Not for nothing, but you have to give Big Finish massive kudos for some of their stories. The advantage of being in a different universe means they have the freedom of playing with the logic of the land. Add to that, the very format is different to televised episodes which can give them the ingredients for some outstanding storytelling. The Last is just another example of how to pull the wool over the… ears… of the listener.
The Doctor is prevented access to the latest zone just long enough to meet with Katarina and Adric, two companions that died in his company. This ghostly encounter will weigh heavily on his mind and the story at hand. When Charley, C’rizz, and the Doctor do get together in the new zone, they find themselves in a nuclear winter. The land is scarred and the people are nearly all dead. The handful of survivors we meet are morally ambiguous at best, and utterly mad at worst. The real villain is a deluded monarch named “Excelsior” who is more concerned with her make-up than her people.
Most of the story is heavy on talk. It’s a morality story largely looking at the negatives of war, the troubles of depleting a planets resources and a possible take on the afterlife. Through that, there are some gross inconsistencies that should derail my enjoyment of the story. Charley, for instance, will freak-the-hell-out if she can’t see the Doctor or get an instant reply from him when she calls out “doctorDOCTOR” just an episode or two back, but in this she breaks her back and is paralyzed and takes that as casually as turning down the after-dinner mints from Olive Garden. C’Rizz is pretty convinced he has friends with him but no one can see them and he’s instantly of the mindset that everyone else is nuts. I wanted to better understand the room he was supposedly standing in where he thought 50 people could fit to begin with! Speaking of C’rizz, when he finds Charley with her back broken under the rubble of a collapsed building, he goes off instead of trying to figure out where the Doctor is buried!
On the other hand, I do like that Charley is good with Excelsior, playing to her warped mindset. I also like that she doesn’t know what a nuclear bomb is, considering when she was born before going off with the Doctor. And the old adage, “the end of one journey is the beginning of another” seems to be at the heart of the story, giving us the thing I liked most. In fact, I liked it so much that the previous inconsistencies melted away. See, this is a “crucible world”, as the Doctor calls it. I think it can be viewed not unlike a video game: there are challenges to go through and the Doctor and his friends are forced to go through each. When Charley is murdered by Excelsior, I was convinced of the video game setting of the adventure, but figured the solution would be the Doctor overthrowing the simulation. Then C’rizz joins the ranks of the dead, and I began wondering about what was happening.
Like The Natural History of Fear, spoilers follow. [As with any televised adventure, I always recommend actually watching the story (listening in this case) because it really is the journey that makes the story, but I do realize that’s a commitment that not everyone can make.] When the Doctor has a choice to detonate a nuke which will kill him as well, I hardly expected his reply to be “oh, what the hell”. To discover that he then emerges from the interzone, rehashing the very start of the adventure, I was stunned. But unlike the last time, the Doctor arrives at a time when Excelsior is actually addressing her people. The world is beautiful and populated. And as a gamer, I was put in mind of a video game even more. I’ve played enough RPGs to know that I can play through a game and have an entirely different experience from another player. All that did was made me more intrigued by where the Doctor and his friends really were. But it also made me ponder the nature of life and death, which is far more than I bargained for. I’ve often pondered the idea of life being a simulation and if it is, what happens when we die? Do we snap back to the start of our own adventures, always reliving the same life, but able to make different choices over and over again? Is that what happens to the Doctor? Who knew I’d be in for some ontological musings?!
I’ve already said that these stories go the range: some are pretty average, but some try things we’ve never been able to pull off on tv and they excel well past any expectation. The fact that these are audio-only actually helps because there’s no limit to the budget. When the sound design is so good, that further helps the story along. And I will say: the sound design was excellent with this story! There’s a simple musical cue that creates an air of unease throughout the adventure. This is a dangerous one for our friends. So dangerous in fact that none of them get out alive. Which is indeed rather novel. But what will it mean as the Doctor continues on in the Divergent universe? I guess there’s only one way to find out! ML
Big Finish finding ways for the Doctor to meet Katarina and Adric again could imaginably be no surprise. Coupled with today’s progressing notions that life itself as we know it could be a simulation with some sort of reset system, this indeed benefits the most flexible sci-fi dramas on life and death in the Whoniverse. What we have been conditioned to accept about life and death has consequently encouraged our needs to challenge all our forced realities. It’s good to know that Doctor Who can still be most serious on such subjects. Thanks, ML, for your review.
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