❉ Whose Time War is it anyway? Jon Arnold on Alan Moore’s early ’80s Doctor Who work.
Long ago, before he was everyone’s favourite comic writing wizard who worshipped a fictional god, before interviewers tried to turn him into the Grandpa Simpson of graphic novels with endless questions of the contractual shenanigans of various publishers, before he’d dazzled the world by casually making the tearaway nonsense of comics respectable as literature and dabbled in porn, science-fiction and horror, Alan Moore was as much of a jobbing writer as anyone when they’re starting out, writing short strips for the local newspaper and the music press.
The path that would lead through the likes of Miracleman, Swamp Thing, Watchmen, The Ballad of Halo Jones, V for Vendetta and From Hell all the way through to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was as yet unclear. He was in desperate need of a break. That break was to come in the form of a programme he’d abandoned long before the advent of colour television.
Pat Mills and John Wagner had moved on from a successful stint writing the main comic strip for Doctor Who Weekly: a run still well-remembered to this day for creating a distinctive version of the show perfectly adapted to comics. Stories such as The Iron Legion, The Star Beast and The Dogs of Doom had far more in common with the contemporary British comics scene of the time than it did with the TV programme – the Doctor genre-hopping on the page as much as he did onscreen. Steve Moore’s promotion to replace them meant there was a vacancy for the backup strip.
By his own admission, Moore had not been a particular fan of the show since the Hartnell era. Instead, seeking a way to work within the confines of a story told two pages at a time and featuring only monsters seen in the TV show that Terry Nation wouldn’t charge a prohibitive fee for, he alighted on the horror comic format most famously employed by EC Comics. Even without the Doctor present, the show remained a genre magpie.
While his first story, Black Legacy (Doctor Who Weekly 35-38, 1980) may appear to misunderstand the nature of the Cybermen (one exclaiming ‘Blood of my ancestors!’) it’s a portrayal not too far from their then-most recent appearance in Revenge of the Cybermen – the Cybermen we see in that story can hardly be seen to be the unemotional humans who’ve turned themselves into robots they were originally intended to be. Indeed, in the vast majority of their onscreen appearances the degree to which they fall short of their ambition to eliminate emotion is quite clear.
So why shouldn’t the Cybermen we meet here be an imperfect variety of the species or a different strain of the ‘Cyber infection’ of a species as theorised in World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls?
On a surface level the Cybermen themselves could probably be replaced by any of Doctor Who’s many aggressive alien races – Sontarans, Ice Warriors, even the Space Pirates if you were so inclined – but this is to miss the point. Moore, as he pointed out in the Vworp Vworp interview, conceived the superweapon the Cybermen were hunting (the ‘black legacy’ of the title) as the antithesis of the Cybermen:
“I think that I decided that if I couldn’t use Daleks then probably the next biggest Doctor Who enemy would probably be the Cybermen. I started to think about the Cybermen and, as I understood it, the main part of the Cybermen ethos was efficiency, and a kind of a hygiene. Physical and mental disease would be completely unknown to the Cybermen. So I thought, what if there was something that could reintroduce these forgotten terrors to this race that has evolved beyond the fear of mental and physical illness.” – Alan Moore, interviewed in Vworp Vworp Magazine.
It’s essentially working out what the Cybermen’s worst nightmare would be and pitting them against it. Think Aliens with Cybermen substituting for humans and the Apocalypse Device standing in for the aliens.
While it’s sometime easy to see Moore’s inexperience, being somewhat verbose rather than letting David Lloyd’s art do the heavy lifting and following the horror comic formula to the panel, it’s an effective, powerful story which lets Lloyd shine with some effective stark landscapes and a well-designed villain whose appearance is an effective opposite of the Cybermen’s, reflecting the story’s theme of polar opposites meeting.
Whilst it might not be significant of itself outside Doctor Who fandom, it’s most memorable as Moore’s first work with David Lloyd, the first act of a working relationship that would beget V for Vendetta and, in V’s mask, one of the most powerful images of the twenty-first century.
Moore’s second strip would also follow the horror comic format, although this was of a very different nature…
Business as Usual (Doctor Who Weekly 40-43, 1980) comes from the post-Watergate wave of paranoia, telling a story of industrial espionage about Bad And Evil Corporations (and taking an early swipe at the action figures market).
