Archive for Comics & Book Reviews

Kingdom and Katarina

"The whole plot? In that tiny box, Doctor?" "Mmm, yes, my boy..."

The Daleks’ Masterplan is one of the most sprawling, epic, flawed, fascinating and utterly space opera-y Doctor Who stories of all time. It was the fourth ever Dalek story, screening as part of the third season of the show in 1965-6, and it marks the end of Doctor Who being a safe kids show.

I had heard so much about it in my years as a Doctor Who fan – I knew that it was the first story that killed the companion (and it did it twice), that it was twelve (and an extra) episodes long, not only a record at the time but for many decades to follow, I knew about the weird Christmas episode, and Nicholas Courtney playing a character called Bret Vyon, and all manner of plot details.

If you feel knowing all the plot twists & who dies in The Daleks Masterplan would spoil enjoyment of the story (it doesn’t, honestly, it can only help) then please look away now.

Jean Marsh now, with current Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan

It wasn’t until I actually listened to the story (available as an audio recording as most of the original TV serial was wiped) that I saw all of those facts in context, however, and began to fall in love with it as a story. Yes, even (especially) the silly Christmas episode.

I was reminded of that love again recently when listening to The Anachronauts, a great Sara-and-Steven Big Finish Companion Chronicle, set in between a few acts of The Daleks’ Masterplan, and featuring the greatly talented voices of Jean Marsh and Peter Purves. (as those of you who tuned in for my Upstairs Downstairs post know, I’m on a Jean Marsh kick at the moment)

In the behind the scenes bits of the Anachronauts, they mentioned the audiobook of the novelisation of The Daleks’ Masterplan, read by both Peter and Jean, and I was interested because they are both so very good at audio work – Peter Purves does a killer Hartnell impression which really brings the story alive. Also, it occurred to me, while the audio-only version of TDM did drag on a bit at times, making me wish I could see the televised version, the good old Target novelisation, which I’d never read, might prove otherwise.

Luckily for me, both volumes of the audio book: Daleks: Mission To the Unknown and Daleks: The Mutation of Time, were available at my local library. I’ve just finished listening to the first of these, which brings me up to the middleish of the Great Doctor Who Space Opera.

I’ll start by saying that the performances are, as I had expected, brilliant. But the format of the audiobook really brought home to me how excellent the work by Big Finish is, because this BBC production was far more by-the-numbers. Peter Purves and Jean Marsh take turns reading large sections of the book, which means they end up at times reading each other’s parts – a Big Finish audio book or two-hander narrative play, like The Suffering starring Peter Purves as Steven and Maureen O’Brien as Vicki, would always edit in the actual actor playing his or her own voice. A lot more work, but far greater effect to the reader!

I definitely felt like Sara Kingdom was given a disservice by the audiobook at times by this method – Peter Purves does not do as good a Jean Marsh impression as he does William Hartnell, and by necessity he is busily trying to make his voice sound less male in those scenes and thus ends up making Sara sound a lot more wet and passive than she actually is – our kickass Emma Peel in space.

Then there’s the book itself (or themselves) – both volumes were written by John Peel and it’s important to remember that authors tended to take quite a lot of liberty when writing the novelisations – that’s part of the fun of a Target, you don’t quite know what you’re going to get, whether it’s sudden scenes in the Doctor’s POV, plot developments being switched around, authors explaining motives that weren’t quite clear in the story, or on one memorable occasion, the Doctor’s entire Trojan adventure being told as if through the eyes of Homer, who was mysteriously not present in any of those scenes during the televised version.

But I can’t help noticing that Peel’s version of the story, while it rattles along with great pace and invests the villains with some marvellous motivation and character work, isn’t very kind to two rather important characters in the story: Sara Kingdom, and Katarina.

Poor Katarina. Possibly the companion least remembered by fandom as a whole – except for her death, which makes her the first Doctor Who companion to be sacrificed to lazy writing. I was quite intrigued by her on my first listen to The Daleks’ Masterplan, and found her to be a much more interesting character than that book I have by Peter Haining made out. (there’s a nice lament for the mishandling of Katarina here)

But oh, John Peel’s novelisation puts paid to any hint of that. While Katarina acts no differently in the book than it sounded like she did on screen, the other characters are constantly thinking about how stupid she is. I don’t mean once or twice. CONSTANTLY. The three men around her: the Doctor and Steven and then Bret Vyon (who joins the TARDIS crew by holding them at gunpoint, but falls instantly in love with them and joins their merry band, only occasionally remembering to point guns at them again at regular intervals) simply cannot shut up their inner commentary about the dumbness of Katarina. At one point, the author is particularly meta, having the Doctor think what a mistake it is to travel with a companion from a pre-technological era, which was the offical production reason for jettisoning the character almost as soon as she had arrived.

