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Graphic Novel Review
A new year of epic stories begins for the Twelfth Doctor and Clara! While the Doctor makes ‘friends’ on an orbital space station, Clara discovers a deadly, millennia-old conspiracy when one of her teacher friends goes missing at a prestigious Scottish school – and unravelling it could spell her doom! Writer Robbie Morrison (Drowntown, Judge Dredd, Nikolai Dante) welcomes aboard new regular artist Rachael Stott (Planet of the Apes/Star Trek, Ghostbusters International) to bring the Doctor and Clara – as played by Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman – face to face with their worst fears – and their most thrilling comics adventures yet…!
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS!
This graphic novel collects the first five issues of Titan’s second year of Twelfth Doctor adventures. The first four of those issues comprise one big, long storyline from which this volume takes its title: Clara Oswald and the School of Death.
We rejoin the Doctor and Clara during Series 9 (at some point between The Witch’s Familiar and Face the Raven), with the Time Lord now sporting his ‘ageing rock star’ look, complete with sonic shades. He lives up to his ‘mid-lives crisis’ characterisation by downing Pan-Galactic Gargle-Blasters and referencing the Sex Pistols. Later on, he attempts to impersonate a salty old sea dog and adopts a stuffed swordfish as a companion, which he names Sonny. According to the Doctor, Sonny has “a cutting intellect and a razor-sharp sense of humour”!
The story title brings Harry Potter to mind, but really all this tale has in common with that franchise is the boarding school setting. There is no wizardry or witchcraft here, despite some apparent supernatural activity involving a chalkboard – which in any case is a continuation of a theme from episodes such as Listen, Last Christmas and Heaven Sent. Other associations are most certainly sci-fi, like some creepy children straight out of Village of the Damned and a clutch of eggs clearly inspired by the Alien films – again picking up a motif from Last Christmas.
As is often the case when Scotsman Robbie Morrison is doing the writing, there’s a Scottish element to the story – in this case the school. This is also in keeping with the television show, which of course currently has Scotsman Steven Moffat as its showrunner. According to Clara, Ravenscaur School is the most exclusive educational establishment in the world: “In terms of power and influence, Ravenscaur makes Eton and Fettes look like St Trinian’s.” Morrison populates the school with immediately memorable and intentionally unlikeable characters, such as Mr Beck, a full-of-himself PE teacher, and the forbidding headmistress Mrs Mariner, who enforces a no-sarcasm policy – much to the disappointment of Clara!
As in the sci-fi mini-series V, our heroes realise that the population of Raven’s Isle are reptiles when, respectively, the Doctor accidentally removes part of the ‘mask’ of one of them, and Clara witnesses a revolting banquet of live animals (one of several pivotal gross-out moments). The conspiracy widens as it becomes apparent that the Prime Minister (Mr Claremont in this universe, rather than Mr Cameron or Mrs May) is involved. As rendered by incoming artist Rachael Stott, Claremont resembles the comedian / presenter Jimmy Carr – be afraid, be very afraid!
Later on, Morrison cracks a joke about Scottish independence that would not seem out of place in one of Moffat’s scripts. As a punishment for resistance by human forces, the invaders decide to target Scotland: “The entire country will be pulverized and plunged to the sea bed,” declares the former prime minister, “Well, they did want to separate from the rest of the UK…”
But why am I beating about the bush with vague phrases like “the invaders”? Of course, the monstrous residents of Ravenscaur are Sea Devils! It’s not too hard to guess before the full reveal halfway through this story, thanks to clues such as their underwater habitat and reptilian biology. A couple of factors obfuscate the matter, though, distracting the reader from the truth.
Firstly, these specimens of Homo reptilia don’t look much like the Sea Devils of old. But then, neither do their Silurian cousins whenever they appear in the new series. At least we get an explanation for their different appearance this time – the Doctor muses that they are “a warrior-class of some sort, perhaps.” During this sequence, we are treated to a flashback featuring the likenesses of Roger Delgado as the Master, Katy Manning as Jo Grant and Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor in The Sea Devils.
Secondly, these Sea Devils seem rather out of character. Sure, they want to reclaim the Earth, as usual, but their methods for doing so do not strike me as typical Sea Devil behaviour: masquerading as humans (really getting into character while doing so) and possessing people via reptilian young, which hatch from eggs and leap onto their victims like Facehuggers. The Doctor explains that when the victims are from more evolved species, the hatchlings’ attack results in a merging of minds, so perhaps the Sea Devils have acquired some human characteristics as a side effect.
While I’m splitting hairs, the Ravenscaur disaster, when the Raven Peninsula was separated from the mainland to create Raven’s Isle, is variously claimed to have taken place in 1907 and 1909. The Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to ward off the Sea Devils, as his third incarnation once did, but he shouldn’t really be using this device at this point, as he swore off it during most of Series 9. Perhaps Clara dropped hers (which she got from the Doctor in the comic strip The Fractures) while she was underwater, and the Doctor picked it up.
