Thursday, March 31, 2011


Doctor Who – Smith and Jones Vs the Star Beast!

Spring is in the air, so I know you’re thinking of only one thing. No, not elections – Doctor Who! It’s marvellous to have again a reliable time of year when the series returns, even if Easter means “reliable” is also “moveable”. Dalek Easter Eggs in the shops and traditionally messed-up trailers on BBC1 signify just three weeks to go until the new season, with today the fourth anniversary of one of the best season openers, Smith and Jones. So watch that to stave off the pangs, and consider just what it has in common with a memorable 1980 tale…

Rumours that the blanked-out bit of last night’s Doctor Who trailer featured explosions in five colours and Dalek Sec gliding into view holding a ‘Did you miss me?’ sign are apparently unfounded.

Having meanly pulled Mr Moffat’s leg over his Christmas special and fabulous old Doctor Who Weekly comic strips, it’s about time I redressed the balance by taking a look at one of Russell T Davies’ homages to the past. The image I displayed at Christmas was from The Iron Legion, still arguably the best strip they ever did, and terrific Doctor Who. If you didn’t read it at the time (I was a marvelling eight-year-old), grab hold of Panini Books’ smartly reprinted graphic novel Doctor Who – The Iron Legion, which collects that superb story together with several other Tom Baker Show strips – or, if you feel like splashing out, there’s a colourised Doctor Who Classics Omnibus with even more inside it, though for me larger pages in the original black and white win out. Either way, consider Smith and Jones when, as I did at Christmas when unable to put the book down after opening it, you flip a few pages forward to encounter Doctor Who and the Star Beast (the penultimate episode of which was in the shops 31 years ago this week), another story written by 2000AD creator Pat Mills and stunningly illustrated by Dave Gibbons, this time set on our Earth, in the present day, with ordinary people and their families caught up with an alien on the run…

Watch out for spoilers!

Sweet Anaemic Old Thing

Cartoon Character

The Doctor meets his ‘first’ black companion while she’s looking after an apparently unwell, harmless, eccentric character who’s a bit anaemic at first sight – an apparently harmless character being chased by big, ugly, ruthless monsters who shoot first and ask questions later. Once the Doctor’s been examined by a rather scary surgeon, he teams up with his intelligent young black companion-to-be (who, though English, has a Welsh surname) and together they discover that the ‘harmless’ character is really a sadistic, murdering space criminal and the trigger-happy brutes are in reality galactic police who have their own translator machines to talk to the humans. The story also sees a chunk of a British city being lifted up into space, taking its foundations with it, and as the tension ramps up towards the end of the tale the Doctor has to deal with the threat of deadly radiation – though he still finds time to show off a trick he used to do as a young Time Lord…

Blue Fluffy Fiend

The Last Straw

One of the reasons the early Doctor Who Weekly strips by Pat Mills and John Wagner were so superb was that they were written as potential Doctor Who television adventures. Technically, they never made it to the screen – but compare Smith and Jones to The Star Beast, and you might very well wonder if Russell thought he could do something about that.

Now, of course, there are a lot more differences between the stories than I’ve intimated. If anything, Smith and Jones is most influenced by wanting to be a lively introduction in the manner of Rose, for me the only one of the five ‘new’ series opening episodes that’s even better than Martha’s first (and can you believe that that was first broadcast six years ago last weekend?). Still, I’d be amazed if Russell had never read The Star Beast – though Martha Jones is older and more capable than Sharon Davies, Beep the Meep is fluffier even than Florence Finnegan’s slippers, and the Judoon look more like Sontarans (arguably more than Russell’s Sontarans do) than Constable Zreeg and the Wrarth Warriors.

For me, both are terrific stories, and enormous fun, boasting some great images and ideas (rain rolling upwards and tying a knot in time; a starship crashing in a Northern town and aliens running for the bus). I’ve read the comic strip again recently and loved it, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing Smith and Jones again – the story after next in Richard and my David Tennant retrospective. Neither of them’s entirely perfect: though almost everything from the start to the climax and then the coda of Smith and Jones is rather marvellous, the climax itself consists of the Doctor striking a heroically suffering pose with the woman in his arms while, er, hoping the sort-of-villains will fix the plumbing; and while if you’ve read this far you’ll know the Meep’s secret, it’s always jarring in the comic strip that after having the Wrarth Warriors behave so ostentatiously villainously to give you the wrong end of the stick, an eeeeevil internal monologue gives away Beep’s true nature considerably before the moment of maximum dramatic tension. And if you think Martha – written out perfectly, I have to say, at the end of the terrific 2007 season – eventually being seen married to Mickey Smith is a bit forced, poor old Sharon’s time in the TARDIS comes to an abrupt end when (after being handily aged a few years to legalhood and, shh, ignore the emotional maturation) she finally lands on a planet with one other black character. Were this an American series, he would crassly be fated to become her love interest, but thankfully, as this is Doctor Who… What’s that you say? She never! And he’s just complained about losing his pet and needing something to keep him warm in its place? You can’t be serious. Anyway, Sharon starts well.

So, settle down with some tea (just eight sugars) and cake, or milkshake through a straw that I hope you’ve sterilised, flip open your shiny Doctor Who – The Iron Legion graphic novel and pop in your shiny Doctor Who 2007 DVD. And enjoy two stories that, as my lovely Richard said of Smith and Jones but applies just as strongly to The Star Beast, have a
“fantastic mix of the brilliantly bizarre and the horribly frightening, with down-to-Earth relationships and finest British whimsy.”

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