country cottage, but that's a necessity of the rights restrictions imposed on the strip [and] the Doctor's character is actually fairly faithful to the TV series."
The "TV Comic Doctor Who" strips survived until 1979. There was a hiatus between 1971 and 1973, however, during which time the strip was transplanted into "Countdown." This comic had numerous titles during its run, including "Countdown for TV Action," "TV Action + Countdown," and, on its cancellation in 1973, was simply known as "TV Action."
"The move from 'TV Comic' to 'Countdown' heralds a greater maturity for the 'Doctor Who' strip," said Scoones. "The stories are less whimsical and a more serious-minded style of storytelling tackled such concepts as the complexities of time travel and unchecked scientific experiments. The leap in quality evident in the writing is matched by the artwork with fine illustrations and a bold use of color. The Doctor is instantly recognizable as Jon Pertwee [the actor portraying the character on television at the time], an instant and dramatic improvement on previously poor likenesses in 'TV Comic.'"
In 1979, a new magazine dedicated to the program saw release. This was "Doctor Who Weekly," edited by Dez Skinn, the man dubbed by some as the "British Stan Lee." During a long career, this enterprising editor has masterminded the launch of numerous titles including "Hammer House of Horror," comics trade magazine "Comics International" and "Warrior," the original home of "V for Vendetta." "Doctor Who Weekly" survives to this day, although it has since morphed into a monthly publication ("Doctor Who Magazine," often referred to by its readers and staff as "DWM"). Skinn, interviewed for "Vworp Vworp" (a fanzine dedicated to "DWM," and, in particular, its comic strips) on how the magazine came about, said:
"[I] had the idea for a Doctor Who title around 1975. [It] seemed absurd to me that the TV series had been transmitting to a like-minded audience for 12 years without any serious printed accompaniment beyond annuals. I felt it would be a perfect stablemate to my then current 'House of Hammer' magazine, and could be produced in the same format, with a mix of comic strips and features, going behind and beyond the TV series."
The new magazine gave another boost to the comic strip, with the injection of fresh talent such as Pat Mills, John Wagner, and Dave Gibbons.
"The 'Doctor Who Weekly' strips represent a great step up in quality, both in terms of writing and illustration," said Scoones. "The characters seem more real, the plots more complex and grounded in well-rounded, fully-realized environments."
The main strip in "DWM" has been running for over thirty years now, which means that it has greater longevity than the original TV series, which was screened from 1963 until 1989. Of course, in 2005, "Doctor Who" was rebooted on television for a new generation and surprised many people by becoming more successful than ever.
One consequence of this renewed popularity is that "DWM" no longer has the monopoly on the Doctor's comic adventures. These are now also an ongoing part of "Doctor Who Adventures," a British magazine aimed at 8-12 year olds, while American comic company IDW has employed various talents to produce both a monthly comic book and various one-off specials.
And whereas "TV Comic" sometimes played fast and loose with its characterization of the Doctor, one of the hallmarks of the more recent strip adventures, particularly since 2005, has been their fidelity to the television show, both in terms of art and writing. This is, in part, because many of the creators working on these comics are fans of Who and know the show and its history inside out. For IDW editor Denton Tipton, responsible for that company's range of "Doctor Who" comics, being a fan of the source material makes a real difference when it comes to the quality of the stories produced.
"This goes for any subject matter for any media,” Tipton said. “If the writer doesn't care, it will show in the work. And no one wants to read a half-hearted story."
Writer Tony Lee, who has written for both IDW and "DWM," mostly, if not entirely, agrees with Tipton's assessment. "You know that old adage 'You don't have to be mad to work here—but it helps'? Well, it's similar for 'Doctor Who.' You don't have to know the show that well to tell a good story, but you'd do a far better one with a knowledge of the show."
However, Lee can see a downside to being a fan as well. "It quite possibly hinders me a little," he said, "as I do find myself straying towards the 'fan-fic' side of the stories—I love the big end-of-season tales and I try to make every one of my stories like that, which doesn't really help."
