Doctors Assemble: Marvel Comics and Doctor Who

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Image Credit: James Ashworth

Image Description: A copy of The Age of Chaos and Death’s Head #8

By James Ashworth

It’s the 1960s. A new era of popular adventure stories is dawning, drawing on hopes and fears about recent scientific discoveries, and a group of adventurers are about to burst into the public consciousness. I am, of course, talking about the publication of Fantastic Four #1. The fledgling ‘Marvel age of comics’ had just started, and would go on to produce many other characters, including the X-Men and the Guardians of the Galaxy. A couple of years later, another group would enter a strange blue box, which would whisk them away on a whole new series of adventures. Doctor Who had begun. Both Doctor Who and Marvel Comics have had their ups and downs, particularly in the 1990s. For Doctor Who, this was cancellation, while Marvel Comics went bankrupt in 1996 and sold film rights for many of its most popular characters, which still affects decisions made by Marvel Studios today. But what else links these two institutions? Let’s find out!

One of the most concrete links exists in Marvel’s British outfit, Marvel UK. This was established in 1972 so Marvel could handle its own publishing in Britain, it originally just reprinted US comics, mostly in black and white. They were printed weekly, rather than monthly as in America, and in anthologies in the style of existing British weekly comics rather than as single-character or single-team titles. A lot of work was required to create new or edit existing art to act as covers and splash pages that didn’t appear in the US. The reprints suffered from competition, both from the original American comics themselves circulating in Britain, and also from the reinvigoration of British boys’ adventure comics through titles such as Warlord and Battle. In order to combat falling sales, Marvel UK editor Neil Tennant suggested Marvel commission its own British-originated war comic, but Marvel US preferred to introduce a British Marvel superhero, and Captain Britain was introduced in 1976.  This was not the end for Neil Tennant, who remained at Marvel UK for a couple more years, but later became famous as a member of the Pet Shop Boys. One David McDonald would borrow Neil Tennant’s surname for professional purposes when he became an actor. 

However, Captain Britain faltered, lost his own title and eventually disappeared (though not for good) in 1977 . Marvel UK needed a new source of revenue. Luckily, Marvel had the comic strip rights to Star Wars in the US and UK, and the success of their Star Wars titles saved both its American parent and Marvel UK, whose Star Wars Weekly debuted in January 1978. In 1979, Marvel UK’s then editorial director Dez Skinn, committed to originating new material in the UK, also gained the rights to Doctor Who, and with it a devoted fan base ready to buy his new launch Doctor Who Weekly. This evolved into the monthly Doctor Who Magazine (referred to in most of this article as DWM), which has been continuously published to the present day, through various incarnations and the incorporation of Marvel UK itself into Panini UK in the 1990s. 

While Marvel hasn’t majorly influenced the television series (though The Lodger is based on a Panini DWM strip of the same name), it has contributed to the creation of a familiar character. One fan of Marvel’s output while he was growing up was a certain Russell T Davies, reflected in his work by the recurrence of the surname Harkness. Initially appearing as Esme Harkness in both the TV series Century Falls, and later The Grand , it is of more interest to us as the surname of our favourite Time Agent, Captain Jack Harkness. The surname itself comes from Agatha Harkness, a witch of the Marvel Universe, who first appeared in Fantastic Four 94. She has acted as a mentor and carer to other characters such as Scarlet Witch and Franklin Richards, and like Captain Jack has an uncanny knack of coming back to life. Marvel has also created characters that have later appeared in other Doctor Who media. Frobisher, the Whifferdill who likes to take the form of a penguin, is one such example. Originally appearing in part one of The Shape-Shifter in DWM 88 (May 1984) and a regular character until the final part of A Cold Day in Hell in DWM 133 (February 1988), he has gone on to appear in a couple of Big Finish audio stories, as well as making occasional returns to the main comic strip. However, Marvel did predict the casting of a female Doctor, sort of. In the eighth issue of the short-lived The Incredible Hulk Presents (25 November 1989) is a Doctor Who strip by the name of Who’s That Girl! As the TARDIS arrives at the signing of an intergalactic treaty, the delegates are surprised to see a woman step out. This ‘Doctor’ wears a mix of clothes from the wardrobes of Doctors Four to Seven. However, it soon becomes apparent they are an imposter, with the Seventh Doctor tied to the TARDIS console. While that Doctor may not have been real, her character is still out there. Maybe she’s due a comeback, perhaps even as a companion in the vein of the unmade Season Twenty-Seven’s proposed cat burglar?

