Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Last Act written by Justin Richards and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: After travelling through time and space with the Doctor, Henry Gordon Jago and Professor Litefoot are back in London starting brand new lives. Jago has become a huge celebrity and Litefoot the quiet owner of a bookshop, but in all other respects it is business as usual. As they investigate a wealth of new cases – including a restaurant where the food eats the people, and a book with dangerous powers – a long game is playing out. A figure from their past is back, and this time he means to destroy them…

Theatrical Fellow: Of all the acts that Henry Gordon Jago never wanted to see again it was that diabolical pixie, the Peking Homunculus Mr Sin! One of them has to wrangle with the poisonous little fella whilst the other nabs the crystal from the Time Cabinet…can you imagine which Jago plumps for? Rather wonderfully, Jago’s opinion of policemen generally shifts depending on whether they are being supportive of the cause or not. Sacker makes a good observation that Jago & Litefoot are like a couple of kids that need chaperoning and somebody has to clear up the mess once they have finished adventuring.

Posh Professor: Litefoot knows that however implausible his tales of their previous adventures may sound that he and Jago are men of integrity and he isn’t afraid to admit as much!

Standout Performance: The ever effusive, entertaining and enchanting Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter who have made the crossing from Victorian London to the swinging sixties an effortless transfer. How fortunate that a Big Finish range should be spearheaded by such a couple of talented old pros because between them they always manage to create a party atmosphere that is impossible to resist and make even the most underwhelming of stories come to life (although that isn’t often a problem with this series as the batting average, story-wise, is pretty damn high). I’ve really enjoyed Lisa Bowerman’s input this season as well and I hope when we return to the past (or rather further back into the past) that she doesn’t return to the periphery character of earlier seasons. This confident, capable, high-kicking businesswoman has proven a great foil for Jago & Litefoot during season five. And what a shame that we should have to say au revoir to Duncan Wibsey again when he has just the loveliest voice for audio.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Hardly the time for petty pedantry, Professor, when we’re about to be maimed by a malicious midget!’ and suddenly I remember why Jago is allied with so much artful alliteration…it might be a mouthful but its dialogue that positively bounces!
‘It would be a shame not to show of your large and lovely…locket!’
‘Life’s never dull with you two, is it?’
‘The Great God Weng-Chiang will be reborn! He will live again!’

Great Ideas: I really liked the conceit of heading back into the mists of time to explain to Sacker the events of Talons (I was expecting some ghastly montage) and then immediately popping back into the narrative with him fully up to speed. Talk about economy of storytelling (and to be honest is there anybody listening to this audio who hasn’t seen Talons of Weng-Chiang?). Mark Gatiss’ fictional TV show, Nightshade, is name checked from his Virgin New Adventure, ahem, Nightshade. It’s this sort of cross pollinating that the spin off series can do subtly but well. Sacker is dragged into these machinations (the more time he gets before the mike, the better since Duncan Wibsey is just superb) and refuses to help…before the action cuts to him in throng of a raid on Jago & Litefoot’s behalf in a nicely paced gag. Several of the threads that have been running through the season dovetail together – the refurbishment of the Palace Theatre and the popularity of Those Were The Days combining so Guinivere Godiva can conjure up a broadcast that nobody is going to forget in a hurry. On Venus the crystal that Jago obtained stored the memories of bodiless people, a recording of their minds held inside. In a sense the writers have really exploited the time period by being the most dreadful name droppers – everybody from Tony Handcock to Bruce Forsyth to Noel Coward to Sid James has been name checked with a ton of TV shows and over pop culture references from the time thrown in for good measure. It’s a quick and evocative way of conjuring up the period because the only visual representation of the sixties that people regularly seek out is the media output of the time so mentioning certain shows captures a certain tone and image. Scenes play out that seem to have stepped straight out of Talons of Weng-Chiang with Guinivere Godiva taking the place of Li’Sen Chang on stage. Jago, Litefoot and Sacker even make their way into the dragon chamber via a dumb waiter (‘with the benefit of 80 years hindsight we might go one at a time…’). Godiva’s fathers father spent two days collecting the fragments of Greel’s time key and spent his entire life putting those fragments back together. Greel’s mind is trapped in the crystal, his mind shattered and truly disturbed and it speaks to Godiva, directing her. There was no reason not to kill Ellie at the climax so the point where she jumped into the Time Cabinet I held my breath to await her fate. Like the works of Agatha Christie, the way the plot resolves itself and leaves a well explained element to allow Jago & Litefoot a method of dispatch back to their own time is beautifully achieved.

