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Graphic Novel Review
The Eighth Doctor, as played by Paul McGann, is shocked to find one of his old houses on Earth has been taken over by a young artist, Josie Day – an artist whose paintings are inexplicably coming to life! The search for the shocking truth behind Josie’s powers sends the pair on an epic quest through space and time – from a shattering test of faith in a civil war, to a creepy Victorian magic show, a cursed stately home, and a final revelation in the stars! Writer George Mann (Engines of War, Newbury & Hobbes) and artist Emma Vieceli (Jem, Young Avengers, Breaks) bring back this much-loved incarnation of the Doctor with passion and flair…!
He’s back – and it’s about time!
This volume collects all five issues of Titan’s Eighth Doctor mini-series. This was the first time that Titan had tackled an incarnation from the classic show – though arguably Eight is an intermediate Doctor rather than a classic Doctor, since Paul McGann’s appearance in the 1996 TV movie was screened more than six years after the end of the original run and almost nine years before the start of the revived series. In one way, he is a new series Doctor, since many younger fans will know him best from his surprise appearance in the sensational 2013 mini-episode Night of the Doctor. The outfit he wears in these pages reflects his Night of the Doctor look.
This garb places the graphic novel after the Eighth Doctor’s numerous audio dramas from Big Finish, as does a name-check of his audio companions Charley Pollard, C’rizz, Lucie Miller, Tamsin Drew and Molly O’Sullivan (the same companions he mentioned in Night of the Doctor) on the ‘story so far’ page near the front of the book. This text also states that the Doctor is “travelling alone after an intense period in his long life,” which probably refers to the ordeals he experienced in To the Death and thereafter. However, no prior knowledge of the Eighth Doctor’s spin-off adventures is required in order to understand this comic.
“I’m the Doctor, and I’d very much like to know what you’re doing in my house…” Get ready for a series of comics adventures featuring the Eighth Doctor. Five amazing, interconnected stories will take the Time Lord on a roller-coaster of threat and misadventure, as he investigates the mysteries surrounding his new companion Josie Day. The grand journey begins in a sleepy Welsh town, which is being besieged by living paintings! Buckle up for a wild ride that embraces all the Gothic Romance and interstellar terror of the Doctor’s eighth incarnation…!
It may be useful, though, to know that the Third Doctor owned a Welsh cottage during his comic-strip exploits in the pages of Countdown, TV Action and TV Comic, for that is where we meet new companion Josie Day, and where the Doctor makes her acquaintance soon afterwards when he returns to the property after a long absence. Like her counterpart Gabby Gonzales in Titan’s Tenth Doctor series, Josie is a budding artist – as the title of the opening episode, The Pictures of Josephine Day, suggests – though her preferred medium is painting rather than sketching.
With her turquoise hair, Josie is also reminiscent of Nemi’s friend Cyan, an impression that is reinforced by the style of artist Emma Vieceli, which veers towards the cartoonish. Vieceli rarely captures the likeness of McGann’s Doctor – though his character still shines through in his facial expressions, his body language and the writing of George Mann. Witness the contrasting reactions of Josie and the Doctor when the subject of a monster is raised. Josie’s is a mixture of fear and disbelief, whereas the Doctor displays a combination of excitement and delight.
The problem they face is resolved within this chapter. This title has adopted a storytelling strategy similar to that initially used by Titan’s Eleventh Doctor comic: a series of linked, single-part adventures, rather than a serial. As a result, the Doctor and Josie bond with each other perhaps a little too quickly to be believed, enjoying a warm embrace after just 20 pages. However, a new mystery sets them on a course for four further missions, during which we get to know them better…
“When you told me we were going on an adventure, Doctor, I hadn’t quite anticipated you’d land us in the middle of a war zone…” The Doctor and Josie embark upon a universe-wide investigation that will take in Victorian magic shows, murderous trees, lost books, and barges in space crammed with the undead…! But their first stop is Lumin’s World, home to a raging war between the near-extinct Calexi and the crystalline Spherions! When Josie is wounded in the crossfire, it’s up to the Doctor to strike a peace – and find a cure – before she dies…!
In the previous episode, the Doctor was in rather a good mood, which may have seemed out of place in light of his world-weary outlook in McGann’s later Big Finish audio plays and the mini-episode Night of the Doctor. However, even in the latter he had plenty of witty lines, such as, “Four minutes? That’s ages. What if I get bored? I need a television, couple of books. Anyone for chess? Bring me knitting.”
Music of the Spherions redresses the balance. The Doctor seldom smiles during this chapter, as he and Josie find themselves caught up in an interplanetary battle. “War,” he laments, “It’s everywhere I turn. No matter where I go, or what I do, everyone is at each other’s throats.” There are hints of the coming cosmic conflict that is the Time War as he continues: “It’s as if the universe wants to tear itself apart. I’m weary of all the fighting, Josie. It’s like a contagion, and it’s spreading faster than I can contain.”
His woes are compounded when his companion is injured – a wound that could cost her her life. Check out the Doctor’s reaction, a mixture of horror and anger – anger at himself for landing them in this mess, or at whoever created the weapon that did this. It is a testament to the artwork of Emma Vieceli that I can see all of this in a single image, and to the writing of George Mann that I care what happens to Josie so soon after being introduced to her. The conflict is resolved rather swiftly and conveniently, though it is good to see the Eighth Doctor’s gloomier side for a little while.
