Comics based on a licensed property can be tricky, doubly so when it’s connected to a current licensed property. It’s not like working on, say, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight” where Joss Whedon and company have the power to completely change the status quo. So with a “Doctor Who” comic, everyone’s locked into what happens on the television, more or less; there are some things they just simply can’t do.
With all that in mind, IDW’s “Doctor Who Annual 2010” is a middle-of-the-road comic. Like most anthologies, it has its highs and lows over the course of four stories. The best is, easily, “The Big, Blue Box” written and drawn by Matthew Dow Smith. It’s narrated by a man that encounters the Doctor, only to have the Doctor tell him that his entire life is a lie. As we learn about the man’s true identity and purpose, Smith keeps the writing personal and interesting; it puts the main character in a difficult, at best, scenario, and then provides a graceful conclusion to the story, all in the space of 11 pages. Smith’s art is excellent; his angular, open style is great at drawing both humans and aliens, and while all three artists nail the look of David Tennant’s Doctor, Smith is probably the one that does it the best. (Admittedly, as a regular artist for IDW’s “Doctor Who” title, he’s had a lot of practice.)
Al Davison’s “To Sleep, Perchance to Scream” is in many ways a “licensed fiction 101” exercise, plunging into the Doctor’s head during a dream and showing imagery from the past and future in the process. The story is, honestly, a bit dull and substandard. It’s not terribly original, and in most other hands I’d have written it off with a “been there, done that” shrug. That said, Davison’s art is phenomenal, a reminder that any new Davison art is reason to celebrate. Its lush details and psychedelic landscape are a joy to look at, and Davison captures the likenesses of multiple actors and aliens from the series over the years in such a way that you can’t help but revel in it. At the end of the day, the sub-par story really exists as an excuse for Davison to go crazy with the art, and on that level I’m happy.
Of the three complete stories in “Doctor Who Annual 2010,” it’s a little sad that the weakest is also the lead story, commanding 22 pages of the book. Jonathan L. Davis and Kelly Yates don’t do a bad job, per se, but it’s just not interesting either. I’m not against a comic primarily consisting of the Doctor and someone else arguing over the status of the TARDIS as a weapon, but Davis doesn’t give his story any spark or particular excitement to its pages. The flashbacks to untold stories with Donna and Martha aren’t bad ideas, but they’re so short that they feel more like an excuse to feature cameos of familiar faces. With random other flashes to various villains from the series tacked on as well, “Ground Control” feels more like a weak excuse to show off past elements of the show but without actually doing anything with them. I know a lot of people think that if you show old faces that fans go crazy, but I think the reality is that fans like to see something done new with the old; without that, it comes across more as pandering than exciting.
Yates’ art is stronger, but it also comes across a little inconsistent in places. The maintenance worker’s face seems to shift a lot from one panel to the next, and the action sequences come across a little stiff and posed. Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all, though, is the panda. Davis and Yates came up with a great image of a cloak-wearing, spear-wielding panda for the opening page, and then that character design is wasted for the rest of the story, barely appearing at all. Getting teased with that and then never having a strong follow-through is a sad moment.
The Annual ends with a four page teaser written by Tony Lee that leads into “Doctor Who” #13. Drawn by Smith, it’s probably one of the better “Doctor Who” stories from Lee that I’ve seen, perhaps because in just four pages he doesn’t have room to bombard the reader with pointless continuity references. (One does sneak in, though.) My one complaint here is that it assumes that people who read “Doctor Who Annual 2010” are also regular readers of the “Doctor Who” monthly title. As someone who decided to read the Annual because it was a standalone comic, the references to another, missing character were slightly confusing, but I suspect makes sense to those reading every issue. It’s an all right advertisement for the main series, but I’d rather have seen the four pages go to another story by Smith, or even something else entirely new that stood on its own.
At the end of the day, “Doctor Who Annual 2010” is a middle-of-the-ground comic. Could have been better, but certainly could have been worse. I’d like to see Smith write more stories down the line, if nothing else. And while this didn’t make me want to race out and grab all the past issues that I didn’t get, there’s enough going on here that I’ll probably take a look at “Doctor Who” #13 when it’s published to see what happens next. All in all, that’s not a bad end result for an Annual to achieve.