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Graphic Novel Review

Book Cover

Doctor Who
Four Doctors (Hardback)


Writer: Paul Cornell
Artist: Neil Edwards
Colourist: Ivan Nunes
Publisher: Titan Comics
RRP: UK £14.99, US $19.99, Cdn $25.99
Age: 12+
ISBN: 978 1 78276 596 7
128 pages
Publication Date: 13 January 2016

Chaos rules when three Doctors meet – the universe-shattering crossover the Laws of Time said should never happen! The tenth, eleventh and twelfth incarnations of the Doctor come face to face for the first time ever, with guest cameos from past incarnations, and an astonishing mystery at the story’s heart! Under attack by the Reapers, the antibodies of the universe! A photograph that should never have been taken, that spells doom for reality! A breathless chase through three TARDISes! A hidden enemy lurking outside of known time! Manoeuvred into an impossible meeting, the Doctors and their companions must uncover an immensely powerful foe, fix the time stream, and right an ancient wrong...

This graphic novel collects issues 1 to 5 of the Doctor Who miniseries Four Doctors. Not to be confused with Big Finish’s The Four Doctors (which featured our hero’s fifth to eighth incarnations), this saga unites the three most recent Doctors and also involves a fourth.

Why am I choosing my words so carefully when referring to the quartet of Time Lords in this story? Because although the War Doctor appears (that’s his silhouette on the front cover), he does not actually meet his successors, but rather appears in a thrilling prologue, which sets things up for later events. When the identity of the additional Doctor is finally revealed, he’s probably not the one you were expecting…!

The prologue also introduces an awesome redesign of the Voord, villains from the dawn of the classic series (The Keys of Marinus, to be precise) who are allied to the Time Lords and the War Doctor during the Time War. Shiny, liquid metal armour has replaced the wetsuits of old, and the Voord share a group mind. It is explained that they have been changed for the better by shifts in causation resulting from the Time War (which could be used as a handy get-out clause for their aberrant depiction as proto-Cybermen in the 1987 Doctor Who Magazine strip The World Shapers).

Another blast from the past comes in the formidable form of the Reapers. Paul Cornell is the best possible writer to reintroduce these creatures, since he created them in the first place, in one of my favourite episodes, Father’s Day. Every aspect of their concept is present and correct here, with the three Doctors completing each other’s sentences as they explain that whenever there’s a temporal fluctuation at a vulnerable point in time, the Reapers swoop in to feed, to cleanse the wound, and Alice discovering that the TARDIS has been changed into an ordinary police box.

Cornell combines new series mythology with old, the latter in the form of the Blinovitch Limitation Effect – which can result in a powerful discharge of energy, a shorting out of the time differential, when two versions of the same person from different times come into contact. This effect has been inconsistently depicted in the series over the years. It happened when two Brigadiers met in Mawdryn Undead, but not when Rose held her infant self in Father’s Day (perhaps on that occasion we just didn’t see the energy, which attracted the Reapers and was absorbed by them). Time Lords are usually immune to such effects, but here the Doctors are not (perhaps because this is a fixed point in time), though the effect is not as debilitating as it was to the Brigadiers.

Much of the book is rather heavy on exposition, as the Doctors and their companions are told about and react to a threat that has been foretold in a mysterious museum, and later on the villain explains how he got where he is today and what his plans are.

The writer faces a complication posed by the fact that Clara has already witnessed a meeting of the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, in The Day of the Doctor, which took place later in both of their timelines and yet in which the Tenth Doctor did not recognise his successor. The writer solves this by making it a plot point, a concern raised by Clara, who is trying to prevent the Doctors from meeting. Cornell plays mix and match with the Doctors and their companions during a brief ‘run for your life’ sequence, during which the most poignant interaction is that between Clara and an Eleventh Doctor who shouldn’t really have met her yet. Learning that he is not to be the final Doctor as he had believed is “a ginormous weight off [his] shoulders,” he says, “And if this new me is with someone as nice as you, well – he must be a very cool sort of me.” It’s… complicated, replies Clara. This is a beautiful little moment.

Cornell and artist Neil Edwards also face the challenge of keeping several pages of chat in a 1920s Paris coffee shop as lively as possible. They manage this by various means, including cutting to a flashback of Clara stumbling upon the Museum of Terrible Fates on a seemingly abandoned planet, a snazzy zoom-out effect, and by having the protagonists enter the scene one at a time – the three Doctors barging in in especially dramatic fashion. Edwards’s exquisitely detailed art is some of the best we have ever seen in Titan’s Doctor Who range (though it does get slightly weaker on later pages).

The writer has his work cut out for him having to cater for six regular characters at once. Some of the dialogue doesn’t ring quite true, such as the Twelfth Doctor’s sulky comment about a planet that is just jungle and ruins: “I demand it to stop. I’m going to stand here until it does.” However, plenty of it does feel right. For example, Gabby realises that her Doctor, the Tenth, if warned to stay away from some danger, would head in that direction “right away”, while Alice correctly surmises that Eleven would go there “eventually, after he’d spent ages trying not to.” Clara is every bit the control freak she is on screen, warning the Doctors to “Step away from the multi-Doctor event! This is exactly what I didn’t want.”

