Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Unbound 04. He Jests at Scars… by Gary Russell (August 2003)

The Good: Well, the title (from Romeo and Juliet: “He jests at scars that never felt a wound”) is pretty great, although that’s hardly the most effervescent of praise with which to begin describing an 80-minute story. Bonnie Langford is truly excellent (probably the audio’s highlight) as the bitter, twisted Mel – my word, I almost wish she had played this kind of character on TV! She’s had a real renaissance, as we know, but I never thought I’d live to see a story where Mel has to go and bring the Doctor back or the Time Lords will never have existed! The timidity and hostility of the other prisoners towards her make for an admittedly pretty cool in medias res opening. “Kiev? Is that where the chickens come from?” is a decent line. Michael Jayston returns to his old role as the Valeyard, some seventeen years later, and his fruity, rich voice translates well onto audio. He’s as imperious as you’d expect, amusing himself through space and time by doing whatever he wants with established events. The moment where he threatens to take Ellie Martin back to her death on the A303, as a car runs her over at 48mph, is a triumph, to be fair (“I can show you that if you want. It will be, if you’ll pardon the pun, no skin off my nose”). Jim Mortimore gives things a decent atmosphere, although even he struggles to properly work out what the tone of the piece is, so it seems.

The Bad: the saddest thing about He Jests at Scars… is that this isn’t just some unambitiously average outing like Real Time: it could have been really, really good, but isn’t. The Valeyard is a cracking character, that scene in The Trial of a Time Lord where the Master reveals who he really is has long been one of my favourites, and a story examining him as if he had beaten the Doctor is a very solid concept. But Gary Russell botches it so badly, sinking everything into a flat, featureless morass of continuity and technobabble. The issue is Gary Russell writes completely and utterly out of the events of previous stories – it’s not just the cultural texture or the atmosphere he likes to ape, it’s key plot beats as well, which means nothing of his feels original really. He’s just tinkering with others’ work most of the time. The opening guff with the Ancient Diadem is irritating. Ellie Martin is irritating. The call-backs to previous adventures (I was going to list them, but frankly I can’t be arsed) are not just unnecessary, they’re incredibly irritating. Doctor Who can be over-indulgent, but it doesn’t always lead to such irksome results as this. I wanted to give up about ten minutes in. Incredibly, it gets worse as it goes on – tying itself up in nonsensical time rams and paradoxes and all sorts.

The Ugly: Pakhars? Again? Christ, it’s like a shortlist of My Least Favourite Gary Russell Things. Russell’s penchant for incredibly shitty dialogue rears its ugly head again – when he’s not randomly evoking old lines (“you know what they say about power and corruption” or whatever the hell it is), he’s doing a Pip’n’Jane (“my pusillanimous partner!”) or just writing bland banalities that the actors clearly find boring to say (“I can’t be outwitted by a non-sentient, theoretical concept!”). Which, you know, is forgivable in a gripping, atmospheric story, but the characters are so damn loquacious – they’re talking all the bloody time, so it’s like triple the irritation. The story ends completely pointlessly, the only consequence being that the listener is 78 minutes closer to death.

Forgive the incoherence of this post, I simply didn’t find it worth constructing a proper review for (if you want a proper savaging, I really recommend Joe Ford’s post over at Doc OhoReviews, it’s EXCELLENT). I’m not normally so visceral about things, and can stomach The Twin Dilemma, Time and the Rani and Fear Her quite well, but something about Gary Russell’s writing brings out the worst in me. This is one of the first times I’ve not marvelled at how good an alternative BF is, but actually missed TV Who, which by and large just gets on and tells solid stories. It was a proper chore to get through and I doubt I’ll ever listen to it again, even on a BF marathon when I’m retired and don’t have anything to do. That’s a thought – gardening or going for long walks by the beach or bee-keeping or painting watercolours would entice me far more than He Jests at Scars… I never thought I’d say that about a Doctor Who story. Grrr.

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