The Eighth Doctor,
Volume 1: A Matter of Life And Death
Tony’s got a To-Do list, and he’s not afraid to use it.
The Eighth Doctor has, since his first and almost only appearance on our screens, been the great Potential Doctor.
His on-screen span was short but up until the point of his replacement by Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor in the revamped show in 2005, Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor was still the current Doctor, meaning from curtailed beginnings, he was the Doctor who kept the torch alive more than any other in the fans’ imaginations, out there somewhere in the multiverse, having adventures, just waiting for the world to fall in love with Doctor Who again.
If this seems a frivolous point, it shouldn’t – McGann’s Eighth Doctor was the subject of a whole range of ‘New Adventure’ books, building a whole universe of stories outside the scope of his until recently single TV appearance. And when Big Finish began producing new audio adventures for Classic Doctors, McGann was an early recruit, and has been a faithful friend to both the company and its fans ever since – he’s still having Eighth Doctor adventures to this day on audio, for all they’ve grown from one or two disc releases into something a bit more grand and epic in scale.
So the time for the Eighth Doctor to make his debut at Titan Comics is long overdue, and this year, he made it, in the hands of well-respected Who writer George Mann, and artist Emma Vieceli.
Across five issues, Mann and Vieceli became, in a way, Doctor and Companion themselves (though which was which would be telling), establishing a less random travelling pattern for the most Tiggerish and enthusiastic of Doctors, by the simple device of a To-Do list written by one of his other selves and hidden in his own Welsh cottage – yes, folks, the Doctor owns a cottage in Wales now. They established a story arc that would take the Doctor through those five issues, and delivered him a great new companion in Josie Day, an artist with technicolour hair and, as she was to prove, a striving gift for goodness. With those elements dropping quickly and neatly into place, the Eighth Doctor and Josie were set up to have a short series of very episodic, tonally different adventures, each of which had a strong hook, a philosophical core, a good bit of running, and a broad scope for them both to show their personalities to any potential new readers, while allowing seasoned Eighth Doctor fans to nod sagely at how fundamentally right the Eighth Doctor sounded.
He sounds very very right, because one thing George Mann knows is tone. From the Doctor’s first appearance in this five issue series, he’s as we know him – bouncy, enthusiastic, impossible, occasionally mystical, name-dropping, slightly divorced from reality, slightly alien, but with a fierce emotional intelligence when he understands what’s required of him in any given situation.
The situations range from the kind of ‘companion training wheels’ story that many New Who companions have had in order to bed them into our consciousness – here, Josie’s artworks start coming to life, which would be all fine and dandy if she drew landscapes. She doesn’t. For some reason she can’t understand, she draws monsters, plucked from her imagination, but familiar to every Who-fan. When the subjects of her paintings step from their frames and go off to terrorise the local village, it’s Josie who has to find a way to defeat them, which she does in a satisfying manner.
The second story here takes us off into the wilds of space, to a world under devastating bombardment by lethal shards of crystal. What complicates matters is that if the crystals get you, and you don’t die, you begin to change your state into something…else. The Doctor and Josie find themselves trying to act as honest brokers between two powers who are chronically misunderstanding one another, and again, while the Doctor leads the way, it’s actually Josie who succeeds, the purity and simplicity of her heart and her message managing to find a way forward for both the inhabitants of the world and those who are raining crystal down on their heads. There’s a little of the good bits of The Rings of Akhaten here, only Mann, free from the strictures of TV, delivers something with emotionally satisfying notes all along the way, including the Eighth Doctor up against the odds, struggling to maintain his temper.
Issue 3 gives us a bit of gothic horror, not in fog-swirled London, but in that other bastion of Victorian mystery, Edinburgh (home of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde). There’s more than a hint of that story here, with dark doings beyond the glass of a magician’s mirror, alternative versions of people escaping from the mirrorworld and the originals, the things of which the others were reflections, being kept, imprisoned and drained, in a dismal dimension on the other side of the looking glass.
It’s a story that does well to contain itself within a single issue, and which could if need-be return to plague the Eighth Doctor in future adventures. It’s also the issue in which Vieceli on artwork really starts to put her indelible stamp on the style of the adventures – given a visual challenge she rises to the demands of a world of mirrors excellently well, conjuring both the vibrancy of Victorian Edinburgh and the brightness of its theatres, and the dinginess and washed-out sense of the mirrorworld with aplomb, and also delivering a mindless plague of shudderworthy creatures in a way that still gives us the creeps, disembodied hands seeming to reach through the panels, escaping into the reader’s world.
Vieceli’s art is very strong in the fourth issue too – in fact, as we shift to an English country house mystery in the early 1930s, Vieceli’s art is crucial in delivering the menace, and once you’ve seen it, you won’t be able to immediately look away. You’ll want to, because again, she brings the shudders in issue 4, but you won’t be able to. Storywise, Mann’s on relatively easy street in this issue – there are creepy creepers aplenty, making use of the sci-fi trope of malevolent plant life, and there are also some solid riffs on the idea of alien technology mistaken for folkloric reality. Mann also manages to get in a socio-political point about the nature of the British upper classes along the way to defeating the spirits of the forest in what is essentially Who Does Fairy Tale Much Better Than In The Forest Of The Night.
The fifth story here has resolutions to deliver, and it delivers them, via a tale set in the future, that channels some David Tennant stories into its DNA, especially New Earth, aboard a space-floating Bakri Resurrection Barge, where the 0.0001%ers in society come to get themselves recreationally reborn. There is rebellion, there is the threat of carnage, and the Doctor throws his weight around trying to broker a peace, but there are genuinely resolutions to find, and some of them – in particular as they apply to the truth about Miss Josephine Day – will take you entirely by surprise before this issue, and the series is out. And just in case you were silly enough to relax at that point, there’s an additional Easter egg appearance that gives the whole mini-series more satisfying sense even than it’s had up to now.
The Eighth Doctor’s first mini-series at Titan is an unqualified success; Mann’s capturing of the McGann Doctor’s voice and his essence is delightful, Josie’s a great modern companion who more than stamps her personality across the series, and who saves the Doctor, on average, about as often as he saves her. The issues feel carefully selected to give windows into different types of Who story, and the whole is lightly, wittily illustrated by Vieceli, who comes into her own as the series progresses, giving some of the creepies a dose of realism that makes you shudder.
Pick up The Eighth Doctor, Volume 1 today and add to the sum total of Eighth Doctor stories you own with five tales less bogged down in epic sturm und drang than some of the more recent Big Finish box sets, letting the essential puppydog bounce of the Eighth Doctor a little more to the fore.