Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 062. The Last by Gary Hopkins (October 2004)

The Last begins as it means to go on: barely seven minutes in, McGann’s Doctor is confronted with spectres of two deceased companions, Katerina and Adric, and all the attendant awful memories. Even if it’s a touch too continuity-focused, this moment instantly sets the tone, signals that we are dealing with a story of sacrifice, of death. It serves as a great entrance for the Kro’ka, too – and the scenes between McGann and Perring are good as ever. In a neat thematic follow-on from Faith Stealer, the Doctor is still wracked with guilt and pain, consumed by doubt, infuriated by the Kro’ka’s game-playing (though it’d be nice to learn a little more about him, we’ve had enough teases now!). Charley goes through quite a lot here, injured on Bortresoye’s unsafe surface, paralysed from the neck down; she takes it rather well, with a kind of realist pragmatism, accepting that there’s not much anyone can do. Similarly, she takes a harder line than the Doctor when it comes to telling Excelsior the truth about the surface.

Once more, C’rizz spends quite a bit of the story separated from the Doctor and Charley, though he’s still protective of both (and gives Charley a lovely speech in Part Three about how much they’re going to look after her, a scene which turns on a dime when she asks if he’d be willing to kill her to save the others). He is able to sympathise with the nuclear survivor Requiem as he reminisces about the Kromon’s attack on his own zone, and shows him the moonstone his father gave him as a wedding gift, getting some touching lines about keeping his family alive through recollection. He gets a very good arc here, able to interact with the “survivors” where the others are not, impassioned by their cause, driven to rash, violent actions in the name of justice, only to learn they’re all dead. His anguished “NO!” when he finds Charley is dead is probably his best moment yet. He takes it pretty hard, particularly in the light of his lover’s recent death.

A post-apocalypse world makes for an effective contrast with the relatively jolly Multihaven, and the sound production on this one is unnerving and bleak, constant nuclear winds and whispery, evocative echoes, punctuated by a very good score. Even Excelsior’s proud fanfare is followed by an undercurrent of swirling mood music. Gary Hopkins gives us a vivid setting: “it must have been a city, once, not so long ago judging by the rubble. Weeks, maybe days. Nature hasn’t gotten round to reclaiming it yet.” The acid rain burning into C’rizz’s flesh and the subsequent streaming river of acid are two other effective sequences. And now the world is as dead as it can possibly be, all this because of governmental rivalry and warmongering; a world haunted by countless “restless souls” following a brutal holocaust (as the Doctor puts it in Listen, “that’s a hell of a lot of ghosts”). A world without reproduction or different generations or evolution. It’s about as bleak as Doctor Who gets.

And in the middle of all this: a brilliantly chosen villain name ­– excelsior, higher, loftier, ever more upwards, how ironic for someone we first meet her practising her triumphant speech in an underground bunker. Carolyn Jones gives a truly fantastic performance, glorying in her appearance, hyperactive, self-obsessed, arrogant, entitled, with all the presence of a Macbeth or a Stalin or any other authoritarian. Just listen to her sycophantic, oleaginous toadies stuttering out their words, petrified in her presence – always a great way to show us how reliably unpredictable a ruler can be. Or her casual execution of a make-up assistant, but equally her care that his skin is retained for future use – she’s malicious, efficient and not at all wasteful. Or the way you slowly realises she knows far more than she’s letting on in her terrifying scenes with Charley. The Doctor thinks she’s “the most amoral individual I’ve ever had the displeasure to meet”, and I’m inclined to agree. By God, I was happy when she met her sticky end, suffering one last delusion as she sees a victory parade where there are only volcanic eruptions.