"If you won't be BFFs with me, Doctor, I can give you the address of my ancestor the Brig."

Vicki, played by Maureen O’Brien, had been let go at very short notice (we never hear an explanation given for that one!) and as they wrote her out in the story set during the Trojan War, they replaced her with a handmaiden who was in the right place at the wrong time, and had barely featured in the story.

The story goes that the production crew realised their mistake instantly, that a companion from pre-industrial time who saw time travel and space ships as evidence of gods and magic, would never work. So they wrote her out early on in the Daleks’ Masterplan, “replacing” her with Sara Kingdom.

None of which is, as it happens, reflective of the story we see. For a start, there is no way Sara is a replacement for Katarina, except as being the token female character, because they are so deeply different, and serve the story in different ways. Also it was only a couple of years later that the Second Doctor was running around time and space with the bekilted Highlander Jamie, who also saw space stations and Cybermen as evidence of magic, and was an adored fan favourite as well as an extremely well-matched-to-his-Doctor companion.

"Trojan handmaidening is not unskilled labour!"

Katarina’s death, while problematic in many ways, is handled remarkably well in the story, and indeed the novelisation (as audiobook). After several episodes trying to wrap her head around an enormous cultural shift, mostly believing herself to already be dead and certainly believing the Doctor to be Zeus, she is beginning to ground herself in this bizarre science fictional world of flashing lights and gear sticks when she is taken captive by a Plot Extender Maniac who holds her at gunpoint and forces the TARDIS crew (not actually flying the TARDIS at this second but a different space ship) to go to a planet full of Daleks instead of the Earth, where they were heading to warn humanity about the impending invasion. The men are all stuck in a moral quandary, and indeed Bret is the only one who seriously considers sacrificing Katarina’s life for the greater good.

Katarina takes control. She has been shown rudimentary controls of the ship and she knows what the big button does. For the sake of the mission and saving the galaxy from evil (concepts she grasps, coming from a time of great war, even if she can’t quite take in the scale) she sends herself and her captor out of an airlock.

It’s a shocking, brutal moment. My favourite bit is that Steven says immediately ‘she got the wrong button’ and the Doctor knows otherwise. Katarina the handmaiden was a lot of things, but she sure as hell wasn’t stupid. I was pleased that this scene and the emotional followup to her death was respectful to the character in the novelisation, and that the author managed to convey the meaning of her sacrifice rather than falling back on the unpleasant character sabotage of previous chapters.

Much though I defend Katarina, and I am deeply attached to Bret and his ridiculously cuddly relationship with the Doctor and Steven (they work as a unit for several episodes) the moment that Bret Vyon’s body hits the floor is the moment that, for me, the story really gets its groove on.

Kingdom, Sara Kingdom.

The actual plot of the story (yes there is one) is that the Daleks are about to invade the solar system, and Earth’s glorious, best-beloved, deeply trusted Bloke in Charge has sold out his own people to said Daleks, because he’s evil. That’s pretty much it. Oh, and there’s a Terranium Core (magic rock) which is super rare and hard to put together, which fuels the Dalek Doomsday Plot and the Doctor accidentally gets hold of it quite early on, leaving Mavic Chen and the Daleks to run around like headless chickens trying to get it back off him. Only instead of slapstick comedy (that comes later) this first half of the story is grim, unrelentingly grim, with shootings and political conniving and only occasional bits of banter.

This is the first time that I have really put together in my head that yes, the Terry Nation who “always” wrote the same Dalek story, really is the same Terry Nation who wrote the first season of Blake’s 7. It’s space opera, shoot-you-in-the-back style.

"Even my gun belongs in Blake's 7... Avon stole his sinister smile from ME"

I love the fact that the novelisation teases out Kingdom’s reputation as Mavic Chen’s top agent, ruthless, smart, dependable. I don’t remember how much her gender was deliberately unreferenced before her appearance in the show itself, but it’s very effective here.

Of course, most people who go out of their way to listen to an audiobook of a novelisation of a 1965 Dalek story are probably the sort of people who read Programme Guides back when there were still two mm’s and an e in ‘program’ and thus already know that Kingdom is a woman. But still, it’s a nice little anachronistic touch – this is a future in which women are equal, GET THIS, 1965 TV WATCHERS, SHE’S GONNA SHOOT HER BROTHER WITHOUT BLINKING. AND THEN SHE’S GOING AFTER THE DOCTOR. SHE’S THE FUCKING TERMINATOR.

Have I mentioned how much I love Sara Kingdom?

Check out this post with screencaps of one of her extra-curricular appearances as a kickass comics character.

