Endgame written by Alan Barnes
The story itself was great fun and its always nice to see the Celestial Toymaker back. Not being a comic strip veteran myself I can't imagine they are always as wacky as this but the surreal machinations of the Toymaker give the artist a real chance to go to town with some truly weird and freaky imagery. The page filled with an under lit shot of the Toymaker holding the snow globe was terrifying and even worse those horrible cracked-faced dolls approaching the Doctor and Izzy are enough to give you nightmares! I loved how on page 25 there was a frame that stretched the entire length of the page to suggest the never-ending staircase they are climbing. My favourite two would have to be the Toymaker opening his arms and screaming 'Welcome to my Domain!' How vivid is that location in black and white, especially with the chess board motif and also the creepy shot of the evil Doctor with rosy cheeks and blank eyes advancing on our Doctor? Brrrr.
Overall something or a minor triumph...a comic strip that has whetted my appetite for more! And with Simon's grudging assent (dont'cha just love him... he can see huge loss of earnings now I have found another Doctor Who medium to explore) I have ordered the 2nd, 3rd and 4th volumes. Correct me if I'm wrong but that makes nearly 1000 pages of new adventures to read! Happy days: 8/10
The Keep written by Alan Barnes
What to make of The Keep? I'm certainly glad they didn't start with this story simply because it feels more like a prologue to a larger, more involving story - and then after taking a quick glance at Alan Barnes' notes I discover that it was! It's a odd little segment which has a number of lovely ideas - an artificial sun, humanity's last breath - but fails to go anywhere remotely interesting with them. The ending is so abrupt I thought I had skipped a few pages; the Doctor and Izzy head off and so does the human race and none of the characters are given any real depth or consideration. The most interesting moment comes as Izzy cries for the Doctor at the beginning of the second part, trapped away from home and having lost the only man who could take her back.
However, the artwork is as good as Endgame, even if it is nowhere near as imaginative (due to the darker nature of the story). There is another terrific high angle shot looking over the shoulders of the mercenaries as they stare down at the chained Doctor and Izzy. The Doctor ecstatic in the void of an artificial sun is really vivid too. Look at how angry those shadows make the Doctor on page 48. And the last five frames are astonishingly graphic for a comic strip.
It's not so much a narrative as a quick glance at period in Earth's history before we return to it in a later story. You could snip one part and have this as a one part tasty teaser: 5/10
A Matter of Life and Death written by Alan Barnes
I found A Matter of Life or Death to be a fun and quirky piece of nonsense. Initially, I was put off by the very different artwork of Sean Longcroft (working with Martin Geraghty) because it looked far more childish, less filmic than the two strips I have already read. The shading seems a lot less impressive and hence the whole thing has a slightly 2D feel to it, whereas Endgame and The Keep almost look like stylishly depicted live action. However, as I continued it seems to suit the style of the story quite well and when I came across that truly barmy (and utterly delicious) shot of the space octopus wrapping its tentacles around the TARDIS in space I was sold. The Doctor walking down the platform to confront the horrible great squid with its protubences worming their way into the ship was extremely powerful and the shot of the good guys and the bad guys squaring off against each other was brilliantly chaotic.
Barnes' premise is fantastic, a faux Doctor and Izzy taking on a evil squid, both sides using characters from the Doctor's past. I only wish I could have spotted more characters that I knew! The only two that jumped out at me were the fabulous Beep the Meep (I know him from a Big Finish freebie) and the first black companion Sharon. Perhaps once I have read a lot more of the comics I can revisit and bask in the nostalgia of the story.
Absolute madness but great fun: 8/10
Fire and Brimstone written by Alan Barnes
Also it is a great showing for Izzy who gets to enjoy her first multi-part epic and being taken away from the Doctor by the Threshold gets to comment on the action with some acidic quips. It's nice to see her and the Doctor thinking on their adventure on the very last page; for once, you get a real sense of a relationship building and some interesting reflection. Plus the eighth Doctor continues to thrill in ink, stepping up to the Daleks without fear and being exterminated for his troubles!