“Welcome! Welcome! You lucky people, you privileged few, will tonight witness one of the greatest feats of stage magic ever performed. I do not make this promise lightly. You will leave this theatre amazed, changed forever by what you have seen…” Edinburgh, 1866. The Doctor and Josie visit a mysterious magic show – one that is replacing audience members with ‘Silvered’ duplicates, mirror-dimension reflections who jealously watch their real-world counterparts! With the deadly doppelgängers causing chaos, can the Doctor and Josie escape the magician’s grasp…?
There are some very cool and creepy images in the next episode, The Silvering. In a couple of panels that extend across double-page spreads, we see characters stepping into a magician’s mirror and simultaneously coming out of another on the facing page. The artist tips us the wink that something is amiss with the people who emerge, by showing that one young woman’s distinctive freckles have switched sides.
I was reminded of a couple of Tenth Doctor and Martha novels from a few years ago, with a mirror dimension (“a twisted reflection of the real city”, as the Doctor calls it) resembling that in Martha in the Mirror, while grotesque minions composed of fragments of people captured in reflections bring to mind the disembodied limbs in The Many Hands, which also happened to be set in an Edinburgh of centuries ago.
“There’s something very wrong going on here,” the Doctor correctly surmises in a delightful character moment, “Wrong in a baked beans and garden peas sort of way.” “Beans and peas?” asks Josie, confused by his simile. “Exactly,” replies the Time Lord, “Things that should never be mixed.” As they investigate backstage, he also references Arthur C. Clarke and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. There are also signs of a bigger picture forming, as the Time Lord notices a connection to the crystalline life-forms from the previous instalment…
“Things are progressing well above stairs, Mrs Tillsley. The visitors have all arrived.” “Excellent, Mr Harris. Now all that remains is for you and I to complete the circle.” “Before this night is out, Mrs Tillsley, the Nixi shall rise!” Briarwood House, 1932. As a jazz party preoccupies the English upper-crust, the Doctor and Josie discover a terrifying secret below stairs – the servants are beginning to sprout branches! While the forests of Briarwood besiege the house, the Doctor must uncover an ancient ritual and the truth behind an ancient sacrifice…!
There’s a somewhat manga-like quality to Emma Vieceli’s artwork, which comes to the fore in her depiction of a wide-eyed little boy called Bertie, who assists the Doctor and Josie in Briarwood.
However, before the TARDIS travellers arrive in 1932, we see them visiting an auction room, apparently at some point in the future, where they successfully bid on a portrait of a countess, the relevance of which is not revealed until the next episode. This detour does not help the pacing of the rest of the story, which feels constrained within a single chapter. There is little time for build-up before the encroaching Nixi make their move, with the foliage taking over the house within the space of six pages. Briarwood might have worked better as a two-parter.
On the upside, there are some great images of invasive roots and creepers. The Gothic associations of the tree spirits and the country house setting suit the Eighth Doctor down to the ground. As recounted by Bertie, the back-story of the Nixi becomes the stuff of fairy tales. And for the second time in a row, Josie looks good in a period outfit – though still sporting her distinctive cyan and magenta hair.
“Look at this, Josie! The opulence. The grandeur!” “Sickening, isn’t it?” The Doctor and his companion set off for the last set of co-ordinates on their enigmatic to-do list: a Bakri Resurrection Barge, where the super-rich are ‘remade’ into luxurious artificial bodies after corporeal death. But the resurrectees are dying, their bodies rebelling against their implanted minds! Will this final stop enable the duo to piece together the truth about Josie’s paintings and find the answers they seek? And what is the shocking secret that Josie has been hiding from the Doctor…?
Even more so than Briarwood, the concluding episode A Matter of Life and Death feels constrained by its page count. Writer George Mann packs in establishing the futuristic premise of the Resurrection Barge, “Where the richest 0.0001% of the Vast and Bountiful Human Empire come to be reborn” (which he does within two pages), introducing a mysterious death (which happens on the third page), having the Doctor and Josie accused of the crime (page 4), imprisoned (page 5) and quickly escaping to investigate it (page 6). Our heroes soon discover the flaw in the Bakri’s immortalisation process, and there is precious little time to explore the menace and the mystery before it’s time to get down to the moralising.
I suppose it’s entirely possible for the Doctor to reach his conclusions as quickly as he does, and for the reader to keep up with his reasoning, because the Time Lord has encountered this kind of situation before – the trope of ‘artificial life forms have human rights, too’ – for example, in The Companion Chronicles audio book Echoes of Grey. Fans will probably be more familiar with the subject from the television two-parter The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People, but of course that happens later in the Doctor’s lifetime. During the final confrontation, we see the Eighth Doctor at his most compassionate – and his most ruthless.
However, the ethical discussion is merely the set-up for another twist, one that pays off handsomely on developments from all four previous instalments, in particular the opening page of Briarwood. You’ll probably want to revisit that auction scene – I, for one, was completely wrong-footed by the ingenious misdirection of the creative team. Talk about hiding things in plain sight!
I do hope that the Eighth Doctor and Josie will return, but with more room to breathe next time. Encouragingly, this book refers to itself as Volume 1 on the title page, which suggests that there will be a Volume 2, while the closing panel of the final strip says “THE END… FOR NOW!”