Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Last Post written by James Goss and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: People are dying. Just a few, over a few months…but the strange thing is that each person received a letter predicting the time and date of their death. Throughout her time as the Doctor’s assistant, Liz Shaw’s been documenting these passings. Her investigation ultimately uncovers a threat that could lead to the end of the world, but this time Liz has someone to help her. Her mother. 

Intelligent Academic: I came to this story with feelings of regret. It was the last time I would ever hear anything new read by Caroline John. A consummate actress and a superb narrator, she brought her stories to life with incredible skill. Technically Liz Shaw should be one of the forgotten companions because she only appeared in four stories (less than Dodo for goodness sakes!) but thanks John’s charismatic performance, a character that was created as an equal for the Doctor and the fact that she appeared in one of the shows most popular seasons it is easy to see why she is lauded as much as she is. If people fancy exploring some more of Caroline John’s work then I suggest you get hold of the PROBE series made by BBV. The production values are a bit ropey (its shot like a holiday video) but for a chance to see how John would have fronted a TV series of her own (I still wish we could have had a big budget PROBE series rather than Torchwood) it is invaluable (plus there is a wealth of other Who talent knocking about in them too). Also check out her reading of Elisabeth Sladen’s autobiography, now a doubly sad audio to listen but worth it for John’s impassioned reading of Sladen’s memoirs. Terrance Dicks once said that John was too good for Doctor Who and whilst I don’t subscribe to that notion, I do agree that she had the acting chops to be given the central role and it’s a relief that Big Finish gave her that opportunity in her five companion chronicles (The Blue Tooth, Shadow of the Past, The Sentinels of the New Dawn, Binary and The Last Post). Whilst I don’t always think she was best served script wise, John’s performances were never less than magnificent (mind you I plan to re-listen to Binary knowing the twist because I have a feeling I will enjoy a lot more a second time round watching how the plot comes together).

Showing off her credentials as a confident, capable woman its interesting to note that in practically all of her companion chronicles Liz takes on the investigation on her own and the Doctor only plays a very peripheral role. There was definitely a place for a Liz Shaw influenced UNIT series in the 70s, a gritty and grainy Torchwood ala The Sweeney. When the Doctor left Earth with Sarah Jane and cut his ties with UNIT, I could see this as a far more adult show with a central role for Liz. I always find it fascinating to meet the relations of companions because it is a good chance to get to see who influenced them. Her mother Emily has signed the Official Secrets Act more times than Elisabeth has and has been wondering what tempted Liz away from her test tubes. She knows all about UNIT. Emily considers artistic endeavours far more worthwhile than scientific ones but still accepts that her daughter is brilliant in her field. Liz tells her mother the truth about what happens behind the scenes in UNIT investigations, destroying all the myths and nonsense speculated by the newspapers. You would think that having two scientific advisors would mean the Doctor and Liz get through the work in half the time but the truth is there is so much paperwork. I don’t think I would have been happy if Emily hadn’t commented on Liz’s hair at some point…I think it is an inbuilt flaw in all mothers that they have to disapprove of your appearance at least once during every exchange. Liz is made of sterner stuff than her sister. I loved hearing Liz talking very dubiously about the cheap lash up console that the Doctor has tried to convince her is part of an alien time machine – its easy to forget that Liz is the only companion to have never stepped through the TARDIS doors. Liz always said Emily’s mothering had a cruel streak to it. The Doctor would have defeated the Apocalypse Clock with clever words and the Brigadier would have blown it up but Liz’s approach is far more cunning, tying up the machine in a web of logic. Liz tells her mother she plans to stay with the Doctor as long as she can stand him.

