I did not like ‘The Last’ at all… actually, no, that’s not true.
I really enjoyed ‘The Last’… no, that’s not right either.
‘The Last’ is very much a tale of two halves- one enjoyable, one not so much fun… yes, that’s about right.
When I had finished Part One, I must admit that I felt a little cold- it hadn’t been truly terrible, but it was not very good either. Characters were failing to entertain me, the music was not leaving any impression, the script seemed to be meandering, and the actual ending was both written and delivered with very little in the way of conviction. Part Two began in much the same way, and I must confess that I began to grind my teeth somewhat: this was not terrible, but it was far was great either… and then came the cliffhanger- wow, I hadn’t seen that one coming!- and then came Parts Three and Four, and suddenly I really enjoyed ‘The Last’ and felt it to be a most worthy successor to ‘Faith Stealer’. And then I remembered the first two Parts, and I listened to them again to see if I enjoyed them more this time, but I found that they were still mostly dull. How confusing it is to have a story that is both good and poor at the same time.
I think that the problem stems from the TARDIS crew. Whilst many ‘Doctor Who’ stories thrive from separating the crew and having them try to find each other, here it does not work too well as there is a distinct lack of interest present in either Charley’s or the Doctor’s stories; the revelation that Charley is paralysed is not as shocking as the script obviously thinks it is since there have been so many heavy-handed clues prior to the announcement that it comes across as a matter-of-fact thing rather than a big surprise; whilst it should logically be great material for a cliffhanger, it instead leaves one feeling as bit cold. The Doctor’s story is comparably duller: he gets knocked out, wakes up with Charley and tries to pretend that everything is okay when it quite clearly is not. Bless him for trying, but given the fact that he fails to convince the listener let alone Charley, it even further dilutes the shocking ‘surprise’ that Charley shall never walk again. Ho-hum.
C’rizz meanwhile has a relatively interesting time; he talks with survivors of the terrible effects that have bestowed this world, he finds out about the war that has led to this destruction, he walks along with fifty refugees from the war… but then the Doctor reveals that no one is there! It is the first time that I felt interested, and thankfully everything from then on sustained this new born interest. The characters seemed to be involved in more interesting tasks now; the plot seemed to move along at a pace twice the speed of the previous two Parts; the script suddenly springs to life; and things are generally interesting whereas before they were not.
The supporting characters from Part Three onwards also seem to develop significantly, and cease being somewhat one-tone and stereotypical, with the exceptions of Minister Voss and Minister Tralfinial who have been easily the two best things about the play from the start, and who are sadly separated early on into the play’s second half. In terms of enjoyment, it was Excelsior that most significantly improved over the course of the story. Starting off as a cardboard cut-out of every megalomaniac self-obsessed villain that has ever graced ‘Doctor Who’, she then develops into a far more interesting and nasty character, one that merits attention and deserves to be as memorable as she is. Her constant mentioning of a Victory Parade and her Speech is amusing at first, but as the play progresses it becomes more and more sinister until the mere mention of either thing becomes almost nasty due to what it now represents: an ego trip for somebody who has willingly destroyed an entire world. Worse still is the revelation that she deep down knows the truth- that the planet has no inhabitants any more due to the War- but that she refuses to believe it, instead killing off people who try to convince her otherwise. When Landscar tells her to open her mind, she sees and feels the devastation all around, and yet she does not care, instead concentrating on how she looks. Superficial, calculating, cold, and just plain nasty, Excelsior is the best example of how much this play changes for the better as it progresses: she begins as tolerable but nothing special, and ends up interesting and memorably nasty. The constant comments that she is in fact mad give her a motive for her actions, but still they cannot excuse the fact that beneath all her denial, she knows the truth but just does not want to hear it. She is not sad and alone, but scheming and sinister instead.
