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Graphic Novel Review
When the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith took a trip to London in 1887, they didn’t count on being dragged into a petrifying alien conspiracy that stretches all the way back to Ancient Greece! Pursued through the streets by the fearsome Scryclops, and at the mercy of the mysterious Lady Emily Carstairs, the pair must team up with Professor Odysseus James and his adventurer daughter, Athena, to avoid a horrifying fate – one that is already set in stone! Writers Gordon Rennie and Emma Beeby (Judge Dredd, Dishonored) and artist Brian Williamson (2048, Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor) bring to life the all-new adventures of the beloved Fourth Doctor…!
The Fourth Doctor, as played by Tom Baker, who regularly tops fan lists of favourite Doctors, comes to Titan Comics with this debut strip adventure. Of course, since 2009 Baker has also been reprising the role in audio books and audio dramas for BBC Audio and latterly Big Finish – but one thing they cannot do is reunite his character with Sarah Jane Smith, since the actress Elisabeth Sladen passed away far too soon in 2011. Not a problem for a comic strip, though, which makes Titan’s selection of Sarah as the companion for this graphic novel such an excellent choice.
It has to be said that Sarah doesn’t get an awful lot to do apart from be petrified, figuratively and literally, but we do get glimpses of her feistier side, when kidnapped and blindfolded by villains who have identified her as a time traveller: “Look, if you want my help,” she tells them, “then you need me to trust you. Letting me see you would be a good start, don’t you think? And – believe me – I really have seen a lot more surprising things than you might think.”
The Doctor, meanwhile, is his usual madcap, mercurial self. “Ah, gentlemen!” he says brightly, when approached by sinister, one-eyed attackers, “I wonder if you could direct me to Wembley Stadium? I would find it myself, only I don’t think it’s quite been built yet… Oh, you’re foreigners! That’s a coincidence! I’m not local either…”
Gaze of the Medusa appears to take place not long after the events of Pyramids of Mars. That is the most recent television serial to be referenced in the introductory text, and the length of Sarah’s hair, as drawn by artist Brian Williamson, does seem to match that in Pyramids.
London, 1887 is an appropriately Gothic setting for the era of the show being depicted, though the creative team also throw in elements that would have been difficult or impossible to achieve on television at the time, such as the giant, monocular Scryclops. It’s a period that this Doctor has visited before, or rather since, in Talons of Weng-Chiang. Other familiar elements include scrying (peering into an object to see a supernatural image), as performed by the Sisterhood of Karn in The Brain of Morbius. The Doctor’s patronising reaction to the inventions of a scientist, Professor Odysseus James, are also comparable to his dismissive attitude towards Laurence Scarman’s Marconiscope in Pyramids of Mars: “Hello! This is interesting. Is that a photon flux modulator? Rather primitive, but still an admirable attempt.”
There’s a similar level of pastiche in Williamson’s art, which is rather static and heavily reliant on reference photographs – and not just for the likenesses of Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen. Professor James appears to be portrayed by Andrew Keir in his Quatermass and the Pit role, while his daughter Athena looks uncannily like Diana Rigg in one of her outfits from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. You can pretend that those actors are this story’s illustrious guest cast!
Despite my criticisms of the art, it does have the advantage of being true to the period, looking not dissimilar to the style of contemporary Doctor Who illustrations, such as Gerry Haylock’s work on the TV Comic strip Death Flower (the very first Fourth Doctor strip) or the Doctor Who Annual stories illustrated by Paul Crompton.
This graphic novel tells a single, continuous story, which does lead to some pacing problems. Following a fairly brisk opening chapter, the action almost grinds to a halt for twenty pages or so, which are largely taken up by recitations of back-story. The writers try to liven things up by cutting between Lady Carstairs addressing Sarah, and Professor James and Athena talking to the Doctor, but at times this just makes for confusing reading, and it all still amounts to one big info-dump. What action there is proceeds with a certain degree of inevitability, since the fate that awaits Sarah has already been foretold…
Along the way, Gordon Rennie and Emma Beeby’s script has its moments, as the Doctor and the Professor effectively swap companions and find either woman to be as effective as her counterpart: Athena has a (literally) bright idea for tackling the Scryclops, while Sarah very sensibly advises Professor James to ease off the booze under present (or rather past) circumstances. Athena is suitably impressed by a short trip she takes in the TARDIS, though her view of the craft’s interior is kept ‘off screen’, which seems like something of a wasted opportunity.
Then in the final chapter, events and revelations come thick and fast, and developments such as the restoration of Sarah (it’s hardly a spoiler that she survives) are rather summarily glossed over. The writers do, however, find time to include a fun appearance by a surprisingly familiar face (one that, coincidentally, has also recently appeared in Titan’s Ninth Doctor series).
Unlike Sarah, I wasn’t entirely captivated by Gaze of the Medusa, but it’s still worth a look. Having tackled the Fourth Doctor, Titan Comics is now reaching even further back into classic Who history, with a Third Doctor title. Here’s hoping that they do the Second or Fifth Doctor at some point…!