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July 25, 2009

A Night at the Museum

Forgottencover What would a Ten Doctors story be like? It's nice to speculate, but in reality it would be a mess. Ten leading men, over a dozen companions, and a host of Autons, Axons, Zygons and who knows what else -- it would be mad. It would be terrible. The brief cameos of past Doctors we say in Human Nature and The Next Doctor is the closest we can get, anyhow, with some of the Doctors passed away and some of them aged beyond their ability to play he character on screen. But that hasn't stopped us from imagining what it would be like. Richard Morris didn't do too bad of a job in his fancomic "The Ten Doctors", managing to cram in everything but the kitchen sink and still manage to tell a decent story. And last year, American comic book company IDW tried their hand with Doctor Who: The Forgotten, a six-issue miniseries which was recently collected as a graphic novel. And by recently, I mean April (and you thought my review of Children of Earth: Day Five was late!). While Morris took the full-on multi-Doctor story approach, this does something a little more restrained, but nonetheless ambitious in its own right.

The premise is this: The Doctor and Martha Jones find themselves in a museum dedicated to the Doctor's lives, with no idea how they got there. This is freaky enough, but then our unseen villain engages in some seriously nasty button-pressing that removes the Doctor's memories of his past incarnations. By coming into contact with items from his past, The Doctor is able to remember each successive incarnation, which occurs via a flashback. It sounds pretty straightforward, but it's not quite as simple as it sounds. More on that later.

I like comic books, and I like Doctor Who, but the two have never been a great match for me. Doctor Who is talky. In a comic book, words and pictures must be balanced. In IDW's previous Doctor Who comic series, Agent Provocateur, the balance was often all wrong. Heavy exposition, as well as the time-honored David Tennant-talking-too-much shtick, led to pages that were far too crowded with word balloons flowing out of the Tenth Doctor's mouth and wreaking havoc upon the pacing of the story. Luckily, this strikes a bit more of a balance, with the banter between the Doctor and Martha a bit more of a back and forth rather than alternating monologues.

Notasitseems The story is propelled forward by a tantalizing mystery. Where are they, really? Why (and indeed how) has the Doctor lost his memories? Who is this mysterious button-presser? There's a lot to uncover, and the answers are delivered in a slow and satisfying progression. You'll be kept guessing about the true identity of the villain. Early in the story, glimpses of a goatee will hint at the Master, but any fan with a sense of continuity will recognize the problems with this, so I don't think it's much of a spoiler to tell you that this as a red herring. And unfortunately, whoever the villain is, it has to be something less dramatic and consequential than the Master. But this let-down is more than made up for by other revelations. There are some real surprises, even shocks. Despite the fact that a licensed comic cannot affect the story of the TV show, the plot twists give this comic an epic scope in its own right.

If the thrust of the story is mystery, the emotional core is nostalgia. Each memory, form Hartnell to Eccleston, is a six or seven page episode from that particular Doctor's lifetime. These short bursts are hardly full-fledged adventures, but they're enjoyable nonetheless, and serve to break up the action of the main plot in in fanwankish way that's sometimes a endearing and sometimes not. There's something awesome about seeing Davison face down the Judoon, but it's less awesome when Tegan says to Turlough, "Apparently they're some kind of police for hire, but the Doctor calls them interplanetary thugs." This direct echoing of dialogue from televised Doctor Who, which happens more than once, really takes you out of the story. There are also moments of unbearable preciousness, such as when the Sixth Doctor emerges with Peri from a courtroom saying he hopes never to be in one again, at least not for a few regenerations. But ultimately, these short scenes do work because of the nostalgia trip they indulge. If you're a classic series fan you'll probably enjoy the walk down memory lane, and if you're a fan of the new series then this is a good primer to see what the other Doctors are about, although the last chapter in particular might be a bit overwhelming, with cameos and name drops of everyone from Kamelion to to Kublai Kahn. Writer Tony Lee clearly wanted to fit in all he could, and while I don't think he did as well as Rich Morris's "The Ten Doctors," he did get more than enough in.

CostumesThe art in this book is rather impressive, especially when you rake into account the vast number of characters, monsters, objects and settings. Multiple artists worked on the book, and easily the best was Pia Guerra. Guerra was originally to have drawn all six chapters of the book, but only ended up drawing chapters one, two, and five. The other artists, Kelly Yates and Stefano Martino, are by no means unsatisfactory, but they're just not quite as good as Guerra. The frontispieces (originally covers to the individual issues) are fine, although his Hartnell is frighteningly avian. Ultimately, I'm glad they decided on the lovely cover painting by Ben Templesmith, seen above. The color work throughout the series is very atmospheric, with particular props to the Eighth Doctor vignette which features his escape from a prison alongside a member of Chantho's species.

ScaryhartnellSo, ultimately, there's a good story at the heart of this graphic novel, albeit one weighed down by inside jokes, references to UNIT dating and half-human, and a general desire to shoehorn all of Doctor Who continuity into 144 pages of sequential art. But it's all in good fun. Worth the price of admission? I think so. Doctor Who: The Forgotten (ISBN 978160010369) is currently available from Amazon UK and Amazon US (the Amazon listing for both stores has a different cover, featuring the aforementioned scary Hartnell, but I think it's a mistake rather than a variant cover).

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