09 November 2014

BF: The Last Post

The Last Post is undoubtedly best enjoyed unspoiled. I mention this right at the top of the review so that if you're reading this wondering about whether to buy it or not, be in no doubt: buy it. This is a fantastic character piece and even more enjoyable 'cold' than the majority of releases. Skip to the score to avoid any plot details whatsoever. Trust me, it'll be worth it.

There is of course an added layer of poignancy to The Last Post in the same way as Old Soldiers: this is the last contribution to the worlds of Doctor Who of each story's main contributor. Caroline John may have only appeared in five televised stories (counting The Five Doctors) but she certainly made an impression. She doubled that figure with contributions to the lands of Big Finish over the last few years, but even so it's hard not to feel short-changed. I've waxed lyrical about Season 7 before but suffice to say that I firmly believe that it's thanks to the success of that series (largely down to the strength of its central three performers) that the show is still on air today. The 1970 series really was a final chance, and if it hadn't worked, it's likely that would have been the last we heard of Doctor Who.

But happily, it wasn't. Forty-two years later, and Liz Shaw's back - and this time it's personal! I really enjoyed that the format of telling a story that the Companion Chronicles usually adopts was played with here. Ordinarily, an interesting narrative device is used to enable an old friend of the Doctor's to recount a previously unheard of tale. Here, though, James Goss decides to tie his story very firmly to Season 7 - both in terms of content and tone. Jon Pertwee's debut series is famous for featuring longer stories - three of the four were seven episodes long after all - and in that vein Goss tells his story over the course of a few months. This isn't done in a drawn out fashion, however. Indeed, The Last Post runs concurrently with Spearhead from Space, The Silurians and The Ambassadors of Death in the form of letters and telephone exchanges between Liz and her mother - Dame Emily Shaw, an expert in medieval belief systems. Dame Emily isn't the only member of Liz's family we hear of for the first time here, however. There's also mentions of her father (who is apparently a terrible chef), her uncle Bernard and her architect, Reading-based sister Lucy.

Building his narrative over an extended period of time not only allows Goss to increase its scale, but also to develop the relationship between the mother and daughter pairing at the heart of this release. The plot of the episode doesn't take long to get going in our ears, but grows gradually from Liz's perspective. In a way that made me grin very widely, Goss manages to weave this into the thread of Season 7 without ruffling a feather. He explains away a lot of the stranger plot elements from these stories - Dr Lawrence's foul temper, Taltalian's bizarre death, Quinlan being killed in his office - with his plot that could just as easily stand on its own two feet. Involving it in established events allows the writer to use ready-made events to reinforce the threat involved.

To sum up briefly, high-ranking government officials are receiving letters informing them of the exact date and time of their death, usually within a week. The odd thing is that they are all passing in exactly the way they are most likely to. I loved the way Goss managed to work in references to places all over the Pertwee era. You get Madame Tussauds (Spearhead from Space), Dr Lawrence and Masters (The Silurians), Taltalian and Quinlan (The Ambassadors of Death), numerous references to Stahlmann and his project as well as Sir Keith Gold (Inferno), the upcoming peace conference and Stangmoor Prison (The Mind of Evil),  Sir Reginald Styles (Day of the Daleks), Global Chemicals (The Green Death) and Sir Charles Grover (Invasion of the Dinosaurs). Plus there's a callback to the last three contemporarily-set sixties stories (The War Machines in a big way - see later). However, if you're unaware of all these characters and references you shouldn't suffer. Even in the brief moments they are mentioned, an impression is build instantly. Taking the case of Sir Keith Gold for a moment, in the handful of lines he's afforded, you get a feel for the man instantly, regardless of whether you've seen Inferno or not. The only thing I can lament here is the lack of connection to Terror of the Autons, The Claws of Axos and The Sea Devils. But you can't have everything and I'm more than satisfied with what we received.

As is revealed towards the middle of the story, Dame Emily is on a committee known internally as the Death Watch. It was initially formulated following World War Two to investigate statistics and work on life expectancies, but more recently, Daniel Prestaigne has joined. He is said to be some kind of computer supergenius, and he's created the Apocalypse Clock. He forged this computer with the intent of predicting life expectancy, but what it actually ends up calculating is the exact date and time of the end of the world. Somehow deciding on people that will bring about this cataclysmic event, it has been sending them the letters informing them of their death date. What it is able to do is reach between worlds, grab the closest alternative that sees a particular committee member or scientist dying and makes it into a reality. This is a really neat, and pretty ingenious, plot, and it's used very well. You can tell what the cliffhanger is going to be a mile off, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable when the moment itself comes and Dame Emily meets her apparent demise, alone, at the stroke of midnight.

This climax is absolutely astounding, and I recommend listening to it through headphones for full effect. The crescendo of the ticking and mechanical/electronic soundtrack is absolutely glorious and worked brilliantly. Equally as good was the resolution and it was nice to have a bit more of Pertwee's Doctor on the scene. Both John and Cooper's impressions of him are right on the nail and emulate my second-favourite incarnation perfectly. James Goss' superb writing helps things plenty too, of course. There's mentions of chin rubbing, neck scratching and TARDIS tinkering that all help recreate the character we know and love. Although it could be said that the second episode loses something in breaking the format of the first, it is no weaker. In the climactic scene of the story, Liz confronts the damned machine causing all the trouble. I absolutely loved the reveal that it was reconstructed from parts of WOTAN. The War Machines is one of personal favourite Hartnell stories and it always felt a shame that the aftermath was never revisited. I loved the cheeky suggestion (only visible on reflection) that BOSS (The Green Death) is also made from WOTAN. The idea had long been in my mind, linking two brilliant stories, but thank you James Goss for making it a reality!

