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A Doctor Who Comic Almost Made the War Doctor Impossible

Doctor Who comic strip was once set to make the 'War Doctor' incarnation impossible, only avoiding this huge change to the franchise's lore by chance. There's a sense in which the BBC's flagship sci-fi TV show is one of the most well-established transmedia franchises, in part precisely because Doctor Who was canceled in 1989. The BBC may have decided they had lost faith in the Doctor's ongoing small-screen adventures, but his story continued in a wide range of other media, including books, comics, and radio plays.

Given the character's enduring popularity, the BBC decided to sign off on Russell T. Davies' proposed Doctor Who relaunch in 2003. Writer Scott Gray was penning the scripts for the long-running comic strips in Doctor Who Magazine at the time, and in notes attached to the graphic novel of The Complete Eighth Doctor Comic Strips: Vol. 4 he recalls the fateful day he learned about it. "I used to have a standard morning routine in the Panini office," he recalls. "I'd come in, plunk my bag down, say hello to DWM's Deputy Editor Tom Spilsbury and ask, 'So, has Doctor Who come back yet?' Sometimes Tom would sadly shake his head and stick his lower lip out. Sometimes he'd say, 'Yes, you just missed it. It's gone away again.' But one day... One fine day... Tom oh-so-casually replied, 'Yeah, Russell T. Davies is bringing it back in 2005.' And he actually meant it." It's hard for modern fans to imagine what it must have felt like in the offices of Doctor Who Magazine when that news broke.

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But how would the comic strip respond to a new Doctor? For the first time since 1989, Doctor Who Magazine's writers and artists were operating alongside an actual TV series that was in production. And, to their delight, they found Russell T. Davies more than happy to work with them. Davies understood the role other media played in keeping Doctor Who alive, and he wanted to honor that by offering them a unique opportunity.

Doctor Who Magazine's comic strips had been charting the story of Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor, but they knew they would inevitably move on to Christopher Eccleston's incarnation in 2005. The creative team decided to end the McGann era in style, with a high-stakes adventure in which the Cybermen invaded Earth - one of the most spectacular stories the fan magazine had ever published. To their delight, Russell T. Davies even wanted them to show McGann's regeneration into Eccleston. Editor Clayton Hickman couldn't believe the offer. "For so many years the strip had been ignored," he remembers, "or relegated by the fans to second- or third- or fourth-best after the novels, the audio dramas, the sweet cigarette cards, etc... And now there we were, being asked by the man who was bringing back the show to BBC One, if we'd like to depict one of the most important moments imaginable. Being asked, bluntly, to create a part of Doctor Who history."

The script is included in Panini's The Complete Eighth Doctor Comic Strips: Vol. 4, and it makes thrilling reading:

Full-page, overhead shot. The Eighth Doctor is gone forever. He's been replaced by someone else - a broad-faced man with short dark hair, beaky nose, sticky-out ears. The Doctor's clothes seem a bit tight on him now - he's popped a couple of buttons on his waistcoast, and his arms seem a little too long for his sleeves. A few tiny glowing fairy-trails of energy still float around him. Stay tight, focused on his face - a waist-up shot of him here.

Destrii (only in partial view - she's mostly cut off by the edge of panel left) looks down at the stranger. He's sleeping peacefully - he looks quite innocent. She holds out a tentative hand...

DESTRII: Doctor...?


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But there was just one problem with this proposed idea; Davies wasn't keen on keeping the comic strip's companion in the first wave of Ninth Doctor comic strips. He considered the Ninth Doctor and his companion Rose to be a package deal, and he wanted Doctor Who Magazine to move straight on to that team. In the end, the team at DWM concluded they couldn't do it. As they argued, a regeneration is about both change and continuity. The best regeneration stories lead on to tales in which an old companion must deal with a new Doctor. As exciting as the idea of telling the regeneration story would be, they just didn't feel they could do it justice, and they passed on the opportunity.

There's a sense in which the Time War was always going to cause problems for Doctor Who Magazine's comic strips. Russell T. Davies came up with the Time War as a smart way of waving away decades of continuity and giving the show a fresh start, ensuring viewers old and new were both reacting to a brand new status quo. But there was understandably no trace of the Time War in DWM's adventures up to this point, and the regeneration story would have felt clunky and ill-fitting as a result. Even worse, "Rose" implied Eccleston's Doctor was newly-regenerated when the relaunch began. Doctor Who's continuity has always been confusing, but for readers of DWM, the new era would have begun with a lot of puzzling questions.

But the impact would have become even more pronounced with the passage of time. Steven Moffat ultimately spotted the gap between Paul McGann and Christopher Eccleston, and used it to insert a whole new incarnation of the enigmatic time traveler - John Hurt's War Doctor. Of course, had the official comic depicted the direct transformation from McGann to Eccleston, this gap wouldn't have existed. While it's possible Moffat would have retroactively de-canonized the comic regeneration, it's difficult to imagine the magazine not delightedly celebrating their Russell T. Davies-endorsed regeneration on publication, meaning Moffatt would not only have lacked the inspiration for the War Doctor idea, but risked dividing the fanbase by implementing it.

At the time, choosing not to depict McGann's regeneration in comic form felt like a huge missed opportunity that could have fully connected the reborn show to the media that had kept the franchise alive in its absence. But in retrospect, it's probably a good thing Doctor Who Magazine passed on this opportunity, avoiding a major continuity problem and creating a gap in the timeline that was ultimately filled by the War Doctor. Still, all the team who worked on the final Eighth Doctor adventure for Doctor Who Magazine will undoubtedly never forget that they were treated with the utmost respect by the revived series' first showrunner, and Doctor Who fans got the awesome War Doctor incarnation into the bargain, even eventually witnessing McGann's canon transformation in the online mini-episode 'The Night of the Doctor.'

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