Friday, September 9, 2011

Death’s Head Review: Issue #8 – Time Bomb!

For the very first time, we get a Death’s Head story that wasn’t written by Simon Furman. Steve Parkhouse taking on writing, and also inking, duties. We also have Art Wetherell new on pencils. Elsewhere Annie H remains as letterer, Louise Cassell colourist and Steve White editor.
The cover is another by Bryan Hitch and Mark Farmer, depicting Death’s Head with an anthropomorphic frog named Josiah W. Dogbolter. Looking at an image of the TARDIS, Dogbolter wonders aloud that Death’s Head wants $20,000 to steal the time machine, but only $20 to kill The Doctor. “Special offer, yes?” As always, it’s very well-drawn, and Dogbolter looks suitably evil with cigar and high collar. While it’s nice to show Death’s Head plotting with a client, for my taste, it’s a bit too much of a ‘scene’ for a cover (especially one that didn’t seem to happen in the story). And as a rematch between Death’s Head and Doctor Who, I would have expected The Doctor to make it onto the front.
We begin with a press conference for Intra-Venus, the ‘largest private corporation in the known universe’ (quite a claim). The president and chairman is Josiah W. Dogbolter, who has previously been the villain in a couple of Doctor Who stories (Doctor Who Magazine 84-89). Dogbolter is unveiling his company’s latest invention, the ‘Dogbolter Temporal Rocket’, basically a time-machine backpack with numerous commercial uses.
Once the cameras stop rolling, Dogbolter is met by his robot servant, Hob, and reveals his plans to test the prototype by sending a killer after The Doctor, thus settling their ‘unfinished business’. He needs, “a skilled assassin who’s not only spectacularly stupid, but psychotically aggressive, amoral and lacking in any kind of imagination whatsoever.” Hob knows the very person…

Dressed like a bellhop, Hob knocks on Death’s Head’s door. The mechanoid answers, adopting an unusually macho attitude, “Don’t be formal, boy … You can call me Death.” Hob hands Death’s Head a letter (paper being an expensive rarity), then shows off his expensive components (platinum limbs, ruby eyes, diamond bearings). He is, apparently, the most expensive robot in existent, and he offers himself as payment for a contract on The Doctor.
Days later, Death’s Head is on the roof of the Intra-Venus skyscraper, the Temporal Rocket strapped to his back. Warned that the directional controls may be unstable, he steps off and disappears in an explosive ‘Whoof!’.
He arrives in a 1646 parish, where history recorded that ‘the horned one’ appeared to an old woman, resulting in her execution. The next jump is to the early Triassic era, leaving mechanoid footprints to baffle future geologists. He then arrives at the Battle of the Somme (as mandated in all WWI fiction, the British soldiers speak with Cockney accents) where he exchanges shots with a tank before vanishing.
We finally get to The Doctor in the present-day, playing a court jester at a seaside pier pantomime. The Temporal Rocket pops up behind The Doctor, and the audience tries to warn him, starting the traditional pantomime call, “Oh, no he isn’t!” and ending with a full-page of Death’s Head resplendent, giving his own version, “Oh, he is, yes?”

After missing a point-blank shot at The Doctor, Death’s Head is dropped through a trap door. He fires through the wooden stage, setting the building on fire, then pursues the fleeing timelord. Taking a wrong turn, Death’s Head offers a pink-faced apology to the half-dressed occupants of the women’s dressing room (a little end-of-the-pier humour there).
On the streets, The Doctor has made his escape as the front-end of a pantomime horse and exits in the TARDIS. Meanwhile, Death’s Head seems to have been caught in the inferno and topples off the pier, ablaze and helpless, into the sea.
He rematerializes in the TARDIS itself, where The Doctor realises that the Temporal Rocket is actually a ticking thermo-nuclear bomb. Death’s Head realises he has been set up by his employer and, unable to remove the backpack, orders The Doctor to trace the bomb's triggering signal and take them there. Sure enough the TARDIS reappears on the roof of Dogbolter’s tower.