A more recent connection is via The World Shapers, as featured in DWM 127-129. It featured the Sixth Doctor, along with Peri, Frobisher and Jamie McCrimmon. Here, after finding a distress signal on Marinus, the Doctor follows clues to Planet 14, which turns out to be a name given by terraformers to Marinus. Here, he finds the Voord evolving into the Cybermen. This incident seems to be recalled by the Twelfth Doctor in The Doctor Falls as one of the many examples of the parallel evolution of the Cybermen, mostly by races desperate to survive. It remains to be seen whether the story’s further statement, that the Cybermen will transcend physical form to become benevolent helpers, somewhat like the hypothetical Boltzmann Brains, will come to pass.

Up to this point, the Whoniverse had been self-contained, while still existing under the Marvel banner. However, the Marvel and Doctor Who universes have crossed paths. These crossovers began in DWM 135 (April 1988), after Death’s Head, a Marvel UK character, collided with the TARDIS. Death’s Head is an intergalactic, time travelling, robotic bounty hunter who was originally developed for another Marvel licence, Transformers. As such, the character was thirty feet tall, and so this story was written out of narrative convenience in order to allow him to enter Marvel proper. He had to be shrunk, and after a quick spin with the Tissue Compression Eliminator, The Doctor sent him into one of the many Marvel universes. 

After Death’s Head received his own series the next year, the Doctor took a trip to the Marvel Universe instead, in Death’s Head 8 (July 1989). In this issue, Death’s Head is hired to kill the Doctor, but they are both set up by a common enemy in the form of Josiah Dogbolter, the villain of DWM’s strips The Moderator and The Shape-Shifter (both 1984). After Dogbolter’s attempt to destroy them with a nuclear bomb fails, the Doctor drops Death’s Head off, calling it even. While this in itself could be seen as another self-contained story, the Doctor left Death’s Head on top of the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building, making the Doctor an official resident of, or at least visitor to, the Marvel Universe. This suggests that the Marvel Universe may be one of the myriad of parallel worlds that the Time Lords could access, as revealed on television in The Age of Steel (2006). Death’s Head and the Doctor would later cross paths at a party in DWM 173 (May 1991).

Doctor Who is heavily referenced in other comics as well. One of the most blatant is in the Excalibur comics. Excalibur are the British X-Men team, and one of their members is none other than Captain Britain. They are frequently assisted in their first series by the British government organisation W.H.O, led by the twins Alysande/Alysdane (her name changes) and Alistaire Stuart. Of course, they are inspired by a certain Brigadier and U.N.I.T. Another feature of Excalibur was the later revelation they were brought together by the wizard Merlin as a gambit in his age-old battle against the sorcerer Necrom. The Doctor has assumed the identity of Merlin before, and the Seventh Doctor especially was fond of a bit of manipulation, so who knows? Maybe he played a longer game than we know about… 

Captain Britain had endured several other revivals between his disappearance from Super Spider-Man and Captain Britain in 1977 and his appearance in Excalibur. For a period in the 1980s Alan Moore wrote Captain Britain for Marvel UK.  Sent to a parallel Earth, Captain Britain found that a politician had swept to victory, seemingly from nowhere. This politician travels in a flying teapot, one which is bigger on the inside than on the outside, and he aims to destroy all other superheroes, leaving him the sole survivor. He is the Master Sir Jim Jaspers. The parallels to the Master’s plan in The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords (2007), are quite apparent at this point, though the similarities end quickly after this set-up.