Gary Hopkins writes rather well fro C’rizz, though his treatment of the Doctor and Charley is questionable. Certainly, Charley seems rather out of character throughout the play until the very end- more on that later- where she reverts to the Charley we usually see. Most of the time in ‘The Last’, she has an optimism that is credible but comes across as little false, and her behaviour is far too matter-of-fact considering she has just lost the ability to walk. Most people would be absolutely horrified, but Charley does not really seem to care, which lacks believability and does neither the script nor the character any favours. The Doctor meanwhile just appears to be ambling along without any real sense of what is happening. When Charley and C’rizz both die, it should be an excuse to really hit home his grief, but instead you just get a small taste of sorrow and a more cold hearted response that does not seem very likely. However, his final confrontation with Excelsior betrays a pang of sorrow deep down and his final words before he chooses death- “Oh, what the hell,”- are delivered perfectly, suiting the Doctor down to the ground and making his sacrifice all the more meaningful.
However… this ending does not really work because of the beginning of the play. It starts with the Doctor seeing both Adric (poor soul) and Katarina and so you get the feeling that death- specifically the death of the Doctor’s companions- shall feature heavily in the play. Therefore, when they die you are not surprised and when it is revealed that they are in fact alive and well, there is no shock whatsoever, which kills the ending and makes this element of the play somewhat useless.
Another down side to ‘The Last’, but not one that affects the play itself, are the sleeve notes for the CD. From ‘The Creed Of The Kromon’ onwards, each play has contained a small section of information that explains to the listener just what the past events of the Doctor, C’rizz and Charley, thus meaning that you are up to date on their stories. However, no mention whatsoever is made of the Kro’ka in these notes, and so any listener jumping on board now would be very confused indeed, which I felt was a bit of a shame.
I seem to be dwelling on the bad points of this play when in fact I found the second half to be very enjoyable. Also, I liked the way that each Part began with a slightly different variation on Excelsior’s speech, which created a nice sense of inter-continuity. However, it is unfortunately the weak points that stick in my mind more than the enjoyable ones.
There are parts to really enjoy: Gary Russell’s Directing is as usual enjoyable, the sound design by David Darlington is very good indeed, as is Conrad Westmaas as C’rizz, Carolyn Jones as Excelsior and Ian Brooker and Robert Hines as Minister Voss and Minister Tralfinial respectively. However, nobody else really made an impression on me- not even the usually excellent Paul McGann or India Fisher, though McGann at least gets to shine nearer the end. The music did not really stick in my mind, and the script varied between enjoyable and not-so enjoyable. In all then, I liked ‘The Last’ and also disliked ‘The Last’; I found there to be lots to enjoy, and little to write home about; some of the cast are great, some of them are nothing special. ‘The Last’ is better than average, but not as good as most Big Finish plays. I suppose I’m still undecided on my final views, but maybe that reflects the play itself: a play that is never one clear cut thing, but several conflicting things. It is a play that both frustrates and entertains, and one that shall never be brilliant or poor.
I did not like ‘The Last’ at all… actually, no, that’s not true.
I really enjoyed ‘The Last’… no, that’s not right either.
‘The Last’ is very much a tale of two halves- one enjoyable, one not so much fun… yes, that’s about right.
“The Last” is a gripping story set in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Hopkins does a wonderful job of conveying the bleakness of this post-apocalyptic world and putting the Doctor, Charley and C’rizz through the emotional meat grinder – and then it’s all ruined by the oldest trick in the book. They might as well have ended the story with “…phew. It was all a dream!”
This makes it hard to judge “The Last” as it is a really entertaining story; however, the ending really does utterly spoil it. Although the story arc has been nudged on a fraction with the Doctor realising that the Kro’ka is just someone else’s puppet and with the discovery that Bortresoye is not just another zone but the crucible world itself, all the emotional turmoil the characters have been through is erased; at the story’s end the Doctor, Charley and C’rizz merely go off on their merry way into another zone.
