By Nicholas Briggs
Released 31 January 2012
“Have you ever been stuck in Gloucester during a heavy rain?… Worse than that.”
Tom Baker, the man who served the longest time as the lead in Doctor Who, has returned to the role that made him a household name.
Following his departure from the scarf and floppy hat that he donned on televised adventures for seven years running, he has had his share of controversy in regards to a reunion with his fellow Time Lords. Part of this may be that it was the single greatest role of his career and he had not planned on that being the case. It should have been a stepping stone, not a tomb stone. While Baker had received several offers during his time as the Doctor, after he left, all of them dried up. Somewhat dejected, he refused to take part in the 1983 story, The Five Doctors. He did appear in a cameo for the 30th Anniversary debacle, Dimensions in Time, but he had made it plain that he was very particular about how he would take up the mantle of Who again.
He recorded three series of audio adventures penned by Paul Magrs which were far and away more eccentric and bizarre than anything that he had done on TV. It seemed that if he were to become Doctor Who again, he was not interested in continuing down the path laid out for him in the 1970′s, which is understandable but difficult for fandom to understand. Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann each have taken great divergences from their on screen performances when recording an audio adventure, but in Tom Baker’s case, it was just so very different.
The story goes that he openly criticized the scripts sent to him by Big Finish when he was asked to take part in the audio revival, so one would expect that Destination Nerva would be very special indeed.
His arrival in a new series of stories dubbed to be set just after The Talons of Weng Chiang is an incredibly weird decision. If anything, it detracts from the enjoyment of Destination Nerva and I consider it a mistake. This is not, as the advert tells us, a return to Saturday teatime 1977. It’s a different persona and attitude and that takes getting used to.
Leaving Professor Lightfoot and Henry Jago on the foggy streets of London, the Doctor and Leela arrive in the aftermath of a violent battle between a British regiment and strange alien beings set inside a manor house. The only survivor gives the travelers very little to go on and even the listener is lost in a sea of explosions and mise-en-scène dialog. The idea put forth by writer/producer Nicholas Briggs was to start right off with action which again I think was a mistake. An alien spacecraft takes off, destroying the manor house. The TARDIS takes flight after it and arrives instead aboard a vessel bearing workmen bound for Space Station Nerva, several hundred years later.
Inside the space station, nothing is working correctly and the staff are struggling to keep systems operational with little success. A charismatic stranger arrives and starts to spread a deadly infection, threatening to take over the entire station and then… much more. The stranger is Lord Jack, the same man who slaughtered several aliens and stole a spacecraft in 1895. His intentions are unclear at first, but he is obviously up to no good.
The Doctor and Leela have to not only earn the trust of the station staff and quickly find a solution to the dilemma, but also uncover the mystery of the spacecraft in the 18th Century manor house and just how Lord Jack has survived for hundreds of years in deep space, expanding the British Empire to alien worlds through brutality and cruelty.
Until mid-way through the second act, I had little to no idea what was going on.
The infection spread into a massive epidermis, invading the inner workings of the space station as well as the exterior. A horrifying mental image, it also elicits a fearful response from the listener as it is spread by contact and the creature itself is fast becoming impossible to avoid. The Doctor, Leela and ship doctor Alison Foster are taken aboard an alien vessel and informed that the virus is a weapon. The aliens are determined to have revenge on Lord Jack for his past crimes, deeds that the entire human race will pay for once the virus reaches Earth.
Once I did understand the plot, I enjoyed it much more. The infecting ‘flesh monster’ was a suitably eerie and discomforting threat and the Victorian madman a formidable villain. But why was it set on Nerva at all? And what were the aliens all about? The two part format left the entire affair feeling a bit on the short side, yet as it was there was far too much unneeded material on the space station. In short, this one needed more development time.
"It's Saturday evening teatime in 1977... all over again."
As a script, Destination Nerva has some very clever notions about colonialism and a very unique approach to the human race’s reaction to alien contact. But it is very heavy handed and mired in sub plots that pull from the stories strengths. The cast is quite strong (if over the top in parts, but perhaps that was to recapture a 1970′s Who mystique?) and the audio landscape is lush, but… it never really comes together.
I did enjoy the Dudley Simpson-esque musical tracks, but this too placed far too much attention on the just how different Tom Baker was to his 1977 self.
It’s a shame that the plot of a frustrated Victorian Lord leading a campaign across the stars, a colorful idea, received little more than an off-screen sequence. The idea doesn’t get enough space to really come through on its own and ends up feeling far more like a paper-thinly-veiled political statement.
The return of Tom Baker is an odd one and something that will take getting used to. Just as the Fifth Doctor in the audios is far wittier and possesses sharper intelligence, this version of the Fourth Doctor is much more eccentric and irascible. It should come as no surprise that these characteristics are present in Tom Baker of the 21st Century as he has openly stated his version of the Doctor is mainly an expression of himself and he has changed. The line delivery is off, the tempo and meter out of rhythm, which is disconcerting given the whiskey-fueled lyrical quality of his televised persona.
Louise Jameson is of course superb as Leela and delivers her lines with the same other-worldly warrior quality that we all know and love. She has had much more experience with Big Finish and it shows, but she and Tom are also getting along far better this time around, which is nice. The characters of Leela and the Doctor spark off of each other splendidly to the ear which is a great strength that will serve this new series well.
In short, if you are looking forward to closing your eyes and imaging Tom Baker from 1976 when listening to Destination Nerva I think you will be sorely disappointed. That said, it is the first step in a new journey and I have heard that the second story The Renaissance Man is a vast improvement.
Doctor Who Destination Nerva can be ordered directly from Big Finish and local retailers such as Mike’s Comics.