Writer: Nick Abadzis
Artists: Eleonara Carlini, Elena Casagrande
Colorists: Claudia SG Iannicello, Arianna Florean
Cover: Alex Ronald
Released: April 27th 2016, Titan Comics
In a year almost completely devoid of new doses of televised Doctor Who, there’s more pressure than ever on the likes of Big Finish and Titan Comics to deliver quality plotlines set in the same narrative continuity as the TV series, albeit via other mediums of storytelling. Thankfully though, the latter publisher already seems to have plenty of great ideas as to how to fill the void until December 25th, as evidenced by the superb first five instalments of their ongoing Tenth Doctor comic strip’s second year in action, all of which have been compiled to form the aptly-named The Tenth Doctor: Volume 4.
Sub-titled The Endless Song after the first of its three contributory tales, this compilation of graphic adventures takes David Tennant’s incarnation of Who’s eponymous Time Lord – along with Gabby Gonzalez, better known as his first Titan-exclusive companion – from alien worlds fuelled by enchanting melodies back to the ages of Neanderthals and beyond. By and large, we’re presented with a fairly standalone set of narratives which can virtually be read in isolation of anything that’s come before or that Titan delivers in the coming months, yet which nevertheless keep us fully aware of how the explosive Anubis plot arc teased in Year One’s finale continues to develop behind the scenes.
Read on below for our takes on each of the three independent trips through time and space – “The Singer Not the Song”, “Cindy, Cleo and the Magic Sketchbook” and “Medicine Man” – as well as our overall verdict on Volume 4 at review’s end…
“The Singer Not the Song” (Issues 1-2):
Our first stop is the musical planet of Wupatki, a cosmic setting developed magnificently over the course of this compelling two-parter by Nick Abadzis as we discover the intricate inter-species dynamics formed between a band of human colonists, the seemingly benevolent Bovodrines – whose “photosynthetic processes” apparently form “the lungs of this world” – and most importantly the nigh-invisible Shan’tee, the latter of whom can only be perceived once their melodies are consumed through one’s ears.
That Abadzis even manages to find time amidst all of this world-building to offer up an equally engaging narrative is an achievement of itself, but rest assured that the Doctor and Gabby’s efforts to cure the plague infecting the Shan’tee before Wupatki falls, as a planned vacation turns into a race against time for the TARDIS crew, are just as much of a selling point as the tale’s setting. What’s more, the scribe even finds time to dwell on wholly topical themes like colonialism, perception and the power of undistorted music, all while paralleling the threat of the planet’s song ending with the Tenth Doctor’s own arc nearing its end and throwing in a melodic final set-piece akin to that of The Lazarus Experiment for good measure.
Occasionally, however, the – necessary – emphasis on action over nuanced character development here means that secondary players like the youngster who introduces Gabby to a range of toxic remixes dispatched from Earth to his colony and Allegra, a scientist whose disease allows her to see the Shan’tee without any technological aid, don’t receive quite as much attention as would have been the case in a less crowded, time-sensitive storyline. With that being said, there’s no doubting that as a season premiere, “Singer” more than fulfils its role of getting proceedings off the ground with aplomb, thereby guaranteeing that its readership won’t possibly resist the temptation of picking up future issues.
“Cindy, Cleo and the Magic Sketchbook” (Issue 3):
Unlike those fans who picked up Issues 1 and 2 when they first launched earlier this year, of course, Volume 4 doesn’t force its consumers to wait weeks for the next chapter in the Tenth Doctor’s escapades, instead launching us straight into the one-off tale “Cindy, Cleo and the Magic Sketchbook”. It’s here that resident artists Elena Casagrande and Arianna Florean’s dazzling panels come into their own, as the team finds itself graced with a far more understated narrative than its predecessor, one packed with – gloriously executed – visual opportunities such as a masterfully drawn opening sequence focusing on the sketches Gabby sends to her old pal Cindy on a regular basis; an inherently fantastical antagonist whose visage can’t help but stun the eyes and above all a final page reveal virtually no one will see coming.
