An in-depth review, nay, essay about perhaps the greatest Doctor Who comic strip ever
Doctor Who and the Iron Legion is a comic strip featuring the Fourth Doctor, written by Pat Mills and with art by Dave Gibbons.
“They fought their way across a thousand planets – robot warriors of the eternal war – destroying, with ruthless discipline, all who stood in their way! And now, the peaceful tranquility of the English countryside is rudely shattered as they appear – as if from nowhere – brutally dragging people out and razing their houses to the ground! And yet… for all the robots’ strangeness, there is something… grimly familiar about them!”
Doctor Who Magazine started life as a weekly title on Thursday 11th October 1979. It was very much a comic strip-based publication back then, similar to other Marvel UK TV/film tie-in productions of the time such as: Star Wars Weekly, Planet of the Apes, Conan, Dracula, and all the usual super-hero fare. However, unlike these other titles, Doctor Who Weekly began including the work of original British homegrown talent. Reprinting obsolete American comic book material had very much become the norm up until this point. The decision was down to the editorial control of Dez Skinn, a hugely influential figure within the British comics industry. Skinn had become something of an expert at understanding Britain’s changing cultural demands of the era.
There was nothing new about seeing Doctor Who in comics, of course. Each and every reincarnation of The Doctor had already featured in their own strip, since the show began. They appeared most notably within the pages of TV Comic: a weekly paper very much aimed at the juvenile market. There was also always the licensed Doctor Who Annual, a long-standing Christmas tradition that outdates even the Cybermen. Naturally, the quality of this content was questionable, to say the least. Furthermore, these books tended to rely heavily on providing illustrated stories and in large print. Comic strips were few and far between, and were prone to descending into unintelligible psychedelia as the ’70s progressed.
There was clearly a need for something new and fresh to hit the newsagents’ shelves. Something that catered to a TV show at its peak (or thereabouts), and with a growing army of dedicated fans. The success of 2000 AD had demonstrated that science fiction in comics was not a bad idea. Marvel executives where quick to realise this, and Dez Skinn sought to provide a similar edge to their own content.
Anyone with even a passing interest in comics may well be familiar with Dave Gibbons; a hugely talented artist. He provided a consistently high level of output for various UK titles, before being headhunted to work in the States. The US market was (and still is) infinitely more lucrative and creator-friendly. Gibbons became one of Britain’s greatest exports and is most famous for collaborating on Alan Moore’s highly acclaimed series, Watchmen. However, I personally feel that the art he produced on Iron Legion is possibly amongst his finest work to date. I would strongly recommend searching out the original serialised strips in monochrome. The colour reprints (although good as they may be) do not do the artwork complete justice, and tend to detract slightly from the original impact of black print on white.
The script credits go to the highly prolific writing duo of Mills & Wagner, both of whom have made a tremendous and lasting impression on the entire panorama of British comics, as well as a marked contribution to popular youth culture itself. If you have ever picked up a comic in the UK (or even beyond), the chances are high that you will have read something of theirs, or at least been influenced by their work.
It was in fact Pat Mills that took the creative lead on this particular occasion. Often cited (and with good reason) as the “godfather of British comics”, he is best known for creating 2000 AD. It would, however, be impossible for me to acknowledge his other achievements without dedicating an entire article on those alone. Let us just say that if you were to think of him as the UK’s answer to Stan Lee, you wouldn’t be far off the truth.
Doctor Who and the Iron Legion begins on the first page of the very first issue of the weekly, with a highly impressive and intriguing splash illustration. It features a chaotic scene of mayhem and destruction. The backdrop is of an English rural countryside laying in utter ruin. An army of fearsome, robotic zombies populate the foreground, making their way threateningly towards the fourth wall; it is almost as if they were challenging the reader’s very own security.
At first glance, you would be forgiven for assuming that you were observing a German WWII ground attack. The evident use of stick grenades, MP-40s and a giant Panzer in the background would suggest as much; the strange figure at the helm of the approaching tank even appears to be performing a Nazi salute (he isn’t!). It would be entirely plausible to assimilate these elements to the “grimly familiar” reference within the caption. Nevertheless, it does become apparent, upon closer inspection, that these invasive forces are actually bearing the hallmarks and insignia of Ancient Rome.
