Allyn Gibson

Allyn as a Southpark character

On Things I’ve Been Reading

Doctor who: Prisoners of Time #1
IDW Publishing
Written by Scott & David Tipton
Artwork by Simon Fraser

A month after the triumphant conclusion to Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2, the brothers Tipton return to the world of Doctor Who for the first chapter of IDW’s Doctor Who golden anniversary project, Prisoners of Time.

When the project was announced a few months ago, the details were vague.  Twelve issues, starting in January, with each of the Doctors getting a single issue in focus starting with the first Doctor in the first issue.  Frankly, I thought this sounded like a Doctor Who version of some of IDW’s Star Trek-themed projects like Alien Spotlight or Captain’s Logs, where different creative teams would shine the light on the races or characters of Star Trek in an anthology series of thematically or topically linked one-shots.  The solicitation copy for the first issue certainly didn’t offer much in the way of anything concrete:

November 23, 1963: A day that changed the world forever.  That day saw the broadcast debut of Doctor Who, which was to become the longest-running science-fiction series on television.  And now 50 years later, we pay tribute to one of the greatest pop-culture heroes of all time with this special series, which tells an epic adventure featuring all 11 incarnations of the intrepid traveler through time and space known simply as… the Doctor.

The solicitations for subsequent issues offered little more in the way of elucidation on what Prisoners of Time was — the Tiptons were constant, the artists would change, and the Doctor in the spotlight would also change.  But in terms of plot?  Nothing was being revealed.

Then Diamond Comic Distributors posted a five page preview, and the first three pages made it clear that there is, in fact, an overarching story in the series.  And when I read the first issue, which came out today, I closed the book and went, “A-ha!”

The first issue of Prisoners of Time can be divided into two parts.  The first three pages are a prologue that’s heavy on the fanwank (which I will come back to), followed by a seventeen-page adventure of the first Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Vicki in 1860s London.

The London adventure begins with a visit by the Doctor and his traveling companions to a lecture given by the anatomist Thomas Huxley, an old friend of the Doctor’s.  When some of Huxley’s students disappear in the London Underground, the Doctor offers to assist in the search for them, and deep under London the Doctor and Huxley discover the Zarbi of “The Web Planet.”  The Animus somehow found itself on Earth, and now it is breeding an army of Zarbi to overrun the planet.  When all appears lost, the Doctor formulates a plan…

Compared to Assimilation2, the first chapter of Prisoners of Time is a dense read.  There’s a lot going on, the Doctor goes places, he takes charge, he has some charged conversations with Huxley.  The smaller space for this story (since each Doctor has only a single issue for their story) is to its benefit; there’s simply no room for the same decompression that marred Assimilation2.

The characterization of the Doctor is fair, but the “Billy fluff” (the term used by Who fandom for William Hartnell’s muffed lines, in particular his habit of calling Ian Chesterton things like “Chatterton” or “Chessingham”) is overused in the dialogue and becomes annoying.  More troubling is the Doctor’s ability to steer the TARDIS; he’s able to deliberately land the TARDIS in 1860s London twice (once to mail Huxley a letter, and then once to visit Huxley’s lecture), when a key feature of early Doctor Who was the Doctor’s inability to control the TARDIS.

I wasn’t familiar with Simon Fraser’s artwork before this, and I think it’s fine.  His likenesses aren’t photorealistic.  He has a consistent way of drawing the characters, and at times his work evokes Tim Sale or Ted McKeever.  (Yes, those are two entirely different artists with two entirely different styles.  Fraser’s work somehow bridges them.) Fraser doesn’t try to draw the book in a retro style, and it’s not printed in black and white.  He’s not trying to ape that era of Doctor Who.  Instead, he draws a first Doctor adventure for a 21st-century comic reader, and it works.

The first Doctor’s story here isn’t complicated.  It’s a straightforward adventure, the kind of story that Doctor Who Magazine would publish if they had double the space to work with each month for the comic strip.  It does ends on a cliffhanger, and that leads us back to the prologue.

You can read the entirety of the prologue at the Diamond link.  A mysterious hooded person has data files on the Doctor and his companions, and he intends to do something sinister to the Doctor by separating from his friends.  It reminds me of certain sequences in “The Five Doctors” and Tony Lee’s Doctor Who: The Forgotten — the Doctor is being watched, and he has an enemy who can strike at him throughout time and space.  It’s not the most original idea in the world, but it works for a story that involves multiple Doctors because it gives a threat that can touch multiple eras and multiple characters.  Unsurprisingly, then, we see at the end that, somehow, the first Doctor has lost Ian, Barbara, and Vicki.

But when and how will this cliffhanger be resolved?  The next issue, naturally, will focus on the second Doctor in a story drawn by Lee Sullivan.

Here’s my theory.

Each issue will involve our mysterious hooded stranger setting a threat in front of the Doctor, and then the companion in the story vanishes.  (This makes me wonder who will be in the eighth Doctor’s story; an appearance by Frobisher on page three gives me hope that we could see Izzy and Junior Cyberleader Kroton.) What we’ll discover is that the stranger is kidnapping the companions with a time scoop (or similar device) and imprisoning them, and the eleventh Doctor, in the eleventh issue, will realize at last what’s going on, and in the final issue the eleventh Doctor will confront and defeat the villain, free the companions, and return them to their proper time and place.

Yes, it’s madness to predict the conclusion of a twelve issue maxi-series when the first issue only arrived this morning.  Sherlock Holmes would chastise me for theorizing in advance of the evidence.  But this kind of story would fit the format.

On its own, the first issue of Prisoners of Time is adequate.  It sets up some mysteries, it overloads us on fanwank, and then it gives us an undemanding story of the first Doctor.  For right now, I’m okay with that.

Continuity Notes

The first three pages are filled with fanwank as the mysterious stranger reviews photographs of the Doctor and his companions.

Among the things to notice?

On page one, there’s a picture of Jo Grant posing naked with a Dalek.

On page two, there’s a picture that I presume is from the Doctor’s marriage to Marilyn Monroe, plus there’s the carving of the Doctor and Donna from “The Fires of Pompeii.”  There is also an appearance by an unrecognizable Grace Holloway from the McGann film, marking her first appearance in many years.

On page there, in addition to Frobisher and a terrible likeness of Mickey, there’s Matthew Finnegan and (possibly) Emily Winter from Tony Lee’s tenth Doctor comics.

On Things I’ve Been Reading

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 #8
IDW Publishing
Written by Scott & David Tipton
Pencils by Gordon Purcell
Watercolors by J.K. Woodward

Ten months ago, IDW Publishing announced the comic book I’d waited most of my life to read — a Star Trek/Doctor Who crossover.  Yesterday, I read the eighth and final issue.

The best thing I can say?  The damn thing is over.

Oh, you’re expecting me to say more than that.  I was hoping that would have sufficed.

When last we left our heroes, a Cyberfleet was en route to the Borg’s space in the Delta Quadrant.  With the Enterprise-D in pursuit, a small group traveled to the Cybership in the Doctor’s TARDIS.  There, Amy and Rory joined a security detail lead by Worf, who showed them how to use phasers, while the Doctor, joined by Picard and Data, went in search of the Cyberleader.  But the separate teams found themselves endangered by armies of Cybermen!

Which brings me to the final issue.

It’s not very good.

It suffers from a frequent Doctor Who finale problem — the conclusion is achieved in the least interesting way possible, and everything you expect to happen does.  You expect the Doctor to confront the Cyberleader and outwit him.  You expect the Borg Conduit to turn on his seeming allies.  You expect a quiet denouement as the heroes say their farewells and return to their respective continuities.

But you also expect to be surprised.  And that’s the thing that this issue — and Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who — never achieved.  I never felt surprised.

Instead I felt disappointed.

The series did not end exactly the way I thought it would six weeks ago, but I was pretty close in my guess.  The story tied into Star Trek: First Contact, but not in the way I expected it to.  And the Doctor had a different choice from the Enterprise crew for a possible TARDIS traveler than I guessed.  Still, it ended largely as I thought it would, and the previous issues had given me no reason to expect otherwise.