This really is a great shame, especially for C’rizz who is starting to come into his own this season. Yet again, he is forced to re-live his mercy killing of L’da as the paralysed Charley asks if he would ever do the same thing for her. Moreover, after Charley’s apparent death, he is so distraught that he is tempted by Requiem’s suggestion of dying himself. Once he has reluctantly chosen – “life, I suppose” – for the sake of the Doctor, his anger towards Charley’s killer, Excelsior, is his undoing as he threatens her and she shoots him dead too.
Charley, on the other hand is portrayed almost ridiculously in this story. She is nowhere near how upset she should be for someone who has been completely paralysed; Charley seemingly takes it all in her stride. Since “Scherzo” everything about her character that was so compelling, that made her seem different and special, seems to have dissipated completely. It would have been far more satisfying if Charley would have ‘stayed dead’ in this story; it would add a lot more weight to this alternate universe storyline and rid us of a character who has passed her sell-by date.
The Kro’ka summoning ghosts of Adric and Katarina and the beginning of the story serve the wonderful purpose of reminding us exactly how emotionally effective the death of a companion could be, and in this alternate universe with his TARDIS gone, the loss of not just one but both companions could potentially push the Doctor over the edge, and make for some interesting drama. With no idea of how the story will end, on a first listening that’s exactly what happens. Reacting to Excelsior’s cold-blooding killing of both his companions, the Doctor tells her that although he’s never hated anyone, he hates her. McGann’s performance in these scenes is understated, but I think it helps convey how broken the Doctor is.
I liked the idea of the Doctor going TARDIS hunting in an old-fashioned rocket; to me that would have been far more interesting than having him stumble onward through these zones. Landscar, Requiem, Vos, Excelsior – none of the supporting characters in this story were outstanding in any way, and I think that sums up the recent eighth Doctor audios – where they were once great, they’re now distinctly average. This story had the potential to be a lot better than it actually was, just like this whole story arc had the potential to be much better than it actually is. Thankfully, the end is in sight…
After the lacklustre Faith Stealer, I was hoping and praying for a return to form for a Doctor who seems to be going out with a whimper. The announcement of the 9th Doctor on TV unfortunately coincided with a less than impressive run from the 8th Doctor - but hopefully this audio sees an upswing. Before I had heard any of it, I liked the central idea here, this bleak and dark apocalyptic world. It promised to highlight Big Finish skills to the full, and I was sure that The Last would be better than the last.
It's therefore something of a relief to report that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was that disappointed with Faith Stealer I feared the worst for this series - but by faith is festored (there must be a pun on the previous Faith Stealer there somewhere, but I can't think of it!). The Last is bleak, its downright depressing in places - but it tells an interesting story - and contains an effective moral.
Everything felt right again for this listener. All the main cast were good, as they have been before. Paul McGann thrived on some meaty dialogue, and acted his heart out. Charley was back on form too, even though she continues to suffer because of the arrival of C'Rizz. Even C'Rizz, a companion I just don't think interests that much, is perfectly adequate here.
The triumph of The Last lies in the depiction of the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. There's an ill wind that blows through this audio, from beginning to end. You can just feel the dust getting under your fingernails. The catacombs of Boytrazoy really feel like Underground retreats, and the outside really feels like the aftermath of some horrific war. On such a stage is the drama acted out. Big Finish again have surpassed themselves.
The script, by Gary Hopkins, is pretty good too. He makes full use of the TARDIS team (all of them) - and introduces us to some decent supporting players. The most high profile of these is Excelsior, played by Carolyn Jones, who I didn't recognize. She wonderfully portrayed with relish, this meglomaniacal ruler. Her ministers for Peace and War were effective too supporting her extreme demands.
Coming in longer than the average play I have to report too that this story maintains its interest all the way through. I have no problem with extended episodes, if the material is good enough to justify this extra length. Thankfully The Last does justify the over half-an-hour a piece episodes - and that's without any kind of recap at the beginning of each episode.
