04 May 2014

BF: Trial of the Valeyard

Trial of the Valeyard was a special single-disc release purely for main range subscribers whose six or twelve chosen releases included Afterlife. This is a regular move from Big Finish, to encourage more to subscribe, and generally these become available to the general public a year after initial release. It's a really nice idea, and the necessary intimacy of these plays reportedly often works in their favour. This does work best when they are played on a small scale, of course. This story features a similarly minscule cast (of four, one of whom appears for about thirteen and a half seconds). 

It's a great idea on the part of Alan Barnes and Mike Maddox to have the Valeyard put on trial, and even more so to make the Doctor his elected defendant. I'm sure that many had high hopes of revelations for Trial, and arguably we get some. This story definitely works much better with the Doctor travelling alone, and as such it fits into this format much more easily than it would the main range - although it would be great to have a trilogy of solo Sixie adventures. Having said that, perhaps the cast was too limited to give this the required depth. This three-hander between the Doctor, the Valeyard and the Inquisitor is supposed to play out primarily in the same court room as we saw in Trial of a Time Lord. Although the extras in those fourteen episodes did very little (in terms of acting and looking awake), the numbers still made it seem more like a credible process. Here, there is also meant to be a jury but they do not feature at all, save for a single reference. They could have been written out quite easily as well, which makes their inclusion all the more mystifying given that Barnes and Maddox were aware of Barnaby Edwards' limitations.

The opening seems to deliberately plunder the beginning of the first episode of The Mysterious Planet. The Doctor arrives, having been drawn in the TARDIS. He initially refuses to leave his ship, but his curiosity is eventually piqued. Over the course of nearly five minutes he meanders his way to the courtroom. While the whole "not remotely interested" theme was mildly amusing at first, it goes on for far too long and is fruitless because you know that he's going to go wherever it is he's avoiding eventually anyway. There'd be no story otherwise. Once we finally reach the opening titles, we learn of the premise before being introduced to the peculiarities of the Gallifreyan legal system. The Valeyard's identity is not allowed to be revealed to the court, and the charge against him the same. Even the Doctor, the counsel for his defence, isn't allowed to know. Here is the get-out clause I suggested for the jury. It could have been made such a secretive case that a jury was forbidden.

Eventually, via a series of tiring conversations between the Doctor and the Inquisitor, the Valeyard is finally allowed to speak, and explain how he came to be here. This is all pretty interesting stuff, and I was glad to finally be getting to the meat of the story. There's a great plotline in shadow houses - places where those whose regenerations are irregular are sent; the galactic equivalent of asylums. Amongst the residents of the Valeyard's shadow house was an intriguing character who existed in no specific instance. He saw all of time at once, and so knew everything about someone he was yet to meet because he was going to learn all of this in the future, once he had met them. It's a confusing notion but a really clever one and while it may not sound particularly ingenious, its use within the context of Trial is effective. The Valeyard is said to have been an offshoot from the thirteenth Doctor's experimentation, who was apparently conducting illegal research into a way to cheat death. The explanation about Rassilon limiting the number of times the symbiotic nuclei can be split so that he can reign supreme for eternity was a bit pedestrian and... underwhelming. I don't really understand a) why he'd do that and b) why it's illegal to investigate this. I'd always believed that the limit was a biological one rather than a legal one as some fans did, but this isn't what I was hoping. 

However, an advantage of this instability is that the fourteenth Doctor is completely unhinged and it's delightful to hear him pottering around his little cottage, with mentions of past adventures (which seem to centre around the Second Doctor's era, oddly). Pleasingly, the Inquisitor dismisses the business about Rassilon as just being folklore, despite the Scrapyard Valeyard's insistence to the contrary. Anyway, to cut to the point, this all turns out to be a contrived way for the Valeyard to steal the Doctor's remaining regenerations. In order to achieve this though, a lot of setup is required. I'll list just a few of the things the Railyard Scrapyard Valeyard must have done prior to Trial:
  • changed all records related to a Sun, Eta Rho
  • introduced two major new laws
  • created an entire planet to orbit Eta Rho
  • seeding the rumours of shadow houses
  • spreading the idea of Rassilon's self-obsession
  • building a shack on the planet
  • acquiring trinkets from locations the Doctor's visited
  • build/acquire a time-sensitive bomb
  • create two Matrix doors (one in the courtroom, one on the planet)
  • create a muddy quicksand-like sea on the planet
  • getting himself arrested for false crimes
I think you have to agree, that's pretty contrived. This sort of scheme is exactly the sort of thing I could see the Ainley Master relying on, but Barnes and Maddox have a totally different take on the character to Robert Holmes and Pip and Jane Baker. The way he gives up at the end of this story is so blunt as well. The Doctor calls for him to come out and he does so, plain and simple. And then he escapes, and the Inquisitor is quite happy to let things stand. This gives Trial of the Valeyard the disappointing conclusion of teaching us absolutely diddley-squat, since everything the Valeyard said was falsified, part of his overly elaborate plan. To be honest, it is a shame that this is the story to reunite these three driving forces of Series 23. Couldn't they have come up with something more weighty? It could have had the same premise, but with the Valeyard actually on trial for his crimes against the Doctor and the legal system in Trial of a Time Lord. It's really oddly paced as well, despite Edwards' best efforts. After dawdling and treading water for an hour, the ending feels really rushed and the lack of consequences undermines the whole thing. 

