Doctor Who: The Comic Strip Adaptations Volume One – Starring Tom Baker, Rhianne Starbuck, Bethan Dixon Bate, Luke Franks, Steve Hansell, Esther Hill, Ben Hunter, Christine Kavanagh, Joseph Kloska, Alistair Lock & Tony Longworth.Written by Pat Mills & John Wagner & Illustrated by Dave Gibbons Adapted by Alan Barnes – 5xCD / Download (Big Finish)
Doctor Who has, for longer than very many TV shows, embraced the idea of a multi-media existence. From the William Hartnell era, as well as the TV show and a couple of glorious, demented technicolour big screen movies, Doctor Who existed in Target novelisations (Doctor Who in an exciting adventure with the Daleks landed in 1964), and it also existed in comic strip form – both in an every-year annual, and in publications like TV Comic and Countdown (later known as TV Action).
With the arrival in 1979 of Doctor Who Weekly, then Monthly, then Magazine, comic strips became a great additional way to check in with the Doctor’s adventures. They were a primitive Easter egg – extra adventures that casual viewers would never know had happened. And there have been several golden ages of comic strip adventures, with developments in the New Who era, with, for instance IDW and then Titan Comics publishing ridiculously high quality New Who adventures, with their own companions, arcs, loops, multi-Doctor stories – you name it, they’ve done it, all alongside the Doctor Who Magazine stories.
When Doctor Who Weekly launched in 1979, one of those golden comic strip ages came with it, when Pat Mills, John Wagner and artist Dave Gibbons set about delivering arresting stories, unparalleled statement-panel visuals and a sense of oomph that mirrored the likes of The City of Death on TV.
Now some of the first comic strips to feature in Doctor Who Weekly have been transformed into audio adventures from Big Finish, adapted from the originals, written by Pat Mills and John Wagner, by Alan Barnes. The first set includes The Iron Legion and The Star Beast – two stories with entirely different approaches to hooking fans, but which are both in their own way hugely well-regarded by those who read them when they first came out. The question is whether they work as audio experiences, forty years on from their original publication.
The first thing to say is these are not Doctor Who stories as you know Doctor Who stories. They’re not really the same as the Fourth Doctor’s TV output, even in the uniquely fun Season 17, and they’re also significantly different from the original Big Finish Fourth Doctor stories. These comic strip adaptations should be seen as existing in a slightly different universe of Who. They’re Who, written for children in 1979 to read for themselves, translated into audio with their bouncy, infectious, slightly sillier-than-usual Fourth Doctor intact. If you really want a modern comparison, have a listen to the Baker’s End series written by Paul Magrs and released by Bafflegab for something as bouncy and demented as these stories. But beyond that, there’s a logic in delivering these stories on audio. In the late seventies, one of the easiest and most convenient ways of stepping outside the restrictions of a BBC budget was to write and ink comic strips. Nowadays, the same effect of a bigger, more believable universe can be delivered in audio adventures, so the sense of translating the one into the other is undeniable.
Let’s get something straight here – The Iron Legion blew our tiny little Who-loving minds when it appeared in 1979. The sheer scale of it, the sweep and scope was like nothing that could have been afforded on screen. Because The Iron Legion is essentially the story of a future Roman Empire, with spacefaring technology, iron generals with the heads of eagles, arenas full of slavering outer space slimebeasts, and a hapless couple from a quiet English village, caught up in it all and needing to be rescued and sent back home once the Doctor has toppled the regime.
As you do, if you’re the Fourth Doctor.
Alan Barnes, in translating all that to an audio-friendly version, has recaptured that sense of grandeur, of scope, of a million centurions and a billion citizens stretching this Roman reality into a vista in your brain. And he delivers the relative smallness of the Doctor and his new friends from the village of Stockbridge when compared to the might of that empire very effectively too. This is a story of some stainless steel rats in the Roman wainscoting, working away to bring down if not the empire itself, then the forces that have permeated it and turned it into a force for ultimate evil.