Audio Landscape: Mr Sin, doorbell, traffic rumbling past, Mrs Petherbridge’s complaints (playing out like those wonderfully squeaky phone calls people used to get in 70s TV programmes), bursting through into a warehouse, dripping, running water, the orchestra rehearsing, laughter, the reactive crowd, the exploding time cabinet, a squeaking, creaking dumb waiter, dragon laser, bells chiming, footsteps.

Musical Cues: One last hurrah for the musical libations of Howard Carter who has not only seized the chance to do something a little different with the series but has been positively essential in making this waltz into the swinging sixties a success. Without his scores across the season providing so many nostalgic cues and generating a convivial atmosphere I fear that the series wouldn’t have been half as successful as it has been. Whilst I was a little unsure about the merry soundtrack to The Bloodchild Codex (because the material itself was so dark), his work on the other three stories (and the knockout re-imagining of the theme tune) has been exceptional.

Isn’t it Odd: I do like the idea of elements from Talons of Weng-Chiang returning to haunt the intrepid investigators but I have to question the logic (on audio) of choosing Mr Sin. The trouble with Mr Sin is that he isn’t the most erudite of conversationalists and much like the Haemovores in the recent 7th Doctor audio, Gods and Monsters, can only be represented on one note (with the Haemovores it was grunting, with Mr Sin it’s honking like a pig). Fortunately he barely features in the main action, proving to be more of a peripheral threat. I really am surprised that the Big Finish team missed the trick of Jago & Litefoot encountering Countermeasures given this series has well and truly invaded their stomping ground in the sixties. However the two series are tonally very different and perhaps the clash of theatrical pleasantry and gritty backwater drama might have jarred terribly.

Standout Scene: The cameo by Magnus Greel himself was completely unexpected. It might feel like a step too far given his demise at the end of Talons but it works because the season has been building up to this moment and all the elements have been put in place to explain his revival. The performance was nice too, reminiscent of Michael Spice but clearly a different actor, explained away because he is in a ‘new body.’ The final scene offers another exciting lead-in to the next season with the suggestion hat Jago & Litefoot are going to meet her Majesty the Queen! I’m salivating already!

Result: ‘Something of a Chinese puzzle, ay Professor?’ Like the opening installment, The Last Act is less of a standalone adventure and more like one last sniff of the weed-scented sixties air. At least initially. Considering line producer David Richardson has confirmed that the next three seasons will see Jago & Litefoot returning to the familiar atmosphere of pea soupers and bloody murder on the cobbles it is perhaps no bad thing to take in the sights one last time and relish the sheer entertainment that this setting has had to offer. Because we are so far removed from the smog bound setting that Talons of Weng-Chiang took place this is perhaps the perfect place to stage a sequel so at no point does it feel like it is stepping on the toes of this ranges’ progenitor. All the elements are present and correct (Mr Sin, Li’Sen Chang’s party tricks on stage, the House of the Dragon) but the new setting makes everything come alive in a very different way to Talons (perhaps that was the central reason for the change of time period – it might have felt more like a direct rip off in Victorian London). Respectful obeisance to the origins of these delightful characters rather than a direct rip off. There’s plenty for Jago, Litefoot, Ellie and Sacker to do and they have formed an engaging ensemble for the season and the mysterious Guinivere Godiva proves at last to be a villainess who is a victim of that most entertaining of Achilles’ heels, eschewing her previous charms for high camp. Bombshells explode with frequency and the concluding half of the story is furiously paced – The Final Act will fly by in no time at all. This season has been like taking one long drag on a succulent sixties spliff, making the world a brighter place and filling my head full of adventures that sing with witty wordplay and captivating curiosities. If you have been avoiding it because of the relocation then fear not, Jago & Litefoot is as wildly entertaining as ever: 9/10


Peakius Baragonius said...

They killed Sacker. They. Killed. Sacker.


We of the SPS (Sacker Preservation Society) would like the money spent on this season back, please.

The original Sacker's death in the Ruthven Inheritance was a mistake and, in my opinion, the crowning flaw in what is possibly this range's weakest story. I really liked the character and felt that he had a really good opportunity to grow as part of the regular cast. It wasn't so much that he died, but the manner of his death - as mere cannon fodder for a creature which dies two seconds afterwards and has no other bearing on the plot whatsoever. It seemed like a waste.