Good Grief: Liz finds the Doctor wonderful and annoying and oddly he looks just like her Uncle Bernard. He likes being childish and assumes that if he doesn’t want to be found, he wont be. Just because you can’t alter fate that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try! The Doctor finds Emily charming…perhaps he would have been better off carting her around the universe? Its odd being hugged by the Doctor, he doesn’t smell of anything almost as if he wasn’t there. The Last Post mirrors one of my favourite endings of any Doctor Who story – the Doctor and Donna at the climax of Forest of the Dead having to choose whether to look inside River Song’s diary. Here the Apocalypse Clock spits out a letter for him, informing him of the date of his final demise. He doesn’t want to spoil the surprise so he doesn’t open it. Without his knowledge Liz has a peek and it lists all of his future regenerations (‘I’ve always hated spiders too…’). Oh to have a look at that letter…

Standout Performance: In her twilight days this is a great chance to see a new side of Liz Shaw courtesy of a gentle performance by Caroline John. By indulging in exchanges between her and her mother what we experience isn’t the cold, logical scientist but a family woman who is rebuilding a relationship with her. John could make a shopping list sound like art but when handed a script with as much imagination and emotion as this she performs wonders. Rowena Cooper deserves much kudos too, sharing effortless chemistry with John. A shame we couldn’t see more of her but I am thankful for her inclusion here. Loved the Irish accents on display, very nicely done.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘So you’re fighting aliens’ ‘Not exactly, we’re trying to understand them.’
‘We’re being bumped of by plague, shop dummies, luggage and space men!’
‘He didn’t say wotsits I’m afraid I stopped listening.’
‘The Brigadier even reads neatly…’
‘Doctor Who. He is required. Bring him to me.’
‘But there are so many loose ends!’

Great Ideas: Since joining UNIT and tackling the Nestene Consciousness, Liz is seeing menace in every shadow and connects a group of murders in government. They have each died of what they were most likely to and they all received a letter telling them precisely when they are going to die. Hailing from precisely the right period, if that isn’t a really great Avengers episode in the making I don’t know what is! Goss brilliantly has this story weave through the entirety of season seven, Liz writing to her mother during each adventure to keep her apprised of her activities and seeing if she has found out anything else about the central mystery of this story. I remember Who Killed Kennedy managing its own narrative throughout the Pertwee era, using moments in stories that looked harmless and giving them greater significance. The Last Post pulls off a similar coup – explaining away Dr Lawrence’s paranoid behaviour in Dr Who and the Silurians because he received one of the death date letters a few days in advance of succumbing to the plague. Very clever stuff. I will never look at the story in the same light again. Apparently Bruno Teltallian (‘not one of natures charmers…’) received a letter too. Liz soon realises (and so will the audience if they are sharp) that it all comes back to the fact that all these important men are on Emily Shaw’s committee. Suddenly every death in season seven takes a much more sinister, premeditated feeling. It only had to be a matter of time before Liz’s mother had to receive a letter for her own. The government has become adept at gathering data on the population and patterns had begun to emerge. When a government becomes interested in something it refuses to give it up and acquiring that information became a habit. What to do with it all? Emily’s committee was instructed with the task of harnessing that data to new technology – calculating machines. They tackled life expectancy first because it was the easiest. Professor Prestain’s machines were brilliant at forecasting and so they gave him a mass of information on the population. He built a clock, an extraordinary device that could predict precisely when an individual would die. The machine told him that the world was going to end. So they went about to predict how that would happen (Sir Keith is convinced that the Stahlman project has thrown safety out of the window to cure the energy crisis!). If the Apocalypse Clock said your time was up perhaps you were better off out of the way because perhaps you had something to do with the end of the world. It was the people in the Professor’s path who had been picked off…always the trouble makers. The assassins turn out to aliens with the body of a metal scorpion and the shape and style of a digital watch, counting down to its victims deaths. That’s the scuttling noise that Emily kept hearing, the creature hunting her down. It can reach into other dimensions, find one where the victim has died and changed circumstances in this one to match – what a brilliant concept. If you had a chance to look at a digital clock that would tell you the date of the end of the world…would you look? As people are killed the date of the apocalypse changes, rushing forwards with increasing urgency. There is a very potent image of the committee members that are left frozen around a conference table in a room dominated by a giant digital clock, like flies trapped in amber. When we discover that the processing banks of the Apocalypse Clock were salvaged from the remains of the Post Office Tower I was literally bouncing on my chair with glee! Like The Time Travellers before it, it seems that the remains of WOTAN are causing all manner of difficulties regardless of the dimension. The Clock is link to many other computers, all of them articulating the risks of various projects and it can see into other possibilities and shape events in our dimension. Changing the future to a limited degree all in the aim of averting the Earth’s destruction. Once a threat has been identified, the Clock arranges for their removal and since its mainframe is still connected to the Post Office it fires off a letter to inform them. To all them to put their affairs in order. If no-one can create the end of the world then the world cannot end – the Apocalypse Clock plans to put the entire world in stasis to prevent its destruction. Once again I am baffled by just how many glorious ways there are to put this planet of ours in jeopardy and how writers such as Goss continues to find a fresh approach. Its logical to a fault, and monstrous. Liz has to make the machine realise that the machine that is trying to prevent the destruction of the Earth is going to cause it. It turns out the Doctor is ultimately responsible for predictive abilities of the Apocalypse Clock because he has removed the console from the TARDIS.

