Tony’s feeling very ultimate today.
The Ultimate Foe is a legendary story. Sadly, it’s mostly legendary for unfortunate reasons, though it does bring one of the Sixth Doctor’s (and arguably one of Doctor Who’s) most tantalising villains properly to screen in the Valeyard. With a first episode written by Robert Holmes just before he died, a second episode written by Script Editor Eric Saward, then rejected out of hand by Producer John Nathan-Turner as too dark and ambiguous as the finale of what was supposed to be the comeback season after enforced hiatus, leading to Saward’s resignation, taking his script with him, leaving Vervoid-writers Pip and Jane Baker with about twenty-three seconds and some sticky-tape to come up with the season finale, it’s sadly true that there’s much more engaging drama behind the scenes of The Ultimate Foe than ever made it onto the screen.
That said, in some form or other, the season was ended with a two-parter that was half legal shenanigans and half Matrix malarkey, with the court prosecutor, the Valeyard being revealed as (no, it’s not a spoiler after thirty years) an incarnation of the Doctor from late in his regeneration cycle, composed of all his dark impulses, who’s done a deal with the High Council to frame the Doctor. The deal is simple – he buries the crimes of the High Council (by showing their results as evidence – err…what?), fits up the Doctor and is granted all his remaining lives.
The Ultimate Foe spends most of its first episode in the courtroom, and takes the mood from Valeyard-triumphant after pronouncing the Doctor guilty of genocide in the wake of the Fandango of the Vervoids, through the mad appearance of the Master, who’s in the story for no reason other than to reveal that the Valeyard’s a wrong ’un, and into the Matrix, where it turns out that the Valeyard is in control of the ultimate repository of Time Lord consciousness. In essence, the premise of the previous twelve episodes is dispensed with, collapsing into ‘Ooh, villainy!’ and Matrix mayhem on a seriously curtailed budget. The second episode, penned in such a hurry by the Bakers, is largely a Dickens pastiche with some Kafka-esque elements thrown in, making the fact that the episode is mostly filler almost a part of the plot, then adding a sadly misjudged bit of technobabble to reveal that the Valeyard has an even bigger plan than stealing the remaining regenerations of the Doctor (a plan that was bonkers right from the start, as Robert Holmes had pretty much explained at length in The Two Doctors with a hearty mouthful of timey-wimey bollocks about temporal tautology). He has something called a Maser, or a megabyte modem (yes it made us cringe at the time too), and there’s something about a plan to decimate the high and mighty among the Time Lord justices in the courtroom through the Matrix screen (which is pretty much like saying that Bugs Bunny could reach out through the TV and slap you unexpectedly in the face). Most of the justices in the end escape this dastardly plan by the cunning expedient of ducking. We mentioned it was written in a hurry, right?
So – it’s important to remember that the on-screen version of The Ultimate Foe is messy, senseless and more full of padding than a Styrofoam factory.
The novelisation then offered Pip and Jane Baker the chance to take a deep breath, and work out an underpinning, some set of logical reasons to make sense of what ended up on screen. They had the same opportunity with Terror of the Vervoids, and frankly, and with the best will in the world, they blew it, delivering a novelisation that failed to raise the ‘men-in-unfortunate-suits’ drama of the Vervoids out of its issues.
Well – surprise, surprise. The novelisation of The Ultimate Foe is significantly better than the on-screen version, and actually takes the opportunities afforded it to deliver something approaching a coherent story, the Bakers clearly working better with some time on their hands than under the screaming panic deadlines they were forced to meet for the TV version. In particular, the Master comes across much more effectively in the novel than he did on-screen, showing what his game is in the story – we’re never particularly sure in the televised version – and showing how the relationship between the Master and Sabalom Glitz works, which again in the on-screen version seemed like nothing more than the tokenistic smashing together of characters. You believe it could actually work when you read, or listen to, the novelisation. The infinite progression of Popplewicks, which grew quickly tedious on-screen despite some good work by Geoffrey Hughes, works in the written version because the Bakers take their time to make sense of it, apparently deciding that if it’s going to be filler, damn it, it should be good filler. While, as in Terror of the Vervoids, there’s not a great sense of escalation towards a point of climax in The Ultimate Foe novelisation, there is at least a degree of native excitement from the set-up that comes across more when it’s described and your own imagination gets to work on it than it ever did when it was subject to BBC budgets and schedules that were both insanely tight.
So, much against the odds and a degree of fan expectation, The Ultimate Foe novelisation delivers a coherent storyline, a degree of additional characterisation that makes sense of some mystifying moments and a sense of scale and visual grandeur that a freezing cold beach and a BBC studio couldn’t ever hope to match.
And then it’s given to Michael Jayston to read.
Merrrrrrrrrrry Christmas, everyone. I make no secret of the fact that I’m a Michael Jayston fanboy, but damn! One of the great strengths of using Jayston as ‘The Ultimate Foe’ is his voice, which has the ability to glide silkily past you or to turn hard as heartbreak and bitter as burnt cork, and he does both in this audiobook, as required. He also softens his voice for Mel, gives a reasonable approximation of Tony Selby’s ‘cockney’ Andromedan wide-boy, Glitz, gets his clipped, official Dickens on for the Popplewicks and, perhaps most hypnotically of all, delivers a Master that’s more gravelly and full of gravitas than Anthony Ainley’s was, but allows the listener to distinctly hear the difference between the Master and the Valeyard. His Sixth Doctor is relatively notional, but still, he gives us, if not Colin Baker, then a pacy, heroic interpretation of his Doctor. Jayston in omnipotent narrator mode, filling in the bits between characters, is measured like music, matching his pace and energy to the scene he’s reading, meaning that – as with Lynda Bellingham and Colin Baker earlier in the run, you get the sense of a professional who’s read the book and made notes before the recording, to deliver not a plain reading but one rich in storytelling nous.
The Bakers, in The Ultimate Foe, deliver a novelisation that’s the most fun since The Mysterious Planet by sparkly Uncle Terrance Dicks, proving that they can really do this sort of thing – a fact that was in some degree of question after their Vervoids novelisation. They enrich the story and give it a pace that it needs, while also delivering a far greater semblance of storytelling sense. Jayston for his part adds value all along the way, meaning you get a real sense of harmony between reader and material, which means The Ultimate Foe is fun and fast to listen to, whether you’re picking it out on its own, or rounding out a marathon audiobooking run through the Trial season. If you’re not determined to do them all, get The Mysterious Planet for the surprising value that Lynda Bellingham adds to a sprightly Terrance Dicks novelisation of Robert Holmes’ last full script for Doctor Who, and certainly, pick up The Ultimate Foe for what amounts to its corollary, Jayston and the Bakers building something bigger and better between them than the televised version ever was.
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
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