Yes, this is going to turn into more of a generalized litany of woe lodged against the series rather than a specific takedown of the final issue.  But if you’re reading this, chances are you aren’t interested in the final issue on its own, you really want to know what the story as a whole was like.

Which brings me back to, “It’s not very good.”

It’s easy to guess what the elevator pitch for this series was — “The TARDIS lands on the Enterprise, and the Doctor and Picard team up to fight their deadliest enemies!”  Conceptually, that should have worked.

The execution left much to be desired.

I don’t know if the rumors of behind-the-scenes turmoil are true.  Personally, I doubt that Tony Lee’s departure after issue #4 affected the series in any significant way as there would have been an outline that CBS and the BBC would have signed off on in the development process.  Plus, the series was already mediocre to that point, as I explained at length in my review of issue #4.  In short, while there may have been lines of dialogue in the latter half that would have been written differently with Lee’s input, I feel confident that we read the story that IDW set out to tell eight months ago.

The thing I I do know is that Scott and David Tipton had no grasp of what Doctor Who was or how its storytelling worked.  They treated the Doctor as if he were simply a guest star in a Star Trek: The Next Generation story, with Amy and Rory as unimportant associates.

Doctor Who is capable of being a lot of things.  The TARDIS and the Enterprise could easily have ended up at the same planet and the two casts could have been involved in the same adventure, much as we saw in the flashback sequence in issue #3.  However, it occurs to me the simplest way of handling the crossover (from a Doctor Who perspective) would be as a “base under siege” story, albeit one where the base (in this case, the Enterprise), is a mobile weapons and exploration platform.

However the merging of the two franchises was done for the purposes of the story, the Tiptons needed to find a way of integrating Amy and Rory into the story.  What they failed to recognize is that, in modern Doctor Who, the companions are as important as the Doctor.  They are expository characters, yes, but they’re also characters that have emotional and narrative arcs that as just as significant as the Doctor’s.  In this story, however, they had no role at all, much to its detriment.  Perhaps they could have been endangered as a catalyst for the Doctor’s involvement.  (I thought early on that the Borg would have captured and assimilated Rory, and I was disappointed when it didn’t happen.) Or, there could have been a moment where Rory needed to use his medical skills; perhaps if the Enterprise were attacked Rory would have to assist in Sickbay as casualties came in, perhaps even bonding with an injured child aboard the ship.  But Amy needed to have a role as well.  Perhaps her natural tourist instincts, which got Team TARDIS in trouble in episodes like “The Beast Below” or “The Vampires of Venice,” would endanger the Doctor or the Enterprise.  Or perhaps she simply needed to be the Doctor’s conscience and hold him back from a devastating decision.  But these things didn’t happen.  Instead, Amy and Rory were nothing more than window dressing.  AS I said a long time ago, “If this were the episode ‘Sarek,’ then Amy and Rory are as useful as Ki Mendrossen.”

However, the Tiptons’ treatment of Star Trek: The Next Generation was no better.  They have the reputation of being IDW’s “good” Star Trek writers, and based on things like Klingons: Blood Will Tell and Mirror Images, it’s not an undeserved reputation.  Those are good series, and I recommend them both; the former is a look at Star Trek (in particular, several episodes of the original series) through Klingon eyes, while the latter is a story about the Kirk and Pike of the Mirror Universe.  When this series was announced, I wrote in a comment to a blog post I made that “Based on the Tiptons’ previous Star Trek work, I have a hunch that this story could tread on some interesting psychological territory.”  It didn’t.

That was the least of their Star Trek problems.  Psychological depth is nice, but more important is getting the characterizations right, which they consistently failed to do.  For a story that was ostensibly set during the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the characters behaved more like their older and more cynical movie-era counterparts, particularly Picard.  But throughout the series there were moments where the Star Trek regulars spoke or behaved oddly.  (A scene of Crusher and Troi with Amy and Rory midway through the series is perhaps the most egregious example.) The Tiptons seemed not to “get” Picard and his crew.

Assuming that the Tiptons had been able to deal with all of this — better integration of the two universes, roles for Amy and Rory, characterization — they still needed to execute a good story.  They didn’t.

First, I have no doubt that the eight issues will read well in a single sitting, and when IDW publishes a single-volume hardcover of the series next year I’ll add it to my collection.  In single issues, however, this was a dire read.  It wasn’t just that the pacing was languid.  It was that they failed to understand that an eight-part story needs seven cliffhangers.  At the end of every issue, the reader needed to say, “Damn, what’s going to happen next?”  There needed to be rising action, increasing tension, and unbelievable plot twists.  Instead, we got limp endings to most issues.  Putting the Doctor on the verge of meeting Guinan at the end of issue #3 is not a gripping cliffhanger.  Heck, it wouldn’t even have sufficed for a commercial break.  This story — really, any multi-part story arc — needed to work as eight individual issues, and it didn’t.

Second, just because Star Trek: The Next Generation was frequently a dull, talky television series, the comic book didn’t need to be.  The story felt drawn out and stretched to no good effect.  In Bilbo Baggins’ words, it was like too little butter spread across too much bread.  In the pages of Doctor Who Magazine, this story could have been told in a four-part comic strip of eight pages each.  More happens in “The Iron Legion” or “The Flood” than happens in Assimilation2.  Heck, I’d even argue that more happens in the single issue stories “The Time of My Life” or “The Professor, the Queen, and the Bookshop” than happened here.  Assimilation2 was the Parkinson Principle applied to comic book writing — the narrative expanded to fill the space allotted.

Third, too much of the story relied upon exposition.  Even in the final issue, we had important points made through expository dialogue.  If it’s not the Cyberleader explaining his plan or Riker talking about the best friend we never knew he had, it’s the Doctor explaining how the TARDIS works or what will happen when the TARDIS leaves the Star Trek universe.  The problem is these characters are doers.  They have ships, they go out and find information.  It shouldn’t simply be handed to them.

Fourth, the story lacked a sense of jeopardy throughout.  The Borg-Cybermen alliance was never anything more than a conceptual threat, even in the final issue when the Doctor and Picard confront the oddly chatty Cyberleader.  I didn’t feel like the characters were ever in danger or that they would have to sacrifice something to achieve victory.

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 suffered from two failures — a conceptual failure and an execution failure.  I wanted to read this story for a long time.  I couldn’t have imagined ten months ago that it would be so crushingly disappointing.  This story could have gone places and done amazing things.  Instead, it treated its concept — the union of two of the most famous science-fiction franchises into a single story — as a sufficient reason to be.  A disappointing series ended on a mediocre note, and I voted for Assimilation2 in Bleeding Cool’s Most Disappointing (In A Bad Way) Comic For 2012 poll.

The best thing I can say is that it’s over.  That there should have been another way.  And that I sincerely hope nothing like this ever happens again.

On Things I’ve Been Reading

Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking
Fantagraphics Books
Written and Illustrated by Charles Schulz

Charlie Brown's Christmas StockingWhile BOOM! Studios publishes new stories of the Peanuts gang in a monthly comic book and occasional graphic novel, Fantagraphics Books is reprinting Charles Schulz’s classic comic strip in their Complete Peanuts hardcover collections.  This month, Fantagraphics released something unusual, a reprint of two things that I’d never even heard of before — Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking.

Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking is a slim, square, little book, running maybe 40 pages.  It reprints two stories published in magazines in the 1960s — “Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking” (Good Housekeeping, December 1963) and “A Christmas Story” (Woman’s Day, December 1968).

“Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking” is told in words and pictures — there’s a page with a Schulz illustration, and on the opposite page there’s a piece of untagged dialogue.  (In every case, it’s obvious who is speaking on pages with multiple characters.) Charlie Brown and his friends are trying to figure out where to put their Christmas stockings.  However, for Charlie Brown and Sally, it’s especially difficult because their house has no chimney, nor anyplace obvious to hang a stocking.  Says Charlie Brown at one point, “It’s almost midnight… Good grief!  I feel like the chairman of the board during an industrial crisis!”  That’s an odd simile, even by Peanuts‘ standards.  Ultimately, the crisis is averted, and Christmas arrives.

