Ground Zero is a collected yearsworth of comic-strips from Doctor Who Magazine. But it’s also much, much more than that. It’s a chronicle of the ambition of a new DWM team under Gary Gillat, moving from a relatively throwaway, anthology-style comic-strip back towards the kind of sprawling, multi-issue epics that had made the comic-strip an absolute must-have in its so-called ‘golden period.’ It includes stories with the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Doctors, and while a couple of those stories are standalone, the rest only seem standalone, but are really building to a Seventh Doctor story with a shocking conclusion, subsequently retconned in other media, of which there were no sign when Ground Zero was conceived.
It’s a series of comic-strips which began as the fulfilment of one plan – to bring the comic-strips back to currency with the most recent Doctor and then spin them off on a comic-specific range of adventures with unique companions, villains and the like – and ultimately became the fulfilment of a different plan entirely, when the comic-strip got overtaken by the imminence of the Paul McGann TV movie. From a springboard for the return of McCoy’s Dark Doctor, it became a way to draw him to some kind of close, leading smoothly into the McGann era, as briefly seen on TV, and as extended in the subsequent comic-strips.
Along the way from one end of Ground Zero to the other, we learn of an additional Osirian to add to the ranks of Horus and Sutekh, go Quatermass in London’s tube network with a pre-Unearthly Child First Doctor and Susan, get poached from UNIT by some Earthly but unwelcome aliens, investigate the ultimate impact of Chernobyl, pay a quirky piece of homage to the effect of Doctor Who on its long-term fans, and, with the Seventh Doctor, meet a sinister, immensely philosophical, terrifying monster and a new race of villains who’ll double-cross their notional grandmothers in a heartbeat. And then there’s that conclusion. Perfect, ghastly, and perfect some more.
Curse Of The Scarab, written by Allan Barnes and drawn by Martin Geraghty, channels Thirties Hollywood through heaping handfuls of Pyramids Of Mars and classic horror, with lots of darkness, black and white blood, distressing close-ups and at least one absolutely all-time belter of a cliff-hanger panel that absolutely stands up a quarter-century later. It takes the Fifth Doctor and Peri (sensibly re-bottling the lightning of their tight partnership as seen in Davison’s finest couple of hours, The Caves Of Androzani) to the set of something like a Universal horror movie, all mummies and caskets and revivification rites. It uses the monochrome nature of the comic-strips in those days to its full advantage, giving a cold, old movie feel to the strip and the action, and as mentioned, introduces us to a new Osirian on the block. While it may not have so much of Sutekh’s grand way with speeches, this Osirian has personalised shiver-tricks of its own, and you may well squirm at several points. It gets the ball rolling with scope, darkness, a twist on a nostalgic urge and an impressive, oppressive quality to the art, for all Peter Davison remains immensely difficult to capture.
Operation Proteus, written by Gareth Roberts and again drawn by Geraghty, wins us over almost before it really gets going. It’s the First Doctor and Susan, before they meet up with a couple of busybody schoolteachers. And Roberts captures the impetuous side of the First Doctor’s nature as well as his spine-straightening scientific authority. When he learns of alien shenanigans in the tube network, he strides off boldly into battle to get it stopped. But as was occasionally the case with this paradoxically youngest of Doctors, there’s more going on than he yet has the experience to imagine, and there are some gruesome consequences to what he discovers, in some ways harkening ‘forward’ to the likes of The Silurians, with the potential for a pandemic sweeping the world unless the project beneath King’s Cross is halted. While the aliens themselves are…a little odd – some Star Wars, some Star Trek, some Graske from New Who, Geraghty is on much firmer ground here than with his renderings of the Fifth Doctor – the Hartnell face is much more clearly, specifically Hartnell, and there’s an absolutely recognisable young Susan here too. It’s a short tale, reasonably rapidly told, but it delivers a Hartnell vibe of ‘things that must be stopped and defeated and we’re the ones to do it’ precocity, crucially unguided by the human friends he’s soon about to make.