As Dogbolter and Hob retreat down to the basement, Death’s Head hands The Doctor his gun and tells him to shoot off the clasps. When that fails, Death’s Head admits defeat, but is consoled that, “I’m only going to oblivion, you’re going to hell.” The Doctor has other plans, and unfastens the clasps with a piklok (no sonic screwdriver? Shame). As Dogbolter and Hob scurry to reach safety, Death’s Head dumps the backpack and the TARDIS vanishes. The building erupts in massive explosion.
On the roof of another skyscraper, in another time, Death’s Head leaves the TARDIS, declaring them even. The Doctor uses this truce to lecture Death’s Head on change – how organic beings can grow and evolve, but he is just an unchanging machine that nobody needs. Rather than responding with a quip (or a well-placed axe), Death’s Head ponders that The Doctor may have a point. He rather melancholically gathers his weapons to work out where he has been dumped this time (hint: there is a huge ‘4’ on the side of the building).

I have to say, this story didn’t do much for me (which is my euphemism for regarding it as the worst of the series). The setup has promise – Death’s Head bouncing through time, a treacherous client, and a rematch with The Doctor – but I’m afraid it failed on too many levels.
To begin with the characterisation of Death’s Head. I appreciate it’s a tough challenge to step into Furman’s shoes, but there’s too much that Steve Parkhouse gets wrong. There’s no dry humour, canny tactics or cynical attitude – Death’s Head comes across as macho, dumb and, in the final panels, inexplicably maudlin. Many of the previous issues have relied on the strength of the mechanoid’s character, and its absence is a big loss.
Steve Parkhouse has a long pedigree of writing Doctor Who, but with Death’s Head, it seemed he fell wide of the mark. Dogbolter’s insultingly-low assessment of Death’s Head is matched by the writing – had it not been for The Doctor, he would have been successfully duped. Perhaps Parkhouse didn’t actually like the character that much and so had difficulty getting inside that chrome skull.
The story itself is oddly paced, with some sections far longer than they need to be – two whole pages for a joke about a WWI tank, most of a page for The Doctor to be a pantomime horse. There was no foreshadowing about Dogbolter’s double-cross (his private conversation with Hob, just prior to launch, would have been a good moment – but they speak as if sticking to the original plan to have Death’s Head shoot The Doctor) – so this twist comes out of nowhere.
In terms of resolution, the fate of Dogbolter and Hob is unknown (it gets picked up much later as a framing device in the Incomplete Death’s Head series, but that was clearly not the original intent), which is unsatisfactory. In the same manner, Dogbolter clearly has a history with The Doctor that is never explained (all we get is an ‘unfinished business’ allusion – not even a footnote). It’s quite a contrast to the appearance of a previous Doctor Who character Keepsake – which felt whole and rounded – whereas here it feels like Death’s Head is just a device in someone else’s story.

For a book that uses comedy in a big way, the humour also feels off. I’ve already mentioned the lack of Death’s Head’s one-liners, but I didn’t find the situational stuff that funny either. Death’s Head blushing in a ladies’ dressing room is just too silly; and the throwaway gag that his time-travelling caused an innocent woman to be killed seems in poor taste (the close-up of her face is quite haunting). Unless you count the sight gag of the Four Freedoms Plaza, there isn’t even a punchline at the end.
I think the biggest disappointment is the meeting between Death’s Head and The Doctor. Despite showing such promising chemistry in their first meeting, the two devolve into basic cat-and-mouse, followed by a rushed alliance. Apart from a cute moment when Death’s Head forces The Doctor to shoot him (and he fails hopelessly), there’s no real fun.

The Doctor ends their encounter in quite a preachy manner that implies a real dislike (admittedly Death’s Head doesn’t change much, but I thought the reference to ‘we organics’ sounded a little prejudiced of The Doctor – surely some robots have feelings?). If this sermon was delivered immediately before the graphic novel (where Death’s Head does indeed do some soul-searching), it might be seen as a trigger moment. But for the next two issues the mechanoid shows no unease at his own nature, so it comes across as the more of the author’s low opinion.
I’m afraid the art work isn’t a particular high standard. Though Death’s Head is competently rendered, Art Wetherell’s pencils are quite cartoony (more suited to contemporary titles like The Real Ghostbusters) and doesn’t manage to convey the action with much energy. There’s too much visible effort to make The Doctor resemble Sylvester McCoy, rather than integrating the likeness into the overall style.