After all that planning, the Junkyard Railyard Scrapyard Valeyard is willing to just let the Doctor escape, which also seems strange to me. Couldn't he have engineered some elaborate trap door to prevent the TARDIS from leaving - both parties only just do so in the nick of time anyway. Despite overall dissatisfaction with this tale, there are some really nice moments. I like the idea of the isolation time-spans, that allow the Doctor and the Vineyard Junkyard Railyard Scrapyard Valeyard to talk in private for a short time. A particularly affecting moment is when the older Doctor (or whatever he is) tells his younger self that he tried to steal the intervening incarnations is for the greater good. Having lived through the time, he regrets his time and feels he knows how to do better. He briefly discusses the seventh and eighth incarnations (presumably no further due to Big Finish's license restriction) and the latter is said to have a lot of blood on his hands. Considering this was recorded, let alone written, many months before John Hurt's Doctor was unveiled in The Name of the Doctor, it's fair to assume that Barnes and Maddox meant for this to be the fate of Gallifrey. It stills works in the context though, with the developments at the end of his fourth series (and whatever may be planned for the future).

All three of the principal actors in this more than fill their parts. The dialogue is one of this serial's strong points, and Lynda Bellingham and Michael Jayston seem to relish being back in the fold. Colin Baker is a delight, and he really does feel like the more dangerous Series 23 version of his Doctor. All three performers seem to respond exactly right to the play, and I can see the influence of Barnaby Edwards. I really enjoyed having these three back, and it's a shame they all sound noticeably older. I realise this is unavoidable, but it is particularly true in the case of Michael Jayston. I think fans have become more accustomed to Baker's current tones as part of his 'softer Six' persona, but comparing him then and now, despite still being able to inject the same energy and enthusiasm into his designated part, he does sound older. This is not meant to detract from any of the performances given though, they are all immensely enjoyable. John Banks is also suitably odd in his brief role as the fourteenth Doctor.

Given that Maddox and Barnes must have known the TV show would reach this late stage in the Doctor's life at some stage, it seems unusual that they chose to centre a story around it as by definition it all has to be undone at the end, which is usually deeply unsatisfying. I agree with the notion that this should all have been set around the Doctor and the identity of the Valeyard, exploring his past (with more than a hint of suggestion, I might add) but I don't think this was the way to do it. All the Gallifreyan history retconning also sits badly with me, but also concerned parties. Given that this is all explained away as another one of the Valeyard's mad plots, is the inference here that the Doctor eventually degenerates into the Master?

This feels like exactly what it is: a stop-gap between adventures. If nothing else, the writers demonstrate why the Trial season wasn't solely set in the courtroom. It also sits unnaturally that it comprises a single, 62-minute episode, especially given there's thirty seconds of musical interlude in the middle. The first half is definitely more enjoyable and is actually pretty good drama. After a while, you can get a bit frustrated with all the continual interjections and just want someone to explain or do something. Anything. This was certainly a neat premise, and the dialogue is well-written, but the execution of the tale could have been handled in a more sophisticated manner with the same actors I feel. I can't really complain since it was free, and is still certainly above average. It was quite an enjoyable hour, but the end undermines the entire tale. It's a bit disappointing as I know this same pairing of writers can often do much better (Gods and Monsters is an especially good example). Andy Hardwick's music and Barnaby Edwards' direction are both superb though, and add real atmosphere to the piece. There's much to commend here, and I'd love to see what Flip would make of the Doctor's 'associates' if they are to return again! This is probably more enjoyable to big fans of Series 23, but still pleasing enough as a free nostalgia fest.

In a Nutshell: A great concept story that reveals more about the Valeyard's origins before exposing mistruths to leave further ambiguity in his profile.

Judged as a main range single-disc release, this would probably score 5.5, but as it is:

Trial of the Valeyard will be available for general purchase from December 2014, or can be obtained when taking out a subscription including Afterlife. Joe from Doc Oho has reviewed it here.

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