The second story, “A Christmas Story,” reads more like the Peanuts comic strip.  Snoopy is lectured by Linus and Lucy about the true meaning of Christmas, and after hearing two stories he gives a literate punchline to the whole thing.  Though “Charlie Brown’s Christmas Story” was created before A Charlie Brown Christmas, “A Christmas Story” was created after, and the story reflects moments from that animated special &mash; Linus reads to Snoopy from Luke while Lucy talks about Santa Claus and presents.

The artwork for these stories is vintage 1960s Schulz.  In addition to the characters mentioned above, we also have appearances by Schroeder, Frieda, Violet, and Shermy.  On a trivial note, Charlie Brown is wearing his red striped shirt instead of his yellow striped shirt.

It’s a charming little piece of Peanuts ephemera, and Fantagraphics gives it a nice presentation.  Though I think that calling these stories “Peanuts holiday classics” on the back cover really stretches the meaning of the word “classics,” it’s a pleasant, if inessential, addition to a Peanuts library.  For the Peanuts fan in your life, Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking will make a nice stocking stuffer this Christmas.

On Things I’ve Been Reading

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 #5
IDW Publishing
Written by Scott & David Tipton
Pencils by Gordon Purcell
Watercolors by J.K. Woodward

It’s safe to say that after the fourth issue of Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 that I was ready to give up on this series.  My two favorite science-fiction franchises, sharing the same story!  How could it possibly go wrong?  But, just as the Chicago Cubs find new and interesting ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, Assimilation2 was taking something that should make every Star Trek and Doctor Who fan feel excited like they’re thirteen again and making it plodding and underwhelming.  After four issues of that, I had no expectations for the fifth issue.

Let’s just say that the fifth issue is a stay of execution for Assimilation2.  It’s not great, it has the same problems as the previous four issues, but it actually does something and it does it competently even if it’s unsurprising in its development.

When we left Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the eleventh Doctor on the bridge of the Enterprise-D, the Borg-Cybermen alliance had shattered, and the Borg were asking for Picard’s help — or, rather, Locutus‘ help — in defeating the Cybermen.  Picard, however, rejected the Borg’s entreaties out of hand because of his assimilation at the hands of the Borg, and he brushed off the Doctor’s insistence that the Cybermen posed a greater threat than the Borg.

Everything that happens in this issue I expected.  When writing of the fourth issue two weeks ago, I said that that the Locutus twist “seems like something designed solely to create more conflict between Picard and the Doctor as the Doctor clearly thinks that Locutus is a good thing, not knowing that this would actually be a bad thing” and that “I assume that the Doctor will take Picard into the future (much as he did to Sarah Jane Smith and Marcus Scarman in ‘Pyramids of Mars’) to show Picard the result of not cooperating with the Borg.”  Both happen, and they’re tied together with a flashback, conversations, and more conversations.  If this were a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, we have a clip sequence, no guest cast, and a lot of standing set use, particularly Picard’s Ready Room.  In short, we have ourselves a budget-saving bottle episode issue here, and it’s one of the passive, talky ones at that.

Yet, it mostly works.  And we get our first sign that there’s actually a Doctor Who story going on here as welll as the Star Trek story.

Is there anything new to the conversations?  No.  Guinan once again tries to push Picard to trust the Doctor’s judgement.  Picard once again states his firm decision not to work with the Borg, firmly.  Rory and Amy once again have pointless conversations with Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi so that we can pretend the Ponds have a role to play in a story that has no narrative room for them.  And then Picard finally decides to listen to the Doctor — and then suddenly we’re in a Doctor Who story.

The Doctor’s trick of taking a recalcitrant local on a trip into the future isn’t new.  The fourth Doctor does it to Scarman in “Pyramids of Mars.”  The Doctor of The Infinity Doctors takes the Sontaran and Rutan leaders into the future to show them the result of their eternal conflict.  And here, the Doctor takes Picard for a little spin in the TARDIS, visiting both Star Trek and Doctor Who planets, showing Picard the remorseless march of the Borg-enhanced Cybermen across the galaxy, decade by decade, and the consequences of inaction.  At last, five issues in, with the six pages of the Doctor in the TARIDS it beings to feel as if the promise of the series is about to be fulfilled.

But getting to this point isn’t perfect.  The bits with Guinan feel, like they did in the fourth issue, like nothing more than reprises of other Guinan scenes.  Amy’s conversation with Picard is reminiscent of her conversation with Kazran in “A Christmas Carol” and Lorna Bucket in “A Good Man Goes to War.”  The conversation she and Rory have with Troi doesn’t feel authentic at all; what reason do Troi and Crusher have to trust anything about the Doctor and his companions?  And Picard’s final decision in the issue doesn’t feel like a decision at all because it never feels like a choice.  The dubious plotting of the series, which Stuart Ian Burns has addressed in his reviews of the series continues unabatted, then.

The artwork is also variable.  We continue with the Gordon Purcell and J.K. Woodward team from the previous issue, but this issue’s artwork doesn’t appear as rushed or unfinished as previous issues.  There are also some sequences that look as if they’re Woodward flying solo, in particular most of the Picard-on-the-TARDIS sequence.  Purcell’s Karen Gillan likeness is better than in the previous issue, though there are panels where she looks more like a titian-haired Anne Hathaway.  Purcell’s Arthur Darvill likeness, however, is atrocious; if anyone can tell me who that is on page 11, please let me know.

And, let’s be honest, the story is absurd.  Star Trek: The Next Generation fans know that the Borg are a serious threat — they assimilated Picard, they trashed two Starfleet task forces, etc.  To accept the story that the Doctor ahd Guinan are telling Picard about why the Cybermen are a threat on the same level, you first have to accept that the Cybermen are a galactic, nay universal threat.  Really? On paper, maybe.  But have you seen “The Tenth Planet”?  “Attack of the Cybermen”?  “Silver Nemesis”?  The Cybermen are a bit crap when it comes to plans.  They can barely overrun a moonbase, it’s not likely that the Cybermen could overrun a galaxy.  The Cybermen aren’t a cosmic-level threat and have never been a cosmic level threat.

Still, the visuals of Picard’s journey into the Cyber-ized future are fabulous.

One problem with the Cybermen and their threat is the series hasn’t made the threat posed by the Cybermen and Borg credible.  To date, they have been conceptual rather than actual threats, and on the basis of nothing whatsoever the Doctor is able to explain to Picard what the Cybermen want and how they’re going to accomplish it.  The series has an unfortunate habit of telling and not showing.  The Away Team mission in the previous issue gave the characters some information, but there should have been some indication of how the Doctor arrived at his conclusions.  Of course Picard doesn’t trust the Doctor’s assertions; I don’t trust the Doctor’s assertions.

So why do I say it “mostly works”?  Two reasons.

As absurd as the story is, I avidly turned the pages to see what would happen next.  My inner thirteen year-old, who would have loved to see Colin Baker striding across the bridge of the Enterprise-D, loved this.

And, I honestly have no idea where the story is going from here.  In broad strokes, this series has been ridiculously easy to predict.  I suppose that if I were looking for a plot twist in issue #6, it would be a betrayal by the Borg, but I don’t know how to get there from here.  Basically, at this point, Assimilation2 is capable of surprising me.

Also, the fifth issue has the strongest final moment of the series to date.  The way the fifth issue ends is the way the fourth issue should have ended.  Late though it may be, it’s welcome.

I was fully prepared, before I read the issue, to post a JPG of Enchanter Tim with the caption “Get on with it!” as the sum total of my thoughts on this issue.  However, this issue worked for me, in ways that previous issues did not.  I’m not to the point of liking Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 yet, but neither am I on the verge of dropping the story unfinished.  The fifth issue, while not perfect, was satisfying enough to earn it a stay of execution.

