Friday, April 4, 2008

The Decline And Fall Of Sci Fi Tie-In Mags

When it was announced that Torchwood was going to get its own magazine, my reaction was barely distinguishable beyond "hmmm... does that mean DWM is not going to be so crap any more?". Now, don't get me wrong, boys and girls. DWM is close to my heart. Ever since 1992 when, for Christmas, I got an issue for the first time. Oh, I remember it well...

Issue 181! The cover depicted a space war between Silver-Nemesis-style Cybermen on rocket packs and hover-disc Remembrance-style grey Daleks. The magazine, decked out in black white with occasional splashes of colour was full of stuff that boggled my mind. Doctor Who? the three panel cartoon about what monsters and characters do when off screen, like two Autons in a bar bitching that they've got more personality than BBC executives, Nix's View where an Auton invasion is delayed for years because the plastic men refuse to attack dressed in flares (Spearhead from Space was the archive, a detachable synopsis fact file that fought for the comic strip as crucial core of the mag), and The Dalek Chronicles on the last page! The main comic strip had UNIT fighting the Quarks, and a short story I still haven't read about a railway station in time called Heliotrope Bouquet. Further in, there was an interview with Tom Baker, other Spearhead-related goodies, a review of The Stranger: Summond By Shadows, I mean, it was reviewing a present I got the same day! Even when I actually read the text (I was five when I got it, gimme a break), it still blew me mind: people were wondering why Doctor Who wasn't coming back, why the New Adventures were grown up, and some bloke published a program guide to Season 27 that convinced the editors enough to declare it plausible!

Adversary by Ben Aaronovitch - the Seventh Doctor and Ace on a huge space exploration ship Star Trek homage
Viking Encounter by John Lucaratti - the Doctor and Ace meet Erik the Red in a pure historical
Time Weapon by Ian Briggs - the Doctor and Ace get caught in a space war between two civilizations
Court of Intrigue by Donald Cotton - a historical comedy set in the 12th century with lots of TARDIS scenes
Race by Marc Platt - the Doctor, Ace and UNIT try to stop a time bomb from releasing plague in 1990s London!
Return of the Animus by Andrew Cartmel - a sequel to The Web Planet

I know it sounds stupid but all those things were plausible at the time, and the Erik the Red story had been printed as a short story in DWM itself!

So why can I have such bucketloads of enthusiasm for a ragged, threadbare and not-even-secondhand issue I have and not the glamorous, pristine and footnoted Kylie on the cover issue with free poster?

Well, I'm going to be honest. The 2009 suspension cannot come fast enough for me, because it will finally give the magazine time to breathe. Doctor Who on the telly simply ruins Doctor Who Magazine. Now, there are near 400 issues of the mag and I have at least 350 of them. So, trust me where I know where of I speak.

In 1979, Tom Baker took great interest in the creation of Doctor Who Weekly - more than he had to, because he thought it was a brilliant idea and was proud to help sell the thing. But Doctor Who Weekly was a comic. Literally, a comic strip done by people who watched, knew and loved the TV show, with a few illustrated program guides, a caption competition and other novelties. It was the fact the comic showed the Fourth Doctor fighting robot legionarries was what mattered to the readers and the producers. However, for various reasons the weekly version became too expensive to do. So, Doctor Who Weekly became Doctor Who Monthly. The comic strip became the least important part of the magazine, for that it what it had become, and instead the program history was used to fill up the mag.

Make no mistake, when they finally started the "Some New Guy You've Never Heard Of Is The New Doctor!" cover tradition... well... no reader was surprised at the bloke in cricket gear on the cover. It's news coverage was one page, and most of that filled by interesting/fun facts about the show, like the fact actors used to take holidays in the middle of stories using pre-recorded footage.

And then, in 1985, Michael Grade crossed "cancel Doctor Who" off his To Do List (and, yes, it was a To Do List, since he was struggling to do the same in 1979 when he worked for ITV). And suddenly Doctor Who Magazine as it was now known, had to sink or swim. Instead of cruising for a bit of the year, it now was alone, with no new stories to talk about, and well aware waffling about ze good old days of Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee wasn't enough. So, it expanded its news page to cover anything that might be Doctor Who related. It started interviewing more people involved in the show, reviewed merchandise and episodes to a degree beyond "well, that was rubbish, wasn't it?". More and more effort went into the comic strip, and other fiction.

