Writers: Gordon Rennie and Emma Beeby
Artist: Brian Williamson
Letterers: Richard Starkings and Comicraft's Jimmy Betancourt
Senior Comics Editor: Andrew James
Assistant Editors: Jessica Burton and Amoona Saohin
Designer: Andrew Leung
Released: July 13th, 2016, Titan Comics
If anyone interested in the fundamental components of fictional texts looks up the term ‘exposition’ on Literary Devices.net, they’ll find the following definition: “a literary device used to introduce background information about events, settings, characters etc. to the audiences or readers.” Were we in a particularly cynical frame of mind, we’d argue that the page in question should also feature mugshots of Gordon Rennie and Emma Beeby, the writers of Titan Comics’ soon-to-conclude Fourth Doctor miniseries, on the basis of their latest contribution. After the disappointingly uneventful Issue 3 failed to progress the overarching narrative of “Gaze of the Medusa” last month, it’s nothing short of baffling to see the once dynamic duo – both of whom stunned with their first two chapters – opt to once again stall for time until their series finale. Inserting myriad recaps of the events of previous issues such as their antagonists’ backgrounds and Sarah’s stone-cold fate as Tom Baker’s Doctor and Athena wander ancient caverns, the two scribes frequently risk creating a product which seems more akin to a 25-page “Previously…” segment than a fully-fledged entry.
There’s a place for exposition here and there, of course, and true to form, Rennie and Beeby don’t pass up numerous opportunities to take advantage of both the Doctor and Athena’s profound knowledge of the period of history they’ve entered, peppering into their exchanges detail of how the Romans overthrew their final monarchs as well as of how Greece’s theatrical scene underwent major developments over the course of this era. Yet whilst such neat little nods to the past work twofold in enabling readers to gain a sense of these two constructions’ passions and their ever-evolving rapport, when viewed in tandem with the countless instances where our narrative helms cram in references to past events or the background of the setting, they undeniably serve only to fill panels for the sake of filling panels as opposed to justifying their inclusion. Instead of finding ourselves thrust into the concluding stages of this five-part serial’s third act, we’re consequently left to await next month’s final issue with little to no knowledge of how the Doctor will reanimate Sarah after her transformation or how Lady Carstairs plans to use a certain Type 40 time machine to the advantage of her overall machinations. If Beeby and Rennie aren’t careful, this confounding structural strategy could well make Issue 5 pressed for time, unlike its plodding predecessor.
Admittedly, those readers who checked out our review of the third chapter in “Medusa” will well remember us heaping praise onto artist Brian Williamson for alleviating the monotonous pace of Issue 3 with his consistently tonally unpredictable imagery, in particular by making that edition’s two settings of Victorian London and the aforementioned cave network feel as distinct as possible in terms of their respective colour palettes. If only the same credit could be laid at the man’s feet this time around. Through no fault of his own, until the very last panels rear into view, Williamson’s forced to simply depict the Doctor and Athena having conversations with each other in the drab, grim latter setting while encountering next to nothing in the way of notable threats, leaving him unmistakably limited in terms of varying up either the foreground or background elements of his drawings. It’s telling that the one exception, the beautifully mythological final panel, has more of a visual impact than anything which came before, as do the pair of secondary strips drawn by Lee Sullivan, Luis Gurrero as well as Blair Shedd at the issue’s rear.
Speaking of which, in a comic-book text otherwise devoid of real merits, the two “Supremacy of the Cybermen” prologues featured here as bonus supplements end up – against all of the odds – being by far Issue 4’s most compelling content, with one depicting Paul McGann’s evidently Time War-hardened Eighth Doctor on the run from his metallic adversaries – who’re sporting a look ripped straight from the pages of 1990s and early noughties Doctor Who Magazine, incidentally – and the other casting Baker’s incarnation in much the same danger-fraught light, only to reveal how one of the defining elements of the Fourth Doctor era has been turned on its head thanks to the intervention of Telos’ finest with the help of a post-Time War version of President Rassilon. Chances are these tantalising one-page vignettes won’t have any tangible bearing on the main “Supremacy” crossover adventure making its way to shelves this Summer – check out our review of Issue 1 here, by the way – but even so, that they serve as USPs in themselves thanks to their inventively retro artwork along with their inevitable tight pacing only reaffirms the lacklustre nature of the core strip more than anything else.
On the surface, it might seem as if we’re taking a rather harsh approach to critiquing the closing chapters of the “Medusa” arc; in reality, though, given the immense, myriad strengths of the opening two instalments of this initially breath-taking miniseries – not least its rich characterisation of leading and supporting players alike, its compellingly executed quasi-mythological elements and by far its pitch-perfect tonal odes to the supremely gothic days of the Hinchcliffe era – it was all but inevitable that expectations would be high for what came afterwards, thereby putting all the more pressure on Beeby and Rennie to deliver on the potential offered up in Issues 1 and 2. That they’ve failed to achieve this lofty goal doesn’t so much mean that the Fourth Doctor’s first post-DWM comic-strip has started to lack appeal, however, as that its writing team might have struggled to stretch out their tale over five instalments rather than having it form but a two-part tale to kick off an ongoing strip featuring Baker’s wisecracking version of Doctor Who’s titular defender of the cosmos. With that being said, there’s still time for them to at least put Williamson to better artistic use and round proceedings off satisfyingli – join us in August to see if they succeed…