Classic Who – The Valeyard and Regenerations

There are two things you need to know before we can talk about the Valeyard as being or idea. The first is that the concept for the character builds on, and is inspired by, the handling of regeneration from as far back as the second Doctor.  The second and more important, is that the character came up at a time when the script editor and producer were at odds with one another – drastically affecting the quality of the whole season in which the Valeyard was featured, and the way he was eventually handled.

I’m going to try to minimise spoilers, so if I’m oddly vague about something that you think is common knowledge, be aware I’m trying to let people less well versed in the show’s history still have some of these surprises.  Personally, if I know I’m going to read a specific book, or watch a specific film, I will usually avoid reading anything about it just so I can experience it as freshly as possible.  That said, some spoilers are going to be unavoidable, especially when I talk about the Trial of a Time Lord season, and the Valeyard.  There will almost certainly be spoilers in any comments.

One of the genius ideas with regards to Doctor Who was the whole concept of the lead character being able to change appearance, allowing the show a longevity far beyond what most actors would be able to achieve.

The first time the idea of changing the lead was floated, it was by producer John Wiles, who wanted to remove William Hartnell from the role. The idea was that the Celestial Toymaker, tiring of the Doctor’s attitude during the games, makes him invisible and unable to talk while playing the Tri-Logic puzzle. This was actually so Hartnell could have a couple of weeks holiday.  When the Toymaker would return the Doctor to normal, it would be as a different person, because the Toymaker is a bit of a bastard – not unlike Wiles who was going to sneakily sack his lead actor.

William Hartnell was unwell, and in pain, but he wasn’t stupid. He’d seen how this producer had quickly given Maureen O’Brien’s character Vicki the short shrift, and took the precaution of quietly popping down and getting his new contract signed before he took his two week break, showing that a clever bastard will beat a sneaky bastard every time.

It’s also fortunate Hartnell did this for a couple of reasons. We got to see him in War Machines, which is a great story.  It also allowed them to introduce the concept of the Doctor’s body naturally changing without it having to be some other, more forced, gimmick.

Oh hell, it’s a Celestial Toymaker story! David Tennant must be leaving!

In Power of the Daleks, Troughton’s newly changed Doctor referred to the process as a ‘rejuvenation,’ the original idea being that this was the same man, but younger.  It wasn’t until Troughton’s last story, The War Games, that his people caught up with him and put him on trial.

His eventual punishment was that they would exile him to Earth, and change his appearance.  What is most interesting about this is that the Time Lords initially gave him a chance to select his appearance – meaning it was possible to control the change to an incredible degree.

We would see this again much later in Pertwee’s run. The third Doctor meets a few Time Lords during his time on Earth, but one is particularly significant to the whole Valeyard story.  This Time Lord has a helper, but the helper is actually a projection of the being he will become.

We need to be clear on this.  We’re not talking about multiple aspects of the same person being brought together à la Three Doctors or Time Crash.  This is a Time Lord hanging out with a substantial, living, breathing projection of the person he will eventually change into.  When the old Time Lord regenerates, the projection vanishes mid-sentence, and the old Time Lord changes into an actual incarnation of his projected future self, and finishes the sentence.

The projected version is like an echo of the future, a being based on probability, but he’s as tangible as everyone else. What the limitations are on this are unknown, but we will see other possible examples before we face the Valeyard.

A few years later, we catch up with the Master again. His body is breaking down. He has reached the end of his 13th body and is keeping his decaying body going through sheer effort of will. Whether he’s after just one more body, a whole new regeneration cycle, or some form of immortality is unclear – he just wants more life.

But it is made abundantly clear from this point on – twelve regenerations, thirteen bodies – that’s a Time Lord’s lot. No more. would like to advise against trying to extend your life past your thirteenth incarnation.

Some people may think that this limit was a pretty short-sighted idea from the production team and writers, but remember, the show was thirteen years old by this point.  Doctor Who was never expected to last past its initial thirteen weeks! Then it was nearly cancelled a few times in the first year, a couple more before Hartnell left, wasn’t expected to last long after the change of actor to Troughton, was nearly cancelled at the end of his run…  You get the idea.  Given circumstances, allowing for another nine actors to take the role was the height of optimism!

Later in the series we meet the remaining members of a race of people, the Minyans, that the Time Lords initially helped by giving them access to all sorts of cool tech. It ended badly, resulting in the Gallifreyan policy of non-intervention.

One aspect of this was that, with what looks like some technical help, the Minyans are able to regenerate without limits.  The ones we meet have regenerated over a thousand times, and the point is made that this is not a good thing.  Most of the Minyan crew are gone, having deliberately pushed themselves past regeneration point and died. The fourth Doctor calls his few brushes with regeneration ‘unpleasant.’  The inference is that regeneration limits are self-imposed by the Time Lords, not natural.  Unlimited regenerations are not desirable, the Minyan Captain Jackson talking about a continuation of minds and bodies, but not of spirit.  He even goes so far as to call his craft a ghost ship.