Tom Baker in this story is very full-on, from telling jokes to slimebeasts to facing down generals and invasive alien parasites. He’s Tom Baker, still, but with David Tennant’s energy. The surprising thing is that while, based on that description, you could easily end up with a Doctor you want to punch in the face, Baker absorbs the challenge masterfully and bounds about the place like a bolt of audio lightning.
There are some simply barking mad bits of invention in this story – ‘bacta-guns’ being a notable case. They’re guns which rust metal. Sounds insane when you first hear it, but when you consider that your legions are made of iron, it all clicks into place. The villains too have a name which at least at first appears to be taking the mickey. But they’re well and creepily rendered on audio – in fact, if anything, their delivery on audio is considerably creepier than it was in the comic strips, so what you end up with in The Iron Legion is a story that’s in its own pocket universe of Who, but that within that universe, with a slightly different Fourth Doctor, works brilliantly well, delivering a pulse-pounding, air-punching, nail-biting story, studded with laughs both subtle and immature, and ultimately wrapped around a sad and powerful sacrifice.
The Iron Legion flies past, whipped along at pace and directed with confidence and brio, meaning you don’t get the time to sit and think ‘Hang on, how does that work?’ Accept it – you’re in the comic strip universe of Who now. Go with it, and The Iron Legion will give you a fantastic ride.
The Star Beast is a different kettle of fish altogether. Set in a Yorkshire village, it almost has the flavour of a Companion Chronicle, focusing on the lives of two oddball pals, Sharon and Fudge, who come across something odd in a garden shed. Beep the Meep is fluffy, with big eyes and a seemingly sweet nature – he’s a pre-Mogwai Mogwai in fact, and Sharon and Fudge decide to nurse him back to health, to help him get to his ship, and to get him home.
Sound like a riff on ET – The Extra-Terrestrial? Two years before the movie came out, sorry, and arguably a more realistic take because (spoiler alert, but you’ve had forty years!), Beep the Meep is an utter Star Bastard, covered in fluff and ready to burn whole star systems just for fun. The space police who are hunting the little gremlin down are decidedly less cute, less cuddly and less inclined to look up at you with big wet melting eyes and go ‘Meeeeeeeeep.’
When the Doctor arrives, he’s a more open-minded broker between the hunted Meep and the hunting space cops, the Wrarth Warriors, bringing the wisdom of the Time Lords to the question of whether cuteness necessarily means righteousness. The story unfolds as Beep the Meep does what’s necessary to try to evade the justice of the Wrarth, sometimes helped and sometimes hindered by the Yorkshire kids. While it feels at this remove quite a comical satire, and while it’s been aped many times (we’re looking at you, Galaxy Quest), the new audio version bursts with fun and freshness, both in the adaptation and especially in the cast – with Sharon and Fudge coming gloriously to life in the voices of Rhianne Starbuck and Ben Hunter respectively, and Bethan Dixon Bate out-Meeping all-comers in the cuteness stakes. While still firmly in the comic strip universe of Who, rather than the more familiar universe of Tom Baker’s Time Lord, the fun of The Star Beast is that it’s bonkers in a uniquely British way, with a balance of optimism and 1970s realism that makes us laugh four decades on, not least at how much of the British national character has actually changed since then.
If you enjoyed these adventures when they first appeared, chances are high you’ll want to have a listen to them just to see how they fare on audio. If you’re young enough to still have your own hair and teeth, these stories may well come at you sideways and initially make you think ‘Well, that’s #NotMyDoctor.’ You’re right. It isn’t. It’s the Doctor siphoned through a print dimension, originally aimed at an audience which didn’t include you, but brought up to date and poured into your lugholes. It’s not, by any means, your normal Fourth Doctor programming. It is, however, enormous fun in a universe where the Doctor was a little bit sillier and more childlike than even the universe’s leading Jelly Baby-scoffer ever got on TV. Accept that you’re in a kind of Unbound Fourth Doctor universe, and let the comic strip adventures tickle you today. Tony Fyler