I was greatly disappointed that the key emotional scene in which Sara Kingdom discovers that the brother she shot was telling the truth and that it’s her employer, not her brother, who betrayed the solar system to the Daleks, and makes the painful transition from ‘person who wants to kill the Doctor’ to ‘person who asks, what’s happening, Doctor’ is read by Peter Purves and not Jean Marsh. As I mentioned earlier, his Sara Kingdom is not a patch on Jean’s (for obvious reasons), and while I really enjoy his reading, it would have had greater emotional punch in her voice. Also, returning to the author rather than the voice artist… really? I get that you’re trying to make Sara Kingdom a more likeable character, but did she REALLY cry that much in the televised version? There’s a lot of crying upon crying and wobbling lips and wailing in these scenes, and it did make me cranky.

"Did I mention I have an Emmy for stoic restraint? Just sayin."

Yes, she’s devastated. We know that. So she should be. But she’s SARA “MY MIDDLE NAME IS STOIC” KINGDOM, and it’s really noticeable that it’s the narrative, not the dialogue, that utterly depowers her, and turns her into a quivering heap of feelings.

To my great pleasure, though, after these uneven moments, the story kicked into another gear, and I ran out of things to complain about. Steven and Sara together make a great team, working with the prickly Hartnell Doctor. The Peel narrative does feel the need to repeat how handsome/pretty they both are, and how hot they are for each other, which doesn’t seem entirely necessary, but this passed the point of being mildly irritating all the way into funny for me.

I have greatly enjoyed the many hours listening to Daleks: Mission to the Unknown, especially the way that the novel format accentuates the dystopian space opera feel of the story, and makes all the planet-hopping feel more epic that it probably ever looked on the small scratchy black and white scene. I love how the whole thing has this amazing Blake’s 7 vibe, fifteen years before the Liberator turned up. The characterisation, even of minor characters, is very effective, and I feel I’m getting a much better grip on the story than I did before (though of course it’s not entirely the same story in some places). Peel’s real brilliance is in the way he puts scenes in the point of view of the Daleks, making them feel like individuals, which serves to make them more effective villains (especially in the transition to the page). He is a very good at effective adaptation.

"Stick with me, kid. We'll ditch Dodo and pick you up just in time for The Gunfighters."

Peter Purves and Jean Marsh do a fabulous job – and while an audio book in which she gets to say all of Sara’s lines and he gets to say all of Steven’s and the Doctor’s lines would have been a zillion times better, there is something to be said for the single voice doing big chunks technique, and at least we do have proper Dalek voices edited in, they’re not total barbarians. I’m looking forward to the second half of the story, not least because I’ve been reading recently about how the second half was almost completely written by NOT Terry Nation at all but Dennis Spooner, and I want to spot the seams where Blake’s 7 sneakily transforms into Red Dwarf. I’m even looking forward to the Christmas episode because COME ON, pyramids and policemen and random vaudeville! I’m totally voting that we save that one first when we really get time machines and are allowed to go back and find all the missing episodes.

I do think, however, that it was important to note the way that the novelisation imposed a few problematic gender issues on to the story that simply weren’t there in the original. I remember coming away from listening to the sound recording of the 1965 The Daleks’ Masterplan delighted at how feminist it felt, particularly the futuristic equality vibe between Steven and Sara, but also that Katarina’s death was less of a throwaway moment than I had always been led to believe. Sara Kingdom is the first female companion since the original Barbara to be a grown woman rather than a teenage girl, and she got to act as if that was the case most of the time. I will enjoy the second novelisation far more if it refrains from making her sob uncontrollably, moon romantically over Steven, or sprain an ankle.

Most importantly, when Sara dies at the end, trying to save and protect the Doctor, I want very much it to be portrayed as the epic end to her own story, not simply a plot detail used to make Steven and the Doctor sad. So no pressure at all there, Mr Peel.

*takes deep breath*
*goes in*

Doctor Who: Daleks: Mission to the Unknown
An audiobook of a TARGET novelisation (by John Peel)
of half of a lost Doctor Who story (The Daleks’ Masterplan) from 1965-66.
Read by Jean Marsh, Peter Purves, with Dalek warblings by Nicholas Briggs
BBC Audio

[cross-posted from tansyrr.com]

Companions in Comics: Miranda, the Doctor’s Daughter

This post contains spoilers for Lance Parkin’s novel Father Time and the comic Miranda.

A girl in school uniform stands surrounded by aliens.

The first issue of Miranda, published by Comeuppance Comics.

How might the adventures of a Time Lady differ from the Doctor’s? One answer to this question is offered by Miranda (2003), a comic devoted to the Doctor’s daughter.