I am, curiously, optimistic.

On Things I’ve Been Reading

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 #4
IDW Publishing
Written by Scott & David Tipton, with Tony Lee
Pencils by Gordon Purcell
Watercolors by J.K. Woodward

For two weeks this review has defeated me.  I wrote a draft.  I didn’t like it.  It was, I thought, harsh.  I wrote another draft.  This one I didn’t like, either.  Then deadline madness descended upon me with all the weight and force of Thor’s mighty hammer, and with the fifth issue only two weeks away I wasn’t sure I was going to say anything of the fourth issue of this series.

Then I saw the cover to the final issue of the series.  We’re not there yet.  The concluding eighth issue isn’t out until the end of December, four issues away.  Yet, I couldn’t not think about it.  And I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry.  As a fan of comics history, it’s… fun.  Totally unexpected.  As a fan of these franchises, Doctor Who and Star Trek, it’s taking the piss.  That piss-taking cover shouldn’t bother me — comic books should be fun, after all — and yet it does irk me somewhat.  Based on the series to date, it’s not earned.

I’ve not been happy with this series.  The first issue had a cover that promised more than it delivered, giving us essentially a Doctor Who comic with a Star Trek: The Next Generation cameo.  The second issue reversed that — a Star Trek: The Next Generation comic with some Doctor Who stuff — and gave us the meeting of the two franchises, but then it left the interesting things, like the Doctor and Picard talking, in the background.  The third issue, where we should have finally seen plot movement, instead spent its time on a flashback.  The series, to that point, committed an unforgivable sin — it was boring.

I’ve been critical of the series, but I’ve always held out some hope that something, anything would happen to redeem this, to make suffering through the boredom worthwhile.  I really wanted this series, after all.  But there comes a point where a person has to accept that their aspirations don’t reflect reality.

And the reality, after four issues, is that Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 is not good.  It could have been good.  It should have been good.  But it’s not, and frankly, it doubt it’s going to get better.

Let’s break it down.  The series has had four major problems.  Three of these I’ve discussed before, one I’ve not.

First, poor pacing.  Assimilation2 has not been written to be read in single issues.  The Oncoming Storm Podcast, in their review of the first two issues, has compared the pacing to the decompression of Brian Michael Bendis’ work.  Even I wrote after the first issue that “I suspect that, like many of IDW’s Star Trek comics (excepting John Byrne’s work, the vast majority of which is one-and-dones), this will read better in a single sitting in the inevitable collected edition.”  I’ve yet to feel satisfied after an issue of this series because the story isn’t plotted or paced to fit a monthly chunk of twenty pages.  (I think that the better format would have been, like JLA/Avengers, a four-issue 48-page prestige format mini-series.  Same story, same pacing, but the format would mask some of the obvious pacing issues.)

Second, a lack of meaningful plot development.  The series has raised a number of questions, and it’s made no effort to answer them.  How did the TARDIS land in the Star Trek universe?  Why is the Doctor having painful memories?  Why doesn’t Picard trust the Doctor?  (More to the point, why is Picard so badly characterized?  He’s acting like the Star Trek: First Contact Picard, not the season five Picard.) Why were the Borg and the Cybermen working together?  And what do the Borg and Cybermen want?  The fourth issue adds a plot complication to these questions — the Borg and the Cyberman have had a falling out and have turned on one another — but this complication has no justification based on what we’ve seen before, so it adds another question to the mix: Why have the Borg and the Cybermen fallen out?  Even allowing that this story isn’t meant to be read in single issues and should be read in a single volume, we should have started to get answers to these questions by this point because the protagonists’ attempts to resolve these questions and solve the problems should have lead us to a definite climax that introduces new problems and launches the second act.  To this point, the series hasn’t done that.  It continues to muddle along.

Third, a too-large cast.  Star Trek: The Next Generation has a large ensemble cast.  Doctor Who doesn’t have quite as large an ensemble.  While other Star Trek crossovers (the X-Men crossovers, the Legion of Super-Heroes crossover) have managed to incorporate the other cast well, usually by pairing off characters between the two franchises and giving each a plotline, Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 has yet to find a role for Amy and Rory.  Essentially, Assimilation2 reads like a Star Trek: The Next Generation story that guest-stars the Doctor.  The problem, as I’ve said before, is that Amy and Rory simply have no role in a Star Trek story.  As a window into the setting, they’re unnecessary; everyone knows the Star Trek world, the way it works, the way it behaves.  As characters whom the story affects, they’re useless; there was no good reason for them (the Doctor, yes; Amy and Rory, no) to join Riker’s Away Team in the fourth issue.  If this were the episode “Sarek,” then Amy and Rory are as useful as Ki Mendrossen.

Finally — and this is the new problem, the problem that in the background of all the others — the series is a conceptual misfire.

Start from the premise that this can be read as a Star Trek: The Next Generation story with the Doctor as the guest-star.  I’ve yet to identify anything about the story that requires the Doctor.  When the first issue comes out next week, take a look at Brannon Braga’s Star Trek: The Next Generation mini-series Hive.  The first issue of that series and the fourth issue of this series end in exactly the same place — the Borg Collective asks Picard to rejoin them and lead them again as Locutus because there’s a bigger enemy that threatens them both.  Are there Cybermen in Hive?  The Doctor?  Of course not.  This could be a case of similar stories (Borg and time travel) hitting similar story beats, but even if it’s a coincidence it points to the lack of necessity in the crossover elements in Assimilation2.  This story could be told without the Doctor quite easily.

There’s a word of advice I remember former Star Trek novel editor John Ordover making years ago to aspiring writers during the Strange New Worlds contest.  Paraphrasing from an old and musty memory, it went something like this: “If you can tell your story with other characters, then the characters aren’t intrinsic to the story.”  Since then, I’ve asked myself these two questions when writing a story.  What about this story requires those characters?  What about these characters motivates that story?  Insofar as the Doctor and his companions are concerned Assimilation2 fails those questions, if viewed from the perspective of a Star Trek: The Next Generation story.  Viewed the other way, as a Doctor Who story with Star Trek: The Next Generation characters, those questions are impossible to answer because the story is incoherent seen in that way.  There’s nothing intrinsic about this story and its characters.

After four issues of Assimilation2, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that the point of the series is simply to see the Star Trek and Doctor Who characters sharing the same page, that’s all the creators intend, and any quibbles with story are beside the point.  The story, basically, is an excuse for Picard to act constipated around the Doctor, for the Doctor to be a force of chaos on an Away Team mission, for Guinan to say cryptic things, for Amy and Rory to worry about the Doctor.  Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood, in their critiques of “The Five Doctors” in About Time 5 summed up that story thusly: “It’s a party, so they all do their party pieces.  [SNIP] Like the Star Trek movies, what we have here is an on-screen convention.  In those terms, nobody’s really in a position to grumble.  But it could have been something much more radically odd, like Doctor Who used to do before it started playing safe.”  Sadly, that sums up where Assimilation2 is at the halfway point.  And based on everything that’s come before, what’s to come is unlikely to be any different.

That’s in the future, however.  What of the fourth issue, since I’ve spent the last fifteen hundred words waxing theoretical on the problems of Assimilation2 as a whole?

The story develops some plot.  The Doctor talks with Guinan, and, just as in “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” Guinan recognizes that something has gone wrong with time and that the guest-star shouldn’t be there.  The Borg and the Cybermen suddenly turn on each other.  Picard is content to let the Cybermen destroy the Borg when the Borg ask for his assistance, but the Doctor wants Picard to ally himself with the Borg and become Locutus again to defeat the Cybermen.

