14 February 2014

AFT: The Eleven Doctors

 As with all five-part AFT 'event' stories, I'll review this as five individual episodes before concluding it all together. This anniversary epic had one objective - to deliver the celebration the TV show couldn't. All the Doctors are featured in a masterpiece of planning by AFT regular Philip Lawrence. So, without further ado...
The opening 38 frames of this anniversary epic first present us with the Eleventh Doctor calling in on Sarah Jane Smith hanging the washing out. He tells her that as a matter of urgency, he needs to assemble all his previous selves but cannot do it personally because he would have to cross his own timelines. He gives her a Time Ring and a Beacon (in the shape of white cube) and Sarah journeys back through various TV adventures of the Doctor.

She locates the First Doctor during the midst of the Dalek/Mechonoid battle that concluded The Chase. It's nice to see the robots (or one at least), having not been involved in the Daleks v Cybermen arc. The fire from the Mechonoid looks very good, billowing into a Dalek. Even in these seven panels, Phil manages to recreate the story accurately, with great sets and props (the bomb). It's nice to see Hartnell back too, as it's a while since he was on the AFT. All very nice indeed, now onto the next...

We find the Second Doctor conversing with the Brigadier during the events of The Three Doctors, the original anniversary story (that aired a year early). If this is when Troughton gets taken out of his timeline later in the story, then he's certainly having a busy day meeting twelve other versions of himself! However, it's not so straightforward this time as Sarah is noticed by the Brigadier as they walk along a UNIT corridor. It's a testament to the accuracy of Phil's 'printouts' that the story and setting can be evoked so well in just five frames.

The Time Warrior and Sarah runs into the Brigadier again. The moment in question is when the Third Doctor sees the Sontaran on the stairs. The yellow and blue lighting looks fantastic, and is totally accurate of the effect displayed on screen. As Sarah tries to depart the scene quickly, though, the Brigadier enters the field of the Time Ring too. He's taken away with her... I must say again how good the sets are here. I can't believe the effort that's gone into these for the brief appearances they get. 

The next adventure Sarah enters is The Robots of Death, which is the last story I reviewed, and so should be the post below this. An excellent choice, Phil, and a natural one given the wealth of figures available from it, and the fact that it is his favourite. I must make note of the excellent custom Fourth Doctor. I appreciate that 'all' Phil has done is remove the scarf of the Pyramids of Mars Doctor, swap the head and replace the scarf with the City of Death version, but it still takes time and effort, and looks fantastic! I hope the look is kept for the rest of the story. Sarah and the Brigadier narrowly avoid getting strangled by the Voc Robots (great framing in the final panel of Page 3, by the way) before moving on...

They find the Doctor talking with Sharaz Jek and Peri, revealing that they've landed in The Caves of Androzani. Unfortunately, Jek sees the pulse from the Beacon to the Doctor, and suspects it's his allies assisting him. Jek's base is effectively recreated with more paper wizardry by Phil, with only a few corners revealing the source material. The episode ends with Jek threatening the Doctor and Peri with death if he finds any comrades of theirs.

In Part Two's 50 panels (unusually high for a five-parter), we travel through more TV stories before we arrive back in the present. First up, the cliffhanger is resolved with the Brigadier and Sarah using the Time Ring to evade Jek. They arrive in a sewer (oh the glamour) to find the Sixth Doctor and Peri during Attack of the Cybermen. They promptly send the Beacon's pulse to the Doctor and move on. Just as they depart, a Cyberman creeps up on them, but the Brigadier quickly snatches his gun away. I must say the sewer set is done very well, as they can often be tricky to construct (possibly counter-intuitively).

The duo arrive in Shoreditch as Remembrance of the Daleks is playing out. The Seventh Doctor is fleeing an imperial Dalek around some anonymous streets. I'll be honest, they don't resemble those of Remembrance, but they certainly do the job well enough. The drama here is what happens, anyway. The Brigadier puts the Cybergun he stole to good use by shooting the Dalek following Sarah's activation of the cube. There's another use of the 'destroyed' imperial Dalek figure here - twice in two stories! It does look good though.