More convincingly, the Sea Devils use sonic devastators, which, with their glowing spots and slightly rocky yet slightly organic look, are reminiscent of reptile architecture seen in The Sea Devils – in particular that strange totem pole thing glimpsed on the island during Episode Six. They also deploy multi-legged fighting vehicles, which bring to mind the Martian War Machines from War of the Worlds.
Talking of the Third Doctor era, Jon Pertwee maintained that the most effective Doctor Who stories were those set close to home, like this one: “I had a great belief that it was much more frightening to stay on Earth – that all the threats should come to Earth, rather than us going off to other planets. There’s nothing more alarming than coming home and finding a Yeti sitting on your loo in Tooting Bec.” Robbie Morrison echoes this sentiment by having a Sea Devil rear up out of Clara’s bath!
Also in common with that era, there’s an appearance by UNIT, with the presence of two Osgoods suggesting a placement after The Zygon Inversion. (More from Osgood later…)
You’ve got to admit that the Sea Devil leader has a point about human beings when she tells the Doctor: “I’ve seen them destroy their world through greed, attack one another for different beliefs, for the colour of their skins. You think they’d embrace us?” Of course, within the context of the story Homo sapiens has to win, though the Doctor’s verbal defence of our species comes across as a bit feeble: “The good in humanity outweighs the bad.”
There is some hope for racial harmony, however, in the inseparable bond that forms between Clara’s teenage allies Jack and Lucy, who effectively represent the future of humankind.
Meanwhile, the Doctor’s solution to the infestation is, as Jack and Lucy would say, sick. For those of you who are not down with the kids, that’s a good thing, by the way.
Artist Rachael Stott picks up the baton from her predecessors on this title, filling their shoes admirably. Her work combines the fine line detail of Mariano Laclaustra (including a beautiful full-page depiction of the Sea Devils’ subterranean world) with the dynamism of Daniel Indro. Her smooth-faced Twelfth Doctor isn’t really craggy enough, though otherwise the likeness is good, and her Clara is quite beautiful.
Some aspects of this story, in particular the depiction of the Sea Devils, may not have entirely convinced me, but on the whole it is easy to imagine the events of Clara Oswald and the School of Death taking place on screen as part of Series 9.
Could this be the most dangerous comic book that the Doctor and Clara – and you – have ever experienced?! There’s only one way to find out, but we recommend that you find yourself a safe, defensible position before you sit down to read it… The Doctor and Clara face a monster that will have you checking your stack of comics for suspicious movements! Dare you continue reading, when every page turn could bring you into mortal danger? You have to – you’re the Doctor’s only hope…!
After the Sea Devils, we have another old foe in the next story, the one-shot The Fourth Wall. However, I didn’t initially recognise the monsters as the returning Boneless – not until Clara spoke their name. This is because it is practically impossible to replicate in inks the ‘digital ghost’ effect that was used on TV – though Rachael Stott makes a pretty good fist of it.
Even so, I was quickly reminded of the Series 8 episode Flatline (one of my favourite Capaldi adventures) as I turned the pages. Whereas in Flatline the Twelfth Doctor was stuck inside a shrinking TARDIS, looking out at Clara and others through the small rectangular doorway, here the Time Lord is trapped within a comic book, looking out at Clara and others through the small rectangular panels of its printed pages. The two-dimensional realm of the graphic novel is just as suitable a hunting ground for the Boneless as the papered walls and carpeted floors of Flatline.
The Fourth Wall also captures some of the arresting ‘direct to camera’ appeal of Blink, though on this occasion the Doctor warns his audience “Don’t turn the page!”, rather than “Don’t blink!”
The notion that comic books can be dangerous has been done quite recently, in the Eleventh Doctor Free Comic Book Day 2015 strip Give Free or Die, while the post-modern idea of a strip based on the Doctor’s adventures covers similar self-referential ground to the Doctormania storyline from Titan’s Ninth Doctor title.
However, there’s no denying the appeal of the humour, which is comic in both senses of the word. In the Doctor and Clara’s universe, there’s a major sci-fi outlet called the Prohibited Sphere Megastore, which sells titles including Amazonia, The Bat, Steel-Man and Spidery-Guy!
Despite the Doctor’s warning, you will want to turn the pages of this strip!
Osgood’s on the phone, with an urgent call! There’s a giant robot rampaging through London…!
Well, it’s old enemy à gogo in this graphic novel! The six-page short Robo Rampage (from the Free Comic Book Day 2016 issue) brings the volume to a close by bringing the Twelfth Doctor and Osgood (one of them, anyway) face to face with a reconstructed version of the K1 Robot from the Tom Baker serial Robot.
Given the brief duration, the plot is necessary simplistic, but it’s great to see Simon Fraser (one of my favourite Doctor Who artists) giving us his versions of these characters, as well as the excitement of seeing the giant machine demolishing well-known London landmarks such as the Millennium Wheel. There’s also time for some classic Twelfth Doctor rants and put-downs, including: “What could possibly go wrong when you mix greed and politics with human ingenuity and doomsday weapons? Other than everything!”
The first Titan strip to be set post-Series 9, Robo Rampage provides a smashing end to an enjoyable collection.