Thursday, July 7, 2011

Death’s Head Review: The Crossroads of Time

Death’s Head’s post-Transformers adventures started in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine #135. Script by Simon Furman, art by Geoff Senior, letters by Zed and editor Richard Starkings. The story was originally printed in black and white, and coloured for the collected edition (no credit given to the colourist, but they did a great job). The issue had no cover art, opting for a photograph of Sylvester McCoy on a motorbike.

We begin with the TARDIS travelling peacefully through the ‘corridors of time’. Heading from the opposite direction comes a ‘rogue element’ – none other than Death’s Head, who has been catapulted out of the Transformers universe and sent hurtling through time and space.

The two collide with a mighty ‘Kshunk!’ and come to land on some alien landscape, along with a Time Warden, who materialises to help with these right-of-way disputes. Emerging shaken from the TARDIS, The Doctor (the Seventh Doctor, by the way) is greeted by the Time Warden who, with a quick glance aside, decides not to get involved after all. The Doctor is certain everything can be sorted out reasonably – until he is picked up by the scruff of the neck by a giant robot.

Death’s Head introduces himself, then quickly decides the simplest way of resolving the dispute would be execution. He drops The Doctor back on the ground, all the better to be squashed with his mace attachment. Desperately trying to bargain, The Doctor empties his pockets until he finds a Tissue Compression Eliminator and blasts Death’s Head with it.

Overcoming the pain, Death’s Head looks up triumphantly and declares the device didn’t work – only to find himself now at eye-level with The Doctor. Shrunk to human size, Death’s Head is now seriously angry and goes at The Doctor full-tilt . The Time Warden briefly reappears, providing enough of a distraction for The Doctor to escape into the forest.

Catching his breath, The Doctor realises he has no hope of escaping a professional hunter, but he now has something to bargain with. At the same time, Death’s Head is calming down and asserting his business instincts over the desire for revenge. So when The Doctor reveals himself and offers the TARDIS in exchange for his life, Death’s Head (now small enough to fit inside) must accept.

Demonstrating how to operate the time machine, The Doctor pushes a few buttons and selects a destination at random – Earth 8162. But the TARDIS doesn’t move and only Death’s Head vanishes – The Doctor had set the controls to transport the nearest mechanical organism. The Time Warden pops up again to scold The Doctor for cheating on the deal, as he wonders aloud what he has unleashed on what was once his ‘favourite planet’…

For a story that only existed to get Death’s Head from one place (Transformers universe and giant-sized) to another (Marvel universe and human-sized), this is a really good tale. Over 8 pages, the plot goes along at a lovely pace, mixing action and humour. The Doctor’s initial amiability contrasts well against the mechanoid’s no-nonsense murderousness. There is also the recurring uselessness of the Time Warden, and the final trick played by The Doctor (which, if memory serves, seems in keeping for the seventh incarnation).

Having written both of them previously, Furman does a great job with the main characters – their attitudes and reactions are spot-on and they even start to develop a nice sort of chemistry: the wily and intelligent Doctor paired with the bullying and distrustful Death’s Head. It’s a shame that, despite future crossovers, this never went further.

As a final character note, it’s interesting how Death’s Head comments that he finds hunting his prey more satisfying than merely executing them, then reminds himself that he is a businessman. It’s something that will develop throughout the series – forcing himself to conform to a mercenary nature to avoid the decline into a mindless hunter (and explains why he is so particular about being called a ‘freelance peacekeeping agent’).

And I have to give kudos for inclusion of the Tissue Compression Eliminator. At first, I assumed this was just a random gadget for the purposes of shrinking Death’s Head, but it was actually a weapon used by The Doctor’s arch-enemy, The Master, in the TV series. The shrinking effect was lethal to humans, but it’s easily conceivable that a robot could have survived it, making it a nice piece of continuity.

The artwork is superb and Senior’s rendering of Death’s Head, as you would expect, is excellent. The expression on the mechanoid’s face when he realises he’s been shrunk is priceless, and there is a great full-body shot for his first appearance (the scale may be a little on the generous size, but the disproportion certainly helps the humour). The portrayal of The Doctor is equally strong – when drawing real-life actors, a lot of artists tend to fall back on portrait or caricature, which looks flat. This Doctor, while still identifiable as the actor, looks like a comic book character.

Matching the plot, there is a lot of energy in the artwork. You can feel the power in the collision between TARDIS and Death’s Head, as if they really have been shaken loose from the time stream. The landscape is nicely alien, without intruding on the action. The colouring of the reprint edition is worth another mention: I’ve seen other black and white strips recoloured in fairly a basic, fill-in-the-blanks style. This is as good as anything in the regular series.

For a bibliography that was half-comprised of guest appearances, I’d put this down among Death’s Head’s best. He’s strongly in character, makes an impact, but does not dominate. ‘Crossroads’ remains The Doctor’s story (as it should be, in his own title) of how he met, outwitted and survived this robot bounty hunter.

Next week, the story continues without pause: Death’s Head has been tricked and dumped on Earth in the year 8162. Just in time to encounter … Dragon’s Claws!

‘The Crossroads of Time’ was republished in ‘Death’s Head Volume 1


Jimtron said...

I loved the TCE in this. In fact, and Bish will be sure to confirm this, while I loved John Simm's Master, I bemoaned the lack of a TCE. So much more stylish than a laser screwdriver, don't you think?

Bishbot said...

I can indeed confirm that you would not stop going on about it.

Eugene said...

Great review Chuffer.

I haven't read DH before (save for the crappy one with DH) but it sure looks interesting.

Eugene said...

Typo, meant the one with Death;s Head 3.

Anonymous said...

The Tissue Compression Eliminator was possibly the scariest weapon any Who villain ever had. The idea that your atoms were compressed to death was truly frightening to me as a child. It also made for some tense moments when an assistant picks up what looks like a doll, only to realise it's the remains of an actual human. Only on Dr Who could anyone come up with something so, on the surface slightly ridiculous, yet underneath so utterly horrifying.

I did wonder though when I read this comic originally how the Doctor got a hold of the Master's weapon? But then again you have to take what was printed in the comics with a pinch of salt continuity wise as they had the Doc travelling alone - something he rarely did in the show.

Great story and I completely agree with the assessment that this was the Doctor's adventure rather than his cameo in Death's head's story.

I own the full Death's head and Dragon's claws run for volume 1, so I'm curious as to your thoughts on the individual issues.

Art wise it was a bit of a mixed bag I thought. I love everything Senior, but some of the other artists felt like filler.

Chuffer said...

Thanks Eugene, and Anonymous. It’s been years since I last read the Death’s Head series, so I’m enjoying taking each issue with fresh eyes.

Regarding the art, I agree with you about Senior (and one of the things I love about Dragon’s Claws was the consistency of the art for the entire run) and I’m curious as to what I’ll make of Bryan Hitch’s turn on the series: I loved The Ultimates, so it will be interesting to review his early work.

LBD 'Nytetrayn' said...

I remember this; it was my first (and is one of my only) exposure to Dr. Who.

Unknown said...

If I remember right, this was coloured for its inclusion in the Marvel Bumper Comic (possibly even the first, or pilot edition of that title), with the duties done by Steve White. That was my first exposure to the story (and also to Marvel's DW comics), and I must say it's still one of my favourite DH stories, even after all these years. Writing this in 2019 by the way- is this a record from original post-to-comment I wonder?