My previous three posts focused on companions in Doctor Who Magazine. Miranda is a very different kettle of fish. The publication was launched independently, marketed at Buffy fans, and unlike the long-running DWM, expired before its fourth issue. (The reasons remain unclear, but this statement from publisher David Whittam suggests the cause may have been lack of funds). So the following critique comes with caveats. Miranda is an unfinished story, and can’t be judged in its entirety. Still, its relationship to Doctor Who raises some interesting questions from a feminist perspective.

The character Miranda was originally developed for Lance Parkin’s book Father Time (2001). I want to devote some attention to Father Time for contextual reasons. This well-written, unsettling, novel describes the Eighth Doctor adopting Miranda—a little girl with two hearts—and raising her on Earth. Although she is brought up to believe she is human, the Doctor knows that her birth father was a tyrannical Time Lord who was murdered in an uprising while she was still a baby. There are hints, never confirmed, that the tyrant may be a future regeneration of the Doctor. Until Miranda’s teens, she is unaware that she is both heiress to the universe and an assassination target for her father’s former slaves. In the mean time the Doctor does his utmost to keep her in material comfort, primarily by becoming a millionaire entrepreneur. He also articulates a depth of feeling for her that we rarely see expressed towards companions. Parkin describes the inspiration for the book as follows:

The Doctor can do all these fantastical things, but he’s not quite a full human being, he’s not quite emotionally literate. As I’ve said before, when I’m writing a Doctor Who book, I think of the most absurd non-Who like idea that I can, and try to get it to work. And the idea here was an image of the Doctor hugging a young girl, and saying ‘you’re my daughter, and I’ll always love you.’ It’s just not the sort of thing he does. So how did he get there? I was really worried about Miranda stealing the limelight, but in the end she’s a wonderful mirror for the Doctor – she really helps define him.

Quoted from a 2006 interview with the BBC

Parkin overstates the incongruity of the Doctor as paternal figure; after all, the First Doctor was introduced as a grandfather. However I agree that a Doctor who commits to “always loving” his daughter feels unfamiliar, for reasons nicely explored by Tansy in her posts on domesticity. The scenario suggests a permanent bond, or a personal tie placed before his public, itinerent, adventurer role. That’s quite a far cry from the mentor-like, but temporary relationships he often forms with young companions.

As Parkin claims, Miranda is a “mirror” for the Doctor; she possesses the same abilities, the same mannerisms… and the same class privileges. The domestic setting gives a new emphasis to the Doctor’s economic independence. His ability to cosset Miranda derives from material riches that are unavailable to other people in the book. Many of Miranda’s reported thoughts express a sense of superiority over her friends. This self-regard is focused on her extraterrestrial levels of intelligence and physical strength, but there is a clear class dimension to a young rich girl feeling innately superior. It is interesting to note that, unlike many companions, Miranda is not offered as a point of identification for readers–even though much of the story is related from her point of view. Instead she comes very close to functioning as a female equivalent to the Doctor. And while his love for her is moving, as a pair they regularly feel alienating and exclusionary. It is intriguing that the Doctor becomes harder to like as he ostensibly becomes more human by putting Miranda first.

If Miranda ceases to be a “mirror” for the Doctor, it is in the treatment of her sexuality. As a teenager she veers between feeling asexual and attempting to fit in with her peers by mimicking their sexual behaviour. Her asexuality is not maintained into adulthood. Rather, her indifference to sex is presented as a temporary adolescent confusion. Worryingly, her first genuine desire is for her would-be alien assassin, Ferran. The attraction partly derives from recognising him as an equal with powers comparable to her own (powers which her human boyfriend does not possess). That might be all well and good without the threat of murder. It troubles me that Miranda’s lust for a man who can match her becomes entwined with lust for a man who wants to kill her. By contrast, the Doctor pursues a quasi-romantic relationship with at least one human woman, seemingly at ease with the inequalities in his favour. There is little challenge to the idea that men should dominate women within the context of heterosexual relationships.

In the comic, also written by Parkin, much of the story’s peril derives from threats of (implicitly sexual) violence to Miranda, which include Ferran’s attempt to coerce their marriage. This is curious as the comic, in theory, has a female-friendly goal. Unlike Father Time, where Miranda is included to illuminate our understanding of the Doctor, the comic makes Miranda the protagonist and doesn’t refer to the Doctor at all. Parkin stated in 2002 that the strip aimed to provide “stories with aliens and robots and fast-paced action, but with a strong female central character” .