Doctor Who returned, as you may have guessed. But Grade ensured that it would be on for less than four issues. And because there was a build up to the series, coverage of Season 23 was spread thin over the issues, with equal priority given to its own regular features. What's more, JNT was rightly getting sick of hanging around fans and Doctor Who Magazine ended up knowing less than the average newspaper prior to following seasons. And then Season 26 ended.

Luckily, Doctor Who was surviving in spin off films, books, records and the like - plus the official fact that every single week between 1990 and 2003 featured one silly news story about the fate of Doctor Who. The mag had just enough news to keep it afloat as it delved into itself. Brief Encounters, Preludes, interviews with authors, actors, retrospectives on Doctor Who, how it was regarded. The magazine ended up in better shape than before, able to release exclusive holiday specials and a spin off mag Doctor Who Classic Comics, reprinting in full colour the brain-damaged comic strips DWW had replaced at the start.

In 1996, over the course of seven issues leading up to the big issue 250, the TV movie happened. Every cover (bar one of Jon Pertwee) was from the TV Movie, Paul McGann in particular. Some of them even seemed to form a kind of flipbook, with the Doctor and Grace looking pensive, then smiling, then laughing. The comic strip, after sinking into an uninvolved missing adventures series, showed us the official prelude to the movie - Ace explodes, the TARDIS explodes, the Seventh Doctor loses his umbrella and his sense of humor...

...and the TV Movie finished. The fans got over it, in more ways than one.

Business returned to normal, for want of a better word, and the magazine returned to inventive, funny, interesting material, with its Eighth Doctor comic strips once more the core of it. They even turned him into Nicholas Briggs, a move that should surely have been unthinkable at a time when Babylon Five, The X-Files, Crusade and Buffy were luring fans away and BBV were sucking their trousers and laughing. But it survived and flourished, even when the flux from the TV movie finally died. Months passed and then... then... salvation! They found a missing Hartnell episode! The Curse of Fatal Death! Big Finish!

The last golden age started with issue 272 as DWM grabbed RTD, Gareth Roberts, Mark Gattis, Stephen Moffat, Paul Cornell and Lance Parkin and threw them into a room and asked them what the hell would happen to Doctor Who if it came back - ending of course with RTD noting any poor sucker stuck with making the show would be damned for all eternity. Big Finish proved a continual flow of stories, reviews, comic strips, articles and the like to keep DWM's head above water and still leave it room to swim.

Then, with issue 352, it ended. Doctor Who Magazine became a glossy, white, sparsely-texted magazine. The photos became smaller, less was said, and everything but everything had to be explained for new fans. The previous issue had Gareth Roberts rolling around with laughter at the sheer insanity of Doctor Who and its fans - JNT's apparent refusal to stick to any kind of logic making it, the way fans only like the boring and uninvolving stories, and that anyone thought Ace was socially relevant, not to mention baffling things like "why does the TARDIS light flash when it takes off?" It was a magazine that knew its readers, was comfortable with them, and happily discussed its interests.

But now, DWM has no freedom. 80 per cent of the mag is now devoted to the new series: the news, the articles, the reviews, RTD. All in "newbie friendly" format. The comic strips couldn't have their own identity and were reduced to missing adventures. In the good old days, the Ninth Doctor, Rose and Jack would still be having japes in the comic strips - but what do you expect when the second ever comic strip episode with the Ninth Doctor was accompanied by the reveal that he'd quit and been replaced by David Tennant?

Even without the internet, the fact remained that I was getting DWM with amazing exclusives about the return of Sarah Jane Smith and K9 when I had seen Doomsday. Seriously, would you be really, really interested in a set report from The Satan Pit when you already had it on DVD? Struggling to keep the remaining 20 per cent on the old series, the most creative the magazine has been is to give the odd article mentioning BOTH new series AND old series like "is Doctor Who educational?" "is the Doctor a complete bastard?" "does anyone here still listen to Big Finish?" They had to create The Doctor Who Adventures spin off mag in order to give themselves just THAT much space.

