❉ These are fine, faithful adaptations of two venerable Dr Who Weekly strips, writes Andy Murray.
Nowadays, if a Doctor Who character slipped off screen for a quick comfort break, they could qualify for a spin-off Big Finish box-set explaining their absence. But it wasn’t always thus. Back before Big Finish, before Titan Comics, before the New Adventures, before the word ‘webisode’ had even been coined, there was the Iron Legion comic strip in Doctor Who Weekly in 1979. This was a big deal for fans of a certain age (*coughs, raises hand*). Too young to have been caught up by Countdown or TV Comic, and never all that fussed by the World Distribution annuals, to them The Iron Legion felt like a revelation. Here for the first time was a proper, full-on Doctor Who story that didn’t involve you sitting watching BBC1 of a Saturday night.
Quite rightly, then, The Iron Legion and its successors retain a special place in the hearts of many. Really, it a wonder it’s taken Big Finish so long to adapt them for audio. This Comic Strip Adaptations set pairs that story with the slightly later DWW strip The Star Beast, both of which were written by Pat Mills and John Wagner (though it’s understood that Mills did most of the work as the partnership often took turns writing the stories that they were credited on).
The strips were also both illustrated by Dave Gibbons, and to be frank losing Gibbons’ visuals for audio presents an almighty handicap. Gibbons’ original artwork was pretty sodding glorious and a fair portion of the stories’ overall effectiveness can be laid at his feet. On script duties here, Alan Barnes has his work cut out. Wisely enough, these adaptations cleave very closely to the source. You could just about imagine the comic strips as snappy, classy adaptations of the audios.
At times they actually show up the shortcomings of the DWW strips. The Iron Legion is a hoot, a free-wheeling, breathless, wide-screen romp not unlike a very exciting fall down the stairs. Sometimes it feels like a disjointed sprint hither and thither, picking up oddball sidekicks as it goes, making it a kind of a spiritual successor to Pat Mills’ Judge Dredd mega-epic The Cursed Earth from the previous year. At times it feels totally unlike any other Doctor Who story you’ve read, seen or heard, and it’s all somehow much nearer Seaside Special than Play for Today, but there’s definitely a place for that.
It manages to combine A Lot Going On with not much actually happening, but it’s never less than fun, and this adaptation does a fine job of breathing life into beloved Iron Legion characters Morris and, in particular, Vesuvius (voiced by Joseph Kloska and Toby Longworth respectively). By a neat coincidence, Tom Baker’s present day uber-whimsical take on the Doctor fits the daft, fizzy tone well, too.
There’s perhaps a tendency to overplay the comedy a bit too much, though. Let’s not forget that at the time The Iron Legion was first published, Doctor Who on TV was being script-edited by Douglas Adams, who later reflected, “A danger one runs is that the moment you have anything in the script that’s clearly meant to be funny in some way, everybody thinks ‘oh, well, we can do silly voices and silly walks and so on’, and I think that’s exactly the wrong way to do it”. Wise words, Doug. The score, too, is just a bit too eager to parp away merrily to signal the humour rather than letting in light and shade.
It’s a common problem. Minus the storytelling contribution of Gibbons’ art, the Malevilus aren’t all that malevolent, reduced to hissy baddies just as the centurions become standard-issue robot soldiers. But there’s no suppressing the joyous, romping spirit of the enterprise, particularly as Barnes litters the script with a whole barrage of cheeky in-jokes, some of them even in Latin.
By comparison, The Star Beast is almost like a low-key fringe theatre production. For all The Iron Legion‘s colourful trimmings, this is actually the better story, with a stronger structure and a tighter character list. It remains the missing link between Whistle Down the Wind and ET, and a striking companion piece to Alan Moore’s 1983 riff on the latter, 2000AD‘s Skizz. It’s also – mark this, Chibnall – still by far the best Doctor Who story ever to be set in South Yorkshire.
It can be a strange beast – the Doctor’s barely even a bystander until almost halfway through, and he’s dangerously slow on the uptake about the true nature of Beep the Meep. Beep doesn’t have much to do before the mid-way point either, before which The Star Beast is basically The Sharon and Fudge Adventures. That’s no hardship, though, as Rhianne Starbuck is a grand, spirited Sharon and Ben Hunter is good value as Fudge. David Schaal hits just the right note as the dogged Wrarth inspector Zogroth, too. When the story proper does get going, the brilliantly deranged creation of Beep the Meep takes the stage in a terrific, devious, conniving turn by Bethan Dixon Bate. The device of cutting back and forth between Beep’s fluffy actions and dark inner thoughts, so natural and instantaneous in the comic version, feels clunky here, much as it’s necessary. Read the strip again in future, though, and it’s Dixon Bate you’ll hear in your head with every meep.
These are fine, faithful adaptations of the venerable DWW strips, then, and if at times they show up some of their inherent shonkiness as stories, they’re a blast nevertheless, with The Star Beast taking the prize as best of the pair. It’s worth noting too that technically this set continues the Big Finish tradition of bringing lost TV stories to life, as Mills and Wagner pitched the Iron Legion idea to the BBC production team before they sold it to Marvel UK. We never got to see what the era of on-screen Who that brought us Erato, the Mandrels and the Nimon would have made of the glories of Neo-Rome, and all things considered, that’s probably just as well. So close your eyes and listen to this instead: it’s as close as you’ll get.
❉ ‘Doctor Who – The Fourth Doctor Comic Strip Adaptations Volume 1’ is available now as a 5-disc CD box set for £23 or on download at £20 from www.bigfinish.com.
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to Big Issue North. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.