Yes, it’s nice that the Doctor and Guinan have a sit-down, but there’s nothing new here.  Guinan says cryptic things, the Doctor plays mysterious and says cryptic things, everyone else is confused.  We’ve seen this very conversation before.  For Guinan, “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Time’s Arrow,” Star Trek: Generations.  For the Doctor, “The Impossible Astronaut” and “The Wedding of River Song” come quickly to mind.  The only thing different here in Assimilation2 is who the Doctor and Guinan are having this cryptic, pointless with — each other.  This isn’t something we would get on television or on film because they never met on film, but that doesn’t make the same conversation new, it just makes it different.

Yes, it’s nice that there’s some development of the Borg/Cybermen alliance.  We’ve seen that they’re together in past issues, but we’ve had no idea why they were working together or what they wanted (beyond the obvious modus operandis of assimilate and/or destroy).  Before the story can even answer those questions, suddenly they’re at each others’ throats.  This development, interesting though it may be, feels ungrounded and unearned.  Ungrounded, because we can’t understand why the allies are fighting each other if we don’t understand why they’re allies to start with.  Unearned, because the Borg/Cybermen alliance, after the attack on Delta IV way back in the first issue, have been a conceptual menace, and they haven’t been built up enough that their sudden falling out has any meaning to the reader.

And yes, it’s nice that the conflict between Picard and the Borg is brought up (though as I said earlier, it feels like a later characterization of Picard and not of the “I, Borg” Picard), but this feels like an arbitrary development.  Unless the story actually follows through with Picard allying with the Borg, this seems like something designed solely to create more conflict between Picard and the Doctor as the Doctor clearly thinks that Locutus is a good thing, not knowing that this would actually be a bad thing.  (And for an example of how bad that would be, see Hive #1.)

In short, it’s nice that these things happen, but I don’t see them, at least the first two, moving the narrative chits forward.

Amy and Rory actually do stuff in this issue.  It’s not interesting stuff — the Doctor convinces Picard to let them go on an Away Team mission, where they don’t do anything at all (except, curiously, behave like Legolas and Gimli at Helm’s Deep).  When they went on the Away Team mission, I was hopeful that Rory would be captured by the Borg and assimilated, not because I want something bad to happen to Rory but because something needs to happen to increase the characters’ jeopardy and their involvement in the situation, and I was mildly disappointed that it didn’t happen, especially as the mission then led to a pointless conversation with Troi.

The artwork takes a turn.  Gordon Purcell, an artist with Star Trek comics credits going back to the 1980s, is now providing the pencil foundation for J.K. Woodward’s paints.  This looks to be a permanent change for the remainder of the series — Purcell pencils, Woodward paints — and the resulting artwork has a different flavor.  It looks similar to the previous three issues as Woodward’s paints keep it visually consistent, but and Purcell’s artistic quirks, like gangly characters and lots of finger pointing, are present.  The fourth issue isn’t as photo-realistic as the previous issues, and some of the character likenesses, especially Amy’s, are wildly off.

And finally, we get a cliffhanger.  It’s not the game-changing cliffhanger I was hoping for — this issue also doubles as the final issue in the first volume of the collected edition, so I was expecting something major to happen at this point in the narrative — but it’s certainly better than previous issues’ final images.

Overall, the fourth issue just there.  On its own, it’s adequate.  If the goal is to show the Enterprise crew and the TARDIS trio on the same page and nothing else, then it succeeded at that.  If it had higher ambitions, though, it’s another middling chapter in a disappointing series.  I’ll carry on with the series.  I can’t not read it, I’ve been a fan of these franchises for as long as I can remember.  But I’ll carry on without enthusiasm and without expectations.

What do I expect going forward?  The cover to the fifth issue shows Picard stepping out of the TARDIS.  Assuming that this reflects the issue’s contents, I assume that the Doctor will take Picard into the future (much as he did to Sarah Jane Smith and Marcus Scarman in “Pyramids of Mars”) to show Picard the result of not cooperating with the Borg.  The sixth issue depicts the Doctor and a Borg working together, so presumably the Doctor will be allied with the Borg (possibly led by Locutus) against the Cybermen.  And the seventh issue, which is the latest cover to be made public, shows the TARDIS at Wolf 359, which indicates that the key to stopping the Cybermen is in the past and the Doctor has to go and get it.

Maybe the Doctor should get assimilated by the Borg.  That would certainly be different, though if the Dalek Asylum’s nanomachines didn’t convert him into a Borg drone, then Borg nanites probably would assimilate him, either.  However, that would make a killer cliffhanger to issue #7, an image of the assimilated Doctor announcing his Borg identity.

No, I shouldn’t think that way.  I’ll only disappoint myself.

On Things I’ve Been Reading

Doctor Who: The Dave Gibbons Treasury #1
IDW Publishing
Written by Pat Mills & John Wagner
Art by Dave Gibbons

I didn’t need another copy of “The Iron Legion.”  The first comic strip published in Doctor Who Weekly, “The Iron Legion” is, according to people who know such things, the most reprinted Doctor Who comic book storyline.  I have the story in black-and-white (how it was originally published) and in color (in the Marvel colorization of the early 1980s and the more recent colorization by IDW).  What could this comic offer that the previous versions didn’t?

Size and paper quality.

IDW’s Doctor Who: The Dave Gibbons Treasury blows up the artwork to 11″ x 13″ (roughly), even larger than the original publication, and at the large size on heavy glossy paper the artwork shines.  Add a cardstock cover, and this is a Doctor Who comic book that is physically impressive, to say nothing of being a work of art.

The cover is not representative of the book’s contents, however.  The cover image goes with “Junkyard Demon,” but the stories reprinted here are “The Iron Legion” and “City of the Damned.”  “The Iron Legion,” for the few people who have not read it, pits the fourth Doctor against a galaxy-spanning Roman Empire from another dimension.  Then, the Doctor finds in the “City of the Damned” a city where emotions are outlawed and he’s been sentenced to death.

Both stories are entertaining.  And both stories are dense.  Each is told in six or seven chapters of roughly eight pages, and these stories move.  There’s an economy of story here that would shame some recent comics writers.  In an era when a comic is stretched out to six issues to fill a trade paperback, it’s refreshing to read meaningful and weighty stories that are done within sixty pages.

I hope the Doctor Who: Dave Gibbons Treasury is successful enough to bring about future issues — perhaps “The Tides of Time” in this format or, my personal wish, a John Ridgway issue that reprints “Voyager.”  (Of course, that wish is as much for Steve Parkhouse’s writing as it is for Ridgway’s artwork; I think that Parkhouse is second among Doctor Who writers only to Robert Holmes.)

If you’ve never read “The Iron Legion,” this is a pretty nifty way of getting it.  If you like Dave Gibbons’ artwork, it looks fantastic in this larger-than-normal format.  At the very least, it’s gorgeous to look at.

On Things I’ve Been Reading

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 #3
IDW Publishing
Written by Scott & David Tipton, with Tony Lee
Art by J.K. Woodward and the Sharp Brothers

Two issues into IDW Publishing’s Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 and I was feeling indifferent.  The first issue, discussed here, was okay but not especially engaging; the cover promised the Doctor and the crew of the Enterprise in a single adventure, and what we got instead was the Doctor having a runaround in ancient Egypt while the Borg and the Cybermen did Borg-y/Cybermen-y things, which felt like a weird way to launch a series that Whovians and Trekkies have wanted for years.  The second issue, not discussed (though some of my thoughts can be found on Stuart Ian Burns’ blog), was a Star Trek runaround, and while the fannish moments of the Doctor meeting the Enterprise crew finally happened midway through the issue, I still felt like the story wasn’t going anywhere as I turned to the final page — which then, quite suddenly, promised a whole lot.

As the third issue opens, the Doctor and the Enterprise crew discover, in orbit of Delta IV, an armada of Borg cubes and Cybermen ships.  Massively outgunned, Picard decides that retreat is the better part of valor, and he quizzes the Doctor on the Cybermen.  Meanwhile, Data does his own research, and he discovers that there are Starfleet records of the Cybermen — on Stardate 3368.5, Captain Kirk of the Enterprise, on a mission to investigate an incommunicado research facility, encountered the Cybermen on planet Aprilia III, alongside a mysterious man in a floppy hat and scarf who called himself “the Doctor”…

I like Assimilation2.  But I don’t love it yet.  And I think that the third issue encapsulates why.

