WRITER - PAUL CORNELL;
ARTIST - NEIL EDWARDS;
COLORIST - IVAN NUNES;
LETTERER - RICHARD STARKINGS AND JIMMY BETANCOURT;
DESIGNER - ROB FARMER;
EDITOR - ANDREW JAMES;
ASSISTANT EDITOR - KIRSTEN MURRAY
RELEASED SEPTEMBER 2ND 2015, TITAN COMICS
Much as the Doctor has dabbled with parallel Earths, dimensions and the like in serials gone by, rare has been the occasion upon which he has come face to face with an alternate version of himself during these ventures into the unknown. After all, despite its containing a domesticated version of Rose Tyler (not to mention a near-uncanny facsimile counterpart to our Earth’s Davros in the form of one John Lumic), the so-called realm of ‘Pete’s Earth’ depicted in 2006’s “Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel”, “Doomsday” and later 2008’s “Journey’s End” showed no signs of featuring its own Time Lord protector until the real Rose brought her newfound metacrisis-formed spouse into the fold. Chances are that this prolonged absence of parallel incarnations of Doctor Who’s seemingly unique titular protagonist has come down to fear on the part of past incumbent writing teams at the prospect of scuppering up fans’ ever-precious regeneration numbering lists, especially given that the introduction of John Hurt’s ironically beloved War Doctor in 2013’s “The Day of the Doctor” – as well as its similarly acclaimed Paul McGann-starring prologue minisode – caused such a stir amongst the show’s hardened and sophomore followers alike.
Whatever the reasoning is or was behind this ongoing unwillingness to introduce Doctors from other dimensions, however, clearly Paul Cornell didn’t get the memo in this instance, at least if the penultimate instalment of his anything-but-unambitious Titan Comics crossover arc – “Four Doctors” – is any reasonable indication. Having set about last issue with his contemplation of the notion of the turning points in Theta Sigma’s many lives forging alternate realities wherein never before seen versions of the Oncoming Storm have moved forward from the events of “The End of Time”, “The Wedding of River Song” and “Dark Water” on vastly different trajectories to their ‘real world’ selves, the man perhaps best known for conceiving Bernice Summerfield continues to defy expectations by delving ever deeper into the psyche of a wizened Twelfth Doctor whose path was forever altered by his decision to cast aside Clara Oswald after her reckless attempts to convince him to resurrect “P.E.”.
The result? Well, for starters he does a fine job of clarifying exactly how this could-have-been take on our supposedly incorruptible hero came to be, how he and the three incarnations we’ve been spending time with these past four issues can occupy the same universe as well as how the Voord’s fateful conversation with Hurt’s combat veteran in Issue 1’s Time War-set prologue came to influence the future actions of Marinus’ oft-forgotten inhabitants, all of which will doubtless represent much appreciated moves in the readership’s eyes given how convoluted this near-complete series’ plot arc is seemingly fast becoming (just look at the dense ‘Previously…’ section’s deployment of several details regarding the Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors’ present whereabouts which were barely touched upon as Issue 3 rolled to a close). This need for clarification regarding numerous loose narrative threads from previous chapters does inevitably have a slight impact on Issue 4’s pacing in that the first quarter or so essentially comprises of an extended explanation from the aforementioned dark manifestation of Capaldi’s incarnation, although given that Cornell somehow effortlessly integrates his tale into Who’s recent mythology by connecting his antagonist’s millennium-spanning scheme to the events of both the Time War and “Day”, to complain about an only somewhat clunky (and doubtless necessary) initial exposition dump does admittedly seem rather churlish in hindsight.
In that case, let’s not dawdle on this edition’s minor structural faults, instead focusing on those strengths which continue to render “Four Doctors” as scarcely less than a gripping crossover yarn. In critiquing the somewhat predictably corridor chase-led Issue 2, this reviewer still discovered hope aplenty in the form of lead artist Neil Edwards’ consistently visually mesmerising contribution to proceedings, to the point where yours truly speculated that even in the event that the arc as a whole failed to impress, at least repeat ‘viewings’ would still allow readers to revel in the series’ sumptuous aesthetics if nothing else. Suffice to say that nothing’s changed in this respect – Cornell isn’t exactly known for delivering sub-par denouements (just give “The Family of Blood” another watch for all of the necessary evidence), but if the manner in which his latest Who outing concludes doesn’t quite satisfy on the level that most might have hoped, then it’s safe to say that based on his pitch perfect rendition of the Voord’s campaign for peace, his ability to transform what could have been visually mundane chases through futuristic spaceships’ innards for Alice and Gabby into thrilling races against time, and his unyielding attempts to distinguish the three Time Lords at the storyline’s helm by drawing each as authentically and yet as dynamically as possible, there’s little reason to suspect his work here won’t win him countless rounds of metaphorical applause come the final issue’s publication next week.