It is possible that the story was originally intended to feature the Third Reich as its antagonists. It’s more likely that the writer’s intentions were to present us with a terrifying force that seemed all too real. Three decades on, the memories of conflict still lingered in the mindset of the British public. Furthermore, Mills was already more than familiar with the genre, having begun writing Charley’s War a few months earlier. Described by actor Andrew Harrison as “the greatest British comic strip ever created”, the strip featured in Battle (Picture Weekly) and ran from 1979 to 1986. It attracted wide acclaim, mainly for its frank depiction of the horrors of war.
The portrayal of a young family being dragged out of their home, still in their nightclothes, is by no means adventitious. Similarly, the brutally cold-blooded slaying of an aged shopkeeper, a couple of pages later, is just as deliberate. This is a classic Pat Mills trademark: weaving distinctively relatable elements of real life into the terror of his storytelling. Although it seems rather tame by today’s standards, you may rest assured that it most certainly was not in 1979. This gritty approach to violence and realism had caused Mills some controversy a few years earlier with his comic, Action. A sustained and concentrated media campaign had abruptly forced the title into cancellation. A copy was once even sensationally torn up by Frank Bough on the BBC’s Nationwide programme.
The concept behind Doctor Who and the Iron Legion is based on quite an original and interesting premise. The Fourth Doctor finds himself in an alternate contemporary reality, where the Roman Empire had never fallen. Consequently, the technological advances of humanity had progressed at such an accelerated, exponential rate that the Romans were able to conquer the galaxy. The story itself, however, actually begins in our own universe; invaders from the parallel timeline launch an attack on a small English town, and the TARDIS gives chase.
Modern day Rome is a truly fascinating place and incredibly well devised. It’s a fusion of past, present and future all rolled into one, and held together by some irresistibly sumptuous concepts of science fiction. There is also a strong element of satirical irony, the kind that is essential to good Doctor Who, and that fans of Judge Dredd will recognise instantly. Like Mega City-One, we are able to take a glimpse at an unconventional, post-futuristic society. However, this vision extends further than a commentary on the absurd realities of contemporary culture. The concept of deities is also explored, and the mythology of Ancient Rome is contemplated in the same hypothetical context. Furthermore, the power of religion as an effective method of control becomes an essential plot device. All is not as it seems as we become aware of a greater, even more terrible force at play.
The story proceeds at a brisk pace that is spread over a series of eight skilfully crafted, 4-page set pieces. It’s an epic that works on several levels and manages nevertheless to maintain a consistent narrative structure throughout. Each episode culminates seamlessly into an intriguing cliffhanger ending that never appears banal or forcedly shoehorned. In fact, everything seems relevant to the plot and nothing is thrown away.
The Doctor Who comics universe has a long history of purposefully omitting companions from its strips, usually due to licensing restrictions. A series of “stand-ins”, cloned with similar attributes to their TV counterparts, would often take their place. It was decided on this occasion that The Doctor would face this particular adventure alone. At any rate, he still manages to find accomplices in a couple of memorably bizarre underdogs: Morris, a hideous cyborg slave with a penchant for failed escapology; and Vesuvius, the Empire’s oldest surviving robot. Both characters are uniquely defined, and to great effect, by an irregular speech pattern and a somewhat peculiar turn of phrase, respectively.
We are also introduced to a rich tapestry of other such curious and interesting cast members along the way, including: Adolphus Caesar, the spoilt child ruler of the Roman Galactic Empire; Juno, the mysterious mother with a dark secret; a “fearsome” and putrid beast known only as The Ectoslime; and above all, a truly memorable adversary in the eagle-headed General Ironicus, the ruthless automaton and commander of the Iron Legion. I could continue, but to do so would force me into spoiler territory. Let’s just say that even this comic strip is capable of providing its “behind the sofa” moments…
“Tom Baker” turns out a truly wonderful, classic performance in this serial. The Fourth Doctor is at his scintillating best, and delivers some great lines from start to finish. In fact, the dialogue rivals anything that ever came out of the BBC script department (or indeed from the actor’s own ad-libs!). The characterisation is spot on and as close to the real thing as you are ever likely to see. You can almost hear Baker’s bellowing voice as you read through each speech bubble.
