By Matthew Kresal
In 1986, Doctor Who came back from an eighteen-month hiatus with an ambitious, season-long story arc. A season that saw Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor put on trial by his fellow Time Lords in, well, The Trial of a Time Lord. Only it turned out that the trial's prosecutor known as the Valeyard (played by Michael Jayston) was none other than the amalgamation of the Doctor's dark side from between his twelfth and final incarnations, hellbent on taking the Doctor's future regenerations for himself. He didn't, of course, but supposing that he had? That question, and what the Valeyard would have done in the Doctor's place, is the question at the heart of the fourth Big Finish Doctor Who Unbound release, He Jests at Scars….
As discussed in earlier pieces for this series, Doctor Who Unbound's origins lie in that era of the show's history known to fans as "the wilderness era." With the BBC having ended production of the series on TV in 1989, the series had found an ongoing existence in spin-off media. This including novel ranges, first under Virgin Books and then BBC Books, but also in a series of audio dramas that began being produced by Big Finish in 1999. With the show's fortieth anniversary approaching in 2003 and with plans for a celebratory multi-Doctor story planned in the form of Zagreus, the company hit upon the idea of producing a series of what-if tales. Combined with casting actors who had previously been candidates to play the Doctor in the past or a potential future series, it would allow writers to explore familiar tropes from new angles.
Intriguingly, the basic premise behind this Unbound story might well have taken the same slot as Zagreus. As revealed in Doctor Who: The New Audio Adventures - The Inside Story, writer (and then Big Finish producer) Gary Russell had envisioned the Valeyard's return as the 40th-anniversary release. The Valeyard, traveling with Ray from the 1987 serial Delta and the Bannermen (who nearly became a companion to the Seventh Doctor), discovered something was wrong with time. After teaming up with the Fifth and Sixth Doctors, the Valeyard would sacrifice himself to set time down on its correct path. Russell scrapped the idea, declaring to Inside Story author Benjamin Cook that the idea was, "Crap, isn't it?" Russell would re-tool the notion for the Unbound range, becoming its fourth release.
In doing so, Russell turned his original idea on its ear. Told in a non-linear manner, He Jests at Scars... presents the Valeyard as traveling with Ellie Martin (Juliet Warner, in a role she first played in Big Finish's Sarah Jane Smith audios), traveling through time, collecting weapons and sources of power. Playing off the original (unused) cliffhanger ending for the Trial of a Time Lord that saw the two foes caught in a Holmes-Moriarty embrace, the Valeyard not only has absorbed the Doctor's future lives, but he's also keen to prove his do-gooding ways were wrong. The Valeyard's enthusiasm, if one can lend that term to his history-altering antics, underscores a lack of experience, something that begins to take its toll on reality. Caught in a desperate moment, the Time Lords turn to the only person who might be able to help: the Doctor's companion Melanie Bush (Bonnie Langford, reprising her TV role).
As the previous paragraph might attest, this is not a story for those uninitiated in Doctor Who, and especially the Big Finish run-up to the time of release. In retrospect, this comes as no surprise, given that Russell has earned something of a reputation inside the show's fandom for often penning stories laced (or perhaps laden) deep in its continuity. Not only is his jumping-off point the original and never-recorded but well-known alternate ending to the Valeyard's singular TV appearance, Russell also references TV stories as wide-ranging as Colony in Space, Logopolis, and Genesis of the Daleks. From there, references come fast from Big Finish's own output, from the Valeyard's companion being from one of their early spin-off ranges to revisiting the events of at least one audio story and mentions of various Big Finish companions (two of which would only appear after its release). For good measure, Russell also tosses in allusions to several earlier Doctor Who novels, including one that featured the Valeyard as Jack the Ripper in one of the audio's more gruesome moments. And, cheekily, Russell references his own earlier Doctor Who works, from Mel's history in Business Unusual to the hamster-like Pakhars, his creation from the Virgin New Adventures novel Legacy a decade before. As the scriptwriter told Cook, he planned the audio as a self-proclaimed "continuity fest," and it most certainly comes across as one.
Does it work as a story, though? The answer is a frustrating "yes and no." When I reviewed this story on Amazon in 2009, my past self felt that it used its references "without necessarily beating you upside the head with them." Listening to it once more a dozen years later, I can say I no longer feel that way. Indeed, Russell's script feels at times like it is held together by its use of continuity and the fact that it was precisely aimed at the fan audience of the Wilderness Era to keep it going. Compared with how Jonathan Clements used similar references in the earlier Sympathy For the Devil, they don't carry the same weight despite the more universe-altering stakes that Russell applies here. Yet, it's hard not to find something impressive in the sheer scope and audacity on display. That Russell does all of the Valeyard and Mel's universe-spanning shenanigans in the space of one CD's running time is daring, perhaps an overreach, but certainly something that helps it stand out among the Unbound series.
What also stands out is the audio's main cast. Jayston returned to the role for the first time in close to two decades and proved to be on fine form. In some ways, the Valeyard's portrayal here makes him the ultimate alternate historian: nipping through time, changing events on a whim, keen to see how things play out. Quoting Shakespeare and with his moods ever-changing, Jayston offers up a powerhouse performance that genuinely elevates the script. Perhaps the single biggest surprise is Langford as Mel, a character whose televised appearances were the subject of not undeserved fan criticism in the late 1980s. Here though, as has often been the case with her audio drama appearances, Langford gets a chance to spread her wings. The Mel of He Jests at Scars... is not the shrieking cliched companion (mocked at one point by the Valeyard himself) but a far more ruthless and determined character, one not above using violence to get her point across. All of which culminates in the lengthy but immensely worthwhile final scene with just the two of them facing off. More than the script, or the story itself, it is Jayston and Langford that make He Jests at Scars... worth giving a listen.
Of the Doctor Who Unbound stories, this one is perhaps the one most squarely aimed at the fan audience as it stood at the time. Indeed, to use a phrase coined by my fellow Warped Factor scribe Tony Fyler to describe another Big Finish audio release, it's a story that "takes place in a space and time defined by the power of fandom squared," and not always for the better. Yet for Doctor Who fans, and those who fall into the intersecting Venn diagram with those interested in alternate history, it presents an intriguing answer to one of Classic Who's most intriguing questions:
What if the Valeyard had won?