Big Finish: Doctor Who - HE JESTS AT SCARS Review

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Tony Fyler gets the jest.


Big Finish has never been shy of pumping its collective fan-imagination into every corner of the Who universe and in the Unbound series of stories, none of which are canon, they imagine what would probably for the most part be series-ending scenarios – What If the Doctor and Susan had never left Gallifrey? What If the Doctor had escaped during his first trial, rather than becoming the Third Doctor? What If, What If, What If…

As the Twelfth Doctor heads to a series finale which by all accounts sees him heartbroken, wild and furious, many of his darker impulses screaming to the surface, it’s worth taking a look back at one What If in particular – What If, at the end of The Trial of a Time Lord, the Valeyard had won.

The Valeyard, for those just joining us, is an amalgam of all the Doctor’s darkest impulses – his rage, his hate, his superiority complex – distilled into a coherent entity, supposedly spawned into the universe somewhere between his Twelfth and final incarnations (again, for those doing the maths, somewhere between David Tennant and Matt Smith if we assume a normal Time Lord life-cycle, or between David Tennant and some future Doctor if we don’t, and indeed we pretty much can’t, given that the ‘Twelfth’ Doctor is supposed to be the first in a whole new life cycle), and determined, in his own megalomaniac way, to hijack his own timestream, to take the Doctor’s Seventh to Thirtheenth incarnations’ energies into himself and live as a single incarnation using all their lives.

It’s a pretty messed-up and mid-eighties version of timey-wimey storytelling, but the Valeyard as a concept is fascinating – can you imagine what the distillation of all your worst impulses would be like? The Hyde to your Jekyll? – and the character was given a very vivid life by actor Michael Jayston, with a voice like a black velvet glove on fire. He’s fascinated Classic Who fans since his appearance throughout the Trial of a Time Lord season, and has returned to do battle with the Doctor on Big Finish audio three times, the most triumphant of which was the 2015 ‘Last Adventure’ which saw him force the Sixth Doctor to die a hero’s death, rather than let the universe fall to his evil future self.

In He Jests At Scars from way back in 2003, two years before the dawn of New Who, the Valeyard is a rather different prospect than he is in any other version – outside the timestream of regular Who, He Jests At Scars seeks to answer the question of what he would have done with the power he played for, assuming he’d won it. In a way, this script by Gary Russell shows the Valeyard as exactly what he’s supposed to be – another incarnation of the Doctor, travelling in the Tardis, with an Earth girl as a companion, only this time bent on domination and destruction. He sets about stealing artefacts of power throughout time and space, having rid himself of the temporal annoyance that was Melanie Jane Bush by the simple expedient of getting his companion Ellie to hold her up on the day she was destined to meet the Sixth Doctor (interestingly enough, in a Brighton police station – there’s an intimation here that Mel would be getting into trouble as a road rager, a deliciously smirkworthy idea given her on-screen self-assessment as ‘as honest, and about as boring as they come’).

It’s a bold conceit, this, and when we actually first meet Mel in the pre-credits sequence of this story, it’s a conceit bolstered by the fact that she’s nothing like the Mel we know. She shoots what turns out to be the last Tharil in the universe stone dead, calling him ‘a piece of crud who got in my way.’ She’s in the Valeyard’s dungeon, and her mission is simple – she’s there to talk to the ‘Doctor,’ and if she doesn’t like what he says to her, she’s going to kill him.

Meanwhile, in a temporal universe where timelines have not yet been unraveled, the Mel we know is raging at the new Lord President of the Time Lords and CIA Co-Ordinator Vansell, who are actually rather keen to let the Valeyard run, to study what his existence is like and what consequences it has. Unnnnfortunately, one of those consequences involves the Doomsday Weapon of the Third Doctor’s time, which the Valeyard summarily points at Gallifrey and… well, you can probably guess the rest. Mel is given a time ring, and told to go and sort the Valeyard out if she can, before the whole causal nexus unravels.

Hence the tough, exhausted Mel we meet first, who is years, perhaps decades away from the Mel who’s given the time ring. Exhausted Mel exists in the Valeyard’s universe, which he rules from his citadel, Chronopolis. She exists in a universe where she’s so far failed to tackle the Valeyard, and so he’s achieved universal domination.

From there, we go back to see the Valeyard’s journey – how when attempting to visit Logopolis, he accidentally destroyed his Fourth incarnation (as well as the Master, and Logopolis, and a good chunk of surrounding space…and hence of course the future of the universe). From that one action, his life becomes a combination of gaining more and more power, and corrupting more and more timelines – trying to stop himself from killing himself throughout the entirety of time and space, so that he in his current form will come into existence as planned. It becomes like trying to catch water leaking through a paper bag, and the time-sensitives of the universe despair – which is how he comes to have a dungeon in Chronopolis with the last remaining examples of time-sensitive species in it – Tharils, Navarino, and more. The rest of their races he has destroyed, but one of each he keeps in case they may yet be useful.

The tone of He Jests At Scars degenerates from the Valeyard’s initial playful, boastful meddling in the affairs of the universe to kind of despairing chaotic terror. At first, he reasons that ‘there’s always time to nip back and put it right if we decide we want to’ – freed from Time Lord interference by the Doomsday Weapon, he destroys the Daleks before they ever emerge from their bunkers; he sets the alarm clock on a batch of particularly warlike Silurians right, so they’ll wake up when they should; he makes plans to advance human development so that ‘by the time of Jesus, you’ll be flying to Mars and back twice daily,’ and so on. But after the Logopolis incident, this pompous, Shakespeare-quoting ‘Doctor’ (it’s where the title comes from, in case you were wondering – ‘He jests at scars that never felt a wound’) becomes more and more unstable, clamping down, his life no longer his own, however much power he gains, as he continually seeks to find the right point to change, the right move to make to stabilize his own timestream, and every move he makes only causes more fractures, more ruptures, more chaos and panic.

By the time he and Mel final meet for their stand-off at the conclusion of the story, the Valeyard is by no means the man he was – in any of his incarnations. And the truth behind Chronopolis, and what that truth means, both for the Valeyard and for Mel, is actually stunning in its horror. It’s an ending you could never do on Who, and it’s an ending that feels absolute, a timeline brought to if not its conclusion then at least its point of ultimate atrophy.

He Jests At Scars is a gorgeous game of dark What If, an example of how the timeline could have played out, and the catastrophic consequences it could have brought. At just £5 for download or CD, in the age of a grumpy Doctor struggling to contain his fury, it’s also a fantastic object lesson in how tempting every day must be for the Doctor not to be the Doctor but to be someone else, someone that saves people to salve his own conscience, who changes the universe to deny himself pain, who gives in to rage, and fear, and cowardice, the so-called ‘Dark Side,’ to be the Time Lord Victorious – and what would happen if he did.

There’s a Valeyard, a Mr Hyde in all of us, down vein-deep beneath the surface of our Jekyll minds and faces. Just as the Doctor struggles every day to be himself and not the Valeyard, so each day, we have the chance to take what joy and find what fun we can in the world, or to let our Inner Valeyards out and tinge the days of those we meet with darkness.

The choice is ours.

Be the Doctor.

Erm…step away from the Doomsday Weapon.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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