However, there were some gaping flaws in this story as well. For something that was supposed to be so epic, it feels remarkably contained to a few rooms and we see very little Dalek force. We learn nothing at all about the bug Daleks from the other dimension and the revelation that the Time Lords were behind all this comes out of nowhere and is unexplained. Although it is another taster for the oncoming Time War. I know very little about the Threshold as well which left me behind when they showed up; there were plenty of reminders about The Keep and the backstory built there but nothing about the Threshold.
Although the artwork is typically good, the story does not leave the same sort of opportunities as the first few stories. There is so much going on that the sense of movement was jarring: the story switches from location to location with dizzying speed. Perhaps The Keep was twice the length it should have been but there was a definite sense of narrative; here, it's like reading a script, it's so choppy. I didn't think the Daleks looked that great either and there was a long shot of the hub on page 69 where they look like fake Dapol model Daleks! Plus the eyestalks looked weird with veins running through them. However, the opening shot of part three, that impressive full-page shot of the Doctor surrounded by Daleks, is beautifully futuristic and captures the location very well and the various bug attacks are appropriately nasty.
A mixed bag then but it certainly has its moments. All of the cliffhangers left me wanting to read the next part so they were definitely doing their job well. But I think with a little less action and a little more explanation this could have been much better: 6/10
Tooth and Claw written by Alan Barnes
It's almost as if Martin Geraghty has been waiting for a story of this nature to pop up, as he really goes to town with the artwork. I love all the atmospherics he manages to inject into the story, part two especially is sunk in shadows and characters are underlit and silhouetted to provide maximum chills. That full-page shot at the end of part one of Izzy's shadow draping across the floor and meeting a bloodied corpse is thrilling. There is a lovely snapshot of all the characters in the library in part two that really sets the scene well. Part three features a stunning shot of Izzy holding a barrel from behind a staircase to cosh her pursuer; it's on a jaunty angle and I had to study it in depth to reveal its detail. Extremely vivid. Plus, I also adored the very simple silhouetted shot of Izzy and Fey carrying the Doctor back to the TARDIS which sticks his head in the picture at an askew angle. The artwork for this story is really top notch; you can see this tale coming to life through still pictures.
The best thing about Tooth and Claw though is its excellent characterisation of the Doctor who continues to work well in the comics. He seems to have developed something of the EDA eighth Doctor's martyrdom and he walks in to danger very willingly. I loved the melodramatic B-movie-ish twist that the Doctor had been turned into one of the vampires. The image is ghastly and the scenes of the Doctor trying to fight infection on the next page are gripping. He plunges that syringe into his chest without a moment's thought and brings Varney's scheme to an end but potentially at the cost of his own life. He's awesome.
And how could they possibly whet my appetite any more for the next story? A trip to Gallifrey! I hate hate hate Gallifrey stories in general mostly because they are extremely dull and the BBC did not have the resources to capture the splendour of the planet. However, in comic-book form I am willing to bet they can really give the place a visual majesty. Or at least I hope so. The only thing that could hold this back is the artist's imagination.
Tooth and Claw matches Endgame as my favourite of the collection so far: 8/10
The Final Chapter written by Alan Barnes
Gallifrey is still as dull as ever, unfortunately. Aside from that initial image of the capitol, spires and turrets reaching up into the sky, it is exactly as I feared, a standard SF world of corridors and consoles. Even the scenes in the Matrix lack the nightmarish chill that made The Deadly Assassin and The Ultimate Foe so good. And none of the Gallifreyan characters are much to shout home about. Although I did like the quick flit into the alternative dimension Gallifrey: a Nazi-inspired totalitarian state. Shame we couldn't see more of that!
