THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

The Trial of a Time Lord
Big Finish Productions
He Jests At Scars...

Written by Gary Russell Cover image
Format Compact Disc
Released 2003
What if... The Valeyard had won?

Starring Michael Jayston and Bonnie Langford
Also featuring Anthony Keetch Tim Preece, Juliet Warner, Jane McFarlane, Mark Donovan

Synopsis: Out of the past grows myths, lies and legends. The Doctor was one such legend, but no one knows whether he truly ever existed. Well, not now they don't. The Mighty One, ruling the multiverses from the eternal city of Chronopolis has made sure of that.


Reviews

A Review by Richard Radcliffe 3/10/03

In as far as Alternative Doctors go, the Valeyard has to be the ultimate. The garbled story that was Trial of a Time Lord in no way diminished Michael Jayston's monumental character, and a return was well overdue. One of the best villains ever to grace TV Doctor Who, an alternate Doctor to boot - perfect for Unbound. It was wonderful that Big Finish persuaded him to come on board.

Gary Russell takes on writing as well as directing here, fleshing out the Valeyard's character - and trying to make some sense of the conclusion of Trial of a Time Lord. He does a pretty good job too, though a few more listens will clear things up definitely. There's a good use of Time Lords here too, in a move reminiscent of the 8th Dr range, where Gallifrey is no more. The return of Vansell was okay, but he's hardly the most memorable Time Lord we have ever encountered.

Back too is Bonnie Langford as Mel, showing again how her character has grown in leaps and bounds from TV. It helps massively that Russell filled in Mel's back story in his books - he's quite clearly a fan. For an alternative DW story, this doesn't half have a lot of references to DW in all its forms - but then Russell's books loved to fill in the gaps in the canon.

The best thing about this play is Michael Jayston as the Valeyard. Given some elaborate dialogue, Jayston's voice is ideally suited to this medium. He dominates the play in every aspect, and credit goes to writer and performer for the way he expertly comes across. Hopefully he can reprise his role again, opposite one of the Doctors - preferably the 6th - now that would be a great audio story.

I enjoyed the story overall. It was interesting to see the mayhem that the Valeyard created throughout time, stripped of the morals the original Doctor had. It was great to see him treat his companion with contempt. These Unbound plays are really producing some nasty Dr/companion relationships!

I suppose the Valeyard was the obvious Alternative Doctor to use in this series. Big Finish were never going to make a mess of his return, but it's great to see new ideas mixed with existing material, in an effective way. It's ironic really that the obvious alternative Doctor story actually feels more like the TV series that it spawned, than all the other Unbound stories. I must have been used to this Doctor, after all these years.

When the Unbound stories were announced with writers, this one looked a little weird. I suppose that title was the main reason, it is rather strange. Is it a classical quote? I have no idea, but it certainly stands out. In conclusion this story is not weird, it's just a pretty good Valeyard story, with an excellent actor reprising a splendid role. And that was worth the price of it alone. 8/10


He fought the law, and the law won by Andrew Wixon 12/11/03

The Unbound stories and their vital 'what-if's to date have run an interesting gamut from those inspired by putting a new spin on a particular adventure (David Warner's outing), to a couple of less specific tales (Bayldon and Collings), to the 'Continuity? Mythos? Ha, I spit in your face!' lark presided over by Derek Jacobi and Robert Shearman. He Jests At Scars is very definitely of the former persuasion, as it's essentially an alternate ending to, and continuation of, The Trial of a Time Lord, in which the triumphant Valeyard sets off to subjugate time and space and Mel has to somehow stop him.

Now the original Trial isn't my favourite story - as I've said before, if the show had been axed at this point, with hindsight I'd've seen the Beeb's point. So I'm quite surprised to be able to report that HJAS is really much more fun than I was expecting it to be, especially as its author (a Mr G Russell Esq) is not one of my most favourite writers.

Russell has a big and well-deserved rep as a bringer-together of diverse bits of obscure Who-lore, simply because he can, and it's unleashed to quite staggering effect here. This makes the average David McIntee novel look like a Bob Holmes script when it comes to continuity references. Name checks are given to Bloodtide, Logopolis, Colony in Space, Warrior's Gate, Four to Doomsday, The Space Museum... it should be terribly, toe-curlingly fannish, but it's so utterly demented it somehow won me over.

It's aided hugely by a rock-solid turn from Bonnie Langford (words, incidentally, I never thought I'd use together and in that order, but that's my problem, not hers), and a startling one from Michael Jayston, who declaims most of his lines rather like Noel Coward playing Henry V. The vague sense that this isn't to be taken too seriously is supported by Juliet Warner's performance as a character who's clearly meant as a sly parody of Ace, and who gets the immortal line (I paraphrase slightly) 'he's been buggering up the web of time'.

All in all, the rather downbeat turn events take is a bit of a surprise, but it feels somehow appropriate to the story. The plot is another shuffled-up non-narrative (okay, Big Finish, you've shown us you can do this sort of thing, now please stop it) but hangs together pretty well. But I couldn't escape the impression all the continuity mangling was the sole point of the exercise. It's a shame, because the story raises some interesting points (eg, if an unleashed Valeyard is such a lethal menace, why is the Master (a roughly equivalent character in many ways) so utterly useless?), only to abandon them almost straightaway. Good fun, but it could've been more.


Shakespeare it aint! by Joe Ford 14/11/03

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

There have been some wonderful Doctor Who stories on audio, in their four years at play Big Finish have more than justified their work offering up some of the best ever stories in the show's entire canon (The Holy Terror, The Chimes of Midnight, Jubilee). They have tried experiments (the club themed The Rapture), they have tried out a musical (The Pirates), horror (Embrace the Darkness), comedy (The One Doctor), even multi Doctor treats (Project: Lazarus). They have done some good work and at the centre of it all is Gary Russell, the beating heart of Big Finish.

So why oh why did he bother to write this, possibly the worst ever Doctor Who story I have ever seen/read/heard? It encapsulates everything I hate about Russell's approach to Doctor Who; it is a tedious, unimaginative mess that lacks atmosphere, brain cells and good lines. The more I listened that more annoyed I got. I almost refused to get to the end but managed it, gluing the earphones inside so I couldn't tear them away. Was this what the man wanted to achieve, to see how long we could bear to listen to this drivel?

Where do I start? The most aggravating aspect of He Jests at Scars was that the idea behind it has a lot of promise. I am a huge Trial of a Time Lord apologist and find one of the most enjoyable reasons to watch the season is Michael Jayston as the villainous Valeyard. He was quite superb in the role, taking on some of the most overwritten dialogue in the history of television and making it sound damn scary! The thought of listening to a tale with the Valeyard as the protagonist, him being the 'official' Doctor is wonderful. I had lots of ideas of just how he would operate...

And they were certainly nothing like his behaviour in this story, which borders on utter insanity. Gary Russell seems to think just because this guy is a bit darker than the Doctor he would be a moustache twirling buffoon who would be the exact opposite of the Doctor. Instead of trying to protect the Web of Time he goes about deliberately sabotaging it! He has terrible, overblown dialogue about "setting right what all the other Doctors did wrong!" before destroying planets and changing history. Well blah to that. Is this 'Doctor' stupid? I mean really, really stupid? Even the most imbecilic Doctor Who bad guy (stand up Ainley's Master) knew better than to just have fun throwing universal events off balance. When the 'Doctor' of this story accidentally commits suicide by killing one of his earlier selves he has the nerve to sound SURPRISED! Stupid, stupid man!

But it's not just his actions that annoy it is character too. Gary Russell seems to think if he has the Valeyard/Doctor spout out some threat it constitutes a menacing character so he gives him a companion in the (particularly irritating) form of Ellie Martin to hiss and moan at. As though this story is not drowning in enough continuity along pops this 'companion' from the Sarah Jane Smith series in a different guise (erm she can walk and she is played by a lesser actress). Admittedly this cockney cow is very, very grating and I would probably want to kill her too if she were my friend but having the Valeyard/Doctor threaten to leave/kill/hurt her every five minutes does not make him scary. It makes her stupid for staying with him. I always envisioned the Valeyard/Doctor as a cavalier type, still helping the downtrodden but in extreme ways, not caring about the body count as long as the job is done... not this snarling idiot with no brain. In the end this persona is shallow, weak and boring... three things I never thought the Doctor could ever be (unless he was played by Peter Davison). His dialogue is atrociously bad, verging from the cringe worthy ("I allowed those ridiculous rodents to keep the Diadem") to the brain meltingly bad ("What good is power if it sits around and no-one uses it?", "Ridiculous, pontificating fool!", "We'll be fighting an army of augmented aubergines by ourselves!", "Do you realise how easy it would be to reach over and snap your neck just to silence your irritating banter?"). BAD! BAD! BAD! Poor Michael Jayston (who tries and fails to overcome the script's troubles).

I cannot believe I am about to say this but including the wonderful Bonnie Langford in this story was a huge mistake. Not because she's bad, far from it, she is probably the only performer to make any positive impression but because it just complicates an already messy plot. To sum things up we have Mel on trial ship after the Doctor and Valeyard tussle it out in the Fantasy Factory, only the Valeyard/Doctor manages to escape and Mel is trapped on the trial ship. So Mel and some dull Time Lords watch as the Valeyard/Doctor changes history... to the extent that Gallifrey is destroyed and all history is altered. The leaps back to the trial ship are unnecessary and boring, Mel going on about how she can't believe how stupid the Time Lords are for allowing the Doctor/Valeyard to roam free. And then they get worried when things start to go wrong... stupid, stupid Time Lords! They should never have let an admitted criminal loose in the first place (oh sorry, they're studying him! Huh?). Why is everyone so stupid in this story?

Then we have Mel ten years in the future hardened by a decade of poor livening. Bless Bonnie who puts in her usual committed performance, Gary Russell's weighs her down with some of the worst dialogue a companion has ever had. The first 'dramatic' scene where she guns somebody down is out of character and tasteless, not shocking and totally predictable. Once again, annoying. And then she has the nerve to bitch at the Valeyard/Doctor when she finally catches up with him! Stupid, forgetful Mel!

And just like all those deeply forgettable and horrible books Russell has written this story is packed full of as many Doctor Who references as possible. What with this and the past two stories (Omega and Davros) the anniversary year is churning out far too many stories that rely on the show's past. It's season Twenty all over again (Nooooo! A fate worse than death!). Russell puts in references to Bloodtide, Logopolis, The Apocalypse Element, Warriors' Gate, Nekromentia, Delta and the Bannermen, etc. There are loads more and instead of the odd reference that would be quite charming this overload of continuity made me feel like he was actually trying to impress by how much he knew about the show's past. I was NOT impressed. By the end of the story I was completely Who-ed out, by that I mean I was sick of Doctor Who and its vast tapestry; I wanted desperately to listen to something else. No other story has ever made me feel that way and I hope it never happens again.

Since he wrote the damn thing it is only fitting that he should direct it too although this merely adds to my sickness of Gary Rusell directed merchendise. Perhaps I should not buy any more of these CD's until another director shows up. Maybe another director could have salvaged something from this tangled nightmare but I doubt it. As it is Gary's direction is typically flat, scenes are drowned out in sound FX (an early cavern scene is especially annoying). Grand events take place in this story but they never come across as such, when Logopolis is wiped out (again) I was shrugging as to why I should care given nobody else does and that the event itself is quiet and undramatic. The story plods along, tying itself in knots. I expect it is trying to be clever as the Doctor hops about trying to alter mistakes he is already made but long, poorly scripted conversations about how they're going to try and cheat the Web of Time just don't work. It makes the story hard work when it doesn't need to be.

Plus the ending sucks. An anti-climatic pile of shit. More horrible 'philosophical' dialogue, the stupid concepts behind the story finally revealed, the Valeyard whinging on about how he can never match up to the Doctor. The ending doesn't even confirm whether anything in the story actually took place (God I hope not!).

Even worse Gary seems to want to copy the bravery of the last, outstanding Unbound story by having the Doctor kill. Sorry mate but in a story this bad it doesn't have any effect. It's not clever to create so much damage in the Doctor Who universe and pass it off as a story.

The most offensive fan-wankish story ever. There isn't an original idea/line/event. It is just a rehash of old ideas that have been done better everywhere else. The monstrously garbled plot is badly written to the last line. And the continuity just never stops... there are even two or three in the last scene!

Quite possibly the WORST Doctor Who story. Avoid at all costs. I'm begging you!


What Would the Valeyard Do? by Michael Hickerson 22/12/03

When details of the Unbound series began to surface a few months ago, the one story that stood out as a "must hear" was Gary Russell's He Jests at Scars. Over the years, Russell has become a kind of champion to the underrated Doctor/companion teams and stories in his writings. His stories have a polarizing effect on the fandom... either you love what he's done or you dismiss it as fan-boy ranting.

I will admit that I've always been a fan of Russell's work. His Who novels have always been some of the most consistently entertaining and while I may not always agree with him, he at least manages to keep things interesting. Also, the man knows what he likes and doesn't like in Doctor Who and isn't afraid to say so -- something I remember from long ago in his reviews for Doctor Who Magazine.

So I have to admit I was really looking forward to He Jests at Scars.

And I've got to admit that after hearing it, I am very pleased with the results.

Russell does a superlative job of taking a character who was very much one note on screen and really expanding it. In listening to this story about how the Trial ended in this reality, you can almost see Russell liberally borrowing from Robert Holmes's original ending for The Trial of a Time Lord, with the Doctor and the Valeyard locked in combat, not really sure as to who would win the day. In this case, the Valeyard wins and sets out to start wreaking havoc across the universe. In a lot of ways, the Valeyard becomes like an evil version of Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap -- he sets out to put wrong everything the Doctor has put right over the years and across time and space.

Of course, as with any Gary Russell story, continuity references abound. The Valeyard takes care of the Daleks (it happens off screen as it were), and then sets about collecting all the artifacts and weapons he's left scattered or destroyed across space and time during his time as the Doctor. However, the Valeyard quickly begins to create paradox after paradox as he seeks to destroy all the good the Doctor has created and ends up... well, that would be telling. Let me just say that after all the emphasis placed on the web of time and how it works hard to repair itself in the last eighth Doctor season, it's intriguing to hear the notion carried out here.

Luckily for all involved, Michael Jayston returns as the Valeyard and Russell has given him a great script to work with. His dialogue is almost Robert Holmes-like and the banter that Valeyard has with his companion, Ellie is nicely done. One of the nice recurring bits is how the Valeyard does not want to be called Doctor, even though he is a distillation of both. Indeed, the most intriguing part of this is that you can see how fine a line the seventh Doctor walked between his manipulative self and becoming the full out damning-the-laws-of-time character the Valeyard is here. Jayston clearly relishes the role and his enthusiasm shows up time and again. In a series of stories featuring some high profile actors, Jayston easily holds his own, if not betters some of the other bigger names in the Unbound series.

Also in keeping with the Russell tradition of re-examining underrated companions, Mel is included here. Now, say what you will about Bonnie Langford and the decision to put her on Doctor Who to start with, I think she has redeemed herself admirably with the audio stories. Certainly the audio series has shown Mel could be decent if given the right scripts and that is definitely the case here. The Mel we see here starts out on an upbeat note -- she wants to save the Doctor and bring him back, but slowly the events of the story and her quest to find the Valeyard and stop him overwhelm her. The story teases with a view of the dark Mel and then proceeds to explain how she became that way. And give Langford credit -- as the story goes along, you can hear Mel slowly losing hope and become resigned to the fact that she may not ever get the Doctor she knew back.

In every aspect, He Jests at Scars really delivers on the promise. Yes, there are some things I wish they'd gone farther with but overall, I have to admit I genuinely enjoyed this story. It's a nice treat -- esp. if you are listening to catch all the continuity references. And it does a nice job of addressing the central what if question. Certainly in the light of Full Fathom Five, this one takes on a whole new level of questioning -- just how far was that Doctor from the one we see here? Everyone who worked on this one is to be commended for a fine piece of Doctor Who that ably celebrates forty years of our favorite Time Lord.


Justify that line... by Jamas Enright 4/8/04

There was just one thing I wanted before I listened to this story, and that was for the title to be justified. And with this small requirement I pressed play...

And soon pressed stop so I could make sure that I had the right track playing. Starting in media res is all well and good, but it can make for very confusing beginnings. Which brings up another point: narrative techniques. Not quite as bad as some recent audio plays, the story does switch back and forth a few times, making for some very confused listening, especially when the same character(s) (at different times in their lives) are in adjoining scenes.

With these niggles on board, what did I really think? I wanted to like this. I really did. There are some very nice touches throughout which appealed to me, even the continuity-fest was good, but I'll get onto that later. However, I don't think that Gary Russell (writer and director, this time out) wanted me to like it. There is an almost continual barrage of scenes, seemingly designed to confuse and bludgeon the listener into believing that this story was over-whelmingly important. Maybe so, but to use Gary Russell's own phrase, he was 'over-egging the pudding' a slight too much.

This story is more connected to the Doctor Who series as a whole, moreso, I felt, than any of the others so far in the Unbound series. The story takes up pretty much directly after the end of Trial of the Time Lord and this time the Doctor didn't win. The Valeyard is in control, although it is hard sometimes to spot the difference between the Valeyard and the Master (perhaps the Doctor and the Master really are brothers?). Gary Russell is renown for filling his stories with continuity references, and almost everything the Valeyard or Melanie do or encounter relates to either the TV series, the books or the audios. This is certainly no audio for the uninformed, but then most of the uninformed wouldn't probably even know who the Valeyard was. Still, the sheer gall of what the Valeyard does, and tries to undo, is entertaining in its scope.

The concept of the Valeyard winning is an obvious what if, so hardly surprising that Big Finish takes the opportunity to explore it. Michael Jayston makes much of the role, letting his voice simply drip with the derision and vehemence that so characterised his performance on the screen. Often during the story the Valeyard proclaims he is not the Doctor, but Gary Russell does have Michael Jayston channel another doctor, that of Doctor Smith! If someone ever decides to do a non-camp version of Lost in Space (although that would remove most of the charm), they could do worse than cast Michael Jayston in the role. (Actually, Gary Russell himself does a good job of channelling Pip and Jane Baker in the dialogue!)

Bonnie Langford gets to play a different take on Mel, although it's hard to see her in the role of bitter manhunter she takes on. She's just too nice!

Juliet Warner (as Nula) and Jane McFarlane (as Ellie) are unfortunately casting, in that their voices sound too similar. Like the narrative tricks, this adds to the confusion, but this is something that could easily have been fixed. Speaking of Ellie, she comes across as a pseudo-Ace, hmmm... hang on, having young, rash Ace as a companion to the Valeyard would have been quite interesting!

The climax leading up the end is full-on, an exciting rush of action. The ending itself, however, is a bit of a cop-out, and is barely above the 'it was all a dream' explanation.

And as for the title, yep, it comes up during the play. Not quite sure I get it, but at least it is justified (which is just one justification among so many forced justifications the story needed to keep going). Many things, like the title, are paid off in this audio, and it is enjoyable, but goes a shade too far in many ways to be truly top notch.


A Review by Ron Mallett 8/6/05

Written by Big Finish producer Gary Russell, this is a surreal but typically derivative play, part of the Unbound series. The Doctor Who Unbound series allows a number of alternative Doctors to experience an adventure that asks a particular question: in this instance it is an answer to the question to what would have happened if the Valeyard won?

Marc Platt once famously said that the most frustrating thing about Doctor Who on television is that you realise that you could do a better job writing it yourself. This audioplay proves the same is true of the Big Finish adventures. Littered with fanboy references to the original television era, the story has little new to offer. It has some nice moments: the introduction when Mel declares she is on a mission to kill the Doctor, the ability of the Valeyard to manipulate time, the final price for the Valeyard's rampage. However it just seems too easy to build a story primarily on the ideas of others... particularly if you are assuming that you are writing in a professional capacity.

Bonnie Langford and Michael Jayston are both excellent... although Mel seems a little too butch, in a way that would seem ludicrous if we could see the diminuatve actress playing this part on TV. Who knows, one day we might get a fully orginal Valeyard story on TV?!