Target Practice, again written by Roberts but this time drawn by Adrian Salmon, features the Third Doctor, Jo and the Brigadier, with a Benton cameo. It’s one of the two standalones in the collection, and it’s also relatively story-light. Given that the Pertwee era was significantly about villains of the week, usually with an alien origin, the actual plot here is somewhat slim, and it also raises hopes initially by putting a sharply delineated panel of monsters in our path before downgrading them to mock-ups and throwing us into a relatively straightforward espionage story that feels far more New Avengers than it does Pertwee Who. Salmon’s style is bold in terms of its use of black and shadows, but is also rather more impressionistic than realistic, which can be a move that divides readers who are used to a more realistic style.
Black Destiny treats us to some Fourth Doctor, Sarah and Harry, and while it gives us a solid story-hook at the start – a boy who not only survives the Chernobyl explosion, but basks in it, bathes in the radiation released by that catastrophe – and a good third act, where a descendant of that child becomes a cloud-god (Because, naturally…), the second part is rather a lot of running about, poisoning and zombies without much by way of purpose, much like the recent Orphan 55 TV episode, to be fair. Writer Gary Russell wasn’t entirely keen to deliver a Fourth Doctor story, being, he felt, unable to deliver authentic Fourth Doctor dialogue, and despite polishing throughout, you’d be hard pressed to call Black Destiny classic Tom Baker fare, though Baker’s Doctor and his two earliest friends are well rendered by Geraghty, so what the story lacks in Tom Baker sparkle or much connected plot-sense, it almost makes up for in the sharply delineated images of a future Russia.
Oh and then we’re into the three part Ground Zero strip itself, written by Scott Gray and drawn by Martin Geraghty, and from its very first panels, it’s a whole different ball game to what’s gone before it. It’s intense and immersive, the panels are full and rich and complex, and we learn what’s been going on behind the surface of some of those earlier adventures, what’s happened to some of the companions along the way. There are two levels of brand new villainy running parallel here – a monster species and a villain species, and they’re both, like the Daleks and Cybermen before them, rooted in deeply philosophical elements of the human psyche, as well as on the one hand being deeply creepy and on the other being deeply callous. In essence, Ground Zero is like a Big Finish story, roughly four years before Big Finish existed. It’s full of drama, and it ends with power, with punch, and with a twist you both won’t be expecting and will nod at sagely, understanding it as the perfect full-stop to a story strand that began much longer ago than the start of this collection.
Ground Zero itself is the butterfly that Gary Gillat and his team had been hoping to achieve as the starting point for a new run of McCoy comic-strip story-arcs, whereas the previous stories in the run are caterpillars. Some of them beautiful, some of them fascinating, some of them worth the price of admission for one idea or one panel alone – man, that Curse of the Scarab cliff-hanger… – but they’re all relatively straightforward pieces of work compared to the intensely written, intensely drawn story of Ground Zero. It feels like a destination-point, rather than a step on a journey, and it would go on to help inform not only comic-strips for the Eighth Doctor, but the ambition and scale of early Big Finish, and arguably the revived show in the New Who era.
All of which makes the final strip in the collection feel odd. Nicely odd, but odd nonetheless. With both words and pictures delivered by Sean Longcroft, Dr Who And The Fangs Of Time is part autobiography of a Who-fan, part conversation with the Fourth Doctor, part story of how to fall out of love with Doctor Who, and then, with a simple perspective-shift, how to fall back in again. It’s the sort of thing Toby Hadoke would later bring to stand-up life in Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf, only with the added presence of the Fourth Doctor to explain the meaning of life and fandom along the way. It’s quirky, and relatable, and neatly drawn, and if anything, it’s the after-dinner mint of the collection, the cool down, the come down after the dramatic events at the end of Ground Zero.
Except here, there’s more. There’s value-added content, or Easter eggs if you like – Panini collected the contributors to the original comic-strips, let them re-read them now, and gave them nine pages to explain the creative process of each of the strips, how they came to be then, and how their creators feel they hold up today. Of them all, the recollections of Allan Barnes, Gary Gillatt and Gary Russell are probably the most illuminating, but having read the more than 100 pages of the Ground Zero collected strips, this behind-the-scenes content is an unexpected treat for Who-fans everywhere.
Grab a copy of Ground Zero and watch a comic-strip evolve from one thing to another over the course of a year, and especially, revel in Ground Zero itself for an end-point that feels both entirely traumatic and absolutely right. Tony Fyler