However, there are compensations. The first two parts were pretty useless (especially that weird cliffhanger with the tiny people; what the hell was that all about?) but I rather enjoyed the last two parts especially when you come across that startling image of Xanti strapped to a giant central column in a grisly lash up of a TARDIS. Luther might be another Master-like melodramatic (and bearded!) git of a villain (just how many of these can Gallifrey produce; surely they outnumber the respectable Gallifreyans now?) but his plan to materialise the whole of Gallifrey around the Gallifrey from the past so he can control the future of the planet is so insanely audacious; nobody has tried anything of this nature before. It's deranged, but probably as mundane to a Time Lord as going to work for us! The last part ramps up the tension nicely and once again the most suicidal of Doctors steps up to the plate and sacrifices himself to save the day (he must stop making a habit of this!!!). This finally cements his relationship with Izzy as she breaks down at the thought of losing him, although they have to give that girl something more to do than just stand around making sarky comments; why can't she drive the stories like the Doctor? The final audacious twist is having the Doctor regenerate. After re-introducing the Celestial Toymaker and exterminating the Doctor, Barnes finally takes his run of stories to the ultimate conclusion: killing the Doctor! It's shocking - and to find Nick Briggs staring at me out of the page was a total surprise!
The artwork was good but the story does not have the same creepy atmosphere of Tooth & Claw so it feels a little mundane in comparison but only in comparison; taken on its own this is still impressive. The shot of Xanti speared through the heart and aged in the time rotor was shocking and the full page scene between the Doctor, Izzy and Fey which leads to him walking out on them to save the day is great, really driving home that they are becoming a family unit.
Overall, a little uneven but after a weak start it becomes a story worth persevering with. It's another slap-about-the-face ending that makes you want to find out just what happens next... : 6/10
Wormwood written by Scott Gray
Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. WOW! Wormwood was bloody brilliant! So far I have been enjoying these comic strips for what they are, a fun bit of Doctor Who spinoffery and occasionally brilliant storytelling (plus some devastating artwork, of course) but that was... just wow! Wormwood felt like an end of season spectacular but better than that, it never lacked intelligence and was packed full of clever ideas and juicy moments, stomach-clenching twists, astonishing artwork and some mighty fine characterisation. It feels as if I have taken that step from liking the strip to being a fan. It was so good I read it - and then half an hour later I read it again and it blew me away a second time.
The new Nick-Briggs-inspired Doctor bursts from the page and the story affords the time for four pages of TARDIS tomfoolery as the Doctor picks his new outfit and gorgeously describes regeneration to his companions. He oozes style and charm and whilst it is sad to see McGann go, he actually seems like a reasonable replacement. I love how the comic is not afraid to explore the TARDIS beyond the console room and that water fountain obelisk was a sight to behold. These scenes really stress the domesticity between the regulars now and drove home how successful Izzy and Fey are turning out to be.
Suddenly, we are assailed with some truly audacious imagery. A western town on the moon! The frame of the wonders of the world; the Eiffel Tower, Mount Rushmore, the Hollywood sign, Big Ben, the Pyramids, an Aztec temple, Stonehenge surrounded by the crags and starlight of the moon really reveals the strength of comic strip Doctor Who. Dazzlingly imaginative. Even better is that surrealist nightmare shot of Izzy and Fey surrounded by the Threshold walking around them on every surface; it's like a spaced-up Escher painting! The final, bowel-clenchingly scary image of the second part is the Pariah jumping out of Abraham attack our regulars. What a monster.
Scott Gray is not afraid to take Alan Barnes' penchant for high concept and trump it. He loads his story with some really strong, mind-bursting ideas. I love the idea of the Threshold giving humanity a little push in the right direction; although with Scaroth, Azal and even the Doctor having claimed the same thing, you have to wonder if the human race has actually achieved anything? The backstory for the Threshold was very welcome and the four frames that show the sphere replicating are so simple but extremely effective. The gag of setting up their operation in the moon decades before Neil Armstrong did and wetting themselves when he claims to be the first guy up there is quietly rather wonderful. Can you imagine a more perverse use of continuity than the Eye of Disharmony? What an awesome concept. And how the story so casually destroys the universe - preceding Steven Moffat's go at it by a decade - is as audacious as I can imagine these stories getting. It's like a kick in the nuts after all that fabulous exposition. The Threshold plan to create an outer space apocalypse and prey on the fear of Armageddon of a million cultures and then asking them to pay for salvation reveals just how twisted this race is but boy does it make for some great reaction shots!