The last of those three elements does admittedly confirm “Sketchbook” to be more of a stepping stone instalment, in that – despite investigating the emotional and psychological aftermath of Year One’s finale, “Sins of the Father”, on those constructs who didn’t join the Doctor and Gabby aboard the TARDIS before the credits – the true threat of the maleficent Mister Ebonite upon Cindy, her time-travelling colleague as well as the cosmos at large is only gradually teased here, as is the larger role of the beloved modern Who companion who makes a shock return towards the plot’s end. Whereas Abadzis ensured “Singer” could be consumed in isolation – barring a brief teaser of what was to come when the Doctor and Anubis next crossed paths – he clearly wants to set up “Medicine Man” in this instance, but in fairness, there’s plenty to be said for intrigue and that quality absolutely manifests itself in abundance, giving this one just as much of a page-turning appeal as Volume 4’s two other fully-fledged storylines.
Better yet, “Sketchbook” arguably ranks as one of the Tenth Doctor strip’s finest character pieces to date, with readers afforded a far greater insight into Cindy’s psyche as a TARDIS reject of sorts forced to live the slow, linear life as the rest of the human race rather than joining Gabby on worlds like Wupatki as she might once have hoped, along with further exploration of the psychological toll that Cleo’s displacement from her home in “Sins” has oh-so-clearly had on her in recent weeks. As discussed in our “Singer” commentary above, too often these strips are forced to prioritize their set-pieces over their character arcs, yet combined with the captivating intrigue powering its bridging storyline, “Sketchbook” makes one hell of an argument for why the alternative approach doesn’t hurt once in a while.
“Medicine Man” (Issues 4-5):
Last but under no circumstances least comes a prehistoric age-set outing, “Medicine Man”, which serves as more of a standalone affair than its immediate predecessor despite its final pages revealing that Abadzis likes to play a far longer game than readers could have anticipated. Tasking the Doctor and Gabby with determining the truth behind the disappearances of entire clans from their Neanderthal villages alongside one such caveman whose paintings – vividly rendered by Arianna and Azzurra Florean – allude to the nature of the extra-terrestrial hunters responsible, this two-part epic boasts impressive scale thanks to its air-bound battles, not to mention a genuine sense of heart thanks to Gabby and the aforementioned Munmeth’s discussions with regards to the inevitable evolution of sapiens into homo sapiens.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that the final chapter of Volume 4 would feel like a re-tread of previous cavemen-featuring Who romps like An Unearthly Child or the more recent DWM 50th anniversary comic “Hunters of the Burning Stone”, yet quite to the contrary, Abadzis goes out of his way to introduce surprisingly inventive creative flourishes along the way, delving into Munmeth’s inability to comprehend much of the Doctor and Gabby’s modern vocabulary as well as the struggle of the Time Lord’s latest companion to, in a similar vein to The Fires of Pompeii, understand why the TARDIS crew will eventually have to leave a species doomed to be lost to the history books behind for the sake of time’s preservation. These aren’t necessarily story beats we’ve never seen before in the history of Who, but even so, the tale’s scribe and art team alike make an admirable effort to ensure they’re implemented in such a nuanced manner that most readers will barely recognise any resemblance to serials gone by.
Unlike many of the previous Tenth Doctor volumes released by Titan Comics over the past 12 months, The Endless Song wraps up – perhaps aptly given its suggestion of the potential of this strip to endure “endlessly” until such a time when the events of The Waters of Mars must eventually kick-start the Doctor’s final days – on an entirely open note, leaving us desperate to discover how the events commenced in “Medicine Man” will resolve themselves given the seemingly intergalactic nature of the conflict to come. All the same, though, even if Issues 4 and 5 represent but a fraction of a longer-running storyline still to be fully told, what’s here will more than whet the audience’s appetites until Volume 5 lands in stores.
It’s always a joy to come across a release which doesn’t sport much in the way of shortcomings, or at least nearly enough points of contention to warrant giving it a miss, and The Tenth Doctor Volume 4: The Endless Song absolutely falls into that bracket, presenting fans of Who with compelling futuristic voyages, fascinating historical drama, accomplished writing from Abadzis and above all utterly stunning aesthetic elements courtesy of the two contributory art teams to make it an absolutely essential purchase.
Three months may still stand between the fandom and its consumption of the long-awaited 2016 Christmas Special, but until then, judging by the stellar first five instalments of the Tenth Doctor’s sophomore run of Titan journeys through space and time, perhaps the most beloved modern incarnation of the eternal Time Lord remains in extremely safe hands.