Did you know that since 2005, only one issue has had a cover that WASN'T scraped off the BBC website? ONE cover. With Tom Baker and a Dalek. Nothing else. Because that issue they had an excuse to focus on the Classic Series since Tom Baker's movie script had turned up? And even then it was nearly buried under "Helen Raynor promises Daleks in Manhattan won't be crap" and "Runaway Bride exclusives".

So, for breathing space, this 2009 break might have DWM giving itself space to talk about things in depths beyond "that's the plot, it's good or bad, next!"

Now, back to the beginning. Torchwood Magazine. A major part of my apathy was, of course, my utter spite for the show itself. However, the first two episodes of Season 2 convinced me to buy it the moment I saw it and today I saw it IN MY NEWSAGENT! Amazing! Unbelievable! I'm not being funny or nothing, but my local, walking distance newsagent having something I want to buy like that, well, it's big.

I picked the magazine off the shelf and... my heart sank. All my enthusiasm died.

I didn't even read the magazine before that happened. Because I realized for the first time it wasn't Panini publishing TWM or even Marvel.

It was Titan.

And when I realized that, well, let's just say I wasn't surprised at the disappointment.

Let's start with the basics. Titan Magazines publishes such tie-in mags for Star Trek, Stargate, Buffy, Angel and Terminator. And all of them are stapled, glossy magazines with the same layout. Small text, large, cut-out photos, huge quotes per page, lots of adds, a comic strip clearly written and drawn for a comic book rather than a magazine. Interviews, not articles, and news rather than fiction. It always costs less than DWM, and it's not because it's trying to get more readers. The only exception to the rule was Farscape, which the program makers skrewed by the balls to pack in all the facts, opinions and new ideas they could.

I'm very surprised, reading it, that there is absolutely nothing in the mag to explain what Torchwood is or what it's about. There is no editorial, no "For Those Who Don't Know". The news page consists of some interactive website game, an Attack of the Graske for Torchwood. A new reader would definitely be puzzled at the interviews with John Barrowman and James Marsters, and why they keep talking about Doctor Who and NOT about Torchwood, because they don't want to spoil it. The previews for To The Last Man, Meat, Adam and Reset assume a strong grasp of the show, and expect you to be amazed at the words "Martha Jones returns!" and a photo of some black chick smiling. The huge article on Sleeper doesn't explain WHY the lady's arm turns into a spike or why she kills her husband... or what the hell the Hub is, why it needed redesigning. The cake is taken when the final two pages of the mag become a "profile" of the Hub crew, with ridiculously expansive descriptions that reveal how utterly little anyone knows about them.

Jack's bio struggles not to mention the Doctor, the TARDIS or anything like that - a newcomer would be really confused at "the right kind of Doctor" being so emphasized, or why Ianto's only information involves his girlfriend becoming a Cyberman. There's nothing to say about Owen or Tosh, and Gwen's profile boils down to "when is she going to tell Rhys"?

Even reading the comic strip doesn't leave the reader with any idea what the show is about, and its focus on "Torchwood One" gives the impression that this is a sequel to a sequel we missed. First issue? How the hell does that work? The comic strip doesn't even fully name its characters, and even I mixed up Jack and Owen, and the rudimentary plot - some guy turns up being chased by a monster, and the monster kills him, making everyone broody - is not funny, scary or entertaining enough to make me want more.

Of course, if I didn't have broadband, I might have ravenously descended on its truly pathetic exclusives - "To The Last Man has a brilliant bit where Tosh is asked a question and she gives a one word episode: wow!" - or eagerly envisioned the original opening to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as Captain Spike turns up on the pandimensional surfboard... but really, this, like Angel and Buffy mags, ultimately ends up as a fifteen minute diversion that leaves me a tenner out of pocket.

Torchwood as a show may have improved a lot, but its mag leaves much to be desired. And thanks to Titan, we know it's unlikely to ever improve.

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