The Third Doctor #2
Tony’s still loving the practically perfect Third Doctor.
Call us fickle if you like, but the Third Doctor comic-book may be our new favourite thing.
The first issue was that rare and glorious experience – a comic-book that has the Poppins Factor, and is practically perfect in every way. Most especially it evoked everything it needed to evoke about the early seventies adventuring of the Third Doctor, Jo Grant and the UNIT boys, while simultaneously updating the pace and punch of its presentation to make it easily, greedily devourable by a New Who audience of 21st century fans.
But one of the challenges of a practically perfect first issue is where on Earth you take it from there. It’s what bands know as the ‘difficult second album’ problem.
You want the headline? The second album of the Third Doctor comic-book is as good as, though not better than, the first. What it does is build on everything we loved in the first issue and take it in exciting new directions, rather than simply trying to re-deliver the same emotional beats of that debut issue.
After the cliff-hanger at the end of issue #1, we knew there was going to be a certain amount of banter in issue #2, and we knew roughly what form it would take – if it didn’t, it wouldn’t strike the right nostalgic notes. Paul Cornell’s not a writer ever likely to slip up on so obvious a banana skin, so the voices in this issue are absolutely pitch perfect, without ever actually going over old ground. It’s important to note that we’re not just talking about the voices of those involved in the cliff-hanger – the Third Doctor and his unexpected guest. Jo Grant here is especially believable, her dialogue en pointe for Katy Manning’s squeaky, ever-optimistic portrayal, with just the right note of occasional ‘I’m going to move the plot on while you bicker, if that’s quite all right.’ The Brigadier too is very well observed, his signature combination of pomposity and nous captured in the very bones of the storytelling, as well as in the dialogue Cornell gives him.
A familiar villain returns, whose presence was established in the first issue, but here they’re up to old tricks – but with a new, 21st century Cornell twist, giving their involvement that same sense of magic as was interwoven throughout issue #1 – the combination of classicalism and modernity that manages to please the pickiest of both worlds. And while there’s little development in terms of understanding the actual storyline threat, what this issue does deliver are some very solid Pertweean second-act thrills that work as a kind of sub-adventure to show the nature, the speed, and the danger of that threat. The micro-machines that combine to form a bigger whole, which seemed almost incidental in the first issue alongside all the other highlights, here begin to flex their metallic muscles, and the one-line description of their fundamental nature – that they can convert anything they need into things like themselves and add to their whole – gains a rather more cybernetic, or even Borgian dimension when one of them touches Jo. Her descent into a mindless automaton is frighteningly fast here, prompting the Third Doctor to go on an adventure where he’s never been before – into what’s deliciously, psychedelically described here as ‘Josephine Grant’s Groovy Unconscious.’
You can’t fail to love a comic-book that takes you there, or calls it that. You simply can’t.
As well as providing an object lesson in the kind of danger these micro-machines are capable of embodying, turning organic matter into part of themselves just as easily as they do pre-existing circuits, and delivering the kind of fantastical psycho-adventure in which the Third Doctor rarely dabbled on-screen, this trip into Jo Grant’s unconscious mind to fight the will of the machines gives artist Christopher Jones and colourist Hi-Fi the chance to go absolutely psychedelia-wild and crazy, and it’s a chance they embrace with all available hands. It’s the kind of thing that stops the Third Doctor comic-book series being simply an exercise in slavish reproduction of the look and feel of a certain era of Who, allowing the art-wranglers to branch out and stamp a coherent, in-keeping but brand new stylistic vision on the comic-books. In a way, it’s precisely the fact that we now have forty years of distance and perspective on the time of the Third Doctor that allows Jones and Hi-Fi to do this. If Doctor Who had gone psychedelic and internalistic in the early seventies, it would probably have confused the bejesus out of the audience living through that time. Looking back on it, seeing Jo’s mindscape – which for all its initial hippy trippiness is for the most part surprisingly ordinary – makes perfect sense as a battleground. It’s a shift that actually took place much earlier in the viewing audience’s consciousness, and a difference of approach that, for instance, has the psychic battle between the Three Doctors and Omega rendered as more or less a lot of eye-closing and frowning, and the battle between the Fourth Doctor and the Deadly Assassin played out across a whole story of Matrix-induced psychological trauma. That shift of approach to showing us the battleground allows us to see the fight for control of Jo’s mind played out against the backdrop of her unconscious, and allows Jones and Hi-Fi to give us a lesson in the psychology of Ms Josephine Grant. While there’s a surface level of hippy dippy grooviness to get through, that’s more or less Jo being a child of her time. The actual buildings and landscapes of her unconscious are very realistically rendered, with no cunning, no guile, no monsters of self-doubt lurking down alleyways. Jo is exactly who she seems to be – the optimistic, almost-innocent, passionate believer in causes, in doing some good, and in protecting the good things and people of the universe against the bad. The Third Doctor’s best friend. There’s nothing in her unconscious to frighten or threaten either her or the Doctor – except the usurping force of the alien machinery.
All of which leads us to a double-whammy cliff-hanger which, while by no means as punch-the-air jubilant as that which closed issue #1 is still absolutely solid from every angle as a stake-raising, second episode moment of jeopardy, from which you genuinely wonder whether our heroes can come back, while all the while knowing they absolutely must.
Bottom line, run to your comic-book store right now, get issue #2 of the Third Doctor, pre-order issues #3, #4 and #5, and take the rest of the day off. You’ll have done a good thing, so you’ll have earned it. Cornell’s name is pretty much a guarantee of quality, and matched with Jones and Hi-Fi, he’s delivering us the Third Doctor we remember, but with a 21st century punch.
Oh – and Easter eggs. The way the classic villain escapes is one, but there’s a lovely additional layer of fun to be had with a comment from Jo, and the Third Doctor’s response, that both explains one of the most skin-crawling phrases from the New Who world, and allows Cornell and the Classic fans to have a bit of a giggle with the short shrift the Third Doctor gives it. At the same time though, in explaining where the phrase comes from, there’s plenty of soggy sentiment to be retrospectively wrung from the later Doctors using it, in tribute to their one-time best friend when they were undergoing a painful period of exile. Paul Cornell, ladies and gentlemen; having it both ways, and delivering it both ways, to please absolutely all of the people, all of the time. Class. Pure class.