The Last Day At Work is the 2018 winner of the Paul Spragg Memorial Short Trips Opportunity – a contest in which Big Finish, one of the homes of audio Doctor Who, throws open its doors to potential writers. Short story ideas are submitted in profusion, sifted, and eventually, one is chosen and honed and recorded. Congratulations are due then to Harry Draper, who wrote this piece, even for getting to the stage of having it made.
Pleasingly though, congratulations would be due to Harry Draper had he already been on the roster of regular Big Finish writers, because this Short Trip combines atmosphere, characterisation and a heartbreaking plot which, despite never having been a part of the Doctor Who mythos before Draper took to his computer, nevertheless feels like it solves a longstanding riddle of early Doctor Who. It feels right, and true, and in keeping both with the history of the show itself, and with the tradition of the Short Trips range for taking small moments and exploring them, letting them hit above their initial apparent weight.
The story plays a little on the very earliest shots in the show’s history, of a policeman walking through the fog, seeing the junkyard at Totter’s Lane and moving on, while we the audience miraculously go through its doors and discover a police box with an odd, machine-like hum of power. The ideas are connected – Policeman, police box – they go together, or at least they did when the show first aired in 1963.
But this is not a First Doctor story. It brings the Second Doctor and Jamie back to London just a few years on from the moment when the irascible old white-haired Time Lord kidnapped his granddaughter’s schoolteachers and whisked them off into time and space. We know from the likes of Remembrance of the Daleks that that moment, while the Doctor was still unable to adequately pilot his ship, had consequences that would need clearing up and sorting out. The Last Day At Work weaves its story around the same moment, and brings new consequences for the Second Doctor to deal with.
PC Bernard Whittam is retiring from the Force, having a farewell drinks do with his friends at a local pub, and hoping to buck up the courage to ask out a woman he likes.
Then the Second Doctor and Jamie gatecrash his party, upsetting everyone with questions, with dark expressions and with an occasional ‘Oh dear…’
Because there’s something about Constable Whittam that none of his friends know. He is haunted by a sound. A wheezing, groaning sound that forced its way into his head one day in Totter’s Lane…
There’s a sense of potential danger in Whittam, but more than that, the sense of the Doctor and he being on different pathways to the same inevitable, terrible conclusion is palpable in the story from the moment the Doctor and Jamie crash his party. In the way the story is written and constructed, in Nick Briggs’ measured, step-by-step, wait-for-it reading, and in the sound design of the background elements that add a heaviness and a sprinkle of drizzling tension to the piece, there’s a sense that the Second Doctor, warm and friendly as he usually is, must bring his adamantine will to bear on the situation. And that perhaps not everyone will survive the night.
When the Doctor is finally able to diagnose Bernard, and understand why he is continually haunted by the sound of the Tardis dematerializing, it will hit you like a hammer blow of sadness and shock. Remember the emotions that went through you when Donna Noble had to be robbed of all her memories – and then go further. The Second Doctor, for all he’s remembered as the cosmic hobo, had something unbreakable in his core, a sense of implacable understanding of what had to be done. Harry Draper brings that out in the ending of his story, while never making the Second Doctor seem heartless – at least not to us the listener. To Jamie, perhaps, who’s an inveterate believer in lost causes, happy endings, and good people being allowed to be good indefinitely. But to we who listen to it with a more divorced, historical view of time, space and people, it’s the Doctor doing what the Doctor must, in spite of the sadness and the burden of his actions.
The Last Day At Work is tender, realistic, frightening, gulping and sad, with a haze of something wonderful around it. It’s like life, and death, and the unlooked-for moment when one becomes the other. The absurd, practically criminal good fortune of it is that it’s also completely free to download. So go – act freely, and download it now. We never met Paul Spragg, sadly, but if stories of this calibre continue to be created through the opportunity to which he gave his name, they can stand as marks of respect that add lustre to his name, and as achievements of which those who knew him at Big Finish can be proud. Tony Fyler