Yet the comic’s artwork, combined with certain narrative choices, make Miranda seem much more vulnerable here than in Father Time. She enters the story as a newcomer to space, ignorant of her ancestry; this tried and tested trope for getting readers up to speed with an alien world removes many of the privileges she possessed on Earth. Her physical strength no longer seems exceptional, and she knows less than everybody else. A more vulnerable Miranda would be fine, but isn’t really explored in terms of her feelings or reactions—a feature I’m willing to give a pass because we only have three issues to assess here. We can’t know how her character would have developed.

Miranda’s visual presentation is more problematic. All three issues of the comic are attractively drawn with dynamic panel layouts, but Miranda’s posture sometimes borders on the Escher-like contortions that have become so familiar to comics readers over the past decade. More generally, she’s drawn for the implied male reader’s titillation. In issue two, for instance, Ferran attempts to spy on her in the bath, resulting in illustrations like these (click to enlarge the picture):

Miranda rises from a bath. She is naked and on all fours. In the next panel she dries herself with a towel.

Miranda in the bath.

Her dialogue regularly opens an ironic gap between her thoughts and the image, but that just strikes me as an attempt to have your cake and eat it. See, for instance, her comments on an attractive male acquaintance, while the focus of the panel is clearly on her own body:

Miranda is drawn from behind, so that her rear is the focus of the image. She is saying to a friend, "Oh right...Um...Someone should watch his bum...er... his back. I'll go."

Miranda viewed from behind.

So to come back to the question I asked at the start of this post: how might the adventures of a Time Lady differ from the Doctor’s? On the basis of Miranda, the likelihood of being sexually objectified is a lot greater. How depressing. The comic has so much potential that isn’t realised, partly because of its untimely end. I can heartily recommend Father Time, though.

Companions in Comics: The Coming Out of Izzy Sinclair

The Eighth Doctor’s arrival kickstarts an exciting period in Doctor Who Magazine. Old patterns are disrupted. This Doctor is fallible in ways that would have been unthinkable during the comic’s early days. We get numerous female companions with proper character arcs. And we begin to see slightly more space given to the characters’ sexuality. No doubt there’s a post to be written about the Doctor’s transition, in this incarnation, from asexual alien to half-human, heterosexual romantic. But for now, I want to focus on Izzy Sinclair—the Doctor’s companion from 1996 to 2003.

Izzy has geekish interests. She enters the story as a science-fiction-obsessed teenager from Hampshire, in England. After helping the Doctor fight off the Celestial Toymaker she eagerly accepts an invitation to join him in the TARDIS. Her presence makes the stories more knowing and intertextual: her speech is smattered with allusions to Star Trek, the X-Files, Iain Banks and Lovecraft. The pop culture references haven’t all dated well but serve a purpose for her character. Namely that, because she brings her own expectations of space and time travel, she is not a passive sounding board for the Doctor’s exposition. (This was definitely a problem with earlier female companions—I’m looking at you, Sharon).

However, Izzy hints that her SF love only partially accounts for running away with the Doctor. She is also trying to escape a range of identity issues which can no longer be ignored in her home life. These include her resentment at discovering she was adopted as a baby. Less explicitly, her closeness to a fellow TARDIS companion, Fey Truscott-Sade, demonstrates an unspoken attraction to women. Although Izzy intends to return to her family eventually, her plans are thwarted when, against her will, she swaps bodies with a genetically modified alien named Destrii. Izzy must adapt to living in a part human, part fish body, and is certain that her changed appearance will attract fear and hostility on Earth. (To be cynical for a moment, her figure still complies closely with the norm for comic book women. In fact her new swimming prowess grants lots of opportunities for looking at her breasts).

Gradually she comes to terms with her changed form. She continues to believe she will be rejected on Earth, and accepts she will not return home. It takes several stories, across a period of months, for her to reach this acceptance. Nevertheless Destrii turns up again and Izzy is happy to return to her original physical self. Restored to her own body, Izzy acknowledges her attraction to Fey by kissing her. A few panels later, she tells the Doctor she is ready to go home. He drops her off, hugs her goodbye, and she is reunited with her mother.

Izzy and Fay are kissing.

Picture of Izzy and Fay from Doctor Who Magazine, published by Panini.

As a denouement to seven years in the TARDIS these final scenes are poignant. Izzy, unlike many of the eighties’ comic companions, gets a satisfying exit that resonates with her character development. However, there are a few problematic aspects to highlight in her storyline.

Although Fay and Izzy’s relationship has a sexual subtext long before they kiss, the allusions are veiled. Whisking Izzy home as soon as her orientation is acknowledged brings her into line with a wider cultural pattern, in which lesbian, gay and bisexual characters tend to be limited to coming out stories.

