Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Last written by Gary Hopkins and directed by Gary Russell

What's it about: Trapped on a dying world, the Doctor and Charley come face-to-face with those responsible for the war to end wars, while C'rizz tries to understand what has happened and learns the terrible truth. Powerful forces are at work on Bortresoye that not even a nuclear holocaust can tame; natural forces that have excited the interest of Excelsior, the self-proclaimed saviour of her people. With Charley immobilised and C'rizz left to battle against the elements with some of the victims of war, one final, desperate hope of escape presents itself to the travellers. But who will be the last to leave the planet? Who will have to stay behind? And will the Doctor, Charley and C'rizz live long enough to find out?

Breathless Romantic: Script wise this is the best of the eighth Doctor we have seen since Neverland but performance wise Paul McGann makes a few odd choices (that probably should have been ironed out by the director) that spoil would could have been the most powerful and dramatic story the Doctor has ever had. Gary Hopkins seems to have a steady hand on the unrelenting, unforgiving eighth Doctor we have been travelling with since he was poisoned by the anti time creatures but he also includes lots of emotional beats and moments of sympathy that make him an extremely grounded character. If he was this strong every week I wouldn't have any problems with how the eighth Doctor range has turned out. Each of the regulars has a moment of oddly muted behaviour when they should be far more fired up and the Doctor's comes when he is confronted with Charley's body and he casually mutters 'I'm so sorry Charley' as though he is thinks this is the best thing that could have happened and he is keen to move on. Even worse is what could have been a truly powerful moment when he declares that he truly hates Excelsior with every fibre of his being but rather than attack the material with the same terrifying aggression he did in The Natural History of Fear he sounds thoroughly bored by the whole sorry business.

Katerina and Adric return to haunt the Doctor, to prey on his insecurities. His companions have faith in him and yet when he asks 'have I ever let you down?' he doesn't want to know the answer! He thinks C'rizz is a born survivor and barely passes comment on him being left alone on the radioactive surface. The Doctor refuses to accept Charley's paralysis and wont let her give up. He has never claimed to be able to perform miracles and he admits he can't fix everything. In a moment of relentless unforgiveness he condemns them for making the wrong choice abandoning space travel technology for weapons development that has led to the devastation of the planet. He declares Excelsior the most amoral woman he has ever met and points out how selfish she is at leaving the world she helped to destroy. When C'rizz is shot dead he begs him not to die as he cannot lose two friends. He downright refuses to take Excelsior of the planet saying he would rather die than let her loose on another planet. He has never thought of himself as suicidal (yeah, right!) but he accepts that he has to kill himself to bring everybody else back to life. I loved his casual 'What the hell' before committing suicide.

Edwardian Adventuress: India Fisher has given some truly remarkable performances as Charley and would go on to do so again but somewhere along the line both she and the director lost track of this one and the result is her poorest performance in her entire run. The Last features some of the most interesting development of Charley since Neverland and as scripted it is gripping character drama. However considering she is paralysed from the neck down and left to rot in a crumbling building in a post apocalyptic planet Charley continues to be bubbly and 'la la la' where I would be positively crapping myself and furiously terrified.

It all begins in the first few scenes where Charley develops something of a death wish ('We're going to die!') and wants to give up their wandering and surrender to it all. A paralysed companion is probably the first genuinely new and interesting thing we have seen in this Divergents Universe and it would have been very interesting to see this continue over several stories. Why does Charley sound like a petulant child rather than a terrified adult when left in the building falling down around her? She's so chirpy and on top of the world, 'I'll never be able to walk again...lalala!' Such a shame that this startling development is blunted by Fisher's performance. She quite harshly tells Excelsior that all of her subjects are dead when the Doctor tries to break the news more gently. Are the producers as sick of Charley as the fans at this point or are they earning brownie points by pandering to them? In the last story she was strangled by her best friend and in this story she is smothered by a pillow! She really does develop a moribund attitude, 'What use am I like this, a vegetable?' and 'This is where my travels end.' When Charley asks C'rizz if her would put her out of her misery like he did for L'da it is the first time that I actually believed the friendship between these two characters. Something genuinely interesting and powerful happens between them in that scene. There's hope for them yet!

Chameleonic Rogue: Each story seems to chip away at my disdain for C'rizz a little more. Maybe its because Conrad Westmaas gives the material some dignity or maybe its because I'm just getting used to him being around. He's a good man who cares for others and has a sharp tongue in his head. He cannot believe Excelsior's behaviour and threatens to murder her and yet is appalled when Charley asks him to commit euthanasia. His talking to Requiem, a dead man, is a portent of his future where he would put a number of people 'out of their misery' and wind up chatting to their souls. His fervent panic when he finds Charley's body suddenly makes his character feel very real. Westmaas' oddly muted moment comes when he says goodbye to Charley, 'This isn't how its mean to be Doctor' he says as though he is talking about what he's going to get down the shops later. He finds life is all about losing people. He has to choose between life and death and is tempted by the latter if he will get to see his loved ones again.

Standout Performance: Carolyn Jones deserves a massive hurrah - the story automatically jumps from good to excellent every single time she shows up. Excelsior is such an arrogant, vain (yet ugly), egotistical and deluded harridan I loved every second we spent in her company. Just when you think she cannot sink any lower morally, somehow she manages it. A top class villain.

