Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Following Takes Place Between "Spearhead from Space" and "Inferno"

Librarian in the TARDIS, Review 3.02

Title: The Last Post
Written by: James Goss
Team TARDIS: Third Doctor, Liz Shaw, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart
Adversary: Daniel Prestaigne, The Apocalypse Clock
Release Date: October 2012
Range and Number: Companion Chronicles 7.04

Synopsis (from TARDIS Wikia) -
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.

My Review:
One of the most grievous errors that gets made in assessing the Doctor's various companions is the short shrift given to Dr. Elizabeth Shaw.  Yes, she was only there the one season. No, she never traveled in the TARDIS (thanks either to Time Lord exile or BBC budgetary issues - take your pick).  But she is one of my favorites and no discussion of the Pertwee era would be complete without remarking on her additions to the show.

Something I hadn't known until very recently was how close Doctor Who was to being canceled in 1970.  On the "Spearhead from Space" DVD, there's a documentary about this transition period for the show and they discussed how most of the BBC brass figured that Doctor Who had a good run, but six years was good enough for any show and it was time for something completely new.  But they didn't have anything in mind, so they granted Doctor Who a one-year reprieve until they could decide what to fill the slot with.  In many ways, Doctor Who gave the BBC a completely brand new show within the old one - the Doctor was stranded on Earth, UNIT became a permanent fixture, and it was in color!  And the companion? Well, the companion wasn't going to be a traditional companion.  At least, not that you could compare to what had come before (though I'm going to try to).

Liz Shaw is the scientific advisor for UNIT (at least, she is until the Doctor comes in).  She isn't this wide-eyed kid that the Doctor charms with promises of adventures in time and space because, well, he doesn't have that to offer anymore.  Liz is a very competent career woman with her own objectives and goals and scientific achievements.  Furthermore, she doesn't take crap from anybody, not even the Doctor.  She does come to trust him, however, especially in instances where she is waaaaay out of her depth (to be fair - everybody's out of their depth when shop-window dummies start attacking people or when the Silurians come out to play).  Liz is the type of companion the show hadn't seen... probably since Barbara Wright - a mature, adult woman who's got her life pretty well in order and doesn't want to do anything to upset that, but all that gets knocked askew when the Doctor comes into the picture (though obviously, Liz's experiences are drastically different than Barbara's - but the basis for both characters is remarkably similar).

Doctor Who is at its best when change is in the air.  The most obvious types of change are changes in the Doctor or companions, but that could also mean change in producers or storytelling techniques or episode format or villains.  I contend that, outside of the 2005 revival, the 1970 season was the time that Doctor Who experienced the most change.  Everything was brand new - even the adversaries (Daleks or Cybermen  never even came up, nor did any references to past companions).  It is against this backdrop "The Last Post" is set.

(Ha. Wondered how I was going to transition, didn't you?)

"The Last Post" starts out with Liz having lunch with her mother, Emily.  Right off the bat, Liz Shaw is getting the kind of treatment that I imagine she would had she been around for more than one season.  Emily Shaw (played by Rowena Cooper) is as different from her scientifically-minded daughter as it is possible to be - Dame Emily (as other characters refer to her as, and it fits perfectly) is an expert in medieval belief systems at Oxford and she doesn't give a whit about science and would much rather discuss art, poetry, mythology and superstition.  It would be so easy to say that Liz and her mother don't get along based on their different academic pursuits - but it's the exact opposite!  Emily is very proud of her daughter, even though Liz diverged from the family tradition of the arts (I call it a "family tradition" because Liz's sister, Lucy, is an architect and it's implied that most of the family has gone into artistic fields).  And Liz actually goes to her mother for help in solving a problem that seems to have its roots in the supernatural.