After three issues, what are the Borg and the Cybermen up to?  We have no idea.  What is Picard planning to do to combat the Borg?  Again, no idea.  The pacing continues to be languid.  It still doesn’t feel like the story has started.  Instead of moving the plot forward and building tension, the three issues are giving us fannish moments (like a discussion of the Doctor’s age and the final page of this issue).

The tone is off, and this issue highlights that.  There’s a flashback to an adventure the fourth Doctor has with Captain Kirk’s crew (similar to the flashbacks in Tony Lee’s graphic novel, The Forgotten), and the artwork is done by the Sharp Brothers (Star Trek: Year Four).  In comparison to J.K. Woodward’s painted artwork, the Sharp Brothers’ artwork is penciled, with sharp and bright colors that evokes the original series.  The contrast compared to Woodward’s artwork highlights the odd tone of the story; while his artwork matches the tone of the story, that tone feels too dark for the “classic” period of Star Trek: The Next Generation and would suit better the movie-era of the Next Generation.

There are too many characters to work with effectively.  Amy and Rory barely appear, and they’ve done nothing of significance since the first issue.  (I expect that, around issue #5 or #6, Rory will be captured and assimilated by the Borg because that’s the kind of thing that happens to Rory.) Their non-presence contributes to the feeling that Assimilation2 is a Star Trek: The Next Generation story that happens to guest-star the Doctor; I’m not getting a Doctor Who vibe from it right now.

That said, there are things I like about this issue.

The 23rd-century flashback, though brief, is nicely done, and it has a lovely moment of Kirk fighting the Cybermen, using all of his classic moves — the two-fist punch, the flying-leg kick.

The dialogue continues to ring true.

The mystery of the Doctor’s mismatching memories is intriguing.  (I expect the payoff will be, as Stuart Ian Burns suggested at the link above, that the Doctor is developing the memories he would have had if his adventures were in the Star Trek universe instead of the Doctor Who universe.)

The final page puts us on the cusp of a moment I’ve been expecting since the first issue.

I continue to hope that something will happen in Assimilation2, and if anything major and game-changing is about to happen, next issue will be the likely moment because the fourth issue cliffhanger also doubles as the cliffhanger to the first volume of IDW’s collected edition.  (In September, a week before issue #5 reaches stores, IDW is publishing a trade paperback collecting the first four issues of the series.) I’m still waiting to be wowwed by this; it hits my fannish buttons, but it’s not hitting my narrative buttons yet.  I like reading Assimilation2, but I want to love it.

Some continuity notes…

  • The stardate for Kirk’s mission to Aprilia III puts it somewhere in the vicinity of late-1st season/early 2nd-second Star Trek.  Due to the way stardates were used in the original series, you can’t really nail it down to between specific episodes.  On the other hand, Kirk lands on Aprilia III in the shuttlecraft Galileo II, the successor to the Galileo (which was active at least through “The Immunity Syndrome” in late season two).
  • Based on the fourth Doctor’s costume and his lack of companion, the adventure of Aprilia III probably takes place prior to “The Face of Evil.”  However, it could take place between “The Invasion of Time” and “The Ribos Operation” (which is where Jean Airey’s “The Doctor and the Enterprise” falls) and the Doctor simply left K-9 in the TARDIS.

ETA (7/21/12): Paul Simpson of Sci-Fi Bulletin (and the former editor of Titan’s official Star Trek magazine) reviews the third issue here, awarding it a 7 out of 10.

And Stuart Ian Burns continues his series of insightful reviews of the comic series with this review of this issue.  What follows below is the comment I left on his blog in response:

It is boring, isn’t it?

I see people raving about the third issue online, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  It’s amiable enough, I’m not totally indifferent to it (I’m reading it, after all), but I don’t feel any great love for it.  It’s just there.

I know this will read better in a single collected volume.  Most of IDW’s Star Trek work reads better that way.  (The exceptions are John Byrne’s work, any of the “anthology” series like Captain’s Log or Alien Spotlight, and recently the ongoing movie comic — which, as you say, started off poorly but has become enjoyable and interesting.) But that doesn’t absolve the individual issues of their inability to work on their own merits.  If I’m going to put down my money every month, I want to feel satisfied when I’ve read it.

Instead, the only feeling I have is anticipation (for something to happen) and dismay (since nothing’s happening).

It’s almost as if the writers decided that the pinnacle of Star Trek storytelling was the passage through V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the ultimate Doctor Who moment was that episode of “The Sea Devils” where it seems like Pertwee spends the entire episode sitting in the depressurization chamber, and they wanted to emulate all that.

Though the flashback was cool (Kirk’s two-fisted chop and flying leg kick were undeniable fannish moments for me, and I imagine there are readers who were humming the Kirk fight music), I think it was a misstep at this point in the series.  We’d just gotten the leads working together, now they knew their enemies were working together, and rather than explore that and move the narrative forward, we have a flashback to another crew and another Doctor.

Oh.  Except maybe that’s the point.

I’ve started thinking of this as a Star Trek: The Next Generation story that happens to guest star the Doctor.  Star Trek stories have antagonists, but they often serve as a catalyst for the characters’ personal drama.  “The Best of Both Worlds” (to use a Borg example) isn’t really about the Borg, it’s about how Riker copes with an ambitious replacement and his own unexpected command.  You mentioned “A Matter of Time”; the situation that brought the Enterprise to wherever wasn’t the important thing, the real meat of the story was Picard’s debate over predestination and free will.  The antagonists are just a way of getting to the character drama in a Star Trek story.

(Which, by the way, is not something that always works.  In “Relics” the Dyson Sphere was infinitely more interesting than Scotty.  Yes, it was nice to see Scotty again, but dammit, I wanted to see more of the Dyson Sphere!)

The point is, I think it could be whatever’s causing the flashbacks the Doctor is suffering (since he’s now suffered two — the vision of the Borg in the first issue, and now the full-blown memory of his fourth incarnation) that’s important and the Borg/Cybermen alliance is merely incidental.  A catalyst for bringing the Doctor and Picard together.

Or I could be overthinking it.

I’ve also begun to wonder if Amy and Rory will play any meaningful role.  I harbor some doubts, because they don’t have a function in a Star Trek story.  The TARDIS has landed in a world that everyone knows; the questions the companion(s) would ask so the Doctor could explain are pointless because the audience already knows.  They’re in a story where the audience identification and expository functions of the companion(s) are unnecessary.

Yet, I still think that Rory will be assimilated.  Or, at the very least, captured.  I imagine it would have to play out like this.  The Enterprise sends an Away Team to a planet or a Borg cube.  But Picard sensibly refuses to let the Doctor and the Ponds go.  (They’re not Starfleet personnel.) The Doctor decides that he doesn’t like that answer, so he and the Ponds pop in the TARDIS and arrive on the planet/cube.  Riker gets stern — “Doctor, the Captain told you to say on the Enterprise — but everyone accepts this, until things go wrong and they’re all ambushed.  Rory gets captured.  The rest of the Away Team beams out.  End of issue.  Next issue, Picard lectures the Doctor, says he doesn’t trust the Time Lord, and the Doctor grudgingly admits that he made a mistake, but now that the mistake is done they have to put aside their differences and work together to rectify the situation.

The trouble with trying to guess where this story will go is that it’s still wide open.  How did the TARDIS land in the Star Trek universe?  Why is the Doctor having painful memories?  Why are the Borg and the Cybermen working together?  And what do the Borg and Cybermen want?  Going back to what I was saying earlier about this issue as a misstep, at this point in the game the series should have started answering these.  Not full-on answers, obviously, but something.  Instead, we had the flashback, and we’re still running in place.