So the Alternative Universe has a hit, even though I am still not convinced it was a wise choice to let these stories be set here for so long. Personally I miss the TARDIS terribly - it's been too long since we heard that scratched piano wire consistently. The voids between the zones are nicely portrayed admittedly - and the Kroka seems to get more and more mysterious on each story.
And so there it is, a highly relieved listener signing off. 8/10
I don't like 'The Last'. I don't like it for several reasons, chief amongst which are the fate of Charley and C'rizz and Big Finish's treatment of it, and the Doctor's response to it. It is worth noting here that I don't think 'The Last' is badly written, and indeed in terms of grimness writer Gary Hopkins' first script for Big Finish is hugely successfully in conveying the misery and horror of the nuclear holocaust that has engulfed Bortresoye. My objections to 'The Last' are largely based on personal taste.
Big Finish are somewhat limited in what they can do with the Doctor and his companions in their Doctor Who audios, or to be more specific the probable response of large chunks of their audience if they break with continuity and, for example, kill off Nyssa between 'Time-Flight' and 'Arc of Infinity' limit their options. The Eighth Doctor audios are the exception to this rule; despite Gary Russell's decision to return the Doctor to his home universe before the new series begins, they are relatively open ended and Big Finish can do with Charley and C'rizz what they wish. Whilst companion deaths are widely seen as a cheap device for eliciting an emotional response from the audience, the fact remains that they could kill off both or either of the Eighth Doctor's audio companions. Just as they are unwilling to dispense with Ace however, they seem reluctant to part company with Charley either because they like the character or because certain members of the Big Finish staff have become friends with India Fisher. All of which means that from the moment Charley is paralyzed during 'The Last', it becomes increasingly obvious even on a first listen to the audio that a reset button lies in store later on, and when first she and then C'rizz are killed during the story, this feeling grows. The result is that despite Hopkins' best efforts, the dramatic impact of their fates is immediately lessened.
Having decided to kill off the Doctor's companions, Hopkins at least has the opportunity to make the most of the Doctor's response to this double trauma, and in doing so to exploit Paul McGann's talents as an actor. To an extent he succeeds in this; the Doctor reacts badly to Charley's injury, being irrationally optimistic and telling her she'll be all right in an obvious example of denial that is almost childlike. It's quite touching, but it is undermined later on in the story by his muted reaction to her demise; McGann briefly gets the opportunity to portray the Doctor's panic and then grief when Charley's ghost speaks to him, but his grief is quickly put to one side as he worries about keeping himself and C'rizz alive. This isn't an unbelievable response, but what is troubling is his treatment of Excelsior, whom he must certainly realize is the probable culprit. His cooperation with her seems out of character, but what is really troubling is his response when she actually confesses and he does little except berate her, quietly telling her, "You are without doubt the most amoral being it has ever been my displeasure to meet." Things get worse when she kills C'rizz and he again just tells her off. Admittedly, he swears, "First Charley and then C'rizz. You'll have to kill me too Excelsior, because I'm certainly not taking you away from this planet", but it feels half-hearted and McGann seems to flounder at this point, conveying very little emotion as the Doctor quietly states, "I've never hated anyone in my life, but I hate you, with every fibre of my being." In fairness to Hopkins, this out-of-character response might be deliberate; the Doctor seems depressed here with his companions dead, his TARDIS lost, and trapped in a strange universe, and he is at such a low ebb that he welcomes death. When he finally learns the truth about what is happening on Bortresoye, it takes very little effort for Landscar to convince him to take a leap of faith by telling him, "You might really have been the final Last" and the Doctor commits suicide with the classic line "Oh what the hell", sacrificing his life to being the cycle afresh, possibly for the last time. Perhaps Hopkins deliberately brings the Doctor to his lowest point in order to make his belief in what Landscar tells him seem convincing, but it doesn't entirely convince me and it doesn't help that this proves to be the predicted reset button, which brings Charley and C'rizz back to life.