I was interested to see how he'd handle the Eighth Doctor's era, and Phil's not gone for what I thought he might. Rather than inserting Sarah and the Brigadier into one of Paul McGann's Big Finish stories, as I had expected, they encounter the Doctor fighting Autons in Singapore. This apparently stems from an illustration in Doctor Who Magazine that was presumably inspired by potential Series 23 story Yellow Fever and How to Cure It. Anyway, the Doctor turns up and sonics the Autons just as they approach the Brigadier and Sarah, so it's onto number nine...

Cassandra O'Brien Dot Delta Seventeen welcomes the Brigadier to Platform One with a typically diplomatic line to which he responds that he needs a sit down and a cup of tea, given the wealth of unfamiliar aliens. The End of the World was the obvious choice for Eccleston's era as there are most figures to represent this story above the nine others (although they don't do too badly). There's a nice little bit of comedy as Sarah and Lethbridge-Stewart try to locate the Doctor, indicating that they find it more likely that he looks like the Face of Boe than the actual ninth incarnation. This is a lovely little moment, and it's nice that the Brig's being treated so well in first outing.

Captain Jack takes quiet a shine to the Brigadier in his and Sarah's final jaunt through the Doctor's timeline, which sees them intercept the Tenth Doctor at the end of Last of the Time Lords. There's some nice photoshopping here. Tennant's Doctor comments briefly on how it feels like someone's "walking over his past" to Martha before the Brig and Sarah are transported back to her house. Here, they meet the Eleventh Doctor again - or so it would appear until he doesn't recognise the Brigadier.

At this point, the real Eleventh Doctor materialises with some brilliant lines, and reveals the imposter to be a Zygon, looking especially red and gruesome. The villain activates the transmat and transports the Doctors to an unknown destination. This of course now includes the real Eleventh Doctor, who tells his friends not to follow him as it's too dangerous. I for one hope they do, as I'd love to see more of the Brigadier. It probably makes sense that John Hurt's Doctor is bypassed. It seems almost the entirety of his life was spent serving in the Time War, which is now timelocked. Therefore, the Zygons would have no knowledge of him. This works in Phil's favour, but it's great to see the Zygons regardless, and I look forward to more from them later in the story.

Onto Part Three, and it's another 38-framer, and sadly there's no sign of Alistair. To compensate for this, though, there are cameo appearances from many figures that haven't previously featured on the AFT. In chronological order, there's: a Pyrovile rock creature; a Drashig; a Slitheen; a Racnoss; Krillitanes; and lastly the Axons. Plenty to keep eleven Doctors busy. 

Speaking of the Time Lord, his various incarnations are grouped off. Pertwee, Tom Baker, Davison and Tennant end up in one group; Eccleston, McGann, Colin Baker and Troughton in another; and lastly Hartnell, McCoy and Smith. It's this final team which manages to exit the simulations first. They make contact with their other selves, and alert them to the holographic representations of the monsters from his past (or future) that are masquerading as the real thing.

The jungle set looks absolutely fantastic. These can be so difficult to master, as nature is tough to replicate, but Phil's done it successfully here. It's almost a shame when Pertwee (who looks especially good in this setting) and co exit the environment for the interior of the spaceship - which also looks excellent, I should add. The quality of the Doctor figures is very high here, and it serves to highlight how sadly primitive Tennant's looks in comparison - especially since his suit seems to have changed colour from Part Two. While we're on costume changes, I'm disappointed Baker's Robots look wasn't continued. But small matter.

The interaction between the Doctors is also highly enjoyable. A highlight for me was the Fourth Doctor's "Worzel Gummidge" comment, which made me laugh. Less enjoyable for me was the section where the Doctors were discussing which setting on the Sonic Screwdriver to use. However, the Second Doctor's "mine only works on screwdrivers" did pull it back. This is still very fast-paced, and I'm glad to see Phil hasn't fallen into the trap of having the Doctors immobile pointing out each other's flaws. The plot keeps progressing (although I did appreciate Eight and Nine's little exchange).

