July 1998. It’s been over two years since Doctor Who in any form has aired on the BBC. The Eighth Doctor Adventures have failed to live up to the reputation of Virgin’s novels. There’s no imminent prospect of Doctor Who being made for film or TV again.
First off the mark in the wake of the TV movie was, amazingly, the Radio Times, which ran an eighth Doctor comic strip between June 1996 and March 1997. But Doctor Who Magazine wasn’t far behind, launching its own eighth Doctor strip in October 1996 with a story set in Stockbridge, a quintessential English country village first introduced in the 1982 strip The Tides of Time. As in the Eighth Doctor Adventures, DWM seemingly felt the need to ground the unknown new Doctor in familiar continuity and surroundings, as if to anchor him into the canon.
The comic strips have always had a slightly tenuous connection to the rest of Doctor Who: for most of the ‘classic’ series they only paid to use the likeness of the Doctor, so swathes of strips feature the Doctor travelling alone, or with strip-only companions, from John and Gillian through to Frobisher. This semi-detached relationship to continuity was interrupted for a brief spell in the early 1990s when the DWM strip featured Bernice Summerfield and the War Ace, Paul Cornell wrote DWM strips alongside New Adventures, and artist Lee Sullivan produced some concept art featuring Bernice to help nail the look of the character (including the cover to Love and War). However, by 1996 the strip was again forging ahead in its own direction.
In May-August 1996, DWM featured Ground Zero, a final seventh Doctor story that killed off Ace as a brutally effective way to demonstrate the strip’s independence from Virgin’s continuity. It also introduced a new enemy in the Threshold, an organisation that sells its ability to travel between dimensions to the highest bidder. The Threshold returned to face the eighth Doctor in Fire and Brimstone (a Dalek story that’s about a million times better than the Eighth Doctor Adventures‘) and The Final Chapter, which featured a shock cliff-hanger lead-in to Wormwood. The Doctor saves Gallifrey but only by sacrificing his life and regenerating into a ninth incarnation, based on Nicholas Briggs’ Doctor from the fan-made Audio Visuals.
It’s a tribute to the comic’s own strong sense of its own identity that in 1997 when the novels were struggling to define a character for the eighth Doctor, the strip was confidently slotting him into an ongoing story arc. I think maybe it was easier to convince the audience partly because the strip could actually use McGann’s likeness, so you were never in any doubt this was the new Doctor, and partly because a more expansive, ‘bigger’ incarnation was a natural fit for a strip, while the books really benefited from the broody introspection of the seventh Doctor. Regardless, kudos to DWM because their eighth Doctor strips in 1996-98 remain more convincing than most of what BBC Books were turning out.
The shock regeneration is representative of that self-confidence: a strip that can count among its back-issues stories by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison has clearly got an illustrious history. But the regeneration also probably reflects a lack of confidence in the eighth Doctor. It’s no coincidence that, as of 2015, between the BBC and DWM we’ve been presented with five different ninth Doctors. By comparison we were never presented with a range of possible eighth Doctors (for example, Virgin’s plan to introduce a new Doctor in the New Adventures was quickly nipped in the bud by the BBC). The plethora of Number Nines is indicative of multiple ranges pulling in different directions, and Doctor Who fragmenting and losing its identity.
The response to DWM’s ninth Doctor in the magazine’s letters pages is fascinating: a few disappointed voices lamenting the brevity of the ‘McGann era’ (with comments like ‘We haven’t got to know the eighth Doctor yet’), but almost an equal number jumping to praise the move. I’m guessing had DWM pulled the same trick with McCoy’s Doctor in 1991 there wouldn’t have been quite such balance. People clearly hadn’t had chance to build their affection for McGann, and there were still some people – like Vince, in Queer as Folk – who held the view that ‘Paul McGann doesn’t count’, so anything done to his Doctor was irrelevant to the unfolding text.
Of course, four months later it turned out to have been a massive deception: the ‘ninth Doctor’ was part of the eighth Doctor’s cunning plan to defeat the Threshold, and the strip ends with him promising, ‘this body’s just getting warmed up’. But as DWM’s deliberate test run for a potential change in “lead man”, a taster of how fans might react if the McGann Doctor was dropped, and an insight into the readiness of the tie-in series to consider moving on from TV Doctors, Wormwood is instructive. By 1998, most of us had pretty much given up on seeing Doctor Who on TV again.
Next Time: ‘I know you never forget a face. And in years to come, you might find yourself revisiting a few. But just the old favourites, eh?’ – Doctor Who Night