This story takes the idea that all the strange deaths that happened in Season 7 were loosely connected, in that the people who died were sent letters telling them the date and time they would meet their end.  I'm not as well-versed in Season 7 as I'd like to be, but in the interview included at the end of this audio, writer James Goss said that there were so many government officials who died in Season 7 of really bizarre causes and he wondered if maybe there was a reason for all of that.  The story as a whole takes place throughout the events of Season 7 and there are plenty of fun little mentions of the stories from that season (alien plastic, lizard men, missing astronauts - just to name a few).  Turns out that these officials were all on a committee to predict life expectancy - but they ended up dependent on a machine that could ultimately predict the end of the world (a machine, interestingly enough, that has its roots in WOTAN from "The War Machines" - there are some nice little nods to that story as well).

The framing device in this story - as with all the Companion Chronicles I've reviews thus far; I'm beginning to think this is a trend - is really clever.  The first scene in the story has Liz and her mother in the same place talking to each other, just to establish the characters' relationship.  But from there on out, the narrative takes the form of letters and phone calls between Liz and Emily.  That framework gives the story room and time to take place over the course of a full season (how long that is in real time, who really has a clue?) and it also gives Emily's character time to grow and the listener to become familiar with her.  After all, as a companion's mother she should be a very sympathetic individual.

I have to give some mention to the Brigadier. He is simply delightful in this - even through Liz’s POV. When Liz says “The world is ending,” the Brigadier replies “Does the Doctor say so?” (the Doctor’s been knocked out by a sting from an alien scorpion thing, but he’s okay). I loved this because even though the Doctor and the Brigadier disagree on various things and bicker from time to time, he still trusts the Doctor.  It's just fun to still have the Brig around in Big Finish, even though Nicholas Courtney has passed.

There are some particular lines in this story that I just love.  Liz is usually seen as a straight-laced, mature, responsible person - which she is.  But she also has a bit of a snarky side and Goss gave her some great dialogue to work with (and I have to point out that Caroline John still sounds like Liz Shaw from 1970 - I could easily imagine Liz as she was on TV in this story).  Some of my favorites:

- "The Brigadier even reads neatly." (Caroline John's impression of the Brigadier is just lovely).

- (Speaking about Prestaigne): "If the Doctor were here, he'd break out the Venusian Akido. I just wanted to kick him in the shins."

- (Speaking about the Doctor): "The first time he came to UNIT he looked like a geography teacher."

This one isn't Liz's, but it's good anyway -

The Apocalypse Clock: "Doctor who? He is required" (cute little nod to "The War Machines")

A few words on the interview included on the audio: as I listened to the interview, I felt incredibly sad. Mostly because Caroline John passed away a few months after recording this, but also because she, Rowena Cooper and the production team all talk like there will be more Big Finish stories with Liz and her mother. The idea sounds incredible because Liz and Emily are such great characters. Even though they’re both very different - Liz is a scientist and Emily is into the arts - there’s still a lot of love between this mother and daughter combination. You don’t often get that - usually when there’s a parent-child dichotomy, they end up fighting at some point. While Liz and Emily do have their moments of being annoyed with each other, it never becomes heated or angry. There’s always a softer element of love and admiration between the two - a definite family bond that would have been lovely to see again.

When I heard about the passing of Caroline John last summer, there was a great sadness.  I really liked Liz as a companion and she's one of those people that I would love to have met at a convention and just be able to say how much I enjoy her performance in Doctor Who (along with Jacqueline Hill and Michael Craze and Mary Tamm and Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen - yeah, pretty much everyone ever).  But I am grateful for the stories she did leave us with and that we all get to keep Liz Shaw with us as long as we want to.  With that in mind, I'd like to end this review with Babelcolour's tribute to Dr. Elizabeth Shaw -

*I owe a debt in part to io9's lovely article they posted soon after Caroline John's passing asserting how the character of Liz Shaw helped saved Doctor Who in 1970.  It's a wonderful little read, so go check it out.

Next Time, on Librarian in the TARDIS -
Review 3.03 - Oh, were you using this planet? My bad...

Previously -
Review 3.01 - Those Best Suited to Rule

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