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Doctor Who and the Genesis of Alan Moore by Lance Parkin

05 Sep

Doctor Who fans encountered Alan Moore at the beginning of his career. In June 1980, when his first strip for Doctor Who Weekly, ‘Black Legacy’, appeared, Moore’s body of published professional work consisted of a handful of magazine illustrations, and regular strips in the music magazine Sounds and local newspaper the Northants Post. His Doctor Who work predates his 2000 AD debut by a month, and represents his very first published comics work – amateur or professional – solely as a writer.

Marvel UK had launched Doctor Who Weekly in October 1979 as a virtual carbon copy of their popular Star Wars Weekly. Both comics were black-and-white, aimed at a young readership, their 28 pages filled with three comic strips and a variety of text articles, interviews, a letters page, pin ups and puzzles. The key difference was that Star Wars Weekly ran mostly reprinted American material, whereas the Doctor Who strips were new, and created in Britain. There were two: one featuring new adventures for the Doctor, and a back-up strip featuring monsters from the show [1].

Alan Moore never wrote for the main strip. ‘Black Legacy’ was a four-part story featuring the Cybermen. This was followed by a four-part Autons story, ‘Business as Usual’ and three linked stories set in the distant past of the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey, ‘Star Death’, ‘4-D War’ and ‘Black Sun Rising’ – Moore has called these the ‘4D War cycle’ (Cerebro, 1982). With the exception of ‘Star Death’, drawn by John Stokes, his artist was David Lloyd. Around May 1981, while working together on Doctor Who, Moore and Lloyd began work on their only other collaboration, V for Vendetta.

Moore says that this early professional work, was ‘the best way to learn… you have to create all of your characters, you have to create their entire world, you have to set the story up and bring it to a conclusion, all in six pages’ (Khoury: 67). He certainly had to learn to be concise: ‘Black Legacy’ and ‘Business as Usual’ may have been published over four issues, but each chapter was only two pages long. As well as the world building and story, each two page instalment had to work if read in isolation, recap previous instalments, and end on a strong cliffhanger.

Alan Moore’s friend and mentor Steve Moore had written all the previous back up stories before being promoted to write the main strip. He’d established a formula very reminiscent of 2000 AD’s Future Shocks [2]. They tended to be variations on the theme of someone arrogantly venturing somewhere they were clearly warned not to go, where they meddle with forces they don’t understand, with a nasty twist at the end when the protagonist thinks they are finally safe.

One aim Alan Moore would have had with his first story was to show editor, Paul Neary, that he could replicate the existing formula. ‘Black Legacy’ does that almost to a fault – it’s set on Goth, ‘a haunted planet shunned by all’, except the story’s protagonist, Cyberleader Maxel. Goth was the home of the long-dead Deathsmiths, builders of terrible weapons. The plan, as expressed by Maxel, is simple: ‘With devices like these, the Cybermen will be truly invincible!’ As they explore the ruins, the Cybermen are picked off one-by-one by the Apocalypse Device, finally revealed to be a demonic construct who seeks to leave the planet and devastate the galaxy. Maxel gets back to his ship, but realises he must blow it up to prevent the Apocalypse Device from leaving Goth … and months later, a Sontaran ship arrives to repeat the process.

It’s a near re-run of Steve Moore’s ‘The Final Quest’ from Doctor Who Weekly #8, where a Sontaran is tricked into self-destruction by exposing himself to another ‘ultimate weapon’, a lethal plague. Even the twist of telling a story where our sympathies lie with the Cybermen had been employed by Steve Moore, in earlier back up strip ‘Throwback: Soul of a Cybermen’ and its sequel ‘Ship of Fools’.

Being a Doctor Who strip added another mandate: it had to capture at least some of the spirit and letter of what had been previously established in the television series. Moore has admitted that he’d watched Doctor Who but wasn’t a fan (Khoury: 71) [3]. The Cybermen in ‘Black Legacy’ are not the logical, emotionless beings of the TV series. Moore’s Cybermen – helped by Lloyd’s posing of the figures – seem at times almost operatic.

The flaws of the strip, however, are not limited to ones of Doctor Who lore. After three instalments where the Cybermen are being stalked by a spooky, unseen presence, all the reveals and explanations are stacked in the final chapter. The Device describes itself as ‘a synthetic creature carrying every conceivable disease and virus. A creature that broadcasts telepathic nightmares that paralyzed its enemies with fear!’ – two things that don’t seem to have much of a common theme (not to mention the problem that the Cybermen ought to be immune to both). We learn the Device wants to leave the planet and has allowed Maxel to escape so it can hitch a lift in his spaceship, but both the dialogue and art have the Device outside the ship when Maxel gets back to it. [4] The last line – ‘It will not wait forever, that is the problem with ultimate weapons’ – is almost certainly Moore attempting to yoke the story to the nuclear weapons issue, but it’s too little, too late. It has all the hallmarks of a writer assembling a story as he goes and realising he’s written himself into a corner.