Additionally, Izzy’s bodily transformations are a problematic metaphor for the numerous ways in which she feels “different.” By endowing her with an alien form, the body swap literalises her sense of feeling alien in her family as an adopted daughter, and in society as a woman who is attracted to women. (There is also a brief attempt, in the 2001 story The Way of All Flesh, to draw parallels between her transformation and acquired disability.) What then are we to make of her regaining her old body? Anticipating hostility on Earth because of an alien appearance is a realistic fear; but it is solved in the story by simply swapping back again. Obviously this is a troubling “solution” when alien embodiment is positioned as a symbol for being gay or disabled.

This picture shows Izzy with an alien body. Her face resembles a fish and her torso is humanoid. She wears a swimming costume that accentuates her cleavage.

Picture of Izzy in Destrii's body, from Doctor Who Magazine, published by Panini.

My suspicion is that nervousness about presenting openly LGBT characters prompted this use of alien embodiment as a metaphor. Some of the artwork also panders to readers who might feel threatened by attempts to diversify Doctor Who’s range of characters. For instance, the body swap not only coincides with Izzy’s most intense attempts to accept herself, but with a sexualisation of her appearance, as though to assuage an implied heterosexual, male reader who might otherwise feel disturbed he has no place in the story. He gets to ogle her, and accordingly she is less threatening.

Before her transformation, Izzy already complies fairly closely with conventional beauty standards—she is white, slim, and youthful. Still, the way she is drawn doesn’t objectify her. Her clothing is recognisably high street garb, she seems to dress for practicality, and her posture is naturalistic. After her transformation, you see a lot more flesh, and not in a particularly sex positive way; she frequently becomes an object for looking at. (It doesn’t help that Destrii isn’t presented in a sex positive way either: she is more forthright about her desires than Izzy, but she is also presented as manipulative and emotionally damaged. Her character development, which is genuinely compelling, sometimes strays towards pathologising her sexual behaviour).

So much for my misgivings about the way Izzy’s sexuality is handled. This isn’t to minimise the importance of showing a same sex kiss in the TARDIS. I’m sure, too, that Izzy’s success as a companion—because she is a great companion—made introducing openly LGBT characters more feasible for the revived television programme.

Companions in Comics: Can Frobisher Lay an Egg?

One of the delights of Doctor Who comics is that they offer different creative opportunities from television. In 1984, Doctor Who Magazine introduced Frobisher: an alien companion who seemed tailor-made for the format. He belongs to a shape-shifting species, and habitually assumes the form of a wise-cracking penguin. Perhaps the TV programme could have rendered his characteristics well, but I doubt it, given the show’s record of dubious special effects. In the strips Frobisher becomes a very effective source of irony and visual gags. More covertly, his shape-shifting also raises interesting questions about the comics’ treatment of gender.

Frobisher features in forty-eight issues between 1984 and 1987, as a regular companion to the sixth and, briefly, the seventh Doctor. Occasionally he crops up in later comics, prose fiction and Big Finish audio stories too.

Like many companions, he has a life he wants to leave behind. At the outset he is a jaded gumshoe, working under his original name of Avan Tarklu. He intends to capture the Doctor and claim a substantial reward. Of course they end up travelling together instead. En route Tarklu adopts his new moniker and hints at the recent failure of his marriage. Although Peri accompanies them on several adventures, much of the time the Doctor and Frobisher travel alone, providing a rare instance of a long term male-male pairing in the TARDIS. Their interactions are fun, yet bring a few depressing implications; Frobisher’s friendship with the Doctor is closer to a buddy story than the father/child dynamic we normally see with female companions.

But is Frobisher male? I want to consider that more closely.

Over three years of strips, Frobisher metamorphosises into forms as varied as telephones and hamburgers, human beings and birds. He also periodically acquires a disease called monomorphia, where he is no longer able to change his form at will. Throughout these many transformations, Frobisher is framed as a male character. His gender identification is by no means clear from the dialogue (my suspicion is that the authors didn’t distinguish between identification and presentation in their thinking). But we are led to read him as male. When Frobisher wears clothing, it is always normatively masculine clothing. If he appears in humanoid form, he tends to adopt roles – like the gumshoe – that are culturally marked as masculine roles. And even when these markers are absent, the Doctor, and all the other characters, consistently refer to Frobisher as “him” and “he.”

Big Finish would later be willing to confront the possibility of shape-shifters changing gender; Frobisher’s wife Francine, for instance, temporarily presents as a man in The Maltese Penguin. The comics shy away from this idea. I suspect the authors were trying, with partial success, to uphold the gender binary. Categorising Frobisher as male within that binary is a conservative act: the majority of characters from the mid-eighties comics are also framed as male, with the implication that female characters are less interesting, compelling, or important. But the act is not wholly conservative. Consistently assigning one gender to a shape-shifting character has subversive potential, in queering associations between assigned gender and morphology.