To this end, many of Lee's stories have involved oblique or direct reference to televised adventures such as "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" and "Timelash." To be fair to the writer, these types of 'fan-fic' elements do seem to be what the readers, or at least the American fan-base, demand. As he explained it, "I think this is mainly because (and this is based on the American fans I know) it's almost like a badge of honor to be able to pick out references to classic 'Who.' At [Los Angeles-based convention] Gallifrey One in February, I actually asked the packed room during a talk, 'How many people read the comic?' and nearly all the hands went up. I then asked, 'How many people like the continuity references?' and more hands went up! People who don't even read the comic like those references!"
But John Reppion and Leah Moore, the writing team behind IDW's one-off special 'The Whispering Gallery,' are of the opinion that their lack of knowledge of all things 'Who' worked to their story's benefit, making it potentially more accessible to a wider audience.
"We've been watching and enjoying the show ever since the 2005 re-launch," said Reppion, "but we're kind of 'casual' fans; we don't know the ins and outs of the chronology, haven't really read the novels, other comics, or listened to the audio plays, etc. However, we didn't see that as a disadvantage because we wanted to create a story that would appeal to everyone, not just the hardcore 'Who' fanatics. I think that sometimes there's a very real danger of getting too bogged down in the continuity and all the references and losing the interest of the more general audience—it's certainly happened to me when watching some of the TV episodes. To me 'Doctor Who' shouldn't be this big impenetrably complex thing, it should be fast, fun, exciting sci-fi first and foremost."
For Oli Smith, the writer behind several of the strips featured in the "Doctor Who Adventures," the trick is to capture the atmosphere of the parent show without necessarily directly referencing 'Who' continuity. In the final Tenth Doctor strip published in "Doctor Who Adventures" (and with that incarnation of the character having already regenerated onscreen), the writer used a story completely free of references to the television show (notwithstanding the use of the Doctor and his TARDIS) to explore the essence of the Time Lord’s ongoing struggle against evil and injustice.
In "Borrowed Time," the Tenth Doctor answers a call for help from Irene, an elderly woman stranded on a "mini-moon around Delphi." She is engaged in an ongoing struggle against the man-eating alien weeds that inhabit the moon, a, perhaps futile, endeavor that could be seen to mirror the Doctor’s own quest to rid the universe of evil.
"It is very much my fond farewell [to Tennant’s Doctor],” says Smith, “and I think that a four page story is just right to tell a poignant tale like that."
One very practical consideration, meanwhile, that the various strips’ writers have had to consider over the years is the sheer volume of "Doctor Who" stories that have been told, in whichever medium. For Moore and Reppion, this presented its own challenge. "I think writing an original story was really hard, as there are so many 'Who' episodes and novels and spin offs, its hard to navigate between them sometimes, but I think the most difficult part for us was figuring out how the Doctor works as a character. I don't mean what he eats for breakfast, or what motivates him or anything, more how he works in terms of constructing a story and having it play out dramatically. The problem with writing 'Doctor Who' is that he's a really brainy, resourceful character who knows just about everything, so the problem is how to put him in a situation which initially puzzles him but that ultimately he will be able to resolve and escape from in one piece."
It's perhaps no surprise then that Moore and Reppion's effort pivoted as much around companion Martha Jones as the Tenth Doctor himself; the story sees her separated from the Doctor in an alien art gallery and menaced by a creature that feeds on emotions.
"Martha is a character who likes to know what's going on, she's really independent and quite happy to get stuck in on her own," said Moore. "This means you can have her left without the Doctor and she doesn't fall to pieces. Admittedly in "The Whispering Gallery" things do get a bit intense for her, but that's what she signed up for as the Doctor's companion! From a writing point of view, it was also convenient to have her in one place and the Doctor in another. The story plays out more naturally if there are two people or situations to cut between."
But Moore and Reppion's difficulties weren't confined to conjuring up a story for the last of the Time Lords. They also had a bit of a problem capturing the Doctor's voice. Luckily, help was at hand form a certain Neil Gaiman, soon to join the pantheon of creators to have contributed to the "Doctor Who" universe, having penned a script for the next season of the television series..
"Neil Gaiman had done a reading," explains Moore, "and we met up afterwards and were talking about writing 'The Whispering Gallery.' Neil said he thought the David Tennant Who would be great fun to write because of the way he talks. He did a brilliant impression of Tennant's Doctor, with all the hesitations and the rhetorical questions and thinking out loud, and that was it. We were able to write the dialogue as soon as we got back and the story just sprang into shape. We totally owe him for that one!"