Even though Moore was essentially unfamiliar with the original Auton stories, they’re remarkably faithful to what we do see on screen – it reads exactly how an Auton story would probably do without the Doctor to save us.
It’s an effective chiller, of good enough quality to act as a filler when there were problems for the main strip as late as 1992, with the bite of its action figure satire only growing with time. Substitute Funko Pops for the generic Action Man figure it uses and it could still work today.
Moore’s real legacy though comes via his last three strips: Star Death, The 4-D War and Black Sun Rising…
Entertaining as his first two strips undoubtedly are, these strips are a quantum leap of ambition from chucking Doctor Who monsters into straightforward horror templates.
Star Death ignores the humanising of the Time Lords during the Tom Baker era and instead dives back into their early history. In only four pages, Moore tells a story of an attempt to alter the dawn of Time Lord history: a time-travelling mercenary who goes by the modest name of Fenris the Hellbringer attempts to prevent the Time Lords harnessing the power of a black hole to gain mastery of time.
Featuring (naturally) a star dying, Starbreaker spaceships and a Rassilon with mystical powers it’s arguably more interesting in four pages than any of the Gallifreyan stories we see onscreen. It’s the only DWM strip of Moore’s not drawn by Lloyd, and it’s perhaps a shame Moore wasn’t able to work with John Stokes on these strips again. Stokes’s artwork, with a masterful use of shadows, lends an uneasy noir-ish feel to proceedings.
Although there’s no indication in the strip itself that it’s anything more than a strand in the Doctor Who universe’s web of time Moore’s next strip would delineate it as part of an ongoing story which would be a key influence on the BBC’s Eighth Doctor Adventures and the show’s revival in 2005.4-D War (Doctor Who Monthly #51, 1981) would introduce the concept of a time war to the Doctor Who universe.
4-D War reunites Moore with David Lloyd to great effect: Lloyd’s trippy, painted visuals to represent the time vortex are a visual highlight of these strips. Rema Du (daughter of two Time Lords from Star Death) and War Dog of the Special Executive retrieve Fenris from his hellish fate to try to learn why he attacked the Time Lords only to be ambushed, unprovoked, by more mysterious figures when they bring him back to be interrogated: early shots in a time war.
After the idea’s reuse in more prominent corners of the Who universe this time war might all seem a touch prosaic: The concept is conveyed entirely in dialogue rather than visually demonstrated and the idea of being attacked for crimes as yet uncommitted is a terrific SF extrapolation of the central idea of Philip K Dick’s The Minority Report, though it’s done with far more cosmic scope and panache here.
The concluding episode, Black Sun Rising (Doctor Who Monthly #57, 1981), brings events nicely full circle, although it wasn’t intended as the end of this story. It brings us The Order of the Black Sun, as the enemies of the Time Lords are now named, and closes the circle by showing the events which lead to the start of the 4-D War: Events which seem almost prosaic in their pettiness. It’s more interesting for being the final component of a storytelling engine with plenty of potential, though that would only be fulfilled decades later by Lawrence Miles (“Alien Bodies shares 95% of its DNA with its closest relative, 4-D War”) and Russell T Davies.
Above: Reprints of Moore’s 4-D War trilogy appeared in ‘The Daredevils’ (1983)
to coincide with the appearance of the Special Executive in ‘Captain Britain’.
Sadly these would prove Moore’s only Doctor Who work (though the Special Executive would reappear in Moore’s Captain Britain strips). With his friend Steve Moore being removed from the magazine’s main comic strip Moore walked away at the same time on the point of principle of not working for a company who had treated his friend unfairly. It was the first demonstration of principle that would become legendary over Moore’s career: it’s safe to say his highly moral stance has done him little harm.
It meant though that, instead of a potential cosmic epic in the spirit of Jack Kirby or Green Lantern, these strips would become fascinating curios recalled only by a corner of fandom. Nevertheless, they remain fascinating curios: juvenilia which would provide a time bomb of ideas for Doctor Who two decades later.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jon Arnold is the author of three volumes of the Black Archive series and the forthcoming Silver Archive ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Surprise/Innocence’. He is also currently working on ‘Seasons of War: Corsair’.