Voss and Tralfinial being unable to admit the nuclear winter to their leader is a great scene, and reminds me of the similar great sequences in The Enemy of the World. Excelsior remains buried underground, completely oblivious as to the truth of the real world, completely lacking in perspective, wrapped up only in a circle of advice from Ministers for War and Peace, constantly addressing each other as “Right Honourable Gentlemen” like members of the House of Commons. Each of the four parts opens with her repeating the speech to herself, as though her edits reverberate emptily in her brain over and over, even as the voices of the dead whisper all around her. Yep, we’re hitting the theme of endless, self-made prisons again, prisons which hide the characters from the real awfulness of the truth (“emerging at last into the light, the searing, blinding, terrible light”) – but what this does is to brilliantly allow Hopkins to make the story intimate and vast at the same time. There is colossal fallout for a few scattered, desperate characters, building in vastness as the canvas pans up to the huge rocket (Utopia, eh?) and indeed there’s something slightly tragi-comic about all their bleakness, as Excelsior practises all her grandiloquent speeches to an empty bunker, ready to see her people (there’s a nice thing on here on the four classical elements – Fire, Air, Water and Earth. The Fire of nuclear war has poisoned Air and Water; only Mother Earth will swallow up its puny inhabitants and keep them safe. Humans are very much at the planet’s mercy, and this makes The Last, with all its apocalyptic imagery, its look at faith, and Excelsior playing God, an apt thematic pair for Faith Stealer’s more light-hearted take on religion).

One of the elements Hopkins throws into the mix is a take on the Gaia hypothesis, posited by James Lovelock in the 1970s: the notion of individual organisms contributing to a vast, self-regulating system and hence granting life to other organisms (named for a Greek goddess, as these things tend to be): “such power…a power which is within all living things. To be truly at one with nature – think of it: powerful, ethereal, elemental!” In this story, though, it’s the planet itself that rules. One thing that was bugging me throughout the story was Landscar’s enigmatic role and rather sudden removal from the action, and his return in the final act was very satisfying. I would never have expected the planet itself would have dragged the nuclear warhead back onto its surface, in order to fulfil “the cycle of life and death, without which the planet cannot purify itself”, nor that he was the planet’s avatar.

How you feel about The Last will depend very much on your view on “reset” endings, and as a rule mine is rather mixed. Some work well, particularly if the events still happened in the memories of those who experienced them, making the erased events emotionally if not technically real (see: The Big Bang and, controversially, Last of the Time Lords); those that feel like emotional or intellectual cheats do not (Annabelle the daughter being returned in In the Forest of the Night). From the moment Part Three ended, and Charley was definitively “dead”, I knew there’d be some kind of pulling the rug under my feet – but I couldn’t know what or how. Suffice to say I think this one is an absolutely exemplary bit of plotting: it kept me guessing throughout, and gave me a double-punch surprise when C’rizz bites the dust too. But brilliantly, the fulfilment of the planet Bortresoye’s cycle, on which all the other zones reside, actually allows all the other Divergent Universe stories up to this point to make *more* sense than they already did – and the recommencement of the cycle, which brings everything back, is so in keeping with not just this story’s themes, but the themes of two entire seasons, that I absolutely forgive Hopkins for using this old get-out clause. Like in Jubilee, it’s heartbreaking to hear the celebration of everlasting peace with our knowledge that everything will begin all over again.

Not for those who like their Doctor Who light and witty (the Doctor commits suicide, for goodness’ sake!), The Last is very intelligent science-fiction, extremely well-plotted, which both works as a completely standalone radio play and as an ongoing development of the Eighth Doctor, Charley and C’rizz within the Divergent Universe arc. It’s a mature, powerful exploration of the lies we tell ourselves, the prisons within which we trap ourselves, told in a way only Doctor Who can manage. I, for one, hope Gary Hopkins returns for more. This is excellent.