Getting the Doctor's voice right is, of course, one of the most important parts of writing Who. As is capturing his likeness, especially in a visual medium such as comics, as writer/artist Rob Davis revealed. "Readers need to believe that it is the Doctor and companion in the strip and this is a bit of a balancing act for an artist," Davis said. "There's always a danger when trying for a likeness that you end up leaning too heavily on photo reference and produce images that look stilted, sort of 'freeze frame' images. Then there is the danger that the mechanics of your style obscure the likeness. The face has to fit an artist's style otherwise it looks incongruous amongst the other elements on the page. That's the balancing act and it weighs heavily on every licensed strip where likenesses are demanded."
But the various comic creators and editors charged with crafting further adventures featuring the Doctor aren't the only "gatekeepers" when it comes to protecting the character's integrity. The production team on the television show have a vested interest in making sure the property is handled properly, although their approach during the David Tennant years was very hands-off, at least when it came to "DWM," as writer/artist Dan McDaid explained.
"[I had] no interference at all, actually," McDaid said. "Tom [Spilsbury, current editor of 'DWM'] and the staff there really know their stuff. They’ve been around the block, they know what’s acceptable, what works, what doesn’t. I’ve eulogized ('DWM' strip editor) Scott Gray quite a lot before, but it bears repeating: he’s one of the best Who writers, in any medium, we’ve ever had. So I was in very safe hands.
"I did hit a small snag after I wrote [a strip called] 'Hotel Historia,'" McDaid added. "It’s a very time travel-y strip, with a hotel which offers visits to Earth’s history. I’d planned another strip with a time travel component when the edict came down from Russell T. Davies himself that the only time travelers in the Nu-Who universe were the Time Lords, the Daleks, the Time Agents and, at a pinch, the Sontarans. So time travel as a plot point was right out from then on. That said, at the end of Historia (which is set in the present day), the cosmic bailiffs take Majenta Pryce away to a prison that is part of the Great Human Empire. So… the cosmic bailiffs can travel in time? Maybe? Oops. Don’t let on."
Meanwhile, the Doctor wasn't the only aspect of the show that changed when the Tenth Doctor regenerated into the Eleventh, with Russell T. Davies replaced as show-runner and head writer by Steven Moffat. It remains to be seen what the repercussions of this transformation will ultimately be for the various comic books and strips featuring the Doctor.
"There was a wonderful egalitarianism to the Russell T. Davies-era," McDaid said, "particularly towards the end. His tenure invited people to imagine these concepts he would just toss in there–stuff like the Nightmare Child and the Cruciform. Lovely gaps in the narrative, where the amateur (or pro!) fan could scumble in some extra details. I think the Moffat era will, at first, be more like how Who was when it first came back–he’ll want to spend a season or two establishing the new status quo, which means all the ancillary stuff (the comics, books and so on) is holding its collective breath while the new world takes shape."
The Eleventh Doctor has now made his debut in "DWM" and "Doctor Who Adventures," but the ongoing series from IDW isn't due to regenerate until later this year.
"It's a new dawn," says Tony Lee, the writer on that series, "a new Doctor, a new TARDIS, a new companion, a new show-runner in Steven Moffat, a new creative team. We felt that we should mirror this in the comic as well and keep the two Doctors separate [Tennant's adventures will end with issue#16 and the title will be re-launched a month later with Smith's Doctor and a new issue #1]. And although my Tenth Doctor adventures were quite 'fan-ficcy' in style due to reader response, we'll be toning it down a hell of a lot when Eleven starts. It'll be almost as if a wall is built between the world of Ten and the world of Eleven."
And given the rude health of the various comic strips and comic books featuring the Doctor, it seems that his four-color adventures will be with us for some time yet. Indeed, should the fateful day come when the television series is once again canceled, it's quite possible that the Doctor will continue to fight evil, albeit in other media—including, of course, comics.
"The strip ran for years when the show was in the cupboard," artist Adrian Salmon noted, " and if the show takes another hiatus, I imagine that it will continue. After all, 'Doctor Who' is successful in many forms and comics have some of the most rabid fans."