As this episode comes to a close, the Doctors are encircled by true-form Axons, led by a golden-skinned humanoid woman. It's the golden anniversary - of course it's the Axons behind it all! As the (unnamed) lady says, they were supposed to keep the Doctor running through his adventures forever (for what purpose is yet to be revealed). As they've failed on that count, though, she has decided they must die instead. A strong installment to add to this cracking anniversary story.

Part Four arrives in 49 panels. The Brigadier and Sarah Jane, having got K9 to reactivate the Time Ring, arrive on the ship with K1 (Professor Kettlewell's robot from Robot). Where on Earth they found it, I've no idea. It's still a good few months away for the Brigadier, and as I recall, Sarah didn't keep it lying around. This is of course explained (as much as it need be) in the line about being able to travel anywhere. The Doctors disband and enter various adventures. 

There's more nostalgia inbound too. We get the Tower of Rassilon, the Nerva Beacon, a Weeping Angel, Starship UK, a Sea Devil, an Ice Warrior, a Pig Slave, a Sycorax Warrior, a robot Mummy (Pyramids of Mars) and the Empty Child - leading to an awful joke (in a good way) - and the Silence / Silents. All of these are of course Axons in various forms. The Doctors' plan seems to be to communicate with Axos' brain and 'fuse' Axos' wiring so that the Axons forget their identities and assume their new roles.

There's more nice sets being used here, especially the Nerva Beacon control room, inhabited by Sarah and 'her' Doctors. The Tenth Doctor's beginning to grate on me a bit though, with his abbreviations and mocking. An example of this is referring to the Fourth Doctor as "ol' scarf face". Admittedly, he could get excitable during his tenure (particularly during the multi-Doctor Time Crash), but this just seems out of character to me. He especially wasn't this jolly at the end of Last of the Time Lords - although his brown suit would indicate that he's from some other time in his era, given the continuous events between the aforementioned finale, via Time Crash and into Voyage of the Damned

All the rest of the Doctors are being written very well though. They're given plenty to do, with some accurate dialogue. It can be easy when writing a story such as this for all the incarnations' voices jumbled in your head, and as a result end up with none sounding quite right. Phil avoids this, though. Each retains their own voice, speech pattern and mannerisms throughout, mostly (some of the First Doctor's contractions sound a little off). I particularly love how affable Paul McGann's Doctor, and it really reminds me of the man Charley Pollard travels with.

At the conclusion of Part Four, the Eleventh Doctor encounters a Silent and has a nice chat (ironically) about how he's going to show Axos what the Silence have done, before the creature disappears from sight and so he forgets. Another thing I'm enjoying the amount of corridor time - perfect for a celebration of Doctor Who's history! There's someone else at work though, observing events from afar. I genuinely can't remember who it is from my first read of this, but I'm leaning towards the Master at the moment, as he's been strangely absent from events so far. I can't wait for Part Five to see how Phil wraps all of this up (spectacularly, I don't doubt).

It appears I may have got things a bit wrong. It transpires in the concluding 44 frames that the 'watcher' was in fact the Silent that the Doctor met up with at the end of Part Four. Going back to the frames that made me think it was someone else, I can kind of see it now. So, I don't really understand what anyone's plan was. What was the point of the Zygon in Part One, other than to be included? I thought they'd pop up again, wrongly as it turns out. I don't know what the Silents had done to Axos (did I miss the explanation?) and I don't even know why the Axons were trying to keep the Doctor going forever. I suppose it could be to do with the Silence's plan to prevent the Doctor restarting the Time War?

By keeping all his incarnations going round and round in Axos, it would keep him from Trenzalore. It's quite a loose concept, and it all seems far too easy to escape from, but it's fine as a framing device to include both monsters for such a great anniversary. Elsewhere, nostalgiatrons will be getting their kicks from seeing Sutekh, a Clockwork Man, a Graske, an Ood, a Judoon, a Kroton (rather brilliantly, would love to have the plans for that made available on AFT Downloads hint hint), a new-style Silurian, a Scarecrow, a Heavenly Host, and of all things the Dalek Sec Hybrid (god, the Axons were getting desperate, weren't they?).

