Writer: Robbie Morrison; Artist: Rachael Stott; Colorist: Ivan Nunes; Letterer: Richard Starkings and Comicraft's Jimmy Betancourt; Editor: Andrew James; Assistant Editors: Jessica Burton & Gabriela Houston; Designer: Rob Farmer; Published January 6th 2016, Titan Comics
What makes a great season premiere, at least in the case of Doctor Who in its modern guise? Ask Russell T. Davies, and judging by the four openers he gave us between 2005-2008, odds are that he'd suggest a light-hearted tone which allows for a run's freshman episode to come off as a fast-paced, comedic romp, thereby easing both long-term fans and newcomers in gently before subsequent instalments up the ante in terms of scale, past continuity elements and developing an individual season's overarching plotline(s). As for Steven Moffat's preferred strategy, one would have to imagine based on recent debut outings like "Asylum of the Daleks", "Deep Breath" and "The Magician's Apprentice" that he'd advocate opting for a more ambitious start, one which doesn't so much ease the fandom back in as ensure they'll stick around for the remainder of the season, all while quite possibly resurrecting a monstrous species from the past.
Considering that he was tasked with scribing the first serial in what is only the second ever run of Twelfth Doctor strips from Titan Comics, one could hardly have blamed writer Robbie Morrison for taking the first of these two strategies, thus enabling those who've somehow managed to go their entire lives without watching or reading a single televised or printed episode of Who to approach the tale with ease. Yet quite to the contrary, with "Clara Oswald and the School of Death Part 1", Morrison has produced a storyline which not only harkens back to "School Reunion" with its setting in the sinister Raven's Isle academic institute, but actively relies upon its readership having at least an above average awareness of the show's pre- and post-2005 mythology in order for them to fully appreciate the intricacies of the narrative being conveyed. Some touches are subtle, not least the uncanny resemblance Ms. Dee (the member of staff who calls Clara over to investigate mysterious happenings involving the waters surrounding the secluded Scottish school) bears to a certain presenter of the YouTube series Doctor Who: The Fan Show, but in other instances, this reliance upon past continuity has a clear detrimental impact on Part 1's overall structure and quality.
For the sake of preserving the issue's fan-appeasing cliff-hanger, this reviewer will refrain from spoiling the identities of this multi-part serial's antagonists, but suffice to say that their debut (in printed form, anyway) is foreshadowed in a manner not at all dissimilar to the way in which the Silurians made their return to the TV series in 2010's "The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood", with the Twelfth Doctor investigating these extra-terrestrials' presence with shades almost identical to his immediate predecessor while Clara assesses matters from a position that places her in the firing line to a far greater extent than the Time Lord. This structural familiarity in itself unfortunately reeks of a lack of inspiration on Morrison's part, particularly given that he introduced threats like Hyperios in such an innovative manner in his Year One strips, as does Rachael Stott's designs for these antagonists. The latter essentially render one of the show's more iconic alien species as nothing more than an identikit bunch of reptilian humanoids who could quite easily find their way into just about any work of sci-fi and who lack virtually any resemblance to their classic era counterparts. Some visual tweaking of an alien race's appearance to modernize them slightly will always be expected, of course, but considering that the Silurians' reinvention at least allowed them to partially retain facets of their former appearance via their facial masks, that Stott has seemingly put much less effort into paying homage to the original design of these acclaimed alien creations from the Pertwee era -there's another clue - represents nothing less than a huge disappointment.
With all of that being said, branding this largely competent first chapter of Year Two as a complete failure would equally be a step too far. What Morrison and Stott lack in narrative ingenuity and satisfying creature design, they more than compensate for with a superb attention to detail - both visually and through dialogue - in terms of capturing the characters of the Doctor and Clara as we saw them in Season Nine last autumn, leading to both constructs exhibiting the same sassy wit, almost childish rebelliousness (particularly in the case of Capaldi's expertly reinvigorated incarnation) and overriding zest for life that made them such a dynamic duo to see develop over the course of the 2015 run. Better yet, we get some deliciously gothic visuals afforded by Stott to Dee's chilling capture as well as an inspired juxtaposition of the purposefully grim, drab vistas of Raven's Isle with the explosive opening set-piece's depiction of crowds of colourfully-dressed aristocrats. Indeed, it's an aesthetically bombastic opening outing which gets its leads just right even if the secondary cast mostly fall into the same archetypes of the shady teacher, the hapless miscreants who don't conform to the rest of the student body and the like.
Rather than matching some of Davies or Moffat's finest openers, then, "Clara Oswald and the School of Death - Part 1" kicks off proceedings for Year Two in somewhat unspectacular fashion. Much as it portrays the Doctor and Clara in their glory days with remarkable accuracy while keeping its imagery fresh by juxtaposing visually eclectic settings, the strip struggles to offer much in the way of original narrative material on account of its reliance on past episode structures and its failure to depict its returning antagonists in a satisfying way. As always, the final product remains perfectly readable - and a far cry from Who's weakest modern storylines, that's for sure - but given that fans of the comic-book medium aren't exactly lacking for alternative options to this strip these days, Morrison and Stott may well have to work that much harder in the issues ahead to convince readers to return immediately for future instalments rather than aping Clara's approach of taking "the long way round".