Other things:
“Life. Death. What’s the difference?”
“It’s all a question of faith. Life and death, Doctor. The end of one journey is the beginning of one another, the beginning of another, the beginning of another…”
It’s a tiny little detail, but I like that Charley and C’rizz took turns to shelter from the wind and stay on look-out to see if the Doctor was OK. In fact, their banter with one another seems more relaxed and easy-going than in earlier stories – nice to see their relationship develop a bit.
“A nuclear bomb. An explosive device which taps into the energy source of the planet itself, which can transmute steel and concrete into glass and wipe out whole civilisations at a single stroke.”
“Have I ever let you down? Don’t answer that” must be one of the most over-used lines in fiction.
“All hope abandon ye who enter here,” the Doctor mutters to himself: the inscription over the Gate to Hell in Dante’s Inferno.
“This is a nuclear winter, C’rizz – the unnatural by-product of a man-made cataclysm. It could last for decades, centuries. It may never end. So if you’re thinking of sitting it out, you may as well make yourself comfortable.”
Requiem is another evocative, melancholic name: the mass for the dead.
“Haven’t you known me long enough? Nothing is beyond repair.”
“You have to believe that you’re going to get better, that the feeling in the rest of your body will return!”/“Oh, that I’ll pick up my bed and walk? Doctor, for all your amazing skills and talents, you can’t perform miracles. There’s a limit to what you or anyone can do.”
“We’ve always been at war. Throughout history, each successive government has tried to negotiate a lasting peace, only to end up causing another war. Little by little we have been brought to our knees.”
The characterisation of the mysterious Landscar, the selfish Voss and the cowardly Tralfinial works well, and the subtle distinctions between them are effective; they each have their own worries, plans and secrets – but Jane Hills gives a rather mediocre performance as the under-written nurse.
“Fine go ahead, what’s one more death when you’ve seen so many?!”
“It’s a way of dealing with the enormity of taking place – it’s easier to block it out, pretend it isn’t true.”
“There’s no one with you, C’rizz. You’re alone.” An odd but somehow gripping cliff-hanger.
“I think the Kro’ka does nothing more than light the touch-paper and retreat to a safe distance. I think he’s only the monkey. Somebody else is the organ-grinder.”
Of course you had a choice – and you made the wrong one! You chose to go to war! And in doing so transformed your planet into a lifeless rock hanging in space!”
I love Excelsior’s thought processes: you’re violent – you should be Minister for Peace!
“What happened when people died? How were their numbers replaced?”/“But they weren’t.” Massive chills.
“All living things must die. Otherwise the world will end…the end of one journey is the beginning of another.”
Charley: “There’s no place for God here.” Bleak, bleak, bleak.
Some great audio bomb-shell moments – Charley’s Ghost whispering “Doctor” just after we fear she’s died…
The Doctor is unusually grim here (upon learning of Voss’ death: “Well, that’ll make the seating plan a little bit easier.”)
“It’s a pity we don’t listen to our planet more and ourselves less.”
“First L’da, now Charley… it seems that life’s all about losing people.”/“Life is all about people, C’rizz. Finding them, losing them, family, friends, those we love. Knowing that we’ll lose them one day should help us to appreciate them more while they’re alive. Knowing that we won’t have a second chance, not unless there is life after death.”
“It’s a weakness of mine, collecting waifs and strays.”
“The Last has no choice but to return.”
“I don’t see why I have to justify my actions.”/“Hasn’t that been the problem all along?”
“That’s one of the disadvantages of being exoskeletal. All the bleeding is inside.”
“My only friends are dead, my TARDIS is missing, I’m trapped in a universe which bears no relation to my own…I’m not exactly glad to be alive at the moment! Death is becoming an attractive alternative!”
“If those who are granted custody of a planet fail in their duty to keep it safe, the planet must find another way to survive, even at the cost of every living thing. And once the Last living thing has died, only then can the cycle begin again.” A slight eco-warrior undertone?
“People will learn, little by light.”/“Or continue to die in the attempt.”
“Maybe I should think about a career in politics.”/“If I were you I’d go for something a bit less dangerous – alligator wrestling or bomb disposal.”
“This is one loop I don’t mind being left out of.”

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