The relative silence on Frobisher’s gender identification, rather than assigned gender, also gives us some freedom of interpretation. As a demonstration I want to look closely at a particular incident in the story Time Bomb, which was first published in issues 114 to 116 of Doctor Who Magazine. The story relates how a time cannon hits the TARDIS, propelling Frobisher and the Doctor into prehistoric Earth. Previously the cannon has been used by aliens called Hedrons to eliminate genetic imperfections in their species. The genetic waste is transported alongside Frobisher, and on arrival, he mistakes it for an egg he has laid in shock.

This picture shows a drawing of Frobisher, lying on the ground with a spherical object between his legs. He is saying, "Doctor, I feel sick, something terrible has happened... I've laid a blasted egg. That's what! And it's all your fault!"

Frobisher thinks he's laid an egg. From Doctor Who Magazine, published by Marvel Comics.

As a joke, this sequence makes me uneasy. The humour is premised on combined misogynist, ablist and transphobic assumptions (“Haha, childbirth is like incontinence! Haha, you can’t be male and give birth!”). But there is plenty of potential for resistant readings. It interests me that online references to the incident, like this one, suggest that Frobisher has misunderstood penguin physiology, as though his shape-shifting is a type of impersonation that can be held up to an external standard of accuracy. Can’t we instead wonder whether Frobisher identifies as male at all? Perhaps Frobisher doesn’t even present as male here, if we take that to mean appearing normatively masculine; as cartoon penguins go, Frobisher looks androgynous to me. Assuming Frobisher does identify as male, maybe his reaction is a sign he construes a fluid relationship between gender and physiology? Perhaps he knows he can lay eggs, even if he hasn’t this time? Might his understanding of what it means to be male encompass that capacity? Alternatively, perhaps laying an egg is incompatible with his gender identity, and the anger and anxiety he shows here is an expression of dysphoria? Certainly Frobisher has lots of moments of feeling trapped in a body that he wants to change.

Ideally, it wouldn’t be necessary to address unsatisfactory representations with resistant readings. I hope in later posts to discuss less problematic portrayals of queer characters.

But in the mean time: all the above questions make as much sense as Frobisher not understanding how penguins work; and they can be accommodated just as easily by the text.

Companions in Comics: Getting into Sharon’s Head

A drawing of Sharon's face. Speech bubbles include the comments: "We don't want grown-ups poking their noses in. He's our alien! Our secret!"

Picture of Sharon from Doctor Who Weekly, published by Marvel Comics.

Doctor Who Weekly, latterly Doctor Who Magazine, was launched in 1979 offering comic strips, short fiction, posters and information about the show. Due to licensing problems not all the television characters could be included in its stories. New sidekicks were developed instead – and so started a separate genealogy of companions from the ones we’ve seen on screen.

Take Sharon, for instance. Twenty five years before Mickey Smith stepped foot on the TARDIS, Sharon was introduced in the comics as the first ongoing Black British companion.

She joined the Fourth Doctor in Doctor Who and the Star Beast, as an eighties teenager who finds an injured alien on her way home from school. The setting is Blackcastle: an English city of terraced streets, steel mills, and union disputes.

Incorporating a companion of colour, from an industrial town, was a departure for Doctor Who. Sharon was originally devised by Pat Mills, who in addition to creating the science fiction comic 2000 AD, had recently been working on Grange Hill spin-off comics. For the uninitiated, Grange Hill was a children’s TV series that aired on the BBC from 1978 to 2008. The school-set drama was popular in Britain for its realist approach and issue-led storylines. It also portrayed an array of working class characters; quite a rarity for seventies children’s programming. I raise this because Mills has since clarified that he wrote Sharon as a “Grange Hill type character,” which I take to mean a mildly irreverent school child with a background that would be recognisable to city dwelling, working class readers.

I have mixed feelings as to how successfully her personality is conveyed. Sharon has a pleasing affability, and phlegmatism, that offsets the cartoonishness of the villains. Admittedly she doesn’t always do a great deal, because she’s primarily a place holder for confused readers. So she asks questions—frequently—which give the Doctor a chance to explain what’s going on. But her youth makes this reactivity credible, and she does still get to save the day on at least one occasion.

On balance I like her. Yet from a feminist perspective, her storyline is marred by problems pertaining to the treatment of race, gender, and childhood. If you’re the sort who likes to avoid spoilers, this is where you should bow out.

