Strange Comic Books: Doctor Who “Junkyard Demon”

As a comic book fan who also loves Doctor Who, in the last few years I’ve been spoilt for choices.   Here in the States, IDW has published a slew of Doctor Who comics featuring both new material and reprinting the British comic strips from the 1980s and 90s (I’m quite sad that their license expired at the end of 2013).  In addition, trade paperbacks from the UK have regularly made their way to comic shops here in North America.

Back in the mid-1980s, circumstances weren’t quite so positive.  If you were lucky, you might find the occasional issue of Doctor Who Magazine, which featured an eight page comic strip, at a comic shop.  I managed to snag three random issues during my youth.  By the time 1990 rolled around, I was finally frequenting a store that was willing to order the Magazine for me each month.  But until that point, the majority of the Doctor Who strips I read were those that Marvel Comics reprinted.

Doctor Who 13 cover

Marvel first began running the strips from Doctor Who Weekly (later Doctor Who Monthly, and then Magazine) in their anthology title Marvel Premiere in four issues that came out in late 1980.  Then, from 1984 to 1986, Marvel had an ongoing Doctor Who comic that lasted 23 issues, continuing the reprints of the British strips.  Dave Gibbons, the artist on many of the comic serials featuring the Fourth and Fifth Doctors, contributed some really great brand-new covers for those US issues.  Long before I picked up a copy of Watchmen, that’s how I discovered his work.

To tell the truth, the Doctor Who comic strips were often very strange.  Unencumbered by the shoestring budget of the television show, the writers & artists created an assortment of strange monsters and bizarre alien worlds.  Beep the Meep, the adorably cute but ruthlessly homicidal extraterrestrial tyrant, certainly epitomizes the weirdness that readers would find in those stories.  Many of the creators who worked on the Doctor Who strip were also regular contributors to the sci-fi anthology title 2000 AD, and they brought along their accompanying satirical, darkly humorous sensibilities.

All that said, one of the most unusual Doctor Who comic book stories is probably “Junkyard Demon,” which originally ran in Doctor Who Monthly #58-59 in 1981, and was reprinted in Doctor Who #13 in 1985.  It was written by Steve Parkhouse, who had become the strip’s writer a few stories earlier, imbuing it with a grim, sardonic atmosphere.  The artwork was by Mike McMahon & Adolfo Buylla, and it was an absolute 180 degrees away from the clean, realistic style of Gibbons.

Doctor Who 13 pg 5

The TARDIS is snatched up mid-flight by the immense salvage ship Drifter, which is manned by the eccentric, oddball trio of Flotsam, Jetsam, and Dutch (keep in mind this was three decades before the television episode “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”).  The robot Dutch tries to open the TARDIS doors with a drill, in the process awakening the Fourth Doctor from his meditation.  Although initially annoyed at having been mistaken for scrap by the strange group, the Doctor quickly remembers that he needs a non-variable oscillator to repair the hot chocolate machine in the TARDIS.  Flotsam starts searching through her scrap for the part, in the process unearthing a Cyberman.  The Doctor understandably reacts in alarm and hurls a wrench at it, before realizing the cyborg is deactivated.  At this point Jetsam informs the Doctor that he’s planning to reprogram it as a mechanical butler!  A relieved Doctor brews up some hot chocolate for himself, Flotsam, and Jetsam.  However, they are then attacked by the Cyberman, which has now awakened.

“Junkyard Demon” is enjoyably offbeat, and I’d rather not give away the rest of Steve Parkhouse’s insanely clever story.  You can read the entire 16 page tale on Mike McMahon’s blog, where it is presented in the original black & white.  My thanks to the talented Simon Frasier (who himself worked on Doctor Who, illustrating the first issue of the Prisoners of Time) for posting a link to this on Facebook last month.