His second story, ‘Business as Usual’ has a writer who is learning lessons and growing in confidence. The first part charts the rapid rise of a mysterious new plastics company that uses revolutionary and highly secretive new techniques. As the title implies, it’s a very similar set up to the second TV Autons story, ‘Terror of the Autons’, and there could be few Doctor Who Weekly readers who hadn’t guessed the identity of the monsters by the time they are named in the last caption of the first chapter.

Moore and Lloyd make good use of the medium. When talking about learning his craft with these early stories, Moore said one choice is to ‘pace it so that a lot happens in a very few pages, in which case, tell it mostly with captions’ (Khoury: 67). The first part is a fast-moving – while very word heavy – montage sequence with a snuck in cameo by Tom Baker’s Doctor.

The last three chapters comprise a more straightforward runaround. Max Fischer, an industrial spy, is chased through a plastics factory by toy soldiers and confronts the sinister Mr Dolman, who patiently explains the aliens’ plan. Then Fischer flees, starts a fire, jumps in his car and thinks he’s escaped, but one of the toy soldiers is in the car with him and it crashes [5].

On one level ‘Business as Usual’ is little more than exposition describing the aliens’ plans in the form of captions and Dolman’s dialogue. The strip moves fast, though, it’s exciting and benefits from Lloyd’s exaggerated shadows and facial expressions. The story keeps revealing striking images, the most memorable being Dolman himself. Four years before James Cameron’s The Terminator, ‘Business as Usual’ features an indestructible artificial human who relentlessly pursues the protagonist even when its head has been damaged so extensively the mechanical skull beneath has been exposed. [6]

Moore has said that his attitude to writing licenced comics was that ‘if it isn’t something that’s interesting to you, then try to so something clever with it that will make it interesting to you’ (Khoury: 71). It was with the 4D War cycle that he got to spread his wings a little.

While Doctor Who had been on television for seventeen years by the end of 1980, the history of the Doctor’s people, the Time Lords, had barely been touched on [7]. With a relatively blank slate, Moore took the opportunity to cast the events as golden age space opera. The 4D War cycle is hung around a relatively straightforward time paradox – the Time Lords are under attack from the Order of the Black Sun, a mysterious organisation from the future, who are retaliating for some offence the Time Lords we see are yet to commit [8]. ‘4D War’ takes place twenty years after ‘Star Death’ and ‘Black Sun Rising’ takes place ten years after ‘4D War’, and so Moore manages to create something of a generational saga in only 12 pages.

Moore has mentioned that when he decided to make a go of being a comics creator,

I was starting all of these gigantic space operas that I was going to sell to 2000 AD I was going to write them and draw them. I think about six months later I’d got one page half penciled, some inks. I just thought, “why am I doing this?”. I realised it was because I was never going to finish it.

(Chain Reaction).

He would go on to write a number of space operas early in his career – this, The Stars My Degradation, Warpsmith, The Ballad of Halo Jones and Green Lantern Corps – and it’s tempting to imagine that ideas were salvaged from this abandoned project. Both the Time Lord strips and Warpsmith deal with a small, close-knit team with space/time manipulation abilities, who live on the fringes of cosmic cold war that seems poised to break out into open hostilities at any moment, and the team leaders in both ‘Black Sun Rising’ and the first Warpsmith strip, ‘Cold War, Cold Warrior’ are forced to kill a colleague.

It’s also notable that in ‘4D War’ Moore introduced the Special Executive, a group of ‘parahumans’ each with their own abilities; a superhero team, in other words, complete with superhero codenames like Wardog, Cobweb and Zeitgeist. We see little of the Order of the Black Sun, but what we do see also resembles a team of superheroes or supervillains.

In a 1982 interview Moore said that when he came up with the Special Executive,

it’s fair to say that I did receive a certain amount of inspiration from those early Byrne X-Men … (Incidentally, did anyone notice that the Order of the Black Sun in those 4D War stories were an Earth-5 version of the Green Lantern Corps? No? just wondered.) And while I’m on the subject of supergroups its perhaps worth mentioning that us people at Warrior have a supergroup in the works. For gentle hints check out the ‘Marvelman’ story in this year’s soon-come Warrior Summer Special.

(Cerebro) [9]

Moore intended to write more instalments of the 4D War cycle, but quit Doctor Who Monthly as a gesture of support to his friend Steve Moore [10]. He would reuse the Special Executive in his Captain Britain series, but would never return to, or explain the story behind, the Order of the Black Sun.

Moore had already written the first few chapters of Marvelman and V for Vendetta by the time he left Doctor Who Monthly and in that time had gone from a novice comics scriptwriter to being one of ‘the most respected and reputable strip writers in British comics’ (SSI Newsletter). Alan Moore’s Doctor Who strips come to a sum total of 28 pages over little more than a single year, and he was working to a restrictive brief and writing for a very young audience. Within that, though, we can definitely see progress in a very short time from the fairly slavish imitation of a template of ‘Black Legacy’ to a work closer to his own heart, a more creative use of the format and a more assured use of the medium.

Works Cited

Khoury, George (ed.). The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore. Raleigh NC: TwoMorrows Publishing, 2003.