The second and third chapters of this story turn the spotlight on the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors and in particular their companions, budding artist Gabriella Gonzalez and former library assistant Alice Obiefune, who provide the narration. Gabby’s section includes an illustrated snippet from her diary, and Alice makes some wise observations about the Doctors and about Time Lord mentality in general: “Maybe that’s why Time Lords change – so if they suffer guilt or… grief… they can become someone else. And they still remember it, only – maybe it’s like it happened to someone else?” Thanks to her age and her experiences of travelling with her Doctor, Alice has something of an advantage over the more naïve Gabby: “This distrust of himself, this potential to become something terrible, to settle for something not right – I’ve seen that in my Doctor, too. I don’t think Gabby knew that about hers. That one is trying to hide so much. He’s running from himself. It’s like there’s a shadow over all of them… this ‘Time War’ they talk about.”

As in the novel Timewyrm: Revelation, his first professionally published piece of Who fiction, Cornell delves deep into the Doctor’s troubled psyche. Thanks to the detonation of a continuity bomb (which is a Dalek weapon left over from the Time War, though it sounds like something a careless writer might drop by accident!), we see alternative versions of the Doctors at pivotal moments of decision in their lives: the Tenth Doctor in The End of Time; the Eleventh during The Wedding of River Song; and the Twelfth post-Dark Water. Of these three sequences, the depiction of Ten as the ‘Time Lord Victorious’ is the most effective and chilling.

During this flashback, Wilfred Mott doesn’t look much like Bernard Cribbins, but the artist redeems himself by providing some neat transparency effects for the ghostly observers.

The plot of this story hinges upon the Twelfth Doctor becoming desperately lonely in an alternative version of his own near future. From what we have recently seen in Series 9, this aspect rings very true – though this version has let his hair grow even longer, rather resembling John Glover as Lionel Luthor in Smallville. The writer also coincidentally echoes the fate of Clara at the halfway point of the two-parter The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar...

Further proving that he really knows his Who, Cornell addresses the conspicuous absence of the Ninth Doctor, the only post-Time War incarnation not to be embroiled in the plot. According to the villain, “There was… a problem involving him.” This sounds not unlike the difficulty Borusa had obtaining the Fourth Doctor in The Five Doctors, as a result of Tom Baker being as unwilling to reprise the role at that time as Christopher Eccleston is now – a delightfully meta reference!

Similarly meta is the acknowledgement that Gabby and Alice are not safe from eradication. The bad guy needs the three Doctors and Clara in order to maintain his own version of events. In the real world, the continuity of the parent show requires them to survive for similar reasons. The same cannot be said of Gabby and Alice, who exist only in the comics… leading to a real ‘how can they get out of that?’ situation at the end of the fourth chapter.

The authoritarian Twelfth Doctor gets many of the most quotable lines in this graphic novel – for instance when asking Gabby and Alice, “Would you two please tell your Manic Pixie Dream Doctors that Daddy’s home? If they would just follow my instructions –” The sceptical Ten tells him not to “do the lapels thing. You can’t order us around just by doing the lapels thing.” Twelve, however, is just as critical right back at him: “Don’t do that. Be all Bugs Bunny like that! Like I’m someone you have to distract!” It is the two ‘Scottish’ Doctors who have the most difficulty getting along. Later, Twelve references the Spice Girls as he realises with regret how his predecessors must regard him: “Baby Doctor and Posh Doctor seem to think I’m… Scary Doctor.” He also successfully psychoanalyses Ten: by walking into danger, springing the trap rather than living in fear, “he might actually be seeking punishment.”

Perhaps unexpectedly, though, I find it is the Eleventh Doctor who comes to the fore. This may have something to do with the fact that he is my favourite of the new series Doctors and his title is the one I like best in the Titan Comics range. Here he takes on a role similar to that of the First Doctor in The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors, or the War Doctor in The Day of the Doctor – i.e. the sensible one. “I think I might actually win a ‘least silly Doctor’ contest,” he observes to Alice with some surprise. Who’d have thought it? As the Doctor in the middle, he finds himself playing peacemaker between his more argumentative other selves. “For goodness’ sake!” he exclaims, during a chase with the Reapers, “You’re not still at it, are you?!”

This volume also includes the humour strips that appeared in the monthly issues. That’s just as well, because Marc Ellerby’s The Doctor Shops for Comics and The Doctor Shops for Angels are also written by Cornell and form part of the main story. However, with the Paris dateline established as 1923, the Eleventh Doctor is five years too early to be picking up copies of Le Petit Vingtième (The Little Twentieth, which saw the debut of Tintin), as claimed in The Doctor Shops for Comics, because that publication ran from 1928 to 1940.

Despite occasional imperfections such as that, the quality of the artwork and the writing in Four Doctors mean that it is well worth shopping for this comic – sorry, graphic novel.


Richard McGinlay

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