Still, I want to see the Doctor do Doctor-ish things.  The best thing, in my opinion, would be the Enterprise crew hopping in the TARDIS and going with the Doctor on a tour of important moments in Star Trek history.  (Think “The Chase” but not stupid, or “The Daleks’ Master-Plan” without Mavic Chen.)

Maybe, if this story is a Star Trek story with the Doctor as guest star, IDW will do a second next year that’s a Doctor Who story with a Star Trek crew in the Doctor’s universe.

On Things I’ve Been Reading

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 #1
IDW Publishing
Written by Scott & David Tipton, with Tony Lee
Art by J.K. Woodward

When I was about nine, I started watching Star Trek.  I remember going with my dad to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for my birthday.  When I was about ten, I started watching Doctor Who.  I remember seeing “Pyramids of Mars” (which made quite an impression for many reasons, among them Lis Sladen in the white dress) and “The Five Doctors” (which made no sense to me because I didn’t know who any of these other Doctors were).  In high school, aged fourteen, I remember getting very excited for Star Trek: The Next Generation when it began.  On Saturday nights I’d watch that at 7 o’clock, and then late Saturday nights I’d watch Doctor Who on West Virginia Public Television.  Patrick Stewart in the early evening hours, Colin Baker late at night.  A difference of five hours, that’s how close the worlds of Star Trek and Doctor Who were for me.  Five hours.

What if these two worlds were closer?  What if the Doctor’s TARDIS, which can go anywhere in space and anywhen in time, slipped a track and landed someplace unexpected?  Someplace like Duckburg.  Or the unmarred Arda before the coming of Morgoth.  Or the Benny Vandergast Memorial Theater.  Or the bridge of the Enterprise-D.  Doctor Who is, in many ways, a narrative universal solvent.  The TARDIS can go anywhere.

Crossovers like this are the stuff of a thousand fanfics.  I should know.  I’ve written a few in moments of boredom or to scratch an itch.  I’ve read a few others out of curiosity.  (Currently, I have one of the most famous of the crossovers, Jean Airey’s The Doctor and the Enterprise, on my Nook thanks to an hour’s work with Calibre.) But even if CBS were game for a crossover between Star Trek and Doctor Who, since they’ve allowed crossovers with the X-Men and the Legion of Super-Heroes, I never thought the BBC would go for it.

Cover to the first issueI was wrong.  In February, IDW Publishing, the comic book publisher that carries both the Star Trek and Doctor Who licenses, announced they were publishing a crossover this summer.

Two weeks ago the first issue of IDW Publishing’s Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who crossover mini-series, Assimilation2 arrived in comic shops.  Due to some shipping nonsense, I finally got it on Wednesday.  Due to deadlines, I finally read it this morning.

It was okay.  I liked it well enough.  The dialogue rang true.  The painted artwork style was nice (but I think I’d have preferred a traditionally pencilled and inked comic).


There’s always a “but.”

The cover, which features the eleventh Doctor and Captain Jean-Luc Picard, promises a lot, which the first issue doesn’t deliver.  This is a prologue (a Borg/Cybermen alliance attack Delta IV in Federation space), and a chapter one (the Doctor has an adventure in ancient Egypt), with a cliffhanger that puts the story on the cusp of what the cover promises — a meeting of the Doctor and Picard.  (And you can guess how that meeting will go.  The Doctor will think he’s in 1940s San Francisco when he’s actually on the Holodeck, Picard will think his Dixon Hill program has gone haywire and he tries to make the Doctor go away, Worf will come along and sort it out by tossing the Doctor in the brig because he’s breached the Enterprise‘s security, much wackiness ensues.) Even though the first seven pages do take place in a Trekian setting, Assimilation2 #1 really feels like little more than issue #17 of IDW’s just-concluded ongoing Doctor Who series.

I’ve seen people criticizing the first issue in various online fora because the ancient Egypt runaround seems so pointless, yet I expect that it will have some payoff eventually (that the Doctor has a telepathic vision of the Borg is certainly suggestive).  The issue is mainly set-up.  This issue introduced the Doctor and his companions to an audience that might be unfamiliar with them.  It’s a safe bet that the second issue will do the same with Captain Picard and his crew, and then the third issue will see the two science fiction icons — the Doctor and Captain Picard, working together in common cause to defeat their mutual enemies.  I suspect that, like many of IDW’s Star Trek comics (excepting John Byrne’s work, the vast majority of which is one-and-dones), this will read better in a single sitting in the inevitable collected edition.

This issue on its own, though?  Reading the first issue of Assimilation2 is like reading The Lord of the Rings through “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony.”  Or it’s like trying to judge “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” solely from “World’s End.”  We don’t have enough to make a judgment of the whole.  At best, we can give this an incomplete.  Based on the creative team, I know the story will pick up.  At the moment, though, it’s difficult to recommend this issue to someone who wouldn’t already want to read it.  There’s just not enough there on its own terms.

Some continuity notes…

  • The stardate given on the first page — 45635.2 — places this midway through Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s fifth season between “The Outcast” (Riker falls in love with an androgynous alien) and “Cause and Effect” (Brannon Braga’s timey-wimey story where the Enterprise is stuck in a time loop).  This also places the story before “I, Borg,” though I’m not sure if that will be important.
  • Delta IV is where Ilia (the navigator from Star Trek: The Motion Picture) hailed from.  The Deltans are a very sexual race, and according to Roddenberry’s novelization of the film xenosex with a Deltan is so mind-blowingly awesome that it will drive a human insane, so Deltans are required to take an oath of celibacy.
  • The Cybermen have the Cybus Industries logo on their chestplates, so they’re from the alternate universe known as “Pete’s World.”
  • The Doctor mentions knowing Mark Twain, which reminds me that this takes place before “Time’s Arrow” as well.  It would be interesting if the Doctor and Guinan eventually have a conversation in Ten-Forward.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Guinan knew the Doctor.
  • Though he doesn’t appear in this issue proper, it’s worth nothing that Jean-Luc Picard, after the loss of his earlier command, the Stargazer, and before he assumed command of the Enterprise, traveled in the TARDIS for a time with the sixth Doctor and Frobisher, a Whifferdill in the form of a penguin.
  • Rory Williams, during the two millennia he guarded the Pandorica, masqueraded as Tip Dorrit in the mid-nineteenth century.  It gave him something to do.

On Things I’ve Been Reading

John Carter: World of Mars
Marvel Comics
Written by Peter David
Art by Luke Ross

A few weeks ago I saw John Carter, director Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, the first of his eleven books set on Barsoom (better known to us as Mars), for Disney.  John Carter has become legendary as one of the biggest box office failures of all time, which is unfortunate because the film is really quite good.

Before I saw John Carter I reread A Princess of Mars to refamiliarize myself with a place I’d not visited in a quarter century.  I had also intended to read John Carter: World of Mars, a four-issue comic book mini-series that Marvel Comics published last year that served as a prequel to the film, but an inability to find where I’d filed the issues in my longboxes and a shipping error on the trade paperback edition when I gave up on trying to find the singles, resulted in a delayed read of JC:WoM.

And, to be honest, that’s not a bad thing.  John Carter: World of Mars is enjoyable and I’ll gladly recommend it to anyone who liked John Carter, but I think it works better after you’ve seen the film, even though it’s about events before the film.  Having seen the movie before reading this, I have the benefit of knowing where the stories in this graphic novel end up, and thus things in the graphic novel have a greater resonnance than they would have had I read the issues in February as I’d planned.  If that makes sense. :)

Basically, John Carter: World of Mars answers two questions about the world of John Carter.  First, how did Tars Tarkas become the Jeddak of the Tharks.  Second, what the root of the animosity between Dejah Thoris of Helium and Sab Than of Zodanga.  John Carter, though he only appears on four pages in the entire book (the first three pages of issue #1 and the final page of issue #4), narrates the story — these are stories that Dejah Thoris and Tars Tarkas individually told him about events that occurred to them about twenty years prior to John Carter, and the narrative style suggests that this is part of the manuscript that Carter’s nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs reads about Carter’s Martian adventures.  And though Dejah Thoris and Tars Tarkas never realize it, their stories intersect for one brief moment and then diverge once more.