A few years later we have Romana’s regeneration. She not only shows considerable skill by choosing to base her new form on someone she’s previously met, but when the Doctor complains she ‘tries on’ several different forms, before settling back on her original choice.  Given how unlikely it is that she would waste a handful of regenerations in this way, I think it’s reasonable to assume that they were simply projections of possible Romanas.

The Master rocks up again, still decaying, but with a plan. One that actually works! Mostly. But it does give him enough power to steal a body, recondition it, and go tooling around the universe again.

In a conversation with the High Council of Time Lords that comes much later, he is offered a brand new regeneration cycle.  So we can infer two facts from this – the Master stealing a new body is probably a one-off solution, and the Time Lords can grant people more regenerations – which backs up the concept that it’s a deliberately controlled or limited process.

Eventually the fourth Doctor meets his own future projection, in the form of the Watcher.  The Watcher doesn’t appear as a regular person, but instead as man dressed in bright white, whose face appears to be a blank, roughly textured mask.  It’s later said that the Watcher was in fact an interim stage between fourth and fifth Doctors, instead of the sort of projection we had seen previously.

During the fifth Doctor’s time we get couple of adventures that confirm some of what we’ve already learnt.  Endless regeneration or immortality is at best undesirable  at worst, it’s going to seriously mess you up.  Also, regenerations can be ‘gifted’ or ‘used up.’

Once in the Sixth Doctor’s era, we get a lot of naughty Time Lords, Gallifreyan interference, and general shenanigans.  Which brings us up to The Trial of a Time Lord.

I have a pretty low regard for Eric Saward as a script editor. In the previous season he had let his dislike of Colin Baker affect his judgement.  In that season of 45 minute episodes, the Doctor seldom gets to the real meat of the story before the 20 minute mark.  Also many of the stories have serious issues that a script editor who had his eye on the ball could easily have dealt with.

My personal theory, and it is only a theory, is that Saward was concentrating all his efforts on his own end-of-season Dalek story.  It’s certainly one of Saward’s strongest scripts, and by far the best script of the season.  It’s polished, clever, darkly funny, and the Doctor doesn’t actually get to the place where everything is happening until over 45 minutes in.

It was after this season that we had the infamous 18 month hiatus.  The politics behind that is whole different article, though I will say that while Doctor Who was one of the battle grounds for the BBC politics that led to the hiatus, it wasn’t the only one – Star Cops, which is a brilliant low budget SF TV, series got cancelled during this period.

Finally the new season goes ahead, and John Nathan Turner makes a very bad decision.  He decides to discard all the stories that had been planned originally for some gimmicks.

Because the show itself is on trial, the Doctor will be on trial.  The whole season of fourteen episodes will be the one story, making it the longest Doctor Who story ever.  It will introduce a new villain towards the end that will show the season’s events in a new light and will give the Doctor a more suitable Moriarty figure to go up against than The Master.

What can possibly go wrong?

We’re going to examine events via The Matrix. Sometimes they’ll be true, sometimes not. And the script editor overseeing this doesn’t know or care which is which.

The thing about a fourteen episode story full of unanswered questions that features a couple of startling twists at the end is, it needs to be very carefully written, with great attention to detail to make it work.

This was all being done in a fairly limited time frame, with a script editor who didn’t like the producer.  Or the lead actor.  And had, in my opinion, already shown how unprofessional he could be.

There were points during production where Colin Baker would go to Eric Saward to ask what was happening within a scene where the Doctor was seen to be acting… off.  Was it real? Was it a false projection from the Matrix? Was it the Doctor pretending for some reason?

Saward would say, “Go ask John Nathan Turner.”  And not surprisingly, when asked, JNT would say, “Ask Saward.”  At the end of the day, the responsibility for the arc story falls to the script editor, in the same way that the script editor’s job is to do their best with the submitted scripts to make sure they match the tone the show is aiming for, to make sure there’s nothing that contradicts other stories or episodes, and to make sure they work and make sense.

Watching interviews with Saward where he talks about the various stories he script edited, he’s very quick to lay any blame for story issues at the writer’s feet, to blame the producer or the director, and to almost never accept any responsibility himself.  His whole job is based around making the submitted scripts work as well as possible.  I have never seen or read any interviews with any other script editor in the show’s history where they spent so much time trying to pass the buck.

At the end of the season, Robert Holmes passed away halfway through writing the last two parts.  Saward, who had been working with Holmes on the finale, agreed to finish the scripts if Holmes’ original ideas were honoured.  This included a ‘Reichenbach Falls’ ending where the Doctor and the Valeyard were to be seen fighting until they fall through a ‘time vent,’ which the Master seals behind them – saving the universe, but leaving the Doctor and Valeyard trapped on the other side in an eternal battle.