Until then, though, rest assured that Cornell continues to complement Edwards’ masterfully engaging imagery with similarly compelling dialogue, not least by having both the Time Lords who give this particular arc its name and their faithful companions discuss one of arguably the most fascinating issues to arise in Who’s recent history: that of destiny. Whilst 2009’s set of Tenth Doctor-murdering Specials famously dealt with this very subject matter through their sustained exploration of the true meaning behind Carmen’s ominous prophecy regarding a song ending and four taps’ worth of knocking, Issue 4 goes one step further in continually examining the ramifications of Tennant, Smith and Capaldi’s incarnations seemingly being doomed to become the newly-revealed alternate version of the Twelfth Doctor thanks to the latter’s sinister machinations, an intriguing concept which the scribe uses to its fullest despite us knowing full well that the true Twelfth will surely emerge from next issue unscathed, ready to face both his second year of Titan escapades as well as the remainder of Season Eight’s multitude of adventures. Some might well lament the fact that the prolonged nature of said contemplation leads to this second-last chapter coming off as something of a dialogue-driven rather than an action-led instalment, especially given that Cornell hasn’t exactly been averse to spending significant chunks of time with his characters keeping their feet firmly on the ground as they talk business (in a manner of speaking, anyway), but judging by the potentially devastating final panels involving Alice and Gabby’s desperate sprint for the TARDIS’ welcoming doors, such qualms will more than likely be brushed away near-instantly next time around.
Speaking of the human beings unlucky enough to stand at the Doctors’ side here, it couldn’t hurt to think for a moment on the areas in which Cornell might find room for improvement post-“Four Doctors”, not least since one such area is that of the roles – or lack thereof – which Clara et al have played so far. No one’s denying that in a narrative titled after a quartet of eternal aliens who find themselves battling a menace who knows them all too well, the Impossible Girl and friends were always going to fulfil slightly inferior functions in the grand scheme of events, but at the same time, lest we forget, much of the power of Who’s post-2004 televised outings has come from its emphasis on how each Doctor’s diverse range of travelling assistants both literally and metaphorically brings him down to Earth in both his darkest and finest hours, making Cornell’s election to have Clara, Alice and Gabby effectively play second-fiddle for the vast majority of Issue 4’s running time seem bemusing at best. Worse still, whilst the latter pair do at least receive one moment to shine in the form of a touchingly brief exchange surrounding what the other party should tell their respective Time Lord accomplice in the event of their demise, that can’t compensate for the uncharacteristically shoddy handling of a subsequent cliff-hanger which rivals “Death to the Daleks” Part 3 for its sheer incoherency. All that’s before one even begins to dwell on the concerning lack of effort on Cornell’s part to afford the Twelfth Doctor and Clara more than a single panel to discuss the potential for their relationship to crack in the future (a startling omission when you think about it) or to afford the Voord much more than foot-soldier status in those moments where we’re seeing their actions as opposed to gleaning exposition regarding their back-stories from Capaldi’s equivalent to the Valeyard, though this reviewer can’t help but suspect these seemingly innocent bystanders might yet reveal some darker motives for their attempts to effectively seize the universe’s free will through subtle psychological indoctrination.
Yet as ever, picking nits in the framework of a largely robust instalment can seem far too easy and more often than not can therefore give an inaccurate impression as to the instalment in question’s overall quality. Indeed, whilst the chinks in “Four Doctors”’ armour are still very much there to see for those who scrutinise each issue closely enough, its merits rarely fail to shine through that much more brightly with each passing chapter. Not once has Cornell failed to capture the individual quirks of Tennant, Smith or Capaldi’s takes on the (supposed) Last of the Time Lords, nor does Edwards seem set to let up with his constantly stunning renditions of set-pieces both action-orientated and personal, lending weight to the persistent sense that we’ll ultimately be left with a finely-tuned, gloriously visually bombastic piece of graphic science-fiction that, despite its shortcomings with regards to its secondary constructs’ characterisation (or lack thereof), at least mirrors the philosophical audacity of its writer’s strongest Doctor Who tale by far, “Human Nature / The Family of Blood” (not to mention the similarly inspired original New Adventures novel of the same name), something which still absolutely can’t be said of the vast majority of TV-inspired graphic novels on the market right now.
Bonus Humour Strip Mini-Review:
As if it wasn't enough for Cornell to pen all five instalments of "Four Doctors" all on his lonesome, he's moreover the mind behind the series' variety of accompanying bonus strips, with his contribution this week coming in the form of a neat skit titled "The Doctors Do...Classic Comedy". Once again displaying the rather cute and oh-so-quaint anime-esque art style implemented by Neil Slorance in issues gone by, this brief three-panel yarn easily fulfils its purpose of humorously juxtaposing Capaldi's Doctor with his "I'm so sorry"-uttering and bowtie-donning predecessors so as to hilariously showcase the tonal constrasts between the three incarnations. The only real caveat here is that Cornell appears hell-bent on referencing specific sketches from hit genre efforts gone by, a decision which will doubtless leave slightly more youthful fans - such as this reviewer - in the dark if they're unaware of the source material which is apparently being parodied.