Authors have also crossed between these two universes. Our friend Captain Britain yet again acts as a bridge between worlds, this time via one of his more recent series, Captain Britain and MI13. This was written by Paul Cornell, long a writer for the New Adventure novels and more recently for TV through his episodes, Father’s Day (2005)and Human Nature/The Family Of Blood (2007), as well as many other contributions to the world of Doctor Who comics and audios.  Another, Dan Abnett, most well known in the Marvel Universe for being one half of the duo who assembled the recent incarnation of the Guardians of the Galaxy, has also written for Doctor Who, in the form of novels such as The Silent Stars Go By (2011) and also for DWM  comic strips while the magazine was at Marvel. He also wrote The Harvest (2004), the Big Finish audio which introduced the Seventh Doctor’s companion Hex for the first time. Even Colin Baker provides a link here. After being given the opportunity to pen three short stories for DWM’s ‘Brief Encounters’ series, he went on to write a Doctor Who comic for Marvel, called The Age of Chaos. This special edition continues Peri’s story after her departure in the Mindwarp section of The Trial of a Time Lord. The Sixth Doctor arrives on Krontep, a world plunged into civil war by the manipulations of the regent, Farlig, after the death of Yrcanos, and sets about sorting things out and reuniting Peri’s family. The front cover was drawn by Alan Davis, one of the artists and later authors of the aforementioned Excalibur comics. 

In recent years the Marvel name has been associated with film and television productions directly controlled by the company which also owns the comic characters, rather than licensed out (as of course remains the case with the X-Men series),  A number of Doctor Who actors have featured in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, most notably David Tennant, who in Jessica Jones plays the villainous Jeremiah Kilgrave, a man with the power to make people obey his commands. Unfortunately, he has not yet used the phrase ‘I am Kilgrave and you will obey me’. Christopher Eccleston had previously made this transition, playing another villain, Malekith in Thor: The Dark World. Karen Gillan plays Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy, while Jenna Coleman briefly appears in the first Captain America film, as does David Bradley. Even Marvel films produced by other studios, such as the X-Men series (at Fox) and Spider-Man films (at Sony), have Ian McKellen and Laurence Belcher (a current Oxford undergraduate) of Christmas specials various, for the former, and Andrew Garfield (Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks [2007]) for the latter.   

So will a new Doctor Who film be produced as part of Marvel’s phase four plans? Alas, probably not. In 1995 Marvel merged Marvel UK with their other European subsidiary, Panini, and following Marvel’s bankruptcy in 1997 Panini was sold into different hands to Marvel US. While Panini publishes Marvel content in Europe, it is a licensee rather than a subsidiary or a sister company. While we may never see the Doctor fight the Hulk on screen, all these references can still be tied into the show, thanks to a short story, Continuity Errors, by one Steven Moffat. His first contribution to the world of Doctor Who, it tells how the Doctor inserts himself into cultures as a fictional character, in order to avoid any suspicion. So if there is a crossover, there’s a readymade explanation waiting in the wings. 

Back when Stan Lee was editor-in-chief and then as publisher of Marvel Comics, he would end his ‘Bullpen Bulletins’ with his signature line, ‘Excelsior!’ We’ll end this on a more Whovian note. Until next time, Excalibur!

Tides 42 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

Further reading:

Ryan Lamble, ‘How Marvel went from bankruptcy to billions’, Den of Geek, 13 February 2015

Adrian Wymann, ‘1972-1974: Setting up Marvel UK’, Thought Bubble, revised 2 January 2015

Mark Senior, ‘The Incredible Hulk Presents. Strips featuring the Seventh Doctor’, Doctor Who Reference Guide, no date

John Freeman, ‘The First Female “Doctor Who” Appeared in Comics back in 1989 – Sort Of!’, Down the Tubes, 17 July 2017

Mark Aldridge and Andy Murray, T is for Television: The Small Screen Adventures of Russell T Davies, 2008

 

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