With Series 5 though, it seemed that Big Finish was finally acknowledging their mistake, by bringing Sacker's grandson into it. Detective Sacker was not only great, he was the character through which we were introduced to Jago and Litefoot in the 60's, as living, breathing legends straight out of an old man's delightful stories (playing to the same fairy-tale theme as Steven Moffat did in Series 5 of Doctor Who).

And then, with no build-up whatsoever, Detective Sacker also dies, whatever character arc he had abandoned in a second as he's possessed by Magnus Greel (who's return is ultimately a bit s**t anyway). Is *that* the whole reason they brought the character in? So that they had someone for Greel to possess, in the process throwing away any resolution to his character whatsoever? What the heck, Big Finish?

Disappointing someone once is ok, but disappointing me twice *in the exact same way* is almost like a slap in the face, albeit not as strong a one as the announcement that no classic Doctors would be appearing in the 50th. And while unlike NuWho, I still intend to keep following Jago and Litefoot, I can't help but feel rather ambivalent about the series at this point. What's the point of listening to a series that doesn't learn from its mistakes or grow as a result?

On a similar note, am I the only one who thinks that Jago and Litefoot's stay in the 1960's was far too short? I wish they'd stayed for another season at least, to truly make their time in that decade matter, and maybe even leave them feeling a little regretful at having to leave. Ultimately, what was the point of their stay in the 60's, apart from throwing Sacker fans a bone and then taking it away as well as staging yet another poorly done sequel to a Classic Who story? Don't get me wrong, I loved "The Age of Revolution" and the 60's atmosphere of the season, but ultimately I would have liked it a lot better if it had actually *gone* somewhere.

The way I would have done it would be to have the storyline for Series 5 be uniquely sixties in style, and then have the journey home in Series 6. But instead, in the end what we have is a stale and predictable rehash of Talons that ultimately shows up the changed setting of Series 5 to be merely a gimmick, when it could have been so much more.

Overall, the next few seasons had better be something really special to win me back after this debacle of a finale (minus the regulars and Mr. Sin, who are great as always). But considering that the grand finale of Series 6 is going to be a courtroom drama of all things, I already have my doubts, sadly (though I hope they'll be dispelled when I listen to it :) ).

A question for you Joe: Where does The Justice of Jalxar fit in in terms of this series' continuity?

Daniel Leonard said...

I am with my colleague above, I'm afraid. After the first three episodes this series was in the running for best J&L so far, but sadly it finished with what I think is the weakest episode of the first five series.

You've already mentioned the poor handling of Mr Sin, although I will add: just how *did* Litefoot get the better of him while Jago fetched the crystal? We just don't know, but George besting Sin 'off-screen' in an unclear way makes the latter seem rather pathetic, and in his first scene too. Peakius has mentioned the perfunctory killing off of DS Sacker, to which I want to add that Ellie's death, in contrast, would have been the perfect culmination of her arc in series 5, yet she lives while Sacker dies an unnecessary death that could have been anyone's. Why could Godiva not have been the vessel for Greel's return? It would have made far more narrative sense.

Speaking of Godiva, I found her a very unconvincing villain. From her very first appearance her performance was far too mannered, and she was an obvious baddie, but I did hope at least that has plan would make sense. Alas, no. Why leave the heroes a cryptic puzzle when she *wanted* them to get to her lair? Why did her grandfather reassemble the crystal in the first place? Most importantly, why go through any of this at all of she is such an accomplished pickpocket? Why not just take the crystal from Jago on one of the many occasions earlier in the series when she was in his company, frequently when he was both drunk and distracted?

I also disagree that the sixties setting made up for more or less recycling the plot of Talons - I thought this was the least sixties episode of the series, and the theatre and dragon place seemed to be almost identical to the original story. I thought the first half was mostly padding, while the second half seemed rushed, frequently hard to follow, and overstuffed with exposition. And, far from being "beautifully achieved", I thought the use of the time cabinet made their return home sadly predictable. And Greel's masterplan? Going back in time to muck about with our heroes' past in some unspecified way? How anticlimactic, small-scale and poorly thought through. The only thing that makes this episode stand out is the reveal that Greel and Sin are involved, and that was in the previous episode!

However, despite all that, it's still Jago and Litefoot and Ellie and Sacker, so it was entertaining to listen to just on the back of their performances. I can't give it any lower than 4/10.