I have other problems with 'The Last'. I have made no secret in the past of my dislike of both the character of Charley and India Fisher's performance, and here Fisher fails to convey convincing emotion when Charley is paralyzed. I'm not actually sure what the script is trying to achieve with her predicament; her lines "I've damaged my spine Doctor… really damaged, beyond repair" and "I'm paralyzed Doctor. I'll never be able to walk again" suggest that denial is not on the agenda, but her stoic acceptance of her fate doesn't ring true. Dialogue such as, "Still can't move. This is it, I'm afraid. This is the way my travels end" suggests that she's trying to put a brave face on things, but Fisher's performance means that it doesn't work convincingly. We get a convincing flash of emotion when she becomes suicidal, such as when she angrily insists that the Doctor should have saved the Nurse rather than her, since she is useless in her new condition, and when she asks C'rizz if he'll do for her what he did for L'da Hopkins gives himself the opportunity to put C'rizz through the emotional wringer again, but this isn't really exploited before Excelsior smothers her with a pillow.
And then there is Excelsior, the principle villain who turns out to be a stereotypical raving female megalomaniac, more obsessed with her own power than her people. In an example of the kind of clichéd moustache twirling depictions of evil that I had hoped that Doctor Who had left behind, she is vain to the point of lunacy, allowing Voss and Tralfinial to hide the truth from her, seemingly preferring to believe that the war has gone well. It eventually transpires that she isn't as mad as we have been led to believe, as she tells the Doctor what is really going on and that Landscar has promised her, "I was to be the Last… it was to be my destiny, to be truly as one with the planet." Nevertheless, this doesn't excuse giving her such over the top villainous dialogue such as, "You are the servants of the state, but I, Excelsior, am the state! You have the right to know nothing!" Actress Carolyn Jones seems to be trying to play the role as subtly as she can, but she can't help but sound hammy when she gets lines like "Your cryptic remarks are starting to annoy me Landscar… you may have my ear, but that doesn't mean you can't be executed."
But despite these criticisms, there is much to commend about 'The Last'. Hopkins creates a post-apocalyptic ruin of world rather well, which unfortunately has the side effect that listening to 'The Last' is sufficiently depressing that I won't be revisiting it again in a hurry. Nevertheless, it is an impressive achievement in writing terms, and it is helped largely by the fact that the nuclear wasteland seems to sap the Doctor's usual joie de vivre. Rather than trying his usual trick of telling a story about who is that the locals will believe, he tells Tralfinial and Voss the truth about where they came from as soon as he meets them. He has little patience with the situation and with the people responsible for it, and McGann sounds furious in Episode Three when the Doctor tells Voss, "Of course you had a choice, and you made the wrong one; you chose to go to war!" The sheer futility of the apocalypse is nicely summed up by Voss's ineffectual explanation, "It wasn't meant to be this way. The preemptive strike was meant to avoid war."
Despite it's use as an inevitable reset button, there is also a essentially sound idea at the heart of 'The Last', which lays some of the foundations for the season's climax. The enigmatic Landscar's true identity comes as surprise, as he says of Bortresoye, "Of course it's a living thing" and explains, "I am the eyes and ears of the planet, its representative." Suddenly, several cryptic remarks scattered throughout the first three episodes make sense, including Requiem's assertion that, "All living things must die. Otherwise, the world with end" and Excelsior's lack of knowledge of children. There is also a sense that Divergent arc is starting to be wrapped up as Landscar reveals, "Bortresoye isn't a zone Doctor, it's the actual planet on which the zone has been placed." With this nugget of information and the introduction of the literal life cycle of the planet, the stage is almost set for 'The Next Life'.