In fairness to Wetherell, he produces one stunning image halfway through the book: a full page of Death’s Head at the pantomime (maybe if that had been the splash, with the rest of the story working around it, we might have be getting somewhere).
Otherwise there’s not a lot of imagination in the backgrounds, the Temporal Rocket appears cheap, rather than experimental, and the theatre-trap door controls look ridiculously high-tech. I don’t think we’re meant to assume this is a futuristic theatre disguised as a present-day one, so it does imply some careless pencilling.
So that’s the first of the guest-star trilogy complete. I’m hoping for better things next issue, as Simon Furman returns, reunited with co-creator Geoff Senior.
Next week: Death’s Head starts rubbing shoulders with some of Marvel’s superstars in “Clobberin’ Time!”.
Death’s Head #8 was republished ‘Death’s Head Volume 2


Jimtron said...

This issue always felt odd to me. It really feels more like a Who story where Death's Head happens to guest star, rather than the other way around.

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

And I don't think it's good Who either, which is a real shame as Steve Parkhouse's run on the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip (issues #52-99) is often considered the all time high for the strip. Here we get the Doctor performing in a pantomime for no real reason and then at the end he casually leaves Death's Head in present day New York with seemingly no thought for the consequences. Neither feels in character and he's hardly engaged in one of his grand schemes manipulating events.

(Mind you the previous encounter wasn't much better despite being in DWM itself - the Doctor keeping a weapon in his pocket and using it or again casually dropping Death's Head on Earth equally don't feel terribly in character.)

Andros Tempest said...

totally agree on the Doctor being out of character, however at this point in the McCoy era he was being played more as a clown than a schemer so maybe his "incompetent" depositing of Deaths Head on Earth, twice, was how parkhouse saw the Doctor, rather than how we might see him today.

My take on why he dropped him in contemporary New York was

a. because the Tardis is unpredictable and therefore the Doctor had no real control over where he landed - tenious and still hardly in character to just leave him

b. Death's head is one character the Doctor knows he can't overcome or reason with, so getting away alive and removing Deaths head's means of following him was the best tactic he could come up with at the time. Not really plausible considering the Doctor defeats entire armies on a weekly basis.

c. The Doctor knew the Fantastic Four were destined to encounter Deaths head and left him on their doorstep to speed things up. This might fit in with the Doctor's personal as a master games player and tactician.

d. Parkhouse had been told - place Deaths head in the 20th century as that is where he's going to be next issue, and do it as best you can - what you have nothing planned, well that's not our fault is it now. Do your best and we'll say no more about it.

Andros Tempest said...

the art work was consistent with what was happening in the Dr Who magazine, but I agree it felt a little flat here. I sincerely wish the cover artists had done the internal work (since they had also worked occasionally on Who material that was not impossible).

The final 3 guest star issues all felt to me like a desperate ploy to:

a. boost sales in the hope of getting the series renewed as an on going rather than a maxi series

b. integrate both Deaths head and the 8162 characters into the wider Marvel universe so crossovers in the US titles would not seem clunky or inexplicable

c. the 8162 continuity wasn't going down as well with readers as was originally hoped

d. they needed to pad things out to 10 issues (I think at the time they may have been hoping for 12 with "the body in question" as a two part finale but it didn't happen) and just had no new ideas so they threw in crossovers as that was the easiest.

e. the crossovers (particularly the Fantastic Four one) were insisted upon by Marvel.

whatever the reasons I was starting to loose interest at this point, continuity with other books or even within itself seemed to be slipping (where is the vulture? what happened to Spratt?) it almost feels like Furman is dragging things out and really just wants to get back to Transformers.

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

This would have come out in mid 1989, by which time the television series had established the Doctor as a manipulator, with the comedy limited to serving that role. But I can't recall if the strip had caught up with this - at that stage DWM didn't have a regular writer or artist and continuity was limited.

I suppose the Doctor could have been involved in the pantomime as part of some grand scheme, and equally he could have deposited Death's Head on Four Freedoms Plaza as part of a scheme to ensure the timelines matched up, but there's just nothing even hinting at that in the story itself. Normally when the Doctor was up to his tricks there was some indication this was happening and seemingly out of character moments justified within the story itself.