Audio Drama Review: He Jests at Scars…

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama! Today, we’re taking a break before returning to the Eighth Doctor Adventures next week, and checking out a range we haven’t visited yet: Doctor Who Unbound. These stories are not your typical entries; instead of falling into one of the established ranges, they ask the powerful question: “What if…?” As the stories aren’t related, we aren’t obligated to take them in order; today’s entry is actually the fourth in the series. I don’t intend to make a series of this, but rather, to review them as I happen to acquire them. Today we’ll be listening to He Jests at Scars…, written by Gary Russell and starring Michael Jayston and Bonnie Langford, which asks the question, “What if the Valeyard had won?” Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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An aged Melanie Bush is in prison.  She has a reputation as the Lady Melanie Jane Bush; and one of the prisoners, Nula, believes she is a god.  When she is forced to kill another prisoner, Gerrof, her place is confirmed.  She is biding her time, intending to find and reason with the Mighty One, the ruler of all, who was once known as the Doctor—and if she can’t reason with him, she will kill him.

The TARDIS arrives at a planet called Pakha.  The man piloting it no longer calls himself the Doctor—he is the Valeyard.  He sends companion Ellie Martin to climb a cliff and recover an ancient Diadem, which is terribly powerful.  Ellie calls him the Doctor, which he resents.  Using greganic acid to cut a path up the cliff, she climbs up; while she does so, one of the native, hamsterlike Pakhars arrives and confronts them—but is stunned to see that they arrived in the TARDIS, which is legendary on Pakha.  It seems the Doctor once visited this world, and his adventures led to the loss of the Diadem in this ravine.  The Valeyard kills the Pakhar nonchalantly, and claims the Diadem; Ellie accepts it, but is surprised that the Doctor would do such a thing.  Then again, he isn’t the Doctor anymore.

On the Time Lords’ space station—the site of the Doctor’s trial—Mel confers with the president-elect and with the head of the Celestial Intervention Agency, Coordinator Vansell, concerning the outcome of the trial.  Although the High Council has been purged, and Earth has been restored to its place, the Doctor is still trapped inside the Matrix.  His fate is uncertain, but Vansell and the president decline to rescue him.  Instead, they want to analyze what will happen if the Valeyard does indeed defeat the Doctor and acquire his lives and memories, as it is an unprecedented opportunity for study.  The fact that he is an amalgam of the Doctor’s darker aspects means nothing to their experiment.  With Mel, they enter the Matrix through the Seventh Door to observe, but find that things are already going wrong.  The victorious Valeyard, having escaped and acquired a companion in Ellie Martin, arrived on the Hyperion III instead of the Doctor and Mel, and ended up slaughtering the humans by mistake, leaving the Vervoids alive and headed for Earth.  Mel questions her own absence; the Matrix shows that she never left Earth, but eventually died of a brain tumor.  On the day she would have met the Doctor, the Valeyard sent Ellie to delay Mel and prevent the meeting.  During the flashback, the Valeyard lets slip that he also went back and helped the Thals destroy the Daleks in their first bunker, preventing the rise of the Daleks.  Although he is changing his own past, he ignores the consequences, assuming he can put it all back the way it was if necessary.  Vansell defends the Valeyard’s actions, comparing it to the mission the Time Lords once sent the Doctor on to destroy the Daleks at their creation; he suspects the Valeyard, unencumbered by the Doctor’s scruples, may be useful to the CIA.  He views another projection, in which the Valeyard saves the Silurians in the Galapagos, allowing them to awaken on time, expecting that they will meet the humans and help them advance.  Even Ellie questions this, but the Valeyard threatens to take her back to where he found her—a situation in which she was about to be killed in a protest accident.  Shaken, she relents, and also stops calling him the Doctor.  Again, the Valeyard is certain he can undo his actions if he chooses.

Suddenly, the Matrix begins to break down.  It seems that Gallifrey and the space station have been destroyed, and now the Matrix is decaying; in a few decades it will cease to exist completely.  The change occurred on Uxarius in 1471; changing the Doctor’s previous experience there, the Valeyard obtained the planet’s superweapon and used it to destroy Gallifrey, removing the Time Lords, whom he views as competition.  He intends to conquer the Universe with the weapon.  Vansell realizes his mistake in letting the Valeyard escape; and without Gallifrey, he lacks the power to restore the timeline by force.  Mel offers to try to reach the Doctor within the Valeyard; the President gives her his personal Time Ring, and Vansell gives her a staser pistol.  Everything rides on her victory; and she departs.