Whilst the Doctor is underused and Charley is simply, well, a bit crap here, Hopkins' does make excellent use of C'rizz. This manifests in both trivial and significant ways, including the use made of C'rizz's exoskeleton as his associated strength is exploited, and Requiem's assessment of his character when he tells him, "I'm comfortable with you C'rizz. You're a good man, you care about others." Tom Eastwood's softly-spoken Requiem is a rather good character, and benefits C'rizz, who sympathizes with him because of his own experiences with the Kromon. C'rizz is particularly volatile here, reacting badly to the horror he encounters, especially the death of Charley. Westmaas is superb, conveying great fury when C'rizz meets Excelsior, snarling, "Be careful I don't throw you outside to die!" and he sounds agonized when Requiem asks him, "What do you want? Life or death?" and he shouts, "I don't know Requiem! Life I suppose, but not life without Charley." Interestingly, when Requiem tells C'rizz that he'll see Charley and L'da after death, he finds the idea tempting.
There are other nice moments throughout 'The Last'; the ghosts are well utilized, especially in the genuinely surprising Episode Two cliffhanger, and in a rare moment of wit amidst the horror, when Voss asks "Can you pilot a vessel Doctor?" the Doctor mutters, "Don't you dare Charley!" Voss and Tralfinial, opposing Ministers for War and Peace, are great characters; despite their opposing roles, they frequently conspire together out of pragmatism until Tralfinial's conscience becomes more than he can cope with, and Ian Brooker and Robert Hines both put in fine performances. Gary Russell does a decent job of the directing chores, benefiting from great sound design and incidental music. The only weak point in terms of the guest cast is Jane Hills' performance as the Nurse, who's hysteria in Episode Two is badly acted.
In summary, whilst I don't particularly like 'The Last', it isn't without merit, and it serves a larger purpose in the context of the season. The Kro'ka shows the Doctor visions of Katarina and Adric, introducing themes of life and death which the revelations about Bortresoye build upon, and the Kro'ka and the Doctor are very antagonistic here, the Doctor losing patience with the Kro'ka and the Kro'ka getting slightly angry, threatening the Doctor with his powers. The Doctor is sure now that the Kro'ka is lackey, contemptuously noting, "He's the monkey… someone else is the organ grinder", all of which leads nicely into 'Caerdroia'...
Do any of you remember Star Trek Voyager? Come on some of you must! Well if you are unfortunate enough to recall this particularly dodgy science fiction show you might get a feeling of déjà vu when listening to the latest eighth Doctor audio, The Last. It’s not that it has an annoying hedgehog comic character whose head you want to shove in a blender. It’s not even that the entire cast are wooden, blandly written cipher with no development. No…its that regular plot contrivance, the ultimate of deux eh machina’s…the RESET BUTTON. You see Star Trek has this inane ability to do one off episodes when the entire crew are turned into lesbians/killed off/forced to become sex slaves for an alien power (one of these might be true) but at the end of the episode a big red button is pressed and they are all returned to their nice cosy, dull as plumbing regular selves. Therefore rendering the entire exercise pointless in the extreme. Enter: The Last, another in a long line of disappointments to flick the switch and wipe out all the potential the story might have had. It is especially frustrating because some of the developments in The Last were groundbreakingly good, at times I wondered if Big Finish had the balls to actually go through with killing not one companion but two but no, this confirms my beliefs, Big Finish is allowing its behind the scenes relationships stifle its creativity. Let me explain…
For a while now I have been less than satisfied with the Doctor/Charley dynamic, which seems especially odd since in their early days their relationship was THE reason to buy these eighth Doctor audios. It was during The Last that I realised why this association no longer held the same fascination. In one word: Zagreus. It has spoilt everything. Before Zagreus, deep in season two the stories were gathering a decent momentum, Charley’s survival on the R-101 was a huge issue, and one that saw their adventures closing in on them, leading to the dramatically satisfying tale Neverland. It was incredible closure for this running theme and Charley’s story came to a conclusion. It was over but rather than have McGann front his own story in Zagreus he is pushed to the sidelines and Charley is forced into the driving seat, Big Finish taking the easy way out and keeping her firmly attached to the Doctor. This is why I cannot appreciate Charley any more, no matter what they do with her character she has had her peak, her cliffhanging season finale to finish on but instead they have dragged her character on and on endlessly, moulding her back into the traditional companion role. She’s had her day and watching her plod along after the Doctor forever invites unfavourable comparisons with Ace who similarly seemed to be around forever.