John Nathan Turner changed his mind, and decided he didn’t want that ending.  He felt it might give the BBC an excuse to axe the show once and for all, and so demanded changes. Saward said no, and eventually withdrew the scripts.  And much as I have many issues with him as script editor, I actually agree with his actions on this.  The agreement had been made, and while I think that some of JNT’s concern was valid, it would have been a strong ending not just for the story, but for the series if there were no more.

Pip and Jane Baker came in, and had to come up with a new ending, with no knowledge of what the original was meant to be.  So the last episode becomes cut rate Scooby Doo antics, with various cop-outs.  And the character of the Valeyard particularly suffers.  In the end, the Valeyard came across as a cut-rate version of the Master, even down to giving the Doctor a clumsy clue to his ultimate plan with a play on words.

The problem is, the Valeyard’s realisation was already pretty a bit rough.  Michael Jayston gave as fine a performance as he could, but at times he was limited by poor and highly inconsistent, contradictory, and downright silly material.  And this was especially apparent in that last episode.

The real sadness of this is, the dynamic between Jayston and Colin Baker was good.  Both showed themselves to be solid actors trying their best to transcend the limitations of the material.  If they had been given decently written and well-plotted scripts to work with, I think they’d have blown everyone else away.

One thing clearly stated within Trial of a Time Lord is that the Valeyard is from a point somewhere between the Doctor’s twelfth and final body.  The wording was very deliberately chosen so that any future production teams wouldn’t feel pushed to use the Valeyard as a character after the twelfth actor left, or end the show with the 13th Doctor.

“The Valeyard is an amalgamation of the darker sides of your nature, somewhere between your twelfth and final incarnation…”

It was a good move, and it has become a very important line in light of fan speculation on where the series is now headed.  There are many who say that the Valeyard is inevitable once the twelfth actor to play the Doctor leaves, but this is not the case.  For all we know, the Doctor regenerates 47 times and the Valeyard appears after his 34th.

Michael Jayston as the Valeyard – only a possible future, not an inevitability.

Plus, with the history of the show, we know it’s possible for a potential incarnation to have physical presence, if not an actual existence.  The Valeyard was after the Doctor’s remaining regenerations.  Now this may have been because he existed and wanted more life, or it may be because he was only a potential future version of the Doctor, and need the Doctor’s remaining regeneration to become an actual living breathing being.

Or there may have been some other possibilities.  The point is, the Valeyard isn’t inevitable.  And in light of recent developments within the show, it’s good to keep that in mind.

Now we move away from what has happened within the show, to what I think should happen. First up, I don’t think the Valeyard should return. We have the Master, he’s as good a match for the Doctor as there is. But if you’re determined to bring the Valeyard back, here’s my thoughts on how to handle him.

Unless you could come up with a credible reason why the Doctor had simply gone bad and become the Valeyard, I think that any future return of the character should accompany a minor change in direction. Make him not evil for evil’s sake, but instead have him as a version of the Doctor who now believes not only that the ends justify the means, but that it would be best for all concerned if he was in charge.

The best villains don’t think of themselves as villains.

A couple of aspects of this take would be that he was totally ruthless because that was the quickest way to deal with any issues. No silly convoluted plans, no monologuing – K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is the rue of thumb – the Valeyard uses the simplest methods to achieve his goals, and will immediately kill anyone who stands in his way. The only hope the Doctor has against him is that the Valeyard needs to force him to regenerate, and not kill him.

And he and the Doctor have to be evenly matched. In fact, the Doctor is out-matched by his potential future self’s willingness to do whatever it takes to get what he wants.  The Doctor should be constantly on the back foot and the only advantage he really has is that his companion adds in a random element that the Valeyard can’t necessarily account for.

That said, the Valeyard wouldn’t threaten to shoot hostages then give the Doctor thinking time. He’d do a short three-count, kill the first hostage, then start the next three-count. He’d detonate a planet. Daleks, Cybermen, any alien race that doesn’t obey his will shall face immediate genocide at his hands. For the Valeyard to be a credible threat to the Doctor, he can’t just be another bad guy, he has to be the ultimate baddie. This is the same person who has turned back alien battle fleets, and saved the universe several times over – nothing is beyond him if he sets his mind to it.

And he knows all the classic bad guy mistakes oh-so well.

He’s the Doctor under a different name, with a different agenda, but all the same knowledge and abilities – in fact maybe more, given he’s a future self. I suppose another aspect would be that if the Doctor beats him, it’s ambiguous. The Doctor doesn’t know for certain that he has, otherwise the Valeyard would know his schemes hadn’t succeeded.

Actually, it’s harsh but if it were me, I’d have the Valeyard kill the companion. Really kill them. None of this, “Actually no, they’re still alive!” If you want him to be a credible threat, you can’t leave the audience feeling safe. They have to believe that he might win. And in the first quiet moment after the Valeyard killed the companion, I’d show a tear running down his face. It would be the only time we see that.

He still cares, but nothing can be allowed to stop him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s