Sharon appears in six comic strip stories, originally published between 1980 and 1981 (they were subsequently coloured and reissued in the Doctor Who Classics series): Doctor Who and the Star Beast, Doctor Who and the Dogs of Doom, Doctor Who and the Time Witch, Dragon’s Claw, The Collector, and Dreamers of Death. Her travels with the Doctor are initially accidental – but once on board, she’s in no hurry to get back, and the TARDIS doesn’t oblige the Doctor’s efforts to return her home. Near the end of her run, the Doctor’s attempts to mend a fault in the TARDIS instantaneously age Sharon by four years, propelling her into adulthood. Need I add, her clothing becomes considerably clingier in the process? Soon afterwards she disembarks at Unicepter IV, a farming world, to marry a man called Vernor Allen. She never returns to Earth.

Now throughout this, Sharon’s racial identity is scarcely mentioned. For the period, it is quite refreshing that her race should be incidental to the plot: she simply gets to have adventures. But choices about the wider cast of characters continue to imply that whiteness is the norm. Until the end of her storyline, Sharon doesn’t encounter one other black character. We never see her family, and this isn’t just a narrative aversion to domesticity, because we do see the home and family of Sharon’s white best friend. The other residents of Blackcastle are white, as are all the people Sharon encounters while travelling with the Doctor–excepting the characters in Dragon’s Claw, which is set in China. When Vernor, a second black character is finally incorporated—again, seemingly the sole black person in his community—Sharon announces her intentions for a “new life” with him almost immediately. (Yes, this does rather foreshadow the sudden and inappropriate pairing of Mickey and Martha).

It is not that their attraction is unbelievable. Vernor is handsome and personable. If there were more characters of colour throughout the comic, their relationship would be framed differently. As it stands, it is hard not to feel that Sharon’s departure with the only other black character is a reassurance that the comics will in the long term remain a white space.

Such a wince-inducing exit seems partly motivated by authorial discomfort. Half way through Sharon’s storyline, Steve Moore took over writing duties from Pat Mills. During a subsequent interview Moore stated some of the thinking behind her departure:

I inherited her, and I didn’t like her at all! To me, being a young girl rather than a grown-up assistant, that said ‘kids’ story’, and I really wasn’t interested in writing for kids. I just wanted to do well-wrought SF stories, where the invention would appeal to all ages, and besides that, I wasn’t sure I could really get into the head of a young black girl in order to write the character properly. So I just wanted to get rid of her, right from the start… but it’s a bit difficult to ‘safely dispose’ of a child character, as this certainly wasn’t the sort of series where I could have got her killed. So the first part of the process was to have her grow up… then when the readers had got used to that, I could find a legitimate reason to remove her… Having made her an adult, marrying her off was the quickest and simplest way of getting her out of there and still leaving everybody happy. Not that I have any objection to female characters (I’ve written quite a lot of them), but I just didn’t take to Sharon, and I was much more interested in doing stories about ideas, rather than the characters.

I have some sympathy with worrying about “getting into the head” of a character if the writer fears appropriating experiences. That is clearly not what is going on here (and I’m disappointed, because I enjoy other aspects of Steve Moore’s stories). Sharon gets a very raw deal: her two options for development are, apparently, death or marriage as the quickest means of getting her out of the way.

To be clear, I have no problems with companions getting married if it makes sense in terms of their character development. I do have a problem with treating marriage as the default outcome for a female companion, which Sharon’s exit smacks of. The marriage becomes doubly problematic because, experientially, Sharon is not an adult.

The use of the accelerated aging trope is irritating. It might have been cool to see Sharon at different life stages if this had been differently handled. But the effect of rapid aging on Sharon’s personality and emotional development is barely explored. The implication is that female adulthood is just a physical category: experience and identity are ignored. This aligns rather neatly with sociocultural representations of women as children in adult bodies, and with attempts to racially other people by infantilising them.

Although I was annoyed I’d hoped, on first reading, that her transformation was catering to child readers’ fantasies of suddenly possessing adult power. I still hope it had that effect for some readers. Unfortunately the above quote shows that wasn’t the intention, because the rationale is entirely focused on adult centric priorities. The reluctance to write a “kids’ story” might not seem strange if you’re only familiar with these stories through the Classics reissue. If you’re looking at the originals, it sounds bizarre. The letters page, and the rest of DWW/DWM content, make it very clear this is a children’s publication. Even acknowledging that there was an adult readership, why does appealing “to all ages” necessitate writing only about adults? Every one of us was once a child. It concerns me that this is simply reflective of an attitude that adult interests must always be prioritised above children’s: even in cultural forms that allegedly belong to childhood.

Despite all these reservations, the gaps in Sharon’s characterisation and history intrigue me. Just what was that family on Earth like if she was she so happy to leave them behind—and to do so at such a young age? What sort of person elopes with blithe insouciance, without at least letting her family know that she is alive and well? Someone should get into Sharon’s head. She seems ripe for reinvention to me.