The Fourth Doctor: Gaze of the Medusa TPB
Writer: Gordon Rennie & Emma Beeby
Artist: Brian Williamson
Letterer: Richard Starkings & Comicraft
A review by Billy Seguire
Forty years after her departure from the TARDIS, Sarah Jane Smith is back with the Fourth Doctor in an adventure that sees Titan Comics tackling the classic series of Doctor Who for the first time. With a story that seems ripped right out of 1976, Gaze of the Medusa shows an incredible understanding of how the classic series was structured to create riveting cliffhanger drama on a limited budget. The six issue comic is a perfect adaptation, loaded with enough depth and references to the modern series to feel like a living story, while reminding us why Tom Baker remains the Doctor in so many hearts and minds.
Titan jumps into the classic series on its strongest foot with the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane. Especially considering that Sarah Jane Smith is one of the few beloved companions Big Finish can no longer provide, the Hinchcliffe era provides some of the most bang for your buck in terms of character potential. Sarah Jane is a strong lead in this comic against the villains of the story and holds her own as well as you’d expect the Doctor to take charge. Although faced with enormous cosmic odds, you never doubt for a second that she isn’t capable of handling the situation on her own.
Victorian London is an era that Doctor Who knows well. Whether it’s The Talons of Weng-Chiang or The Crimson Horror, the dark narrow streets have always appealed to the BBC’s budget. Gaze of the Medusa plays to era’s strengths as a gothic reliquary for the unusual. Combining Victorian aesthetics with Greek mythology is an incredible premise that pays off in spades with the images its able to present. If you never thought you needed to see a ten foot cyclops with a neatly trimmed beard and cravat, you thought wrong. Drawn in warm lamplight of the era, the book is heavy with shadows which seem to have danger lurking around every corner.
And while I keep returning to the idea of authenticity within Gaze of the Medusa, I need to describe how it does this without being a superficial recreation. Rennie and Beeby intentionally approach the alien elements of the story on same terms writers would have had to work with on television in 1976. The scope of the cyclops monsters that dominate the early pages of the book, for example, feels intentionally limited. Their strongest attributes come from cutting corners to make the creative mind work harder. In many ways, Gaze of the Medusa trumps the classic series in effects (there are some incredible images in later chapters) but definitely keeps the same level of ambition. This works for a story that feels grounded and true to the era these creators have set out to recreate.
The introduction of two side characters Odysseus and Athena James is entirely faithful to the era as well. With the Fourth Doctor’s story only just starting out, we meet these characters in the sidelines, their story already at the turning point of culmination. Their backstory is revealed slowly throughout the following issues, revealing a surprising amount of depth and agency of their own. Since this is classic Doctor Who, we know these side characters may or may not become nothing more than body fodder at the whims of the writers by the end of the story, yet they are fully developed throughout the episodes preceding their demise and the loss, when and if it comes, feels truly earned. It’s a far cry from the quirky, one note characters we often meet in the modern series.
Tom Baker’s asides and improvisations shine through the writing of this book. It perfectly captures his spirit an irresistible urge for humour and anarchy. In a splendid moment, the classic series and the new come together in a scene where the Fourth Doctor addresses the elephant in the room and references the Weeping Angels. These are scenes that depend so much on the intertwining of the canon of Doctor Who and Tom Baker’s performance that I feel obligated to stop and appreciate the craft it took to translate this feeling of awe to the comic page.
I found Williamson’s character art of Gaze of the Medusa to get progressively better as the comic went on. Early pages had Tom Baker looking unrealistic, almost as if his face were lifted directly from promotional photos or stills to achieve a recognizable face. By the latter issues, that problem was alleviated completely in favour of nuanced facial expressions that totally sold the character for me. The scene in the cave with the Fourth Doctor monologuing to a stone statue is magnificent, with gorgeous art that was only overshone by the writing that seems to put the essence of what I love about this show into the comic. Tom Baker should be jealous he never got to act this scene for himself because it might just be one of my favourite Fourth Doctor moments of all time.
Buy It! This is the first Doctor Who story in which Titan Comics has seriously attempted to capture the spirit of the classic series, and they’ve absolutely nailed the pacing and cliffhanger endings that make those serials and comics mesh perfectly. The mixed feelings I generally still have towards how Titan paces these stories are gone when you put it in the context of serialised episodes, and it is absolutely stunning how well Gaze of the Medusa captures the voice of these characters. If you had any doubt about reading a Fourth Doctor comic, know that this is a book that captures not only the comedy and wit, but the heart and pathos that made Tom Baker own the role.