We’re taking a break between seasons, which means no podcast this week, but that doesn’t mean we’ve been idle! In today’s post, we’re going to look at some of the classic Doctor Who comics of the 1980s and how they fit into some of the stories we’ve been discussing.
In our most recent episode we covered the classic Sylvester McCoy story Battlefield. In that episode, it’s heavily suggested that the Doctor is the legendary figure Merlin.
Of course, the doctor had already run into Merlin — just not on television.
Starting in 1979, Marvel UK began printing Doctor Who Weekly, which included new comic adventures for the Doctor (the image above is the American reprint collection, which is how I encountered them). These evolved a lot over time — eventually they would be very concerned with canonicity and written by people like Andrew Cartmel — but at this point they were mainly knockabout sci-fi adventure stories, often ones in which the Doctor himself played a relatively minor role. If you’re at all familiar with UK comics, you can think of them as being like 2000AD. Some are longer tales, and some are like “Future Shock” stories, no more than a few pages long.
Many luminaries (or future luminaries) of the British comics scene worked on these; the first story, “The Iron Legion,” was written by Pat Mills (Slaine, Charley’s War, Nemesis the Warlock) and John Wagner (Judge Dredd co-creator) and illustrated by, oh, just Dave Gibbons (Watchmen)*. Steve Parkhouse took over the scripting duties, but Gibbons stayed with the strips for quite some time, and it was the Parkhouse/Gibbons team that produced the story we’re concerned with, “The Neutron Knights.”
This is one of those short stories, and there isn’t much to it, structurally. In the far future, evil Neutron Knights are overwhelming Earth’s defenses. An old wise man somehow summons the Doctor, who helps him and his king escape as the castle blows up. The old man and the king call each other Arthur and Merlin; the Doctor drops them off in the distant past and wonders if it was all a dream.
Here’s a little motion-comic version of it we found on YouTube:
Merlin would return in a later Fifth Doctor story, which I am not going to go into here. But he was pretty conclusively not the Doctor, anyway, or at least as conclusively as anyone in Doctor Who is ever not the Doctor. Not that anyone cared; no one thought that the comics were “canonical,” if such a concept even existed outside of a tiny hard core of fans. They’re so bizarrely different (mostly, anyway) from the televised stories that it’s hard to see how anyone could mix them up. There’s waaaaay more cannibalism in the comics, for instance.
But this has kind of a funny coda: you see, Marvel always had a pretty fast-and-loose attitude toward their licensed properties and their relationship to the Marvel Universe. The X-Men met the Micronauts, Spider-Man met the Transformers, everybody and their dog met ROM: Spaceknight, and so on. This even extends to the Doctor, who has narrowly avoided meeting the Fantastic Four at least once.
Y’see, over in Captain Britain, Brian Braddock was getting his powers from a guy called Merlyn with a “y,” who would later reveal that all the various Merlins who’d ever appeared in Marvel comics were aspects of him.
Although he spent some time dead, as one does in Marvel comics, our Merlyn — and Merlin — would eventually reappear in a Captain Britain and MI-13 series written by Marvel veteran, former Doctor Who comics writer and modern Who writer Paul Cornell.
All I’m saying is that there’s an X-Men comic out there that contains a handbook entry for Merlyn that mentions in passing that the Doctor once impersonated Merlyn. I haven’t read X-Men: Die By the Sword myself, but I’m assured it’s in there.
Which is all fun comics trivia, but also indicative of just how much this generation of British comics creators was going to influence everything, transforming a generation of US (or at least US-published comics) and creating fans who would then go on to be comic and TV writers in their own right.
If you want to learn more about Captain Britain, you could do a lot worse than check out this episode of Journey into Misery, which explains him in more detail. The Captain’s link to the X-Men is discussed a bit in this episode of Rachel and Miles X-plain the X-Men.
*If you’re both a Doctor Who and Green Lantern fan, “The Deal” may seem really familiar to you — I don’t think it’s exactly the same bounty hunter as in “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize,” but there are a lot of similarities because they’re both drawn by Dave Gibbons.