To incorporate the weapon into his TARDIS, the Valeyard must reconfigure the interior beyond its usual capabilities.  For assistance he tries to go to Logopolis, but finds it destroyed in the wake of the Master’s actions there.  He uses his TARDIS to knock the Fourth Doctor off course en route to the planet, thus changing the events that led to the planet’s destruction—however, he accidentally causes a Time Ram with his past self’s TARDIS, and destroys it.  The released energy destroys Logopolis, which will cause the universe to end…but more to the point, what happens to the Valeyard if his past self is dead?  He is now a living paradox.

In the prison, the older Melanie learns from Nula that the prisoners are all representatives of time traveling races, and each is the last of his or her kind, as the Valeyard eliminated them to remove competition.  Nula is an Archetryxian, and the deceased Gerrof was a Tharil.  When they die, their species become extinct.  Mel reveals that the Time Lords were the first to go.  Nula agrees to help her, but first they must get past the guards, who are Morloks; they are a time-traveling race as well, but survived because they surrendered to the Valeyard, and now serve him.  Mel kills the guards at meal time.

The Valeyard tries to correct his error by warning his fourth self to avoid Logopolis, but the time distortion around the events is growing, and he can’t materialize.  Therefore the Fourth Doctor only hears a bit of the warning, and it is what inspires him to go to Logopolis in the first place, thus ensuring the events as they stand. He realizes that Time is trying to repair itself by removing him from existence, and warns Ellie that she will not escape if that happens.  He tries again to prevent disaster by going back further in time to Uxarius and using the weapon to destroy Logopolis before his fourth incarnation visited.  He successfully does so, but immediately feels unwell.  Ellie realizes the problem:  the Fourth Doctor’s visit was his second visit, and the Valeyard has now destroyed Logopolis at the moment of his first visit there, thus killing himself again.  Ellie helps him back to the TARDIS, where he is insulated from the Vortex, and he recovers, but now has gaps in his memories.  Ellie begins to search the Doctor’s old diaries for anything that might help.

Another flashback shows Melanie’s approach to the prison before her incarceration.  On a slave ship with Nula and Gerrof, she sees the Mighty One’s city of Chronopolis as they approach, and it confirms that the Mighty One is the Valeyard; though made of crystal, it looks just like Brighton.

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The diaries reveal that it was the First Doctor who visited Logopolis along with Steven Taylor and Dodo Chaplet, immediately after a trip to Kiev in the thirteenth century.  The Valeyard is now obligated to try to prevent that visit from taking place, and intends to go to Kiev and kill Dodo, deterring the Doctor from that otherwise-pleasurable trip.  Mel materializes in the TARDIS, having just left the Matrix.  She tries to reason with the Doctor, but the Valeyard insists that the Doctor is dead; instead he intends to find the weapons the Doctor hid or destroyed, and use them to reshape reality in his image.  He lays out his plans for Kiev; when Mel doesn’t believe it, he casually kills Ellie to make his point.  He then damages the Time Ring and sends Mel off through time.  Thus begins Mel’s ten-year journey to make her way back to him.

At Chronopolis, Melanie and Nula make it to the Mighty One’s throne room, and fight their way in.  He does not recognize Melanie at first, and when he does, he remembers multiple possible deaths for her.  Hearing his words, she realizes that there is no chance of reasoning with him.  He insists that the Doctor is no more, but she isn’t convinced; the presence of the prisoners indicates he may still have a bit of morality left in him.  He declares that he has power over all time, and over creation and destruction; to prove his point, he blinks in and out of time, killing Nula five years in the past, then five minutes ago in the corridor outside, then restoring her life.  Melanie shoots him, but he blinks back a few seconds and snatches the gun from her before she can fire.  However, as he gloats over her, everything around Melanie vanishes, including the Valeyard and Nula.

