The Fourth Doctor Lives! (A review of  Destination: Nerva )

Posted: January 10, 2012 by Brian in Audio Review, Doctor Who
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In 1999, a company called Big Finish changed the world of Doctor Who forever when they released their first audio play, The Sirens of Time, a fully licensed, legitimate Doctor Who adventure starring Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy as the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors respectively. In the twelve years since then, they have produced and released hundreds of audio plays, with dozens of actors and actresses reprising their roles from the classic TV series, and have even had a number of audio plays starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor broadcast across England on BBC Radio 7.

But on January 9, 2012, they made a long-awaited dream into a reality: they brought the Fourth Doctor—the curly-haired, scarf-bedecked Tom Baker, who reigned on television from 1975 to 1981 and has been a towering, dominating figure in the show’s mythos since then—back to life with the release of the first original audio play featuring Baker himself, Destination: Nerva.

For the first time in the more than thirty years since Baker left the role, we are offered the opportunity to hear the Doctor many of us (especially American fans) grew up with, in a fully-performed Doctor Who adventure. So is it worth the wait, the hype, and the anticipation? Here’s my review of Destination: Nerva (minor spoilers ahead):

The headline is: Yes, it’s definitely worth the wait. I’ll get into the nitpicking in a second, and there are flaws to be pointed out. But the truth is that even though Big Finish haven’t entirely hit their mark with this inaugural adventure, the experience of hearing this Doctor and Leela (the savage Sevateem warrior woman portrayed by Louise Jameson on the TV show from 1977 to 1978) doing stuff and being generally Doctor-ish and Leela-ish is a total win however you slice it.

The performances of our two leads are delightful if not perfect. Baker and Jameson give it their best, and the result is worthy. It’s clear that they’re older: their voices are deeper and grainier, and sometimes there’s something subtly rhythmic about their speech patterns that seems ever-so-slightly off; so people who are paying attention will certainly be able to tell this is not a story recorded in 1977. That said, though, it took me only a minimal amount of mental adjustment to take the metaphorical step back and hear the Doctor and Leela live again in my mind. There were quite a few lovely little moments where the details of the characters and their on-screen relationship were recreated quite successfully—for instance, the Doctor’s total lack of patience and empathy for Leela when she loses her orientation during an EVA, or the Doctor’s emphatic phrase repetitions. Sometimes, what I think of as the “Big Finish rhythm”—a certain expansiveness that has come to characterize the audio plays in contrast to the pacing of the classic television episodes—creeps in; it’s frankly a touch jarring and out of sync with these characters and their delivery, but that’s the minor quibble of a (very) long-time fan. Overwhelmingly, Baker and Jameson have hit a six in this first outing.

Sadly, the story they’re given is the weakest link of the production. Written and directed by Big Finish bigwig Nicholas Briggs, it’s not horrible, but it is a terribly ordinary effort whose only real merit is nailing the kind of over-the-top body horror that was a staple of the television series when Baker and Jameson were on it. Basically, the Doctor and Leela follow a distress call to a manor house in Kent in 1895, just in time to witness an alien spacecraft being stolen by person or persons unknown. They give chase, and wind up hundreds of years later at a familiar location: the still-under-construction Space Dock Nerva (one day to be Space Station Nerva and later Nerva Beacon, as seen in the 1975 TV stories The Ark in Space and Revenge of the Cybermen), where some incoming visitors are not what they seem and the Doctor and Leela find themselves in the middle of an alien invasion. All that is fine as far as it goes, but frankly if it weren’t for the presence of Baker and Jameson in their triumphant return, the plot as presented would be entirely too run-of-the-mill to carry a full-length audio play in an interesting way. As an audience member, I felt short-changed by a story that seemed kind of mailed-in, and in the end functions as little more than a relatively bland vehicle for the big return of our two stars. We get little of the Doctor’s eccentric brilliance; instead, he’s restricted to mostly shouting at the alien menace and then running away (an approach that might have worked nicely in the budget-restricted television days of the 1970s, but works much less well in the audio world of budget-unlimited imagination). In story terms, the Doctor is surplus to requirements much more than I would have liked. Leela fares a bit better, given the physical nature of the threat, but when all is said and done she also seems a bit short-changed.

The supporting roles are decently-performed but, again thanks to the lackluster writing, forgettable, even the featured guest star Raquel Cassidy (recently seen in the 2011 new-Who two-parter The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People) as Dr. Alison Foster.

Where the production stands out is from a technical standpoint. The electronic bloops and bleeps of the space tugs and Nerva itself are lifted directly from the show’s 1970s era, and while Jamie Robertson’s (slightly too epic at times) musical score won’t be mistaken for those of Dudley Simpson (who provided most of the show’s incidental music in the mid-to-late-’70s), it does consciously evoke Simpson with its characteristic use of clarinet and marimba, for instance. Sadly, there are one or two spots where the joins are showing and it is momentarily obvious that Tom Baker’s lines have been edited into the rest of the proceedings.

Still, while I can complain (and have) about this detail or that, the fact remains that I have just listened to a new full-length adventure starring the Fourth Doctor and Leela for the first time since I was a little boy watching them on PBS. And in that endeavor Big Finish has been very, very successful.

You can buy Destination: Nerva on CD or for download here.

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