Now this is no dismissal of India Fisher who has never given a bad performance but sometimes I get the impression she is only kept because Gary Russell likes having her around. Fisher is an extremely impressive performer, as this story proves, but her character has become redundant and nobody can make shite seem like gold no matter how hard they try.
Strangely the exact opposite is the case with Paul McGann as the eighth Doctor. The Last had the potential to be the best eighth Doctor story, indeed given his beefy characterisation and juicy lines, it SHOULD have been his best but thanks to a disappointing performance from McGann it slips into the realms of mediocrity.
It has been a long held fascination to torture the Doctor to the point of insanity and the writers of the eighth Doctor have been extremely fond of this approach (see Kate Orman or Lloyd Rose, Lawrence Miles or Paul Leonard’s works). The Last has a damn good go at taking the eighth Doctor to edge of desperation, having lost his TARDIS and both his companions and trapped on a planet that is about to be destroyed, it pushes even his jubilant personality to the limit. When he turns on Excelsior and claims he has never hated anybody before but he truly hates her it should be powerful drama. It’s not. McGann plays this stress with as little effort as possible, he reels the lines of with in a mundane, chatty rush as though he is gabbing with some stranger about what he bought in Sainsbury’s last week. Like wise his reaction to the deaths of Charley and C’rizz is so relaxed you have to wonder if he ever gave a damn about them in the first place. Where the hell was Gary Russell when McGann was performing these scenes? Isn’t he the director? The story is full of great shocks but to the Doctor this seems like a stroll in the park. It is an unforgivable lapse when you can hear the potential in the script.
Ah yes the script. A shame they didn’t push it further than they did because the basic plotline for the story is outstanding and ripe for great drama. It is a tragedy through and through, the story of a war torn planet, which has taken its conflict too far, the population on the surface completely wiped out and a few favoured individuals holed up beneath the surface in the shelter. Enter the Doctor, Charley and C’rizz in the middle of a crazy political situation involving the leader of the planet Excelsior who is completely unaware of the fact that her people are all dead and being kept in the dark by her two ministers, Voss and Tralfinial. It’s a very personal tale, with these few survivors half deranged by the turn of events and Charley paralysed by a rock fall, they are trapped on the volcanic planet together, forced to work together if they are going to escape alive…
Sounds great doesn’t it? So it frustrated me at how average it all seemed, as though the writer wouldn’t truly exploit the desperation of the situation, much more concerned with the bizarre relationships between the non-regulars. The first two episodes are pretty standard, the regulars splitting up, one half meeting those in power and the other the survivors and a whole lot of squabbling without pushing the plot on much. Even the planet on the brink of destruction setting is old hat, portrayed better in Inferno on the telly, The Last Resort better in the books and The Fires of Vulcan in the audios…rumbling explosions and atmospheric music do make for a bleak mood but the story has to back up these atmospherics or it is all for nought.
The third episode is my favourite, where writer Gary Hopkins finally takes some genuine risks. Indeed one moment in this episode, where Charley quietly asks C’rizz if he would kill her if she wished, made me sit up and pay attention far more than I had with any eighth Doctor in a long, long time. I was impressed at how this intimate scene between the two actually seemed to explore some potential between them rather than all this pally, pally stuff we’ve had to suffer for so long. But even better is the genuinely shocking scene where the psychotic Excelsior turns on Charley and smothers her with a pillow, possibly the best scene for this series since The Chimes of Midnight saw Charley holding the knife to her wrist. The thought of Charley, paralysed and begging for her life and being suffocated is truly horrible and India Fisher and Carolyn Jones play the scene at just the right pitched to leave the listener squirming with discomfort. I like that.
