Ask any fan about the key ingredients of modern Who and they’ll mention the story arc, the enigmatic villain, some self-aware humour and a world-shaking finale. From time to time, this mixture seeks inspiration from past adventures- and not always from the TV series. The David Tennant two-parter Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel was based on Marc Platt’s novel Spare Parts.
Series 5’s The Beast Below owed a lot to Dave Gibbons’ comic strip The Space Whale (which was originally destined for the screen). However, for a tale that used all those ingredients long before the TV series, look no further than Voyager by Steve Parkhouse and John Ridgway.
The DWM comic strip in the early-mid Eighties was a hotbed of comic talent. Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, John Wagner and Alan Grant all cut their teeth on DWM and its weekly predecessor. By the end of the eighties, Moore and Gibbons had created Watchmen and ushered in the British invasion of the US comics industry; Wagner and Grant would begin an acclaimed run on Detective Comics. Soon Grant Morrison would join them, fresh from his run on the DWM strip, with Animal Man and Arkham Asylum. So what was so special about Parkhouse and Ridgway’s contribution?
For a start, they created a run of strips linked by an umbrella theme. It begins with the Doctor having a nightmare, before undertaking a quest to find the astral charts stolen from the Voyager by the Time Lords. Along the way, he encounters the renegade Time Lord Astrolabus. The ensuing chase takes in the Pharos Lighthouse, a galactic funfair, rescuing the rare and exotic Glot, a journey through the pages of Rupert the Bear ending in a showdown with the Voyager at the end of time itself. Compare that with the theft of the planets by the Daleks in Series 4 or the opening of the Pandorica and Rory’s millennia-long wait for Amy a season later and you can see the parallels.
Budgetarily and tonally, Voyager was out of step with what was happening in TV Who at the time, but would work now. Audiences expect a story arc and the simplicity of Voyager’s central premise is its strength. Find the charts, catch Astrolabus, avoid the traps. Hands up who felt a bit short-changed when the Bad Wolf turned out to be a sign behind a Dalek? Voyager shows that you can have any number of diverse elements on the path to the overall denouement, as long as that denouement delivers. The final chase through Astrolabus’ cabinet of dreams harks back to The Deadly Assassin or The Mind Robber, and the scene where the Doctor and Astrolabus self-referentially run out of comic strip before the final showdown with the Voyager feels like the end of The War Games episode nine. The climax, where the Voyager rides into view like Lawrence of Arabia to flay the charts from Astrolabus’ skin in a howling sandstorm has a dark, epic feel to it. Like much great Who, it’s hardly original, but it works.
In creating Voyager Parkhouse and Ridgway produced a piece of work that can be seen as a template for modern Who.
Given the short space in which they had to tell their story, Parkhouse and Ridgway manage to create some memorable, well-drawn (no pun intended) characters. A recent piece on this very site complained about the dearth of strong villains in the series lately, especially for the central arc. Astrolabus is a charismatic villain, by turns OTT, broadly comic and sinister- a gift of a role for an older actor. If Bill Nighy ever wanted a larger role in the series than the one he had in Vincent and the Doctor, he’d be ideal. Peter Capaldi would have been good, too, but he has other commitments. Then there’s Isaac Asimoff, the mild-mannered alien zoologist, is an ideal comic foil.
There is, of course, the elephant in the room- or at least the penguin: Frobisher, the comic strip’s ‘Marmite’ shape-shifting companion. Any adaptation could, as a suggestion, remove a wisecracking, sardine-loving alien without too much difficulty. And should. Being a shape-shifter lends nothing to the piece (due to his suffering from monomorphia) and just helps reinforce the issues presented by Kamelion in the TV series – if the robot had worked, what would it actually have added to the show?
Frobisher is the only negative in the overall picture. In a way, Voyager is the Spearhead From Space of Doctor Who’s comic strip incarnation: as well as its original run in DWM, it’s been released twice in graphic novel form, once as a ‘Collected Comics’ special and also formed part of a series of free mini-comics that came with packs of Golden Wonder crisps in the mid-eighties, which is where your humble author first discovered the story and it became as much a part of Who as the videos and DVDs we watch ad nauseam. So it is with Voyager. Even now, the only bit of Lord of the Rings I can quote comes from this.
After Voyager, Parkhouse went to 2000AD, working with Grant Morrison and Mark Millar on the Big Dave series, before picking up work Stateside for Dark Horse Comics. Ridgway continued on DWM for a while, and stayed around to see the Seventh Doctor in (and Frobisher out!) in A Cold Day in Hell, as well as the return of Sarah-Jane Smith in 1990’s Train Flight. He, too, then went to 2000AD, working on the Judge Dredd spin-off The Dead Man, before decamping to DC Comics. In 2010, he drew to the Torchwood magazine strip Overture.
Parkhouse and Ridgway may not have found international stardom for their work. Interviews reveal two self-effacing guys who enjoy their work, but in creating Voyager they’ve not only produced a piece of work that can be seen as a template for modern Who but they provided a gateway into the world of Who beyond the series for a generation who were guzzling Golden Wonder crisps with their packed lunches…