Sunday, 13 May 2012

Audio Review 18: Destination: Nerva, written by Nicholas Briggs (2012)

Released: January 2012

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


Main Production Credits

Producer and Script Editor – David Richardson
Writer – Nicholas Briggs
Director – Nicholas Briggs
Incidental Music and Sound Design – Jamie Robertson
Recording – Paul Midcalf at Audio Sorcery Studios
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producers – Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery

(WARNING! All reviews contain SPOILERS!)

Story Summary:

The Doctor and Leela travel back to England in 1895 after intercepting an alien distress call. They find the source of the trouble in a Victorian house, where they discover that a company of British soldiers, led by Lord Jack Cunningham, have stolen the spacecraft of a peaceful alien species, the Drellerans, who were visiting the Earth at the time.
In their pursuit of the Drelleran spaceship, the TARDIS is flung into the future, landing on the newly-built space dock Nerva, a place the Doctor has visited before, only several centuries later. While the crew of Nerva struggle to get the space dock’s systems up and running, Lord Jack and his soldiers reappear and infiltrate Nerva, seemingly determined to spread an infectious cell mutation that they hold within themselves.

Trying to stay alive, the Doctor and Leela, along with Dr. Alison Foster, flee the alien infection to try and get help from elsewhere, only to be taken by a returning force of Drellerans. It seems that in the intervening centuries, Lord Jack and his soldiers had explored the galaxy in their stolen spacecraft, conquering, sabotaging and destroying many alien societies and cultures that didn’t resemble or follow their more primitive way of life. In retaliation, the Drellerans used a weapon that turned Lord Jack and his soldiers into an intelligent living virus that uses its carriers as hosts to consciously search for others of the same species to infect/mutate them and continue onwards until the whole species is absorbed/destroyed. The infected soldiers travelled to space dock Nerva as a first step towards the destruction of the Earth and the human race.

The Doctor, Leela and Alison Foster plead with the Drellerans that Lord Jack and his soldiers are not a true reflection of the human race overall, and that they have developed into a far more peaceful and better species over the future years and centuries. The Drellerans send the Doctor, Leela and Dr. Foster back into the overrun and infected Nerva, but first inject them with an antiserum for the virus. The virus and the mutated Victorian soldiers wither and die, leaving space dock Nerva and its crew to survive and recover. The Doctor and Leela leave for new adventures...


Story Placement
Between The Talons of Weng-Chiang (TV Serial) and The Renaissance Man (Big Finish Audio).


Favourite Lines

Leela – “Were you ashamed that you fought to live? To be free?!”


Review:

Only a few previous Big Finish audios had anywhere near as many levels of anticipation and expectation as Destination: Nerva seemed to. This was partly down to how much people loved Tom Baker and his interpretation of the Doctor (me included), but was also due to the professional standard and high quality of the majority of Big Finish’s audio releases which have won over several generations of listeners and Doctor Who fans over the last 13 years. The Sirens of Time, Storm Warning and Zagreus (and I suppose to a smaller extent The Genocide Machine, Sword of Orion, Dust Breeding, Davros and anything written by Rob Shearman post-The Chimes of Midnight) were the only stories that generated that amount of excitement and wonder at what might be coming the listeners’ way. Sirens because it was the first ever official Who audio since The Ghosts of N-Space, and nobody knew what to expect, which was also why it was looked upon relatively kindly in most of the more negative reviews. Storm Warning featured Paul McGann’s first return to the world of Doctor Who, and many were excited as to the possibilities of a fresh start with the then current (and still quite new) Doctor, as well as hearing Paul McGann play the character again. Zagreus looked to be the biggest anniversary story of all time, and in a literal way it was. Four Doctors, numerous cameos by past companion actors, a large Gallifreyan plot and a running time of over three-and-a-half hours later, it has divided Doctor Who critique more than any other audio since, and the only TV story that succeeded in being more divisive was Love & Monsters (2006 episode) three years later.

However, Tom Baker, of course returned to the world of Doctor Who back in 2009 with the BBC Audio series, Hornets’ Nest. These audios though, were mainly audio books that depended heavily on narration to fill in for the small cast. Big Finish were offering Fourth Doctor audio adventures that were full cast for the first time ever, and coupled with their usual outstanding and extensive sound design, is as close as listeners were ever going to get to having new performed adventures that felt as dynamic and thrilling as the character’s original television episodes. With all this hype in mind, perhaps it was only inevitable that Destination: Nerva would feel slightly disappointing. However, this doesn’t really do justice to the extent of the story’s flaws, even if I did actually find it to be quite good in places.