Audio Landscape: Café atmosphere, ticking clock, church bells, bubbling test tubes in a laboratory, dialling a phone, scribbling, the sonic screwdriver, the ticking countdown clock.

Musical Cues: I would recognise the melancholic chords of Fox and Yason a mile off now. Two of Big Finish’s most accomplished musicians and a great choice for Liz Shaw’s final story. Their subtle use of the piano as an emotive backdrop never fails to generate an atmosphere of disquiet. Their work on episode two is amazing, accentuating the momentum of the ticking clock and its countdown to destruction.

Standout Scene: So many Doctor Who cliffhangers are moments of false jeopardy shoved in to provide a week long pause between one part of the story and the next. This is one of the few times I can think of where the entire first episode is geared to set up the cliffhanger, the central mystery providing real momentum and leading to an unforgettable build up of suspense. The final scream is absolutely chilling. The pay off manages to be a complete cheat and yet satisfying because of its sheer cheek!

Notes: The continuity isn’t limited to season seven – Stangmoor prison and Sir Charles Grover are name checked also. The Pertwee era feels very contained and fleshed out, its very own bubble of continuity.

Result: ‘My name is Liz Shaw and I’d like to stop the end of the world…’ How would you react if you received a letter telling you when you are going to die? Witty, creative and nostalgic, The Last Post is a superb final story for Caroline John. Weaving a narrative through the classic adventures of season seven is a terrific idea (so good David Bishop had a similarly memorable shot at it in the novel Who Killed Kennedy) and the whole idea of portentous letters making targets of the scientists that featured in those stories is inspired. The events of the first episode leading up to the prediction of the apocalypse are beautifully handled and the ideas feel fresh and involving. I’ve listened to an awful lot of Big Finish adventures now and have always been impressed by their increasingly stylish production values and thought I was pretty much taking for granted how these adventures sounded now. However the immersive sound effects and stirring music in The Last Post really impressed me and captured my attention completely. It’s a fitting final hurrah for Caroline John who was able to reveal brand new facets to the character of Liz Shaw but even more importantly had the opportunity to thrill us one last time with such a memorable reading of such a inventive story. I will miss her companion chronicles very much; Big Finish has lost a fantastic actress, Doctor Who has lost one of its greatest companions and John’s family and friends have lost a magnificent woman. It seems fitting that the final Liz Shaw story to be released celebrates so much about what made her era great – wonderful storytelling, smart ideas and complex characterisation. A big hurrah to all involved. I’d like to blow one final kiss to Caroline John: 10/10


Unknown said...

Couldn't agree more Joe. Absolutely wonderful story and a fitting tribute to the wonderful person Caroline John was. I laughed and cried as well. Keep up the wonderful reviews. From Tim in NZ :)

Doc Oho said...

Thanks for the comment, Tim, and the encouragement. She was a wonderful woman and this was a fitting final story for her to bow out on. :-)