Great Ideas: The answer to the planets problems is revealed very early on - the end of one journey is the beginning of another. A nuclear bomb has devastated Bortresoye, melted buildings to glass and left the surface of the planet a wasteland of lethal radiation. A nuclear winter is described as the unnatrual by product of a man made cataclysm. This one has wiped out at least 9/10's of the worlds population. Excelsior is so consumed with her own ruthless vainglory she is blissfully unaware that the results of her decision has wiped out all of her beloved subjects and she wont listen to anything to the contrary. They were a weak government, frightened, when the the risk of an attack was imminent they struck first and causes brutal retaliation of other governments and nothing could be done to prevent the destruction of the planet. Each successive government has tried to make peace but the result have always descended into war. Natural resources were irradicated. All species were driven to extinction by harvesting, warfare and biological experimentation. The same weapons built to defend their homeland wound up destroying them. The death of the nurse is genuinely shocking and only 5 people out of the 100 in the lower levels survive the torrent of water. If a ghost is said to be a restless soul just imagine how many restless souls a nuclear holocaust would bring about? Innocent victims looking for answers, confused by the speed and the ferocity of their deaths. Excelsior is so deliciously beguiled that she shoots down her Minister of War just as he says 'The truth is...' Can you imagine facing the dilemma of having to choose two people to escape the roasting planet out of five? When Charley is smothered by Excelsior I was genuinely gobsmacked - Doctor Who stories do not usually go this far and I really expected somebody to step in prevent her murder and both Fisher and Jones play the scene so quietly it is really disturbing. Excelsior's piteous lies (she left Charley comfortable after she asked after her illustrious career) are wonderful - can't we have an Excelsior spin off series? 'There will be other worlds, other people to rule!' she cries out hysterically! She gloats, telling the Doctor and C'rizz that Charley died in terrible agony and couldn't struggle. She thinks she was doing her a favour! The planet has been looking after itself, killing everybody and starting the cycle all over again. Bortresoye isn't a zone but a planet on which the zones have been placed. Lanskar is there to ensure the Last dies. Excelsior gets a suitably grand departure, swallowed by the birth of a gulping volcano! The story starts again with only the Doctor realising what has taken place and this time the war has been won and Excelsior is a hero. I wonder for how long...

Sparkling Dialogue: 'We've finally managed to achieve the destruction of our planet.'
'The world will not end. All living things must die.'
'The world has become increasingly unstable. By our actions we have dealt it the final blow.'
'My Lady! You've just killed the Minister for Peace!'
'Of course there were no signs of a struggle, Charlotte couldn't move!'
'What about Excelsior? Tell me she wasn't so fortunate.'

Audio Landscape: Lots of atmospherics - whistling wind, clunking rocks, a summers breeze, C'rizz's voice echoing into the wilderness, the creaking building, creepy whispering voices, rumbling thunder, spitting acid rain, the rushing, dramatic surge of water that kills the nurse, dripping, trickling water, the exploding rocket, the victory parade. All very convincing, a n apocalyptic world created through sounds.

Musical Cues: The score is sparse and stripped right down with a discordant electronic sting that plays throughout to drive home the wrongness of the story.

Isn't it Odd: Aside from McGann and Fisher sabotaging the drama of the story at certain points the reset button at the end rather undoes the gritting developments of the story. I remember the first time I listened to this story and it really bugged me (I was so cross I was comparing a Doctor Who story to Star Trek: Voyager!) but this time I rather liked the implications. We are capable of great good and great evil given the right circumstances and in one version of events Excelsior is reviled for her vanity and murderous nature and in another she is celebrated as a war hero. Whilst perhaps it would have been nice to have continued the series without Charley and C'rizz I have to admit even they were written really well in this story and show potential.

Standout Moment: I was astonished by the intensity of the scene where Charley was murdered. Not only did I never believe they would go that far but it is such a frightening way to go, not being able to defend yourself, that I felt genuine empathy for Charley for the first time since Neverland.

Result: The Last features a superb script which takes real risks and a production which goes a long way to selling its oppressive, bleak atmosphere. It is a fascinating set up with plenty of juicy dramatic opportunities, featuring some of the strongest writing seen for Charley and C'rizz yet. Excelsior is the most fabulously bitchy and vainglorious villainess, she's Lady Adastra, the Rani and Helen A all rolled into one and she makes a good story a great one with her vicious vanity and unpredictable violence. My biggest complaint is the performances of McGann and Fisher who can make something like Neverland come alive beautifully and yet give performances here at odds with the material and end up blunting it. It tells you something of the strength of the writing and direction that the duff performances of two of the regulars does not come anywhere near unbalancing this powerful story: 8/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @

1 comment:

konberg said...

I've listened to this four or five times over the years, and the first time I really loved this for the story it tells over time. The Doctor seems willfully ignorant of the possibility that things aren't simply normal. Our three main characters cannot stop being so vocally disdainful of the Bortresoyan government. It's a single note throughout the story that doesn't bear repeating.

But it was something you wrote in a prior post that reminded me of just how awfully inconsistent these characters are. Excelsior suggests that maybe C'rizz killed Charley, and he says that's impossible, he's her friend and he would never do anything to harm her.

Except, as you yourself have said, for choking her twice in two stories. It's like the old saying: choke me once, shame on you. Choke me twice, shame on me.

I hate that joke for being quite so gruesome, but I'm leaving it in.

Excelsior has moments of showing she's more than a three-note chord of makeup, dress, speech. But they are rare. Fortunately when they come up, Carolyn Jones rises to the occasion. I wish she had more.

So that's the problem - the story is a solid idea wrapped in a bunch of one-note / three-note characterizations.