'Doctor Who - The Iron Legion' Review
The Fourth Doctor goes to a dimension where the Roman Empire never collapsed, in this collection of wild and wacky adventures from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine.
When Doctor Who Magazine started in 1979, one of the first things that creator and founding editor Dez Skinn introduced was the comic strip; which depicted the ongoing adventures of The Doctor, (played by Tom Baker) outside the TV series. And, 40 years later, that comic strip is still ongoing, now depicting the adventures of Jodie Whitaker's Doctor. Over the 40 years of the magazine's existence, the strip has gone through many changes, (changes in editors and art style, changing from black-and-white to color, the ongoing regeneration of the actor playing The Doctor), but the heart has remained very much the same. And, having now read this collection of strips from the early days of the magazine, I can see why these strips are talked about with such reverence. The Iron Legion collection features some of the most interesting ideas ever seen in a Doctor Who story, some larger than life characters and a wonderful art style thanks to Dave Gibbons, and it is a fantastic read.
The Iron Legion
The title story, The Iron Legion, is possibly one of the finest comic strips in Doctor Who history. The idea is such a simple one: The Doctor comes across a dimension where the Roman Empire never fell, and became a technological powerhouse, capable of invading our universe. This is just one of those ideas that Doctor Who is so well suited to, and it makes you wonder why it took seventeen years before someone decided to do it. Pat Mills takes that fantastic germ of an idea, and builds upon it to create an amazing story that, shows the unlimited scope of the comic medium. This is Doctor Who on possibly the grandest scale it had been on up till this point, and maybe even to this day: there's legions of robotic Roman soldiers, a gladiator battle featuring huge monsters and an airborne car chase sequence, among many other visual spectacles. This is a story you'd struggle to make on TV, yet makes the perfect story for comics. And when it's been drawn by Dave Gibbons, it simply cannot get any better. Gibbons' art style is superb: he brings a dynamic flair to the storytelling that transcends Mills' writing. The opening page, depicting the Iron Legion's invasion of Stockbridge, is magnificent: there's so much going on, but the full-page panel never feels overcrowded. The starkness of the black-and-white pages doesn't take away from the strip either: if anything, they add a liberating quality to the artwork, which is freed from having to conform to strict boxes and lines.
The pace of the storytelling is exceptionally dynamic: across eight episodes (four pages a piece), we go from a quint English village to a gladiator's arena, and from a flying galleon to the skyscraper temple of the Roman Gods, and all with the same fast pace and exceptional level of storytelling. Mills doesn't shirk on action and spectacle, but also doesn't ignore explanations or character either. The story has a clear plot, as The Doctor attempts to stop the Malevilus' evil plans, and we get moments of character depth that goes above and beyond what the series was doing at the time. The death of Morris, the half-cyborg slave, who aids The Doctor, is genuinely moving, and these type of moments were clearly an inspiration on Russell T. Davies, when he brought the show back in 2005. In fact, this collection of stories reads a little like a template for Russell's vision for the show (bar The Doctor being Tom Baker instead of Christopher Eccleston), with their huge scope, vast ideas and colorful characters. And yet, they feel just as inspired by the Who Legacy as the incumbent script editor, Douglas Adams, as they are prophetic of its future show-runner. This story positively drips of Adams' hallmarks, whether it be in the characters of Juno and Ironicus (who are very much echoes of the Pirate Captain and the Nurse from The Pirate Planet), or in the larger-than-life comedy (torn from the same cloth as the comedy in City of Death), this has all the hallmarks of being an Adams' era story. And, while not as obviously funny as the great man himself, the comparison is a fair one. If Adams had written a "Doctor Who" comic, chances could have been it would have been a bit like this.
The story develops in surprising ways as well, with the real villains being suitably menacing and dangerous, in that honored Doctor Who tradition. There's nothing underdeveloped about them, and the artwork is suitably horrific and realizes the Malevilus in a far more realistic way than the TV show of the time could ever have hoped to. Another element of this story that is wonderfully realized is the character of The Doctor. Previously, the comic strip had a patchy relationship with The Doctor's characterization: TV Comic particularly seemed to not quite grasp some of the fundamental basics of the character, leading to the strips not quite seeming part of The Doctor Who universe. The Iron Legion, and all the comics in this collection, however, absolutely nail the character of the Fourth Doctor. There's no "die hideous creature, die" or anything of that ilk here: The Doctor uses his brain to solve problems, and is more concerned with putting the enemy down with his wit than his fists. And the writers absolutely capture Tom Baker's voice, so you can completely imagine him saying those lines. The Iron Legion is a perfect symbiosis between fantastic Doctor Who and classic British comics, and is one of the finest things ever to have been printed in Doctor Who Magazine. It left me with a massive grin on my face when I'd finished, and it is easily the best story in the collection.
City of the Damned
The second story, "City of the Damned," sees The Doctor coming across a world where the inhabitants of the planet have had all the emotion bred out of them, in order to prevent wars and crime. If a dimension where the Roman Empire never fell wasn't Doctor Who-y enough for you, the "City of the Damned" premise has Doctor Who written through it like a stick of rock. Once again, it's surprising it took anyone seventeen years to come up with this concept, as it seems a perfect fit for the show. And, like The Iron Legion, this story keeps piling clever concept upon clever concept. We get a group of rebels who's names are emotions, and they believe that the only way to keep those emotions alive is to totally embody them, and who use winged gliders to escape capture. There's the Brains Trust; a group who literally have brains for heads. There's a race of tiny, carnivorous bugs who only attack people who lack adrenaline. This story is full of idea and creativity, to the point where I'd say that it might be detrimental to the story. Sure, there's nothing wrong with having loads of ideas, but the best ones get lost in the mix slightly later on, when the comic becomes very action and plot heavy.
Sure, the later parts are exciting, as The Doctor desperately tries to work out a way to save the city from the Barabara. However, that takes away from the original ideas that made this story so good in the first place. The Brains Trust, particularly, are hideously underutilized, which is an absolute crime, considering what a genius idea they are. It isn't a bad thing to pull a 180-degree turn on a story, but you need to be careful with a twist like this, as it can backfire and leave the story weaker. I feel like "City of the Damned" might be a perfect example of that: the second half is weaker than than the first half. That being said, "City of the Damned" is still a great story, especially thanks to Gibbons' artwork. Once again, like The Iron Legion, the use of light and shade is fantastic, and there's a real sense of scale to the drawings, that a lot of modern comic artwork is missing. Overall, I think, despite my reservations, "City of the Damned" is still a very good story. Some great ideas, some wonderfully broad characters and some fantastic artwork very much carry this story through, despite the drop in quality during the later parts.
The Star Beast
In complete contrast to the first two stories, "The Star Beast" is a very different, if you'll pardon the pun, 'beast.' The story and setting are less extravagant than Iron Legion and "City of the Damned", and it is more focused upon one central idea than those two strips. However, despite this sudden, sharp change of focus, "The Star Beast" is still a very strong strip, with plenty to recommend it. Out of the five stories, this is the one that I feel like could have been made at the time, with its story centered around the English town of present-day Blackcastle. However, it still has the same grand scale of the first two strips, and its villain is just as extravagantly over-the-top as the first two. The basic plot involves two teenagers finding a creature known as a Meep, who has crashed on Earth, and taking him home in order to avoid the authorities. Meanwhile, The Doctor and K9 become entangled in the plans of the Wraith Warriors, who are hunting the Meep, and plan to use The Doctor to bring him to justice. While Pat Mills' story is basically just Galaxy-4 if it was set in an industrial Northern town, it's a much better take on that story than the Hartnell TV story ever was. For one thing, the Meep is a far more interesting antagonist than the Drahvins, and a lot more psychotic. And secondly, it's a lot less black and white than Galaxy 4 (again, no pun intended). The morality of the Wraith Warriors isn't as binary as the Rills from that story, and it just enhances the reader's enjoyment of the story tenfold.
Out of all the strips, I'd say The "Star Beast" focuses the most on its characters, especially the new companion, Sharon. Of course, Sharon is notable for being the very first POC companion in the show's history, and so is a bit of a history maker. However, I can't deny that she isn't exactly the most well-developed companion The Doctor's ever had. Sure, she's a feisty, independent character from a working-class background (very much like Rose Tyler in that respect - another link with the revived series), however there's not really much more beyond that. She's clearly looking for something more, and sees The Doctor as that something more, but that's about it. She does work in the context of these strips as a larger-than-life, forthright companion, but I imagine if anyone were to take Sharon out of the constraints of the strips, the character would need serious development in order to work. Nonetheless, this is still a great strip, that manages to do something new for Who at the time. It's also the strip that's most keyed into the show's history; there's references to various Who monsters, old companion Leela and an appearance from UNIT, all of which reinforce the place of the strip in the show's history. Overall, "The Star Beast" is another stellar strip, that feels fresh and new and original. Between his two strips, Pat Mills set the tone and template for the comic going forwards, and it's testament to his writing that it has endured.
The Dogs of Doom
The second of two strips from John Wagner sees the strip bring in existing Doctor Who villains for the first time. And, who better to feature than The Doctor's arch enemies, the Daleks! Out of the four strips credited to Mills and Wagner, however, "The Dogs of Doom" is easily the weakest, with a slightly confused plot and a lack of focus that prevents it from being as strong as The Iron Legion, "The Star Beast" or even "City of the Damned". It certainly isn't without merit, however, and has more of a tongue-in-cheek feel to it than its TV contemporary, "Destiny of the Daleks". The main plot involves the Daleks planning to invade the system of New Earth, using creatures called Werelocks in order to spread a virus throughout the human empire. The early parts of the story are pretty good, mind, with an interesting threat from the Werelocks and a mystery that sets up some potentially interesting avenues. The Doctor getting infected with the virus himself is, in particular, a very surprising twist, and, while the resolution falls a little flat, it does play about with some clever time-travel ideas. But, sadly, when the Daleks turn up, the story starts to come apart. The logic of the story sadly starts to break down, and the story is less enjoyable because of it.
The artwork is fantastic, however, especially the depiction of the Daleks. Unlike certain other comic strips from the period, these actually look a lot like the Daleks you'd see on the TV show. Some of their dialogue does fall a little flat, mind, and it doesn't fit their vocabulary. And it doesn't help that their plan seems a little outlandish, and doesn't really have a lot of logic to it. Sure, the Werelocks are ferocious, but would the Daleks really use them as part of their plan to conquer an entire star system? It feels like, to me, this was two different stories jammed together, and, despite Wagner's best efforts, the two don't quite fit together. It also doesn't help that the TARDIS crew feel too much like observers in this one, as opposed to actually being involved with the plot. Sure, the guest characters are well developed, but they take too much attention away from the leads. This is Sharon's second story, and I feel like we should be focusing on her more, seeing the universe through her eyes, as opposed to trying to care about these characters who, ultimately, leave little impression once you finish reading. Don't get me wrong, I didn't dislike "The Dogs of Doom". I think it's perfectly fine. But coming off the back of the first three stories, which are some of the finest Doctor Who stories ever inked, I just felt like "The Dogs of Doom" could have been a lot stronger. However, at least it is fulled by the same imagination, and features the same high standard of artwork, and is a decent final strip for Mills and Wagner, who's contribution to Doctor Who comics cannot be overstated.
'The Time Witch'
The final story in the collection, "The Time Witch," is a very different beast to the first four. It's shorter, for one thing, coming in at six parts. And, it is the first strip to be written by Steve Moore. Sadly, however, "The Time Witch" is easily the weakest story in The Iron Legion collection. Despite a stronger plot than "Dogs of Doom", this story suffers from a simple lack of imagination that means it can never get above being simply mediocre. The story involves the Doctor and Sharon being dragged into another dimension by a woman known as Brimo, who has gained the ability to shape this world at will. Now, instantly, from that set-up and knowing the medium we are in, you'd expect a trippy, weird landscape, and an unusual set of antagonists for our heroes to fight. No such luck, unfortunately. Instead, we just get some nattering between The Doctor and Brimo in a room, and some standard mind battle antics towards the end. Sure, there's nothing overtly wrong with this strip. However, its crushing predictability is what lets it down. It isn't adventurous in the slightest. This story is set in a dimension that bends to the will of the strongest mind within it. And yet, there's nothing that really makes this standout from a bunch of other Who stories with similar premises.
There are some good individual moments, however. The opening is certainly very different to the type we would normally expect in a Who story, with us following Brimo's imprisonment and her falling into the black hole. I also loved The Doctor and Sharon's arrival in Brimo's dimension, which comes across a bit like what Douglas Adams's take on Warrior's Gate would be like. However, the rest of the story doesn't really inspire, to be honest. Dave Gibbons does do the best he can with the material he is given, but even he can't quite make the material any more engaging. I will say that, in Moore's defense, he does write for the Fourth Doctor very well, with the dialogue sounding perfectly fitting for Tom Baker's Doctor. However, once again, Sharon and K9 are given rather little to do, which is a massive shame considering most of the other strips gave little for the two companions to do. This is probably the only compliant I have with these strips; they don't seem to give the companions much to do. Overall, The "Time Witch" is a pretty average story, that's brought down by the fact that it shares a collection with the Pat Mills and John Wagner strips. Sure, it's not terrible. But stood next to "Star Beast," Iron Legion, "City of the Damned" or even "Dogs of Doom", this just doesn't compere.
Overall, however, The Iron Legion graphic novel is still a fantastic collection that is well worth your time. Containing two phenomenal stories, one very good one, one decent one and one average one, this is a standout collection of tales that do incredibly different things with The Doctor Who format. Coupled together with some fantastically larger-than-life characters and some amazing artwork from Dave Gibbons, these are some of the most original, most groundbreaking Doctor Who, and these are a must-read for anyone who's a fan of Doctor Who, or even 1970s British comics.