Moore, Alan.

and David Lloyd. ‘Black Legacy’. Doctor Who Weekly #35 – #38 (June-July 1980). London: Marvel UK

and David Lloyd, ‘Business as Usual’, Doctor Who Weekly #40 – #43 (July-August 1980). London: Marvel UK

and John Stokes, ‘Star Death’, Doctor Who Monthly #47 (December 1980)

and David Lloyd, ‘4-D War’, Doctor Who Weekly #51 (April 1981). London: Marvel UK

and David Lloyd, ‘Black Sun Rising’, Doctor Who Weekly #57 (October 1981). London: Marvel UK

and Walter Howarth, ‘Southern Comfort’, 2000 AD Sci Fi Special (July 1981). London: IPC

and Steve Dillon, ‘Marvelman: The Yesterday Gambit’, Warrior #4 (Summer 1982). London: Quality

and Garry Leach, ‘Warpsmith: Cold War, Cold Warrior’, Warrior #9 – #10 (January, May 1983). London: Quality

as Curt Vile, ‘The Stars My Degradation’, Sounds (12th July 1980 – 26th December 1981)

with Pedro Henry (Steve Moore), Sounds (6th February 1982 – 19th March 1983)

Steve Moore

and Blasquez, ‘King of the World!’, 2000 AD #25 (August 1977). London: IPC

and Paul Neary & David Lloyd, ‘Throwback: The Soul of a Cybermen’, Doctor Who Weekly #5-7 (November/December 1979). London: Marvel UK

and Paul Neary & David Lloyd, ‘The Final Quest’, Doctor Who Weekly #8 (December 1979). London: Marvel UK

and David Lloyd, ‘Deathworld’, Doctor Who Weekly #15-16 (January 1980). London: Marvel UK

and Steve Dillon, ‘Ship of Fools’, Doctor Who Weekly #23-24 (March 1980). London: Marvel UK

Interviews

Alan Moore, author roundtable, ‘From the Writers Viewpoint’, (ed) David Lloyd, SSI [Society of Strip Illustration] Newsletter No 40, May 1981.

Alan Moore (as Curt Vile), interview ‘Curt Vile Interview’, by E Stachelski, Cerebro v.3 n.15, 1982.

Alan Moore, interview ‘Chain Reaction’, interview by Stewart Lee, BBC Radio Four, 2005.

Lance Parkin is the author of a number of Doctor Who novels such as Just War, The Infinity Doctors and The Eyeless, and non fiction work about the series including Ahistory, a timeline of the Doctor Who fictional universe, the Third Edition of which will be published this autumn. He is also the author of The Pocket Essential Alan Moore, and a literary biography of Alan Moore which will be published in November 2013 by Aurum Press.

[1] – Doctor Who Weekly was originally padded out with reprints of Marvel adaptations of classic science fiction-tinged novels, such as The War of the Worlds and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but these were soon dropped in favour of more text features.

[2] – Not a surprise, given that the original idea, and name, for the Future Shocks is usually credited to him, and he certainly wrote the first story to appear under that banner (‘King of the World’ in 2000 AD #25, August 1977).

[3] – At the time he was writing, perhaps the best source of information about the Cybermen, Autons and Time Lords would have been the articles and photo features in Doctor Who Weekly itself. Moore would not have found it hard to track down a copy of The Making of Doctor Who, a popular and oft-reprinted paperback that gave plot summaries and a potted history of the show. Every branch of Smiths and Moore’s local library could have supplied him with a shelf of novelisations of individual TV stories.

[4] – Killing Maxel’s crew is not much of a plan to start with – it would have been smarter, surely, for the Device just to hide itself in the ship at the earliest opportunity and keep its head down until it had escaped Goth.

[5] – The following year, Moore would write a story for the 2000 AD Sci-Fi Special, ‘Southern Comfort’ and was very unhappy with the end result. It’s almost beat-for-beat the same plot as ‘Business as Usual’, except it uses zombie-like creatures instead of Autons.

[6] – Even intact, Dolman was creepy and represents the first time Moore used the motif of a grin that remains fixed whatever horrors go on around it, one that recurs in his best known eighties work – V for Vendetta, The Killing Joke and Watchmen.

[7] – The sum total of information came from two stories: ‘The Three Doctors’ (1972) established that the engineer Omega had blown up a star and provided the Time Lords with the energy needed to master time travel; ‘The Deadly Assassin’ (1976) didn’t mention Omega but named the founder of Time Lord society as Rassilon, who gave the Time Lords a black hole that’s the source of all their power.

[8] – Omega is mentioned in ‘Star Death’ and Rassilon appears at the end (we see only his eyes and hands). After that, all the Time Lord characters and settings are new (‘Castellan’, a title used in the TV stories is used).

[9] – The Marvelman episode in the Warrior Summer Special mentioned by Moore introduced the Warpsmiths.

[10] – Steve Moore’s account of this at www.alteredvistas.co.uk/html/steve_moore_abslom_daak_interv.html

This article is part of a series on Alan Moore’s short comics, guest edited by Maggie Gray. To read the other articles in this series click here.

 

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