Written by Scott Gray, Alan Barnes, Gareth Roberts, Gary Russell, Sean Longcroft
Artwork by Martin Geraghty, Adrian Salmon, Sean Longcroft
Paperback: 132 Pages
Publisher: Panini UK LTD
Much like 2018's Land of the Blind, Ground Zero is a collection of different Doctor-lead strips from the 90s, which were all released in the gap between the ending of the Seventh Doctor era, and the start of the Eighth Doctor era. Unlike that previous collection, there is an actual arc hidden within these stories, which culminates in the big finale of the collection's namesake "Ground Zero." This arc also played a role in the early adventures of the Eighth Doctor, as the main villains, The Threshold, would go on to be the major antagonist for the Eighth Doctor's first group of adventures (collected together in Endgame). This book has adventures featuring the Fifth, First, Third, Fourth, and Seventh Doctors and the grand return of the Seventh Doctor to the strip also marks one of the long-running strips most controversial moves in it's entire history.
The opening of the book stars the Fifth Doctor and Peri, as they take on an Osiron Robot, similar to the ones from Pyramids of Mars. It involves a Hollywood director attempting to use a Hollywood studio to perform an Egyptian ceremony that will release an ancient God of Locusts and gain power himself (using a studio set as the commotion will likely be ignored as filming). The Doctor, of course, foils this plan. While I didn’t find Alan Barnes’ story to be that exciting or interesting, it was lovely to see Martin Geraghty’s (who was the lead artist for the bulk of the Eighth Doctor run) beautiful black and white again. That made it worthwhile to me.
We then find the First Doctor and Susan have an adventure in London that takes place before the discovery of the TARDIS by Ian and Barbara in the series first episode, An Unearhtly Child. While the TARDIS is hiding in a junkyard, Susan and the Doctor stumble into an adventure with an alien attempting to turn humans into his own kind in order to help work his ship and escape Earth. The Doctor thwarts his efforts, as you’d expect. I found this story didn’t really work for me in any way. It was just too bland to get drawn into.
Up next was a shorter story starring the Third Doctor, one of the only stories in the set that doesn't have a connection to the finale. Unlike the bulk of the book, this story is only one part and was drawn by Adrian Salmon, as opposed to Geraghty. Overall this one is short and light, but I enjoyed it. When it comes to classic Doctor strips, I want them to feel like they could easily fit into the era they come from. The First Doctor story in this book doesn’t get tht right at all, but this is a perfect Third Doctor mini-adventure.
We then travel to 2086 with the Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Harry as they fight off Russian Zombies and a man who goes full-on nuclear. It’s one of the stronger stories in the book. I liked the visuals Geraghty brought to this one, and Gary Russell’s story is pretty solid. I don’t have a lot to say on this one, mostly because it is just a fairly good read, not too many critiques to expand upon that. The Fourth Doctor also reappears in the final story of the book, which is a goofy strip in which the writer put himself into the strip, and it's a fourth-wall-breaking joke about the strip itself...one that served as the final random Doctor tale before the Eighth Doctor took over in the next issue.
Really, it all culminates in "Ground Zero," which saw the Seventh Doctor return to the pages of the strip for the first time in two years. His time on the strip had always been a bit rocky. It started off shaky with little stories that were often hit or miss, then finally found a voice when the show was cancelled and the TV writers began to continue the journey on the strip itself, but then lost its way again when the Virgin New Adventures novel series began and the strip was forced to play second fiddle to the books. Communication between the folks behind the Virgin series and the folks at Doctor Who Magazine wasn’t always in order, and their synergy didn’t always work. A comic strip that relies on you having read two novels doesn’t work…and if you are reading both the strip and the novels, having two similar Silurian stories printed around the same time isn’t helpful either.
So Gary Russell, who at the time was editor of the magazine, just decided to end the Seventh Doctor entirely. When the TV Movie came out and they were going to get the rights to have the Eighth Doctor, who was essentially a clean slate and a chance to start fresh and with a bit of direction again, they decided that they ought to have one final adventure for the Seventh Doctor, to finally give him a proper send-off from the strip. And they really went for it.
The strip totally breaks continuity with the Virgin books, gives the comics their own conclusion for the Seventh Doctor and Ace, and the path it set up was the spark that fueled the DWM strip for years to come. Instead of the older, edgier, darker version of Ace that had developed in the novels, the strip returned her to a state closer to how she had been when the TV series ended. And then the strip did something majorly bold. If you don’t want SPOILERS, then beware, I am about to get into them.
The story involves the Threshold (who also serve as the antagonists in the early days of hte Eighth Doctor), and how they work for some monsters who live in the collective unconscious of humans and want to escape to the physical plane and destroy mankind. In the process, the Threshold take three companions from the Doctor’s past (Peri during her adventure in the opening story, Susan from the second, and Sarah from the preceding adventure), and use them to lure the Doctor in. Susan, it turns out, can’t actually head into this other dimension, as it would destroy her mind, just as it would the Doctor. But the human companions can handle it. The Doctor finds a way in, which nearly destroys the TARDIS (setting up his remodel seen in the TV movie), and he manages to stop the monsters…but not without dire consequences: the death of Ace. Killing Ace was controversial to say the least, particularly as it drew a clear line in the sand as to where the comics now stood in terms of continuity with the novels.
Going forward, the Eighth Doctor strips were excellent, especially when it came to building up their arcs and expanding upon what came before…and a major seed for that excellent era of Doctor Who Magazine comics is right here. Ground Zero is a pivotal moment in the history of Doctor Who comics. It was a bold statement that set the strips apart from the Virgin novel line, and the plot was important to the early days of the Eighth Doctor (though you can easily read the Eighth Doctor strips without having read "Ground Zero," as I did when it was reprinted years ago, but it is nice to get that background finally).
As a whole package, the stories are slightly uneven. The Third Doctor entry “Target Practice” doesn’t play into the overall story (though it is fun), and the other three Doctor tales are only tangentially connected to the final epic conclusion (and the First Doctor adventure is decidedly bland)…but that conclusion is something else. Even if you don’t agree with what the strip did in that moment, you have to give it props for being interesting. It’s a good story too, regardless of the controversial elements. And that finale makes this whole book worth it.