Destination: Nerva has a great premise, and an even greater entrance. The idea of peaceful aliens landing in Britain during the decidedly more backward and barbaric times of the Victorian era, and then having their ship stolen from them by a greedy band of British redcoats (who savage them along the way), before then moving on to devastate many peaceful alien civilisations with their distorted and primitive ideals, is a very interesting predilection on the effect on the rest of the World of empire building as well as a knowing retrospective criticism of the very questionable morals, ethics and jingoism that it was committed with. Sadly this is a warning from history that still needs to be retold and relayed to modern generations, even in the UK, simply because of how nationalist and blindly patriotic a lot of people are in the World, in the face of morality, the sanctity of life, and the need for us to respect others, as well as the need for us to be able to live and work together both as a species and as a global community. I don’t mean to sound so pessimistic, cynical or mawkish, but sadly mankind still has a fair way to go when it comes to being completely civilised.

Anyway, back to Destination: Nerva, I felt it really started with a bang, as it were. The opening siege in the Victorian house was fast-paced, brimmed with action and really got the story moving. I was instantly hooked. The Doctor and Leela’s arrival into the adventure was also brilliant, seamless and straight to the point. No time was wasted in setting the stakes or the mood either for that matter. The dark, empty house, bathed in moonlight, thunder and heavy rain, set a wonderfully atmospheric and suspenseful tone, and the steady flow of new information created a fascinating intrigue. I could really imagine the wooden house, bathed in the flickering golden light of the lamp, giving up its morbid secrets as the Doctor and Leela crept along, eagerly delving into the mystery. Then suddenly, before I knew it, the story had quickly moved to Nerva space dock, and the script took a sudden turn for the worse.

I’m not saying that I don’t like the idea of returning to Nerva. Despite not making any difference to the narrative, it’s a lovely touch by Nicholas Briggs which partly helps the Doctor Who fans among the listeners to visualise the fictional environment of the story clearly, but it is also a nice throwaway homage to one of the TV show’s successful storylines. It could have done without the cringeworthy joke though. No, my real gripe is that once the plot moves to Nerva, the story becomes plodding, drearily slow, and thoroughly predictable. After the arrival of Henry McMullan and his first encounter with Laura Craske, it is very clear and plain as to where the story is heading for the next 15, 20 minutes or so, and yet the script acts as if we couldn’t possibly have cottoned on to events, creating several pointers and reminders to us until eventually we reach the inevitable cliff-hanger when the alien threat facing the humans on Nerva is revealed to be something very close to what was suggested. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of suspense and tension, but the script tries to wring every second of it that it can get away with, so the plot is just lounging around, waiting for the story to catch up. According to Destination: Nerva’s CD booklet, this slower pace was deliberate, as Nicholas Briggs wanted the story to have a very ‘traditional’ feel, by being as faithful as possible to the Fourth Doctor era on television, which often had a slow build-up of clues in part one. Although this sounds like a good approach in theory, in practice it doesn’t quite work, because the main reason why all those slow part one episodes worked is because they often combined the slow build-up of clues with sub-plots and detailed character setups. Destination: Nerva has none of these, just the one single plot slowly chugging along throughout, and that’s really it. The Nerva setup is very short, basic and mundane, not really giving any opportunities for additional character banter (or at least none that is interesting, just repeating the setup of Nerva and its equipment faults), and comes across very dry as a result.

Even once we have moved onto part two though, the story isn’t determined to do much until it nears its climax, with the Doctor, Leela, Dr. Foster and Commodore Moreau endlessly running away from the alien mutation; first from Nerva to the Chandler Tug ship, and then into outer space. Fortunately, the final meeting with the Drellerans and the resolution to the whole story works efficiently and well enough to end the adventure satisfyingly. On top of that, out of nowhere we have a magnificent final scene with the Doctor and Leela that was both warm and upbeat, and left me in great anticipation as to what will come next, as it gives out much promise as to the future success of the range. Just in those last two minutes, there’s an instant feeling that the groundwork being laid here will one day hopefully create something truly magnificent. However, as far as Destination: Nerva is concerned, I can’t help but feel that we have a big piece missing. We have a superb start, and a nice finish, but it seems the heart of this story has been hollowed out. This could be an impact of the two-episode format that this audio range will take, but I think it would have definitely been improved had we seen the Doctor follow the wake of Lord Jack’s takeover of the Drelleran ship, rather than just fast forward to the final consequence. It would have been great to see the Fourth Doctor engage with both the literal and cultural destruction caused by Lord Jack and confront him at some stage to challenge him on the issues. Sure it’s a more direct and less subtle approach to take, but at least we would have a bigger sense of the disaster that Lord Jack had created, rather than just the throwaway exposition we had from the Drellerans of the future.

What also makes Destination: Nerva feel very dry and dull is the real lack of any depth in the characterisation. The only exception to this is Leela, who is written both intelligently and faithfully. Nicholas Briggs shrewdly makes sure that Leela, despite her savage, old-fashioned and simpler ways, is far from stupid or uncaring, and often keeps up with the Doctor fairly well, as well as being quick to question and pick him up on any mistakes he seems to make. The Doctor though, comes across as being quite generic, and slightly downbeat with very little of the whimsy or madