February 3, 2012

Doctor Who: Destination: Nerva

Fresh from facing Magnus Greel in 1890s London, the Doctor and Leela find themselves thrown headlong into a new adventure, taking them from late 19th century Kent to the far future - where an alien investation threatens the space station Nerva.

British production company Big Finish has been producing original audio dramas based on Doctor Who for some years, utilising the original TV casts to create a broad range of "missing adventures". They started off with dramas starring Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, and before long added Paul McGann to the list. For many years, however, Tom Baker has remained the sole holdout among the "classic" Who Doctors. With "Destination: Nerva", he finally reprises the role of the Doctor for Big Finish. Generally speaking, it's a terrific debut.

This isn't to say that "Destination: Nerva" doesn't have drawbacks. For one thing there's the problem of age. Tom Baker was 43 in 1977. This year he is 78, and with no disrespect to his wonderful diction and vocal presence, you can definitely hear the difference. Similarly Louise Jameson, who reprises her popular companion role of Leela, was 26 in 1977. Now she is 61. Both actors recapture the tone and mannerisms of their characters faultlessly, but the one thing they can't recapture is time. I feel this may be an unfair criticism to make, but the difference in how both actors sound was genuinely distracting.

Then there's the problem of Nerva. The space station appeared twice on television, primarily as a cost-saving measure, in Season 12. While the idea that the sets would have been taken out of storage and re-used again in Season 14 isn't completely unbelievable, it's an addition the story didn't particularly need. It's a commercial hook rather than a narrative necessity, particularly since the story is in an audio medium and no one can see the sets anyway. I understand Big Finish's need for old locations, characters and monsters to attract an audience - the average fan is more likely to pay for a new Dalek adventure than something new - but looking ahead at this six-story season of Tom Baker dramas and it seems like they've gone for overkill. In future months we will hear the return of the Daleks, the Master and even the Kraals from "The Android Invasion". When four out of six stories feature returning elements, the originality of the stories has to start suffering.

This new release was also surprisingly short: I've heard other Big Finish dramas in the past and they've generally been four episodes long. "Destination: Nerva" squeezes an entire adventure onto a single two-episode disc, and like many episodes of the new series you can definitely feel the script rushing through the plot at the expense of character and atmosphere. It's a ridiculously frantic adventure.

I realise all of this sounds ridiculously negative, but despite the above drawbacks "Destination: Nerva" was a very entertaining story. As I've mentioned, Tom Baker and Louise Jameson slide back into their old roles with apparent ease, and Nicholas Briggs' script captures their relationship perfectly. The story also feels very much in keeping with the period it has attempted to evoke. It is very much a tale of body horror, which is a regular trope of Doctor Who - particularly during a period that included such classics as "Ark in Space" and "The Seeds of Doom". Briggs also manages to give this well-travelled trope a new angle, which I appreciated. The production values are great, evoking the period with sound effects and music that wouldn't feel out of place in an actual Tom Baker TV serial.

"Destination: Nerva" isn't perfect, but fans clamouring for a few more adventures of Tom Baker's Doctor are unlikely to be disappointed. I certainly wasn't, and I've already ordered the next CD in the series. If you're interested in hearing the story for yourself, you can buy the CD or an mp3 download here. (Do not download a pirate copy - these productions operate on wafer-thin margins as it is. Big Finish is hardly 20th Century Fox.)

One final, very trivial note: as a hardcore obsessive I really appreciated the double-sided cover to the CD, which allows me to select which Doctor Who logo I want to have. Mine's got the diamond-shaped logo - it seemed the most appropriate, and is certainly the more eye-catching of the two (does anyone really like the Pertwee-based "classic Who" logo?).

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