When Doctor Who brought past Doctors together for its 50th Anniversary special, it wasn’t just to look back at the show’s past, but to examine the Doctor’s own insecurities. The Four Doctors, the Titan Comics miniseries that concluded last week, finally does that for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor—and it makes for the best Doctor Who comics Titan have ever done.
There are, naturally, spoilers ahead for all five issues of The Four Doctors.
It’s hard not to look at The Four Doctors and think of it as a 50th anniversary redux, now just letting the Twelfth Doctor in on the fun instead of his eyebrows making a cameo. But at the same time, its nature as a comic miniseries means it’s essentially free of the restraints of a BBC TV budget and can be a much bigger, grander thing.
It means you can flit from the desert-strewn planet of Marinus with John Hurt’s War Doctor during the Time War—who, unlike in the 50th anniversary, serves as more of a cameo rather than the Fourth Doctor of the title—to modern-day Paris, and then to an isolated alien city after a few timey-wimey jumps into alternate timelines, with alien planets and other minor ventures in between. It’s artist Neil Edwards at the height of his powers, varied, vivid panels of action and scope that can only be done in a Doctor Who comic rather than an episode of the series.
While the grand scale of Four Doctors certainly works in its favor on the whole, the time travel shenanigans of the latter half of the story come perilously close to disastrously falling apart as characters attempt to overexplain no less than four different timelines to each other at the same time. but what makes the series work so brilliantly is its character introspection.
The main Doctors (the 10th, 11th, and 12th) all get their moments to shine, and while there is the delightful—and almost mandatory—bickering among the different incarnations as they try to one-up each other, it’s the more serious moments of the tale that Paul Cornell’s character work excels, especially for the 10th and the 11th Doctors. The enemies of the piece, the alien Voord, prey on the Doctors by trapping them in alternate timelines based on decisions each of them could have made while the Voord rule their Empire, ascendant after the events of the Time War. In the process of exploring those alternate realities, Four Doctors partially feels like a coda to the 10th and 11th Doctor’s adventure together in the 50th anniversary.
The Tenth Doctor’s timeline sees him choosing to sacrifice Wilfred Mott instead of himself during the climax of his own regeneration story, “The End of Time”, and becoming a ruthless dictator over the Time Lords as the Time Lord Victorious. The tragedy of the Time War in “The Day of the Doctor” becomes the greatest fear of The Man Who Remembers, and that memory consumes him, making him arrogant enough to murder to get his people back. The Eleventh Doctor’s timeline is him living in bliss with River Song in the alternate reality we saw in season six’s “The Wedding of River Song”—and The Man Who Forgets chooses to ignore the destruction of reality around him to live in peace. It’s succinctly done, and each Doctor’s respective horror at what might have been is a fitting emotional conclusion of how they came to feel about the Time War after the events of “The Day of The Doctor.”
But the Twelfth Doctor never received that sort of introspection in “The Day of the Doctor” (obviously, considering he hadn’t been introduced yet). Instead, he gets it here—and while it draws on elements we saw in the eighth season of the show, it feels similarly introspective as to how we explored 10 and 11 in the anniversary. It turns out that the real Fourth Doctor of the title (and there are several candidates, including a particularly wonderful cameo I won’t spoil) is really a future version of the Twelfth Doctor: one scared and alone after forcing Clara out of the TARDIS—after she betrays him—who finds solace among the Voord and becomes their vengeful leader.
It’s everything that the Twelfth Doctor fears that he could become, his opposite: weak, and scared, and driven by fear to push the people close to him away. It’s the foil to the constant refrain of “Am I a good man?” that plagued The Doctor in season eight. If the man who stops the monsters is brave and strong and has his best friend at his side as the Doctor does, what does he become without all that? Seeing this alternate future drives the Doctor into a shameful fury that pushes him to see things set right in a way that is a complete rejection of the man he could be. This solidifies what the Twelfth Doctor stands for as a character in an extremely satisfying way. Paul Cornell, who hasn’t written for the TV series since its third season, nails the Twelfth Doctor’s emotional beats here so well that you desperately want him to come and write an actual episode for Capaldi.
An extra note worth mentioning is also Cornell’s handling of the three different companions in the story: Clara and comics-exclusive companions Alice and Gabby (who appear alongside the 11th and 10th Doctors respectively in their own Titan series). Companions have always been the audience’s lens into the Doctor’s life, so part of the joy of multi-Doctor stories is always seeing the Companions group up and swap notes.
It’s wonderful to see Clara interact with Alice, who takes the zaniness and madness of multiple Doctors in her stride, and Gabby, who has to come with the surprise that “her” Doctor isn’t the only Doctor. They ultimately give way to the Time Lord introspection that drives The Four Doctors, but it was a welcome aspect of multi-Doctor stories that was sorely missed during the 50th anniversary.
But overall, The Four Doctors is very much The Twelfth Doctor’s tale. Although it excels at bringing them together and being able to examine each Doctor, in among the hodgepodge shenanigans of a multi-Doctor adventure, its greatest strength is being able to do so for the Twelfth Doctor (something his standalone series, also from Titan, has struggled to do for me). In showing us The Doctor at his lowest, and in comparison to the regrets of his former incarnations, we appreciate him at his best all the more.