Sunday, August 9, 2009

Doctor Who: A Cold Day in Hell!

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Doctor Who: A Cold Day in Hell! (Panini, 2009)

We've reached the point in these collections of the Doctor Who strip where I originally stopped buying the magazine, so I was pretty interested in checking this book out. I'm kind of hazy as to why I quit reading, but I sort of recall that the price went up and they dropped eight pages back in 1987. I'm also pretty sure that I enjoyed Sylvester McCoy's Doctor more than anybody else that I knew at the time, but my enthusiasm had still ebbed after a couple of years of fandom. I also seem to recall one issue's cover with McCoy and Richard Briers making stupid faces at each other, and lit so they looked like a couple of ugly jack o'lanterns and deciding my money would be better spent on Siouxsie and the Banshees records.

Inside, the comic was going through some radical changes. In the seven pages of commentary in this collection, John Freeman interviews the comic's editor, Richard Starkings, who confirmed that the magazine was going through some belt-tightening at the time, and that artist John Ridgway, who had drawn the strip since the first Colin Baker episode, was passed over in favor of a rotating series of writers and artists.

The intent was apparently to follow the TV series' lead, as of course each serial had its own screenwriter and director. However, this simply doesn't work as well with an ongoing comic. Particularly in collected form, the inconsistent tone provided by having a new team for each story really jars.

As for the individual stories, some fail spectacularly, but some are pretty good. Freeman's two-part "Planet of the Dead" is a really fun romp, and I like the way the Doctor really seems completely lost, yet still in character, but it's undermined by Lee Sullivan's artwork. In time, Sullivan would grow into a favorite on Judge Dredd, but this early work is really rough and his storytelling is confusing, and the story's aliens, a shapeshifting bunch called the Gwanzulum, are just about the dumbest looking monsters in a series known for dumb-looking monsters. It ends up feeling like a rough draft for what should have been a memorable anniversary runaround, just a disappointment.

A lot of the book is like this, with novice artists just starting their comic career undermining a good story or two. Admittedly, neither Kev Hopgood nor Dougie Braithwaite were ever among my favorites when they started on 2000 AD a few years later, but their work here is just terrible. So is "Culture Shock!," a one-parter written by Grant Morrison and utterly ruined by a teenage Bryan Hitch, who would of course go on to far better things in the future, but who barely understands page composition here. It works the other way around in one case, though: veteran Alan Grant turns in a completely awful script called "Invaders from Gantac!" about an alien invasion of Earth totally at odds with anything else Doctor Who has ever presented, but somehow artists Martin Griffiths and Cam Smith make it look readable.

Elsewhere, among the 21 episodes in the collection, are two crossovers with other Marvel UK titles, putting this Doctor in the same continuity as Death's Head and the Sleeze Brothers. Apparently, these really aggravated readers when they originally appeared. Having never read Death's Head or the Sleeze Brothers myself, all I can say is that I am in no rush to go back and read any other Marvel UK series that I might have missed. These are just awful.

The best stories here are the first four episodes by Simon Furman and John Ridgway, before he moved on, a one-off by Furman and the wonderful John Higgins, and a creepy, clever two-parter by Dan Abnett and the returning Ridgway. Everything really meshes with these episodes, and I almost get a sense for what a regular team might have accomplished. While I honestly liked the artwork in this book by Griffiths and Higgins, the collection in some alternate universe where Ridgway got to draw the whole thing would certainly be a superior prospect. Recommended for fans only.

(Oh, one final bugbear about this book: while I realize that exchange rates often make it difficult to price things in advance, if you're out there, Panini, I really didn't appreciate ordering a book solicited in Diamond for $24.99 only to have it arrive costing $31.95. Seriously, are you going to do this with the supposedly $24.99 [see here] edition of "The Widow's Curse" when it shows up in November?)


John Freeman said...

Cheers for this - I think... There's a much longer version of the feature here on my web site (

John Ridgway wasn't sacked by the way - although that might be one interpretation of Richard's introduction. And I regularly asked him to do strips later for the magazine.

Funy how you stopped reading the magazine just as we started to pick up again. The price rise was a definite necessity but we made up for it with more photos from the show and got better access to the last few stories that were made at that time as a result. And, on a personal note, it enabled me to sit down and have breakfast at a convention with the late, great Jon Pertewee, and encounter I'll cherish. Cheers for the blog, it's fab!

G.G. said...

Hiya, John! I did eventually come back to DWM for several years once Andrew Pixley started doing the Archive feature - why aren't those in big collected editions yet? - but by early 1988, I was pretty much down to 2000 AD as far as comics, and even that got dropped for a while when Titan stopped carrying it. All my other money, what little I could con out of my folks, anyway, was being spent on records. Ah, to be seventeen again...

I will edit the piece to clarify Ridgway's situation. Thanks for writing!