Melanie finds herself in the TARDIS console room.  The Valeyard—the real Valeyard, not an illusion—is there as well, and paralyzed by fear; he cannot move even one step.  He reveals that Chronopolis was an illusion, generated by the TARDIS in its final efforts to protect the Valeyard from himself.  He has made so many changes to the universe, history, and his own past that they have cascaded, until now he doesn’t know what is real.  Given the chance to be real, he wasted it on destroying reality…his only recourse in the end was to live in the illusion.  Chronopolis manifested as his home; and when Melanie arrived, she perceived it as hers as well.  Worse, time has become so fragile that the Valeyard now fears that any action at all will tear the universe apart—and thus, the TARDIS has frozen them in place with its internal force fields.  Now, it lacks the power to do anything except hold them in place; and Mel’s Time Ring is not programmed for anything but carrying her to his location.  Therefore, here they will stay…for eternity.

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A brief confession: It’s only been a few years since I discovered the existence of the Valeyard. My childhood experience with Doctor Who ended with the Fifth Doctor, and though I saw the television movie in first run in 1996, I knew very little about the Doctors that came between. When I discovered the existence of this character, I fell in love with the idea—an evil Doctor? What’s not to love?! Certainly we already had the Master, who sometimes seems to fill that role; but this character strikes at the heart of what it means to be the Doctor, and further, threatens the very fabric of the Doctor’s existence. I fully understand why the series has been reluctant to revisit the character over the years; but it’s nice to occasionally see him appear again. There’s no better place for it than the Unbound series, and this story—“What if the Valeyard had won?”—was begging to be written.

The chief difference between the Valeyard and the Master is that the Master has no obligation to maintain any scrap of morality. “I’m not good!”—to put it in Missy’s words. If he (or she) wants to kill, no problem. Destroy a solar system? Or maybe a third of the universe? Do it for the lulz. The Valeyard, on the other hand, has to justify his actions. His justification may be totally wrong, but it will make sense to his internal logic; and in some way, it will indeed gratify the scrap of the Doctor’s morality that remains in him. Even when he kills Ellie, it is for a purpose that he at that time perceives to be the greater good. That, essentially, is what this story is about, though it cloaks it in the language of disruption of timelines. Moreover, the Master has to justify it all to his companions. He frequently explains himself to new companion Ellie Martin (borrowed in alternate form from the Sarah Jane Smith range of audios), because, no matter how much he threatens and insults Ellie, he wants her to agree with him, to see it his way. At the end, he does the same for Mel; and he even, after a fashion, apologizes for what he has done. By that time he has badly upset history, to the point that time itself has grown fragile; he fears that even the slightest action on his part, even so much as taking a single step, may destroy the universe. The only solution is to remain immobile for eternity, courtesy of the TARDIS, and even that may not save the universe—but he does, finally, make the sacrifice to see it happen. One could argue that in that sense, the Doctor wins out.

The story demonstrates that while the Valeyard is fascinating, he’s not particularly good at being a villain. He wants to throw caution to the wind and do what he likes, but it never works out. Not only do his actions backfire on him, but also they have terrible consequences for the universe. As a result, his evil degrades into caprice, and his ambition degrades into fear and cowardice. By the end he’s reduced to literal trembling—if the TARDIS would let him. The lesson in it, if there is one, is that you can’t have it both ways; underneath his actions, he wanted to bring good to the universe, much as the Doctor does, but using evil actions to make it happen will never work out.

Mel figures into much less running time here, but her performance is outstanding. This is an older, jaded Mel, at least in the later appearances; the health nut is gone, and a warrior has arisen in her place. She is mistaken for a Time Lady, and though she denies it, she could pass for one quite admirably. Mel in the classic series got flak from fans because she wasn’t a particularly serious character; I always attributed that to her youth, and gave her a pass on that count. This Mel is all grown up, and—to borrow a phrase that Mel herself borrows from The Incredible Hulk–“you wouldn’t like [her] when [she’s] angry!” It’s a sad ending for her; I’ve already spoiled it a bit, but I won’t spell it out more directly here. It’s not what she deserves, and we can be glad this isn’t the “real” universe.