Indeed it was Jones’ Excelsior that made the story work. There is something slightly off kilter about her from her very first scene, more concerned with her make up and robes than her people dying in a radioactive war. But as the story progresses you delve into her mind and see just how far the war has twisted her. I loved how she cruelly dispatched Charley, C’rizz and Tralfinial and proceeded to lie about their tragic accidental deaths and then when discovered still tries to make excuses for herself. In the last episode she is beyond redemption, ready skip this scarred world and conquer another. Never mind the millions she has killed here. No wonder the Doctor despises her, it is her refusal to except any responsibility that makes her so abhorrent and I loved how uncomfortable any scene with her was, it is a feeling the entire story should have thrived on.
Conrad Westmaas gives another excellent performance as C’rizz but is still carrying the weight of a deathly dull character on his back. Fortunately C’rizz gets to emote like mad in this story, dealing with Charley’s death and abandoning her on the planet and indulging in some verbal duels with Excelsior, so although I still have concerns about his character within the confines of this story he is rather interesting to listen to. Frankly his best work comes when he is angry, he has quite a vicious streak and it is much more interesting than the amiable dullard he represents much of the time.
Imagine if Big Finish had had the bravery to go with this story and not tidy it all up at the end. For only the Doctor to survive the tale, to lose Charley, C’rizz and the TARDIS and enter the next story as depressed as we have ever seen him. Alas Big Finish does not have half the pluck of the BBC Books (who did just this with The Ancestor Cell/The Burning) and he is reunited with his friends at the end in an absurd and unsatisfying twist. It makes sense of the title true but what the hell was the point of the story if you are just going to wipe the slate clean and start again with nobody learning from their mistakes at the end? Only the Doctor leaves this story with the knowledge of what happened and he has seen it all before. I suppose we are meant to enjoy the journey even if the destination is a disappointment.
I have rarely been as frustrated with a Doctor Who story as I was with The Last. Usually a story is either good or bad or somewhere in the middle. The Last was really good (Charley’s death, Excelsior’s madness), The Last was really bad (McGann yawning his way through the story, the despicable cop out ending) and The Last was utterly indifferent (the plodding first few episodes).
Bugger it! Listen to it yourself and make up your own mind!
So, the Doctor, Charley and C’rizz’s adventures continue in the Divergent Universe – and it’s all becoming rather tedious. Some cryptic nonsense from the Kro’ka, another adventure on another zone, then back to the Interzone for some more cryptic nonsense – with the plot of the Doctor’s quest for the TARDIS having seemingly advanced not one iota. It’s really becoming quite boring.
Unfortunately this repetitive nature of the Doctor’s adventures in the Divergent Universe is a further dampener on The Last, which on it’s own already has the feel of one of those “…and then she woke up and it was all a dream” stories. The story itself is concerned with the shattered apocalyptic remains of the planet Bortresoye, and the last few survivors attempts to escape the planet before it disintegrates. The problem here is we obviously know that the Doctor and co are going to escape unscathed to wind up back in the Interzone, so the play depends on us caring about the inhabitants – and quite frankly I couldn’t care less if they all lived or died. Chief amongst them is the political leader Excelsior, who is so obviously throthing at the mouth insane that it’s difficult to take her seriously, and her bickering pair of political aides. The setting as a whole is very reminiscent of the (far superior) novel Venusian Lullaby, with the inhabitants of a doomed planet trying to escape in one last rocket – but it’s just so difficult to care. The climax – which has shades of Jim Mortimore’s Natural History of Fear and Campaign, with it’s life through death dénouement, similarly has the unfortunate effect of making everything that happened before seem slightly pointless.
The Lat does offer some meaty dramatic situations for the regular cast members, though they don’t always seem to take the opportunity. At one point Charley is paralysed with no seeming hope of a cure – the Doctor doesn’t seem concerned, and neither does Charlie, who remains as annoyingly chipper as always.
The Last offers a few decent moments of drama, but as a story the self-imposed pointlessness of it renders it entirely forgettable.