December 29th, 2013


Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles 7.04 - The Last Post

Blurb: People are dying. Just a few, over a period of months... but the strange thing is that each person received a letter predicting the date and time of their death.

Throughout her time as the Doctor’s assistant, Liz Shaw has 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.

Format: Limited-cast audio drama, a Companion Chronicle from the point-of-view of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. Published by Big Finish Productions and released October of 2012.

Setting: Earth: London. UNIT dating makes the precise chronological placement of this story iffy but it's clearly during the Doctor's first year at UNIT, which I place in 1970. The story is narrated through a series of letters between Liz and her mother with the contents read by the writer.

Continuity: This story takes place between The Ambassadors of Death and Inferno although some of the earlier portions happen concurrently with Spearhead from Space and The Silurians. The Apocalypse Clock was said to have been salvaged from the components of a computer in the Post Office Tower, which is an obvious reference to WOTAN (see The War Machines). Liz says that the Doctor is the same man who got involved during the evacuation of London a few years back (see Web of Fear) and that he also helped during all the trouble with the transistor radios (see The Invasion). When Liz first meets with her moth at the beginning of the story she tells her that they're being invaded by living plastic creatures and her mother says that she's just seen the Madame Tussauds exhibit on civil servants (see Spearhead from Space). Liz checks that her mother has been taking the vaccine for the plague that went through London and it is revealed that both Dr Charles Lawrence and Edward Masters had received letters predicting the time of their death (see The Silurians). Liz's mother says that she saw her on TV behind John Wakefield on the coverage of the launch of Recovery 7 and it is revealed that Professor Bruno Taltalian and Sir James Quinlan were among those who received letters predicting the exact dates and times of their deaths (see The Ambassadors of Death). Several references are made to the Stahlman project with Sir Keith Gold stating that the project has thrown safety out the window to solve the energy crisis. The Doctor refers to Stahlman as "some damned fool who is trying to drill to the center of the Earth." The end of the story reveals that the computer at the Stahlman project was one of the ones connected to the Apocalypse Clock, so the Doctor and Liz depart to investigate (see Inferno). The Brigadier is preparing for the World Peace Conference and General Andrews was the governor of Stangmoor prison until the Apocalypse Clock forecast that he would contribute to the end of the world (see The Mind of Evil). Sir Reginald Styles is part of one of Dame Emily's committees (see Day of the Daleks). Daniel Prestaigne sold another one of his computers to Global Chemicals, a reference to BOSS (see The Green Death). Sir Charles Grover is also on some of Dame Emily's committees. Here he reveals to Liz the location of a government bunker that was supposed to be sealed years ago but contains the Apocalypse Clock (see Invasion of the Dinosaurs). It's mentioned at the end of the story that The Apocalypse Clock's last prediction was that the Doctor would be killed by spiders (see Planet of the Spiders).

Canonicity Quotient: The whole thing just about works, which is quite a feat to pull off when you're bringing together so many characters from so many different stories. Certainly it makes sense that Edward Masters, Sir James Quinlan, Sir Keith Gold, Sir Reginald Styles, and Sir Charles Grover might all know each other and have been involved in the same work at some point. There's even the connection between WOTAN and BOSS that I've always felt should be there. The two machines are far to similar in capabilities despite BOSS being far more eloquent of the two. Yet there also seems to be some stretching here. Sir Charles Grover already thinking that pollution was a problem? I buy it. Sir Keith Gold talking about the Stahlman project being a threat to the planet this early? That seems like far more of a stretch. I also find it hard to believe that if the Doctor is outside of the Apocalypse Clock's ability to prognosticate that the Master wouldn't be, yet changing the governor of Stangmoor prison adjusts the date of the prediction of the end of the world and the only reason that I can see for that is if the machine somehow predicted the Master's use of the Keller Machine there. I also really don't buy that Sir Charles Grover used the hidden bunker later used in Invasion of the Dinosaurs for Operation Golden Age as the home of the Apocalypse Clock. Even though Liz isn't in that later story, various UNIT troops must have been down to clean up the Apocalypse Clock so the existence of that location must have been known to the Brigadier at least, which is a direct contradiction to that later story. 0.80

Discussion: The Last Post is also the last story to feature Caroline John as Dr Elizabeth Shaw. She passed away six months after it was recorded. Liz Shaw is one of my favorite Dr Who companions. She's in a mould with Ian, Barbara, Sarah Jane, Romana, Grace, and to a lesser extent Nyssa and Zoe. I like the "professional" companion because I completely disagree with the idea that the companion must be a moron that constantly asks questions. Liz proved that you could have an incredibly smart companion and still inform the viewers about what's going on by her dialog with the Doctor. She could just phrase it in more clever ways than "but what is it Doctor?" I wish that sort of companion would appear more often in the series as I think that it's better when the companion can have disagreements with the Doctor and can hold their own as I prefer that more dynamic sort of relationship. Caroline John will be missed.

For American readers, in England the mail is referred to as "the post", so the "The Last Post" actually references the last piece of mail that you're going to receive. The general conceit that people get letters in the mail that tells them exactly when they are going to die is a really great story idea. I also adore the storytelling mostly through letters back and forth between Liz and her mother with only a few exchanges by phone and one in person. It gives us a very quick impression of her mother, Dame Emily, and we get a piece of their history together. There's a huge amount of verisimilitude in that writing. You instantly get that Dame Emily doesn't understand Liz very well. Liz is technical and Emily is in the arts, but she also has some respect for her daughter. You can also get where Liz's strength comes from. Dame Emily runs an all girls' college, has her own doctorate, and is a forthright and assertive woman. She's shocked when she thinks that Liz is the Doctor's assistant and tells her that she shouldn't be working under a man. We also get some nice insights by Liz in the Doctor. There's some real good bits in there like the Doctor looks like her uncle Bernard or anecdotes about how the Doctor would just take things from the UNIT stores and leave Liz to deal with the quartermaster. Liz mentions that you'd think that two scientific advisers would allow you to get things done in half the time but there's to much paperwork for that. I also like that Dame Emily chastises Liz for not telling her how charming the Doctor is and that she writes "whatsits" and tells Liz that "he didn't actually say whatsits I just stopped listening".