Has the eighth Doctor ever looked so resplendent as when he jumps back into action? What a fantastic likeness of Paul McGann. Suddenly, the story fires one surprise after another. The flashback to Shayde and the Doctor's plan is great, and it made go back and read the end of The Final Chapter again. Fey truly lives up to her profession as a spy and is revealed as the eyes and ears of the Threshold. Chastity is strapped down and forced to be a universal translator. Watch and gasp as the Pariah and Shayde have a breathtaking fight across four pages of action; their dialogue is just as gripping and the action is dynamic. (I can't believe I am saying that about still pictures.) The devastating last twist where Shayde's head is crushed ('If you want to make an omelette... you gotta break a few eggs') tops off a nourishing instalment.
But the excitement doesn't end there. I loved the shot of the Pariah picking up the TARDIS as though it were a toy! The scenes of the Threshold being slaughtered really tug at the heartstrings despite their diabolical plan; as the Doctor says, not even they deserve such a fate. The Pariah is revealed as the deadliest creature the Doctor has ever faced: it doesn't care about any single life; it is a weapon and all must die. Watching Abraham tear his way free of the Pariah is as punch-the-air satisfying as it is icky. His dying words are memorable.
Throughout this story, the companions are both great but for once it's Izzy who really stands out. From her horror at the Doctor's regeneration, her investigations on her own in the Threshold (finally!), her baseball bat wave of destruction to her brilliant reaction to the destruction of the moon ('Sorry Hal, no-one's listening... Wormwood's scrubbed!') she has suddenly come to life. Fey's departure was quite upbeat and I certainly hope we'll be seeing her again. The drawing of the moon fragments gliding past on the TARDIS roof scanner, the time rotor piercing the image and the three time travellers gazing up around the console is stunning.
What can I say? Colour me impressed. So good it gives the eighth Doctor strip a new level of quality to maintain. Surprising, emotional, beautifully drawn and dynamic, Wormwood knocks spots of most of the TV finales: 10/10
By Hook or By Crook written by Scott Gray
I'm fairly sure By Hook and by Crook is supposed to be set after Fire and Brimstone but I didn't read it until after Wormwood and honestly it works better there anyway, displaying the giddy joy of the relationship between the Doctor and Izzy after their last few universe-threatening adventures. It's a slight but highly enjoyable one-off that sees the pair of them at their best, initially trying to best each other by staying out of trouble and then in trying to get the Doctor out of his oncoming execution. This story made me laugh out loud three times - and it is like pulling teeth to get me to do that on TV and in books so I never thought the comics had a chance! The four-panel sequence that sees the Doctor drive past Izzy in a police car and she punches the air with delight, the hilarious moment where she tries to free him with a birthday cake and the next frame sees her behind bars - and of course that lovely final touch which was built into the story from the very beginning. It's cheating, it's sneaky and it's wonderful. Plus the newspaper that reveals 'Dodgy Doc's Death Day' is inspired.
I have always enjoyed Adrian Salmon's artwork, both for the Bernice Summerfield range and the memorable nostalgic kicks he provided in the Time Team's exhaustive trawl through the series (he even managed to make the Loch Ness monster scary!). His is a jagged, spiky sort of art, lacking the filmic quality of Geraghty's but making worlds come alive in an abrasive, memorable sort of way. His reaction shots are right on the money and caused my spontaneous laughter - and has Izzy ever looked as gorgeous? I loved the shot of her hugging her knees with the bars casting shadows over her.
A lovely piece of whimsy which highlights the Doctor and Izzy at their finest. That Scott Gray is quite a find: 8/10