Destination Nerva

Doctor Who: Destination NervaShortly after leaving Victorian London, the Doctor and Leela ride the TARDIS to Victorian Kenton, where a fierce battle has left a manor house coated in the blood of men… and a dying alien who was their quarry. The alien failed to escape its hunters to return to its spacecraft, which has now been commandeered by a man named Lord Jack. The Doctor sets the TARDIS to follow the ship through time and space, and it arrives at the still-under-construction Nerva Dock in orbit of Jupiter, hundreds of years later. The crew, dealing with equipment failures and a shortage of manpower, fails to notice anything strange about a new arrival at Nerva until it’s too late. Simply by touch, the visitor can physically join with anyone, and he’s able to take control of Nerva’s flight deck in very short order, absorbing crew members and expanding his own skin to fill every available space. With Nerva’s commander and medical officer in tow, the Doctor and Leela race to the TARDIS, only to be cut off before they can reach it. That’s when the aliens whose technology has been used to take over Nerva arrive… and considering that it was originally stolen by a man named Lord Jack in Victorian times, they’ve had centuries to make plans to take revenge on Lord Jack and the rest of the human race.

Order this CDwritten by Nicholas Briggs
directed by Nicholas Briggs
music by Jamie Robertson

Cast: Tom Baker (The Doctor), Louise Jameson (Leela), Raquel Cassidy (Dr. Alison Foster), Sam Graham (McMullan / Pilot), Tilly Gaunt (Laura Craske), Tim Bentinck (Giles Moreau / Jenkins), Kim Wall (Jim Hooley / Drelleran #1 / Security Guard), Tim Treloar (Lord Jack / Drudgers / Drelleran #2)

Timeline: immediately after The Talons Of Weng-Chiang and before Renaissance Man

Notes: This is the Doctor’s third visit to Nerva, each time at a different point in the station’s history and in a different orbit: The Ark In Space (1975) takes place on Nerva in its distant future orbiting Earth, while the Nerva of Revenge Of The Cybermen (1975) is orbiting Voga, a moon with rich deposits of gold. After years of campaigning by Big Finish, dating back to the beginning of the company’s license to produce Doctor Who audio stories, this is the first Big Finish audio to feature Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor. Louise Jameson has been reprising the role of Leela for Big Finish since 2003’s Zagreus.

LogBook entry and TheatEar review by Earl Green

Review: It’s been no secret, since Big Finish’s earliest Doctor Who involvement, that the grand prize of snagging the Who license from the BBC would be to get Tom Baker to reprise his version of the Doctor again. As early as 1999, Gary Russell was campaigning to get Baker aboard, only to be turned down and then hear the actor making disparaging remarks about Big Finish and the quality of its work at public appearances. When Baker finally stepped into the studio again, it was for BBC Audio’s own series of audio stories that uncomfortably straddled the distinct dividing line between straight-read audiobooks and an audio play with other actors playing parts. The first “season” of the BBC’s fourth Doctor stories seemed to confirm my worst fears of what Tom Baker audios would’ve been like all along: indulgent and not just a little bit silly. To be sure, Baker still has That Voice that brought so many of us who are now in our 40s into the Doctor’s world, but the actor’s own preference seemed to lean heavily toward the tongue-in-cheek style of season 17 – and in writer Paul Magrs, Baker found an author who was willing to go there. There were a few shining moments that made me think “Wow, Tom Baker audios could be awesome”… but only a few.

One of 2010’s most surprising announcements, after all this time, was that Tom Baker was actually ready to play ball with Big Finish. But the real question was: would Big Finish do something different with the fourth Doctor in the wake of the BBC/Magrs stories?

As it turns out, by rolling the clock further back than season 17 and actually directing Baker a bit rather than simply indulging his every whim, Big Finish can travel back in time rather effectively. Louise Jameson’s effortless recreation of Leela goes great lengths toward sealing the deal, too. We’re hearing the Doctor and Leela not long after they’ve begun their travels together, and Leela is still uncertain of what she’s gotten herself into. (A very nice scene at the end of Destination Nerva actually nails down why Leela would want to continue visiting a universe of terrors at the Doctor’s side, something that the TV series never quite managed.)

The story itself, however, is almost painfully rushed – there were a couple of points where the story took such large quantum leaps forward that I was worried I’d completely missed something. The listener is left to interpolate some events for themselves. Fortunately, what’s left undramatized largely falls under the heading of chase/escape scenes, but the whole thing moves at such a breathless pace compared to the almost-languid pacing of some of Big Finish’s four-part offerings. All of the original Tom Baker audios presently scheduled are going to be single-disc, two-part stories, so this is an issue that’s likely to persist. After over a decade of hewing tightly to the traditional four-part format, why the sudden crunch down to two-part stories for the Doctor whose era Big Finish has made such a point of paying homage to?

And it’s the homages that are a bit worrying. Destination Nerva, as the title gives away, uses a setting that spread across two stories of Baker’s first television season (for budgetary reasons). In recent years, especially since Nicholas Briggs and Alan Barnes took the creative wheel from the departing Gary Russell, Big Finish’s stories have been rife with callbacks not just to Tom Baker’s reign as the Doctor, but callbacks specifically to the early Baker era, as produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and script-edited by Robert Holmes. Krynoids, Wirrn, Zygons, and Morbius have all cropped up in the eighth Doctor audio stories, the seventh Doctor recently revisited the robots of Robots Of Death, and upcoming stories featuring both Baker and his successors will feature the Wirrn (again), the Kraal, Magnus Greel (from The Talons Of Weng-Chiang), and the emaciated Master post-Deadly Assassin. And now Big Finish gets to work with “the definite article” himself. If current TV Who is resembling the pitfalls of the Davison era a little too much for comfort, then current Big Finish Who is betraying its creators’ fixation on Tom Baker’s first three seasons as the Doctor. There’s a real danger of reaching such levels of fanwank that the Big Finish audios will become the kind of insular “inside joke” that the Doctor Who novels of the late ’90s became: almost impenetrable to first-time listeners. When the arrival of Tom Baker in the Big Finish pantheon is likely to bring the seasoned audio drama label the most attention it’s gotten since Paul McGann came aboard, is all of this “sequelizing” that a wise move?

Destination Nerva is a breakneck-paced new entry in the fourth Doctor’s adventures, and while I welcome the arrival of That Voice, the same one that ushered me into the TARDIS when I was eight, I’m a bit concerned about how much room the stories have to unfold as they should. Perhaps the box set of fourth Doctor Lost Stories, scripts originally written for TV, abandoned, and then adapted by Big Finish, will be more to my liking. Of all the times for Big Finish to suddenly veer away from upholding the four-part format that always suited the classic series the best, this wasn’t it.