I must confess that I am a bit of a closet continuity hound. I bet that no one can tell by my continuity sections. So even though it gets a bit much in places, I must say that I grinned like an idiot through a great deal of this story. All the references to the various major characters from many of the Pertwee stories was well done. James Goss tried to explain why so many people acted paranoid in those early Pertwee stories and the idea of getting a letter in the mail telling you when you would die seems like a good explanation for it. It seemed a little contrived that all of these people were on the same committee but at the same time I can see it the other way. These are a lot of high ranking scientists and members of the government, so maybe its more likely to say that those in key positions of oversight of various matters and their technical experts were more likely to be called together into this committee, so I can see it from that point of view as well. I was quite happy with learning WOTAN's fate. It's one of those things that has been speculated on for years and linking it with BOSS has always been one of the things that I thought made absolute sense.

I think that Episode One was brilliant. It adequately set up the problem. As the letters progress you can tell that Dame Emily is involved somehow but its not until her next to last letter to Liz that you understand the full nature of her involvement. Then her last letter after she has received her own letter forecasting her death feels like a slow march to an inevitable event. It's a real gripping device as you wait to find out what will kill the woman and the cliffhanger where you just hear her scream is fantastic. Unfortunately, episode 2 was another complete let down. The Doctor shows up and the sonic screwdriver is able to keep Emily from having the brain embolism that she was due for. I wish that I was making that up but I wasn't. It turns out that the Apocalypse Clock doesn't just foretell futures it also has little metallic scorpions that it sends out that can alter probabilities to make your most likely cause of death happen. It's a somewhat interesting idea but seems way to far a leap in technology for 20th century Earth even beyond a computer that can try to forecast the future. Then you get Daniel Prestaigne as the inventor of the machine. He's portrayed as a pure mustache twirling villain, literally gloating at all the terror that he's wrought and given absolutely no motivation for it. It's like having an Ainley Master story and I even supposed that with the Doctor out of action they might be trying to pull off a Liz vs the Master story without the man ever being named. Yet in the end Prestaigne dies, so there isn't much that can be said there. I also thought that as an alien it might explain such advanced tech but no such luck. Somehow we're supposed to believe that this man was not only able to reverse engineer and improve upon WOTAN but also invent devices capable of altering probability and hacking into the TARDIS, a device which I doubt is connected to other computers by cable nor has wifi. It almost felt to me like this story needed 3 or 4 episodes and Goss ended up leaving his set up as-is and truncated his entire resolution into a single episode when he saw that he was over-running. I can't explain such a dichotomy between the two episodes any other way. Caroline John and Rowena Cooper still keep you entertained because the dialog from everyone other than Prestaigne remains really good but it's just the plot that kind of falls apart at the end.

I also think that there's a far greater flaw in this story. It seems to me that the setup doesn't make sense. I thought that we had a story where predictions were being made and we were going to discover that it was the act of predicting someone's death that set in place the chain of events that lead to that death. It's the idea that the oracle creates the future. Yet, here we have the Apocalypse Clock actually sending out little robots to actually do the killing after a fashion. If that's the case then how does the clock believe that it's just making predictions. Liz gets it to destroy itself by exactly that logic by revealing to it that it may in fact be the cause of the end of the world because it keeps on causing the problems, yet it must know what it's doing and knows that it's causing these futures so how is this a surprise. There are also some problems here with someone who obviously doesn't understand computers. A computer can predict but it would have data to show to supports its predictions. Humans may view the data and draw the wrong conclusions as to the true root cause of the end of the world but the clock shouldn't be able to say "well the world will end at X time but I can't tell you why". That's ridiculous. It would also know what was meant by "the end of the world". It would have to be defined somehow. Is the end of the world the destruction of humanity? Is it everyone on Earth being placed in suspended animation? Liz gets the machine to break apart once it realize that the time it would take to put all humanity in suspended animation would be equal to the date that it has forecasted for the end of the world. But it would have to know what it meant by the end of the world when it forecasted it so it should already know that this was the destiny to be avoided. It just seems like a real logical flaw at the heart of the story, leading me to suspect that this part may have been rewritten.

The other little nit that I have is the sound design. The sound given for the computer sounds mostly like some kind of assembly line with a lot of engine noises and the pounding of large machines. Then there's some very futuristic bloops and bleeps. It doesn't sound at all like a computer, if anything it sounds like some great engine. I imagine giant cogs and steam belching forth which is way less sophisticated than WOTAN from which this machine was meant to have been built. At the least they should have defaulted to those sorts of sounds or at least made them of computers of the 70's. That sound was just really goofy and had me chuckling more than anything to imagine this large steam powered computer (I know this is feasible but very impractical and like I said wouldn't make sense based on the technology that it was based upon).

Final Rating: 7/10

Recommendation: I can't help myself but I really like this story. Caroline John puts in a great performance as her swan song and Rowena Cooper is fantastic as the Dame Emily. I would not mind at all if she were to appear again in another story without Liz. The set up is fantastic and reminds you of the kinds of stories that you'd get in the super-spy espionage thrillers of the 70's. If you enjoy a continuity fest that's all on display here as well. Yes, the ending is a bit of a let down and the ending doesn't make much sense but I think that the general public will miss half of it and the performances should get you past the other half. I recommend listening to this one.