Tars Tarkas’ story is basically a road trip story.  Two buddies, one a coward full of bluster, the other a quiet, unassuming sort, set off on a trip to prove themselves, and the quiet one’s nagging girlfriend tags along.  The blustering coward is Tal Hajas, the quiet one is Tars Tarkas, and Tars Tarkas’ girlfriend is a new character, Loas.  Their quest?  To find Gothan, the ancient leader of the Warhoon and defeat him in battle to prove their worth as warriors.  The quest plays out as a kind of Indiana Jones-like story, albeit one with Martian White Apes and heroes with four arms.

Dejah Thoris’ story is a Burroughs-esque tale of love and kidnapping.  You think I kid, but that’s a standard trope of Burroughs’ work — villain is in love with woman, villain kidnaps woman, hero tracks down villain, hero battles death traps, hero defeats villain and frees woman, hero wins woman.  This is the way Dejah Thoris’ story plays out… except there’s no Burroughs-esque hero (in other words, John Carter) to save her, so Dejah Thoris has to brave the death traps (in this case, a sandstorm and a Warhoon arena filled with calots) on her own and save herself from her kidnapper, Sab Than.

And then their two stories intersect when Dejah Thoris’ escape from the Warhoon just happens to coincide with the buddy Tharks finding their quarry…

Peter David gives John Carter: World of Mars a Burroughs-esque flavor throughout.  One thing that marks Burroughs’ writing is the way that the story changes every few pages.  Some new plot element will appear, a new character will surface, and everything you thought was going on gets shoved aside as the story goes somewhere else instead.  JC:WoM has the same kind of breathlessly episodic feel.

Is the story accurate to Burroughs, though?  No, it’s not.  The Red Martians wear too much in the way of clothing, and the identity of Tars Tarkas’ love differs from the backstory given in A Princess of Mars.  However, the clothing is the way John Carter portrays the world (a Burroughs-accurate film would have netted an NC-17 rating), and one could rationalize the clothing by saying that this story (and John Carter, too, for that matter) takes place during Mars’ six month-long winter.  And though John Carter never identifies the mother of Sola it would have been nice to have an acknowledgement of the story in A Princess of Mars (where Sola’s mother is a Thark named Gozava), one could argue that 1) Loas is a nickname for Gozava, 2) Tars Tarkas lied to John Carter about the name of his true love in JC:WoM, or 3) Sola was misinformed about her mother’s identity in A Princess of Mars.  The important thing is that Loas and Gozava are clearly intended to be the same person, just with differing names.

But I should note that John Carter: The World of Mars doesn’t need fidelity to Burroughs.  It only needs to be true to the world seen in John Carter, and that it does very well.  Luke Ross’ artwork evokes the world of Andrew Stanton’s film, and though the likenesses of Dejah Thoris and Sab Than aren’t always accurate to the actors from the film, they’re certainly recognizable as the characters that they’re supposed to be.

The graphic novel collection reprints the four issues, along with a sketchbook and Peter David’s script for the first issue.  If you’re interested about the process that goes into creating a comic book, this is quite interesting material.

I liked John Carter: World of Mars, and if you like Burroughs’ work (and can accept that this doesn’t match up exactly with Burroughs) or you liked the movie John Carter, then I have a hunch you’ll enjoy this as well.  It’s a neat read, it’s nice to look at, and, like John Carter, it’s fun.  And while Marvel is publishing adaptations of Burroughs’ Barsoom novels, I hope they won’t ignore the world of John Carter because I’d like to see more stories in Andrew Stanton’s version of Barsoom./i

On Things I’ve Been Reading

Orbit: John Lennon
Bluewater Productions
Written by Marc Shapiro
Artwork by Luciano Kars

I’ve been a Beatles fan for two-thirds of my life.  I have official CDs by the Beatles as a band and as solo artists, bootleg CDs, books, posters, toys.  I’ve seen Paul McCartney in concert.  I’m thinking about seeing Ringo Starr in concert.  I moderated a panel on the Beatles at a science-fiction convention last summer.  Suffice it to say, I’ve quite possibly forgotten more about the Beatles than most people ever know.

(I do not, however, have Beatles Rock Band.  I wanted it, but I have absolutely no place for it.)

Orbit: John LennonSo when I saw that Bluewater Productions, a small-press comics publisher, was publishing a biographical comic on John Lennon, I was naturally curious.  According to Bluewater, Orbit: John Lennon would be this:

John Lennon’s post-Beatles life was every bit as amazing as his time as part of the legendary Fab Four. In Orbit: John Lennon, writer Marc Shapiro looks at those up and down moments that defined this true artist and renaissance man’s final years, right up to the moment when the music truly died.

And is it?

Let me put it like this.  I’m about to spend more time explaining what’s wrong with this comic than it took me to read it.

You can get more information on John Lennon from Wikipedia than you can from this comic book.  I can tell you, extemporaneously, more about Lennon’s post-Beatles career than you will get from this comic book.  You can watch Imagine: John Lennon, a deeply flawed documentary on Lennon’s life, and come away better informed about Lennon than will be after reading this comic book.

Here’s how Orbit: John Lennon works.  The artist, Luciano Kars, takes a bunch of famous photos of John Lennon and lightboxes them.  There’s not a page in this slim pamphlet that doesn’t have a familiar image of Lennon and/or the Beatles.  Then, each page, which has two or three panels in the rare instance that it’s not a full-page splash, has a caption that relates some very basic information on Lennon.

Here’s a typical caption — “But when Nixon ran into a mess called Watergate, Lennon’s deportation proceedings were dismissed.”

The “story,” such as it is, begins with the Beatles Rooftop Concert of January 29, 1969, then moves on to Lennon’s solo career.  (Curiously, the comic would tell you that Unfinished Music: Two Virgins came after Lennon left the Beatles.) Soon, Lennon goes through the “primal scream” therapy, records Imagine, and moves to New York, whereupon Richard Nixon wants him deported because of his “anti-war activities.”  Then Lennon and Yono Ono split, Lennon goes through a creative flowering during the “Lost Weekend,” we have a panel of a pregnant and naked Yoko Ono, Lennon’s son Sean is born, and then we’re up to 1980 and the recording of Double Fantasy.  But there’s a schlub named Mark David Chapman out there, he shoots Lennon dead, and now Lennon is off in heaven.

The only page of any artistic merit in this comic is the one that dramatizes Lennon’s murder, which is reminiscent of the page in The Dark Knight Returns which dramatizes the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents in Crime Alley.  No, really, that’s what it looks like, that’s how it’s paced.  The only thing missing is the falling pearls.

There are several assertion about Lennon’s life and career in the comic that lack context or are without foundation.  One particular egregious one is the statement that Lennon’s “ashes were scattered in New York’s Central Park,” which is not a definite fact, as Yoko Ono has never said what she’s done with Lennon’s remains.  A puzzling assertion in the comic is that “Jealous Guy” from the Imagine album is “a self-examination on his relationship with [Paul] McCartney,” but the only source for that belief is McCartney himself (which the comic doesn’t mention) and the lyrics of the song don’t actually support such a reading because the Lennon who savaged McCartney on Imagine with “How Do You Sleep?” would not apologize to McCartney by singing “I didn’t mean to make you cry” for breaking up the Beatles.

Four pages are wasted on a framing device of John Lennon in heaven.

I quite literally feel dumber for having read this comic.  I wouldn’t recommend this comic to anyone.  It doesn’t tell you why John Lennon was important.  It doesn’t tell you what he did.  It doesn’t tell you why you should care about John Lennon.  If you were just getting into the Beatles and wanted to know more about John Lennon, this is not the place to start.  Orbit: John Lennon isn’t even a place to visit.  There’s nothing entertaining or educational about this.

The only reason this comic exists is to sucker money out of the pockets of unsuspecting Beatles collectors.

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