Another review/appreciation from the archives. This was for the 40th anniversary special, We Heart Doctor Who.
“Logic tells you the world is round. But logic is a new toy.”
Something strange happened in 1985. On television, Colin Baker had become the new Doctor Who, ‘whether you like it or not’. His stories were brash, brutal, and black-humoured. They were over-deferent to the show’s history, and the shortfall between the show’s ambition and its realisation - never a short shortfall at the best of times - became conspicuously large.
Meanwhile in Doctor Who Magazine, a story unfolded where Doctor Who was uncompromised by BBC budgets and unbowed by precedent. Never before had the series been taken so far into the high seas of the bizarre, the abstract and the mythic. Voyager not only took Doctor Who to the edge of its universe, it pushed it over. It was freewheeling and enigmatic; it was eye-popping and jaw-dropping; it was light years away from the corridors of Karfel. Month by month, Doctor Who blossomed into something wonderful and strange.
Obviously the intention was to top The Tides Of Time. Where that story had flirted with the surreal, Voyager embraced it. The rolling, stream-of-consciousness narrative exists in a dreamlike state with no dividing line between the real and the imaginary. The eponymous Voyager and the story’s villain, Astrolabus, come to the Doctor in vertiginous visions, sending him plummeting through empty space, or teetering from a lighthouse-top.
Voyager does not even conform to our preconceptions about what constitutes a story. It begins as a mystery about an ice-bound ship and missing star-chart which then climaxes with a bewildering encounter between the Doctor and Astrolabus. Then, half-way through the next tale, the whimsical and traditional Polly The Glot, we are sent plunging back through the floor into the unresolved plot of Voyager. And finally there is Once Upon A Time Lord, where the weirdness so overwhelms the story that it - unforgettably – switches into the idiom of a Rupert The Bear annual, complete with headlines – ‘FROBISHER EATS A WORM’ - and doggerel couplets. And then Astrolabus, who seems unusually aware of his own fictional status, escapes onto the next page, determined to make it to the next episode…
But the story is also grounded in reality. Firstly, by the humour – slapstick, occasionally sinister and occasionally sublime. We encounter the Akkers, the dullest race in the universe, with ‘grey alerts’ and a soporific line in conversation. Secondly, there is Frobisher, adopting his penguin suit for the first time and undercutting the oddness with wisecracks and sympathy.
Most of all, there is John Ridgeway’s artwork. Every scene, no matter how fantastic or humdrum, is given the same gritty, gravelly, meticulously detailed, cross-hatched look. He makes stunningly plausible the Da Vinci Original, the automaton, the zyglots and the edge of the world.
Of course, it doesn’t make any sense. That’s kind of the point – it doesn’t need to. It is a triumph of atmosphere, of effect, and makes no concessions to plausibility. And discovering that Doctor Who could do that was a revelation. I didn’t know it could go there, and I wish it would go there again.