There's no direct alien involvement in The Last Post. As in The War Machines, the Apocalypse Clock was created by a human, but the artificial intelligence became too big and powerful. It's a wonderfully sixties/seventies concept of a human-built machine growing out of control, but executed so well within the Doctor Who framework too. It's exactly the sort of story you can imagine happening and it's fascinating to see the contemporary take on what is essentially the internet (or the Hypernet, in this month's [at time of writing] Jonathan Morris-penned Revenge of the Swarm). The Doctor's reaction, especially when he should really know about it, is very amusing. The power crisis is at the centre of Season 7 and The Last Post, and the final twist in the story is that the computer will be the one to bring about the end of the world, not any of the humans it has murdered. Its plan is to put everyone into suspended animation - therefore no-one can destroy Earth; they can't do anything. Liz talks it into self-destruction through a quirk of logic, and it promptly issues Prestaigne's death letter. There's a nice moment towards the very end where Liz discovers the Doctor's, with a very long list of dates on - those of his regenerations, presumably. I loved the line about hating spiders, and it's great to see mother and daughter finally respect each other on their own terms.

That's why The Last Post is so good. Despite the fact that the Apocalypse Clock plot is so engaging and well-told, the story could stand on its own two feet with just the Shaws. At the open of the story, Emily is quite despairing of Liz, not understanding her world of espionage and test tubes. She much favours her arts-orientated sister, and this is quite clear. However, it becomes apparent at the cliffhanger that her youngest daughter (Liz) is really the more trusted and respected. Thinking she is just moments from death, she leaves it to Liz to explain to Lucy and her father what has happened. There's already an unspoken acceptance of the importance of Liz's work, but Emily is always far more concerned with her hairstyle or Shakespeare plays. Come the end of Part Two though, and this is gone. There's a lovely bond between the pair and it would have magical to see the relationship progress further.

It sits well with me that Liz's mother would be a very (self-)important figure, on a raft of committees and responsible for what she considers a number of critical decisions, such as whether butter with extend your life by a week compared to margarine. Whilst her child's off saving the world (literally) it's these issues that fill Emily's mind, and the thought of UNIT doesn't bother her for a minute. I thought it was a missed opportunity not to suggest that Jo Grant's uncle was on one of these panels, leading to her involvement with the Doctor at the open of Season 8. I'm not sure quite how Dame Emily ascended to her current social standing, but there's no doubt Rowena Cooper is the woman for the part. She shines as Caroline John's mother, and by the end I really respected the character due to her respect for Liz. I'm delighted to learn she'll be back in Jonathan Morris' Fourth Doctor adventure Cloisters of Terror next year, which I can only imagine is set in St Hugh's College, Oxford.

Caroline John is the star of this story though, and not just for retrospective reasons. She owns every scene she is in (despite stiff competition from Cooper) and makes it a joy to learn about the everyday goings-on of UNIT. Her Scottish accent is a bit dodgy, but thoroughly enjoyable, and likewise for her Irish impersonation of Prestaigne (call me Dan). At times, it's easy to forget you're not listening to a full-cast drama, thanks both to the voice work and the writing, presenting the story in such a way that no character ever feels isolated from the plot. The scorpions sounded glorious in description and thanks to the sound effects, and were an excellent creation. Quite why the Apocalypse Clock would dream up such things is beyond me, but they're joyous, particularly during scenes with the Doctor. Hearing John and Cooper discussing future adventures with the Shaws in the extras breaks my heart a little because they are so good together, and obviously enjoy it hugely. John doesn't sound a day older in the story, and this is shown up best when you listen to the interview, and hear her natural voice. A magnificent performance, and I'm glad she got such a good story to bow out on. A tragic loss.

Some credit must go to those audio maestros Richard Fox and Lauren Yason though. I've complemented the pair before for their excellent work, but here they surpass even their own high standards. The ticking of clocks and scratching of pens all infects your ears, sounding totally authentic. The way the sound effects tie into the soundtrack (including its use of clockwork) is nothing short of magnificent and I really wish there were 'Music from the Companion Chronicles' albums released. I'd snap one of their work up in an instant. This was a real feast for the ears, and they made the story sound excellent. I can't get enough of these two, they're brilliant! Kudos too to Simon Holub for such a beautiful cover, my second favourite of those that come under the Big Finish label. Director Lisa Bowerman deserves a lot of credit for holding together the production so successfully, making it one of my favourite Doctor Who stories (of any medium) ever.

What an excellent, excellent story The Last Post is. Funny, charming, endearing, compelling and (in retrospect) deeply saddening. I know I've said it before, most recently about Home Truths, but I can't think how this could have been better. Truly one of the best pieces of Doctor Who I've experienced. Every contributor is firing on all cylinders and James Goss' poetic narrative, told cleverly really worked for me. I adored the ties to practically every Earth-set story of the Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee eras and particularly the impact this has on the wider world of the programme, both before and after. If it foresaw the end of the world, did WOTAN (sorry, the Apocalypse Clock) bring Liz to the Doctor in the first place? And is its world-hopping responsible for the Doctor's trip sideways in Inferno? I'd like to think so on both counts. If there's something I've neglected to mention here, assume it was brilliantly handled. This is the perfect story for Liz Shaw, showing off all her best qualities and I just want to hear more from her now. Surely there's no higher recommendation than that?

In a Nutshell: A standout piece that balances everything perfectly and makes the passing of Caroline John all the sadder.

You can buy The Last Post from Big Finish here, or read Joe Ford's review here.

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