Although normally as soon as you stop looking at a Silent, you forget ever having seen it (a nice idea, but poorly used in the TV series, I feel), the Doctor now has ten times (why not eleven?) the memory capacity and so can remember them. He lets Axos know what they've done - which I'm still not entirely sure what that is - and it begins to try and expel the Silence. It basically self-destructs. The mouthpiece of Axos for this is the female humanoid Axon we saw in Part Three. It's a shame we didn't see more of her. Perhaps in a less crowded story, the Axons could return with a tale designed around them, as there's so much good material that gets lost here.

So, Axos begins to lose orbit and fall towards the Sun it was so perilously close to anyway. The Fifth and Eighth Doctors try and enhance the stabilisers, but fail. The Brigadier then has the idea of looking for the Silence's ship, which is soon located as having drifted away from Axos. It's great to see the ship from The Lodger again, and it's this sort of casual continuity that leads to the success of this story. The Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Doctors then make the leap through space to the ship - presumably defying death in much the same way as Eleven in The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. Once aboard the ship (which looks absolutely beautiful by the way, it has to make a return!) it's discovered that it's too late, but the Doctors do find the owners' Time Scoop. Hoorah!

There is a brief moment where it appears these three incarnations have perished, and the Third Doctor tries to scare us into believing it's true. It works on Sarah, at least, but owing to its (necessary) brevity never really carries much weight for readers. Soon, the Doctors, Sarah and the Brigadier are returned to their own times. We finish with a quick exchange between the Eleventh Doctor and Sarah before he enters his TARDIS. How has his TARDIS got here? We don't see where he comes from at the beginning of the story, but it doesn't seem like he's just wandered in front outside. 

Overall, Part Five deals with all the hanging plot threads (aside from the Zygons, unless that was an Axon in disguise too) and wraps them up into a neat bow, as Phil does so expertly effortlessly. The highlight of this episode for me, though, are the last two frames. The set is just beautiful, and it fits with established so well in a way that the BBC couldn't do. In summary, joyous.

The Eleven Doctors is about just that - celebrating Eleven Doctors' eras with appropriate respect. It's nothing deep, thankfully. This is a fun adventure that draws you in with more revelations. I love the opening two episodes. Phil's recreations of previous adventures are just so enjoyable, and I'd love to see more - but certainly not at the expense of original tales. I should emphasise that the backbone of this story may not be particularly substantial when examined in miniature, but that's not what any anniversary story is about. By necessity, it's about the Doctors, and in that respect, Phil triumphs massively.

I loved the inclusion of Sarah and the Brigadier and it was a shrewd move on Phil's part to only have the two companions who have met the most Doctors to avoid repetitive explanations. Regular readers will know I'm not Sarah's biggest fan, but I adore Nicholas Courtney's Brigadier and I can safely say that both characters, and indeed actors, are served very well here. Their legacy is upheld with honour, and Phil should be proud of his handling of the characters.

Elsewhere, this is typical AFT territory. Brilliant, expertly realised and modelled sets, fantastic visual effects (especially the explosions and fire) and lovely dialogue - save for Tennant, although this isn't as off-pace as it might sound from above comments, having read them back. There's a danger with standards this consistently high that readers may begin to take it for granted. I don't, and am immensely grateful to Phil for all the effort that's gone into this comic. It's just a joy to read, and I hope that the positives of this story stand taller than the negatives in the above reviews, as that's certainly the case in The Eleven Doctors. It's just a shame that the release of the Axon figure was delayed, and is no fault of Phil's.

One of the best anniversary stories that surfaced last November. Outstanding for its genre and premise. It had to do certain things, and it made them feel so unformulaic and natural that I totally forgot any preconceptions as I was swept along in events.

The Eleven Doctors - splendid chaps, all of them.

You can read The Eleven Doctors here.

PS - Check out the scene recreations in the Behind The Scenes section, my favourite is the first, but they're all brilliant. One thing I was a little sad about was that the opportunity to frame it from a previous Doctor's point of view wasn't fulfilled, but that's of no consequence (likewise with the lack of Hartnell-era monsters). It's still fab!

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