‘Doctor Who: The Comic Strip Adaptations’ is Gloriously Bonkers [AUDIO DRAMA REVIEW]

Tom Baker returns in Big Finish Productions’ newest Doctor Who audio drama line. The first volume of Doctor Who: The Comic Adaptations is an unexpected and welcome release: an adaptation of stories that were originally comics in Doctor Who Weekly Magazine back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. These stories were originally written by Pat Mills and John Wagner – stalwarts of British weekly comics anthologies in the 1970s and 1980s and the creators of Judge Dredd for 2000AD – with artwork from Dave Gibbons, well before he found worldwide fame as the artist of Watchmen.

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Big Finish Productions seems intent on producing any and all imaginable permutations of Doctor Who into audio dramas, and we should be grateful – especially in a year without any new episodes on the telly.

The two episodes capture both the feel of the television series in 1979 – the mid-point of the Tom Baker era – and manage to embrace the whimsical, satirical comedy aspects of the show more than the writers of the television show at the time. Mills and Wagner would be nowhere if they didn’t throw in some gleefully silly anti-authoritarian satire in their stories, so the treat here is we get two Doctor Who stories with a 2000AD comedic flavor, albeit without the merciless violence and death you find in 2000AD stories. These comic stories originally ran in a magazine aimed at kids after all.

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The first of the two stories, “The Iron Legion”, is that archetypal Doctor Who story: the Doctor faces an evil empire and brings it down by being clever while acting like a silly. An alternate Roman Empire that lasted to the future comes to conquer 1980 Earth, and all the Doctor wants is to replenish his supply of jelly babies. Before he can, he has to go up against a decadent empire, a childish emperor, robot centurions, and certain death in the coloseum – as you do.

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The second story, “The Starbeast”, finds the Doctor and two teenagers caught between some extremely ruthless alien cops hunting a deadly alien criminal who’s crash-landed on Earth in 1980 England. This alien criminal is considered so dangerous that the alien cops are prepared to blow up the Earth to get rid of it. The alien criminal is a cute little furball named Meep the Beep and the kids who find him don’t think he’s dangerous because he looks like a stuffed toy.

Typical 2000AD and British reversal comedy here. The original comic story marked the first time a cute alien in Doctor Who was the deadly villain. The old television series didn’t do this but Russell T. Davies, Steven Moffat. and now Chris Chibnall have each introduced a cute-looking alien on the new show that turned out to be deadly. And unlike the old show, back when the BBC was not a commercial enterprise, these cute-looking aliens now sell toys.

This story also had another first: teenager Sharon became the first person of colour to become the Doctor’s companion for the next few comics stories, decades before Mickey Smith, Martha Jones and Bill Potts became companions in the TV series in the 2000’s.

But these audio dramas aren’t just a quaint nostalgic trip through down memory. They’re proper stories adapted from comics into the audio medium and feel like big budget versions of the show from 1980, doing things the BBC could never afford to do on their very limited budgets. With “The Iron Legion”, you can imagine a $100 million production with vast arenas, a futuristic Roman Empire, and thousands of robot troops and extras.

The real fun is in the acting, of course. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Tom Baker was known to rant about how much he hated the generic and clichéd nature of the television scripts he was given, sometimes nearly to the point of fistfights with the writers. There’s no hint of any unhappiness here. Baker seems to be having a ball hamming it up as the Fourth Doctor in his element. He plays that Doctor at his peak: with just his voice, you’d think the Doctor hasn’t aged a day since 1979. Scriptwriter Alan Barnes adapts the comics’ dialogue into banter with lines that let the actors have fun – and have fun they do. There’s a plummy, campy wit in the stories and the speeches as you might expect from satirical science fiction.

One of the best things about Doctor Who productions is the extra content. This release comes with an hour’s worth of behind-the-scenes interviews with the actors and producers talking about the making of the audio dramas. Doctor Who has always been good at telling fans about the process of production, how they make these things, so as to inspire and encourage aspiring actors, writers, directors and producers to create their own productions.

Writing audio drama can be awkward for the inexperienced writer. Some writers have the actors self-consciously describe what’s happening or what they’re seeing in clunky exposition. Barnes uses the Doctor’s tendency to talk to himself to turn those kinds of lines into a running joke, and Tom Baker embraces this with his twinkly mad uncle nuttiness. Only Tom Baker can sell a line like “Is that a knife tied to a stick that you’re pointing at my Adam’s apple?” His glee seems to be infectious and the other actors also say their lines with the type of campy relish the writing calls for.

You may not get to see Gibbons’ superb art from the comic stories when you listen to thes audio dramas, but what you get instead are two feature-length stories of The Doctor in big epic stories living his best life, bumming around in his blue box looking for fun, and putting right any injustice he comes across before flying off for the next bit of fun.

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Interested in checking out Doctor Who: The Comic Strip Adaptations for yourself? Visit the fine folks at Big Finish here to purchase on CD or download.