by John Brunner
Adapted by Jeremy Paul
My word the colours! The familiar title sequence takes on a new improved look as the third series moves into colour, becoming slightly reminiscent of The Tomorrow People opening even if the elements remain the same. Behind the scenes series three saw a gradual change of its production team. The series’ creator Irene Shubik moved on to co-produce the prestigious The Wednesday Play, but not before conscientiously commissioning a full season of scripts, before handing over to producer Alan Bromly and script editor Roger Parkes. So this third series still carries her imprint. It’s sad that this episode is the only complete surviving one of the season. John Brunner, British SF author of season one’s Some Lapse of Time supplies the story once more.
In the near future scientists have invented “contacting”, a way for the mind to live on after death by jumping into and sharing the brain of a volunteer. A year ago a new government was elected on the policy of a nationwide Contact scheme. But what about the man with no family or friends? How will he survive a fatal accident? Well-meaning James Hale meets such an unfortunate called Patrick Wilson, who persuades him to become his temporary “contact” until he can fix himself up with a friend. Too late James realises that Patrick is an unstable, paranoid wastrel, but before he can get the procedure reversed, the desperate man kills himself to ensure he stays in James’ brain. Now James and his wife Rowena must struggle with Patrick’s unpleasant and increasingly controlling identity.
The big problem with this story is that the scenario seems too contrived and unlikely. Not so much the mind transference itself, but the idea that the government, media, other institutions and just people themselves would not foresee many of the problems with the concept before implementing it. Different sexes sharing a body, different personalities, the number of minds jumping into further bodies increasing exponentially are just the starting issues. Even given people’s fear of death, it seems extraordinary that a nationwide system would be installed with so few safeguards. James and Patrick turn up at the clinic clearly drunk, but are processed with barely any checks as far as I could see. At the moment of death, when a person has multiple contact partners, there is no explanation about how they choose which one to be transplanted into. There are so many dangling loose ends in the idea it becomes quite distracting. At one point James and Rowena go to see a “pre-Contact” war film at the cinema, where the majority of the audience laugh uproariously at the sight of soldiers being mowed down by machine guns. If this story was set a few generations after Contact it might make sense, but just a few years later, it seems unrealistic that public attitudes would change so quickly. It is an unbelievable and clumsy way of indicating that life is cheaper now there is a guaranteed afterlife.
Another big hurdle is that it is hard to believe James actually allows himself to be linked to Patrick when latter behaves like an utter knob from the moment he appears. I haven’t read the original story and it could be there is more justification there. But on-screen the only charitable explanation is that James is both weak-willed and amazingly naive. Patrick comes into the the bar drunk, harasses a woman, nearly gets in a fight with her partner and then starts drinking heavily whilst whining a lot of self-pitying bile. As if that was not enough of a clue he is dangerous, whilst they are waiting for the operation he leeringly menaces the young girl next to him and blatantly lies to her boyfriend. Peter Halliday’s performance hasn’t a shred of charm in it, he plays Patrick as a creep. It would have been better if he had begun more reasonable and then really started to unwind the next day.
Despite this problem with his motivation, George Cole is excellent. His handles the personality transformation excellently, cleverly changing his body language and style of speech, then pulling back into moments of cold clarity. Especially noteworthy is the actual moment of the transference. There’s no effects, just Cole accurately describing a room he has never entered in a horrified voice, and it’s the highlight of the episode.
One of Doctor Who‘s most cherished directors Douglas Camfield directs, and once again shows he is the master of pace. Despite being a fairly dialogue heavy story set in a handful of mundane locations, the episode flies along and unusually feels shorter than its fifty minutes. The Last Lonely Man is entertaining to watch thanks him and his cast, but the sheer level of contrivance and coincidence leaves this instalment rather hollow.