I’ve never listened to the Sarah Jane audios, so I don’t know much about what Ellie Martin (played by Juliet Warner) is like there. Here, she’s essentially a clone of Ace, with a bit of Mel’s attitude, and maybe Peri’s as well. She questions the Doctor frequently, calls him by the wrong name, gets manipulated and dispatched into dangerous situations, and carries canisters of a chemical weapon with her (greganic acid in this case, as opposed to Nitro-9). It’s a good performance, but nothing we haven’t seen before; and I suppose that’s just as well, since I’ve already said that she dies during the story. She is instrumental in preventing Mel from meeting the Sixth Doctor (as documented in Business Unusual, though with some slight changes that probably owe to other meddling the Valeyard has already done), thus inadvertently freeing Mel from her timeline and allowing her to be dispatched to fight the Valeyard, though that was not his goal, of course. Coordinator Vansell makes another appearance here, and is indirectly responsible for the whole catastrophe, though he tries to make up for it. As well, we see that the Time Lords have purged the traitorous High Council from Trial of a Time Lord, and have placed a new president-elect (heard but not named here).

Given that this story deals with the Valeyard’s take on the Doctor’s entire life, there are a lot of continuity references. The megabyte modem from The Ultimate Foe gets a mention here; that bit of technology sounds laughable now, but we can handwave it by assuming the term means something different in the Whoniverse, as this item’s functions aren’t really described anywhere. The Valeyard kills his fourth incarnation with a Time Ram (The Time Monster, Engines of War, et al). The president-elect gives Mel a Time Ring (Genesis of the Daleks; Vansell also directly references that story’s events). There are frequent references to Logopolis and its destruction by the Master (Logopolis) as well as a charged vacuum emboitment, or CVE (Full Circle, Logopolis). The Valeyard mentions leaving Gallifrey with Susan (An Unearthly Child, Nightshade, Lungbarrow, The Day of the Doctor) and describes Chronopolis as appearing like a large house at the foot of a mountain (Lungbarrow). He mentions numerous companions of the Doctor: Steven and Dodo, Peri and Evelyn, Ace, Charley Pollard, C’rizz, and Hex; the last of those had yet to be introduced in the audios, but would be soon, a trick that goes all the way back to Mel’s premature appearance in Trial of a Time Lord. He recovers and uses the Diadem from Pakha (Legacy, a VNA novel also written by Gary Russell, which I have not reached in my readthrough; note that he also wrote the aforementioned Business Unusual, which gave us most of Mel’s backstory, including her full name). He also recovers and uses the Uxarian superweapon from Colony in Space (and erroneously says that he was there ten thousand years before—a behind the scenes goof, as it should say one thousand). He saves the Silurians who were murdered in their sleep in Bloodtide. Among his prisoners are an Archetryxian and a Monan (The Apocalypse Element), a Tharil (Warrior’s Gate) and an Urbankan (Four To Doomsday); a NImon is also mentioned (The Horns of Nimon), and Moroks (The Space Museum) are his guards. Vansell first appeared in The Sirens of Time, and has since had numerous appearances in prose and audio. Mel, Vansell and the president review the events of Terror of the Vervoids. Vansell compares the Valeyard to the Watcher (Logopolis), and his comments conflict with the existence of Cho-Je in Planet of the Spiders. The Valeyard references a trip to Kiev by the First Doctor and his companions, which occurred in Bunker Soldiers. Mel’s various deaths as cited by the Valeyard refer to Heritage and Dragonfire, though with some changes. He mentions Battle TARDISes, which first appeared in The Stockbridge Horror, and again in various Time War stories.

Overall: This is a particularly dark and sad story, and a commentary on the Valeyard and—by extension—the Doctor. The title comes from a Shakespeare quote, cited in full by the Valeyard: “He jests at scars, that never felt a wound” (Romeo and Juliet), the implication being that the Valeyard made light of the Doctor’s experiences and decisions without understanding the full import of what he was mocking. He suffers for it, and always will—and takes Mel with him. A terrible ending indeed, but a compelling story.

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Next time: On Monday we’ll continue the Main Range with Colditz; and on Thursday we’ll begin the Eighth Doctor Adventures, series two, with Dead London! See you there.

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below.

He Jests at Scars…

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