THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Big Finish Productions
The Last

Written by Gary Hopkins Cover image
Format Compact Disc
Released 2004
Continuity After The Telemovie.

Starring Paul McGann, India Fisher and Conrad Westmaas

Synopsis: 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.


Reviews

Frustrating! by Joe Ford 9/12/04

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 deja? 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 ciphers with no development. No... it's that regular plot contrivance, the ultimate of deux eh machinas... 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 wartorn 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 she is 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 makeup 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 to 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 accept 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!


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 15/12/04

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 my 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, it's 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


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 28/3/05

The Last is comparable to Galaxy 4 in terms of plot, featuring as it does a planet in the last stages of its life, overseen by a female villain. The first thing you notice about The Last is the atmosphere, magnified by the performances, notably Paul McGann who pours torment and sorrow into the Doctor. Similarly Conrad Westmaas impresses here, largely because Charley is sidelined (thankfully as the play doesn't boast India Fisher at her best). Former Crossroads star Carolyn Jones is great as the misguided and deluded Excelsior in a part she seems to relish. If anything the kill-switch conclusion of the story is the only thing that really disappoints as this is high drama and enjoyable drama at that.


A Review by Charles Berman 22/3/11

"What Doctor Who story were you listening to?"
"The Last."
"But I thought it was still going."
"It is."
"So what were you listening to."
"Doctor Who story. The Last..."
Abbott and Costello routine opportunities aside, The Last is a somewhat difficult story to sum up. It has enough good about it that I would never want to tell a Doctor Who fan to stay away, but it has a couple of things wrong with it that make it difficult for me to recommend it wholeheartedly either. Foremost is the ending. That may be an unusual thing to begin my comments with, but I think it's what will stand out most immediately in the mind of almost any listener.

The Last has an ending which makes a kind of sideways sense and is actually seeded rather consistently through the story. So far so good. But one of the strengths of the story up to this point had been the fact that it had a sort of grittiness or even realism within its science-fiction premise and, with that premise accepted, everything happened with satisfyingly believable consequences and explanations. The explanation for the ending drops that, but the worse problem is what a massive cop-out it is. Not only - like a lot of common, garden-variety cop-outs - does it undo all of the events we've just heard (which is extra unsatisfying because a lot of the events we've just heard were pretty heavily charged), but it also makes it clear that nothing the protagonists did at any point had any effect on the plot. That can be used to good effect sometimes - there are times when the Doctor can't intervene to save everyone - but when it happens because, to our surprise, everything we've just heard has been invalidated, it can inadvertently be frustrating.

To get the other major problem with The Last out of the way: the behaviour of the Doctor seems oddly out of character for much of the story; he seems willing at one point to let Charley and C'rizz die on the planet out of spite in order to punish a war criminal, reacts with glib jokes when he discovers that the character of Vos has died, and when he eventually discovers that he must kill himself for a chance to save everyone, he does it with an "Ah, what the hell?" Paul McGann makes most moments like these credible enough, but they just don't feel like the Doctor we know.

These problems aside, The Last also has a very great deal to recommend it. One of the most immediately noticeable is that Gary Hopkins has a great ear for dialogue and that works wonders. The Last is filled with excellent scenes between believable characters that all compell one to keep listening. It's long as Big Finish stories go, but it never feels that way since no scene loses interest. This also contributes to a unique and impressive grim atmosphere that pervades The Last. Not only are we presented with a very well-imagined and well-realized picture of a post-apocalyptic world destroyed by war and in its nuclear winter, but we can really feel the desolation that results from a situation like that.

Hopkins gives us only a few surviving characters, and most of them poignantly and (intentionally) infuriatingly embody the kind of pettiness that brings people from irrelevant squabbles to the kind of vast destruction that here has ended the world. The Empress Excelsior is very well characterized as half-mad, barely capable of recognizing the destruction that has been done, and obsessed with her gown for the upcoming Victory Parade that with bitter irony she expects to happen. It comes across as grimly comic, and would be close to being unbelievable if it were not so close to how we are used to seeing real-world dictators behave.

The dangers that face the protagonists here are not supernatural and abstract, but all the more threatening for being physical and real: things like spinal damage and paralysis, flooding, exposure to cold, and the threat of murder. That's a very effective move - and it means when further supernatural elements are introduced in the form of the "ghosts" that C'rizz is seeing, their power as disturbing anomalies is increased since they have encroached on a context with realistic expectations. It's unfortunate that after this mystery is so well grounded, its explanation does not live up to expectations.

There are also some very dramatic and affecting scenes here, handled very well. The Doctor and Charley's scenes after she has come to believe she will be paralyzed for life are powerful, as are the scenes after a couple of important deaths that occur later; these are essentially worth the price of admission even if their causes are invalidated later in the story.

The idea of a "war to end all wars" is a disturbing and powerful concept, and this story brings it to life, with "preemption" from a mad leader (hints of some topical satire?) bringing out what is declared as peace due to nobody being left to fight the war. All told, The Last is still gripping and memorable, but wrapped up in a way that is insufficiently satisfying.