The skill of Dave Gibbons should also not go without mention. It can often be quite tricky for an artist to capture a likeness convincingly, let alone ensuring it adheres to his own personal style. Some artists may get it right a couple of times here and there, or even over a couple of pages. Gibbons practically nails it in every single panel. He even manages it in long shot, with very little detail to play with.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that Mills & Wagner had in fact originally intended this story for television. Word has it that the writing pair eventually withdrew the script (and others), after becoming increasingly irritated with the script editor’s constant requests for endless rewrites. In his book, British Comics: A Cultural History, James Chapman elaborates on the BBC’s reasoning by stating that, “its narrative scale was beyond the budgetary resources of the television series at the time”.
Whatever the reason, it remains a huge shame. Iron Legion would have surely become an instant hit, and regarded to this day as one of the best classic Doctor Who serials in the show’s history. On the other hand, it is probably for the best, given the decisively spartan production values of the era. I’m sure that “nothing at all” was an infinitely more desirable prospect than the unfulfilled, diluted interpretation that we would have undoubtedly ended up watching. At least we are able to enjoy the complete and unrestrained version in all its sequentially-panelled glory.
Although the reasons why Doctor Who and the Iron Legion never made it onto TV are entirely plausible, I can’t help feeling that there may be an ulterior motive, other than what has gone on record. Could it be that the show’s editorial executives were against the possibility of exploring alternate universes? Would such a move have upset that nucleus of hardcore fans that are constantly threatening to stop watching the show?
Throughout the series’ history, The Doctor has always travelled backwards and forth through time (and space) in relatively linear fashion. Doctor Who has never really utilised the concept of parallel realities. Script writers (editors) have often approached the subject with great caution, using it all too sparingly. The prospect of alternate timelines has been looked into on occasion, but only marginally. Except for Inferno, it has certainly never been proposed as the basis, or indeed a setting, for an adventure.
The potential is overwhelming and limitless. It would add a far greater scope to the Doctor’s adventures and open up many more possibilities; especially when you consider that an often cited criticism is that the Whoniverse has become rather “small”. Many people would no longer suffer trying to piece together the show’s vast inconsistencies into some form of (ludicrous) logic. Paradoxes would become less awkward and worrisome. Moreover, expecting people to believe that humanity has a “short memory”, would become a thing of the past.
So what is it that makes Doctor Who and the Iron Legion so intrinsically good? After all, there are no recurring monsters or villains, no multiple Doctors, origin stories, revisitations or story arcs. In fact, there is nothing at all of that continuity-obsessed “fan wank” that appears to creep into so many other non-canonical productions. It is quite simply just an expertly constructed, classic Fourth Doctor yarn. All the ingredients are there that make up the definitive “golden era” Tom Baker serial: action and adventure, mystery and suspense, humour, horror, memorable characters, great dialogue, clever ideas and mischievous parody.
The people at Marvel knew they were onto a good thing too with Iron Legion; the full strip reappeared almost immediately, in the 1980 Summer Special. It went on to get colourised and repackaged for the US market, enjoying a successful 2-issue run in Marvel Premiere the following year. This colour version of the story enjoyed five further reprints: in the Marvel UK 1985 Summer Special; as a complete graphic novel in 2004; as a free gift with issue 350 of Doctor Who Magazine; and again on two further occasions by IDW in their Doctor Who Classics and Doctor Who Classics Omnibus series.
I managed to get in touch with Pat Mills himself. He was extremely kind enough to take the time away from his busy schedule and offer his own thoughts on the subject. Despite a long and successful career, it was very interesting and exciting to learn that he still regards this piece so fondly.
“It’s one of my personal favourite stories. Every so often a ‘natural’ story comes along that almost writes itself and this was one of them. The role of Tom Baker makes it. It wouldn’t have worked as well with a different Doctor”.
Mr. Mills did not ask for anything in return, but I would very much like to take it upon myself to strongly recommend his book, Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! 2000AD & Judge Dredd: The Secret History. Anyone even vaguely interested in comics, and not just 2000 AD, will find this a thoroughly informative and entertaining read. It’s a real eye-opener and compulsive page-turner, with a wealth of content and material that you won’t have found elsewhere. In addition to exploring the tragic plight of the creative vs. the executive, there are some fascinating insights and perspectives on the creator/audience relationship… something which won’t be lost on Doctor Who fans!
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