McMahon & Buylla’s artwork on this story is definitely striking.  I’m trying to remember exactly what my nine year old self made of it when I read this back in 1985.  Obviously I immediately noticed how completely different it was from Gibbons’ regular work.  As I recall, even though I thought it was strange, I did like it.  McMahon’s depiction of Tom Baker is, in one respect, a caricature.  Yet at one glance it is immediately identifiable as the Fourth Doctor.  It’s certainly not photo-realistic, but it is a fantastic encapsulation of Baker’s eccentric, bohemian persona.  That’s especially apparent in the intense, wide-eyed gaze McMahon gives the Doctor.

Doctor Who 13 pg 9

I also loved the fact that the Cybermen in “Junkyard Demon” are similar to the original version seen in “The Tenth Planet.”  If you look closely, these Cybermen have physical characteristics from both their debut story and their second appearance in “The Moonbase.”  The Cybermen in “The Moonbase” were part of a group who had departed from Mondas a number of years before its destruction.  The ones we see in “Junkyard Demon” can be considered the transitional stage between their “patchwork creature” beginnings (to quote fellow blogger Paul Bowler), and the more functional, streamlined figures in subsequent television stories.  I don’t know if it was Parkhouse or McMahon’s decision to use early-model Cybermen, but it certainly made this story even more distinctive.

McMahon was definitely a good choice to pencil this story.  The US cover drawn in 1985 by Gibbons is perfectly fine, and I certainly do not want to disparage his immense talent.  But looking at McMahon’s depiction of the Cybermen within, they seem much more textured and organic, with a creepy, unsettling quality not present in Gibbons’ somewhat sleeker, robotic rendition.  McMahon brings across the notion of something once human, the product of spare-part surgery.

Actually, given that this whole story is about junk and refuse, a future of used, second-hand technology, McMahon’s style is perfect.  Years later, when I had the opportunity to see his work on various Judge Dredd stories for 2000 AD, I had that same feeling.  In those tales, McMahon definitely succeeded in creating a tangible atmosphere, bringing to life the post-apocalyptic dystopian metropolis of Mega City One.

Junkyard Demon II page 1

“Junkyard Demon” is apparently something of a fan favorite among both readers and creators who later went on to work on the comic strip.  Fifteen years later, writer Alan Barnes and artist Adrian Salmon created a sequel, which appeared in the 1996 Doctor Who YearbookYou can read the eight-page “Junkyard Demon II” on the Cybermantra blog.  I think Barnes and Salmon did a good job capturing the spirit of the original story, while also crafting a tale that also works well on its own.

Doctor Who reviews: Trail of the White Worm / The Oseidon Adventure

Since 1999, Big Finish has been producing Doctor Who audio plays featuring numerous actors from the original television series.  For many years, however, they were unable to convince Tom Baker to reprise his portrayal of the Fourth Doctor.  This impasse was finally overcome just recently, and Baker began recording a series of audio adventures, first for the BBC itself, and now for Big Finish.  The first Big Finish “season” sees Baker re-teamed with actress Louise Jameson, returning to her role as Leela, the primitive descendent of a human space expedition that had been stranded on an alien planet generations before the Doctor met her.  The stories in this Big Finish season were set between the on-air adventures “The Talons of Weng Chiang” and “The Horror of Fang Rock.”

The final two releases of this first block of audio adventures are the linked stories “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure.”  The attraction these particular stories had for me is that they have Geoffrey Beevers once again portraying the Doctor’s arch-nemesis the Master in his final, death-like incarnation.  He first played that role so very effectively on television in “The Keeper of Traken,” and returned to it many years later at Big Finish in a pair of audio plays starring Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor.  In addition, “The Oseidon Adventure” features the alien Kraals & their robotic servants from “The Android Invasion.”  Given the ties “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure” had to two of my favorite Tom Baker television serials, I could not resist picking them up.

(I do not think I am really giving away any major spoilers by revealing the involvement of the Master or the Kraals, as their images feature prominently on the covers of the CDs!)

Doctor Who: Trail of the White Worm

“Trail of the White Worm,” in certain ways, does a good job capturing the feel of the television stories around which it is set, evincing much of the atmosphere of gothic horror of the Philip Hinchcliffe & Robert Holmes years.  Set in the English countryside of the late 1970s, “Trail of the White Worm” has the Doctor and Leela arriving in the TARDIS to discover that a mysterious creature is menacing a small, isolated village.  The Doctor meets the posh Demesne Furze, played by Rachael Stirling, who relates to him the local legends of the White Worm, which date back two millennia to the time of the Roman occupation of Britain.  Meanwhile, on a nearby estate, Leela comes across the retired Colonel Spindleton, portrayed by Michael Cochrane.  A reactionary with a grudge against progress, the Colonel has a fondness for shooting at trespassers with his remote controlled tank, although he quickly learns that Leela is more than a match for his security arrangements.  She, in turn, discovers that the Colonel has thrown in his lot with the Master, who dangles before him the promise of restoring to Britain its lost greatness.

The ending of “Trail of the White Worm” leads right into “The Oseidon Adventure.”  The Master opens a space/time portal to the Kraal home world, and his alien allies march forward with an armored column and an infantry of android soldiers.  At first, “The Oseidon Adventure” appears to be a straightforward alien invasion story, much in the vein of the early appearances of the Master when the character, as portrayed by Roger Delgado, would summon a succession of extraterrestrial menaces to attack Earth, only to be opposed by the Doctor and UNIT.  However, writer Alan Barnes does a magnificent job of confounding expectations.  Just when you think you know where “The Oseidon Adventure” is heading, he throws in a series of unexpected plot twists, with double and triple crosses coming left and right.  I really should have foreseen something like this, given how the original serial “The Android Invasion” so successfully played with the idea of infiltration & identity theft.  But since Barnes did such an excellent job of making it seem one thing was going on, when in fact something else entirely different was occurring behind the scenes, I was constantly getting caught off guard.  The end result is a suspenseful story that really leaves you guessing what is going to happen next.

Doctor Who: The Oseidon Adventure

Tom Baker return to the role of the Doctor is superb.  It’s almost as if there hasn’t been a three decade lapse in time since he last played the role, and he’s picking up right where he left off.  I do think that his performance in these two stories was somewhat more akin to the rather more silly, buffoonish tone he increasingly adopted during Graham Williams’ tenure as producer than the relatively more serious, somber take of his first three seasons with Hinchcliffe.  That said, it is great to have him back.  If he had perhaps a bit too much fun recording these stories, well, that’s Tom Baker for you.

Louise Jameson also does good work slipping back into the role of Leela.  I know that she has played an older, somewhat more sophisticated version of the character in other Big Finish releases.  So I’m not sure how difficult it was for her to now take a step back and return to the intelligent but uneducated savage she portrayed on television.  I think Jameson does admirable work at recapturing this younger version of Leela.  Together with Barnes’ scripting, this does sound like the character we saw in those classic Doctor Who serials of the late 1970s.

And then there is Geoffrey Beevers.  The man is excellent at imbuing the Master with malicious, sly, sneering malevolence.  Listening to “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure,” I was reminded once again why his performance in “The Keeper of Traken” left such a lasting impression on my childhood memories.  Beevers really brings to life the Master, and makes you believe this is a figure that could actually defeat the Doctor.  The ending of “The Oseidon Adventure” leaves open the possibility of at least one more encounter between the Master and the Doctor before the events of “The Keeper of Traken,” so hopefully Beevers will be back in the recording studio with Baker at some point in the near future.

All in all, the actors, writer Alan Barnes, and director Ken Bentley have all excelled at capturing the feel of the original Tom Baker stories.  These two audio plays utilize elements from the television series, while nevertheless crafting stories that develop in new, unexpected directions.  They also take full advantage of the unlimited scope of the audio format.  I seriously doubt that either the immense figure of the White Worm or the massive Kraal army would have been achievable on the limited budget & resources the television show had access to in the late 1970s.

“Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure” are both entertaining, well-produced tales.  If you are a Doctor Who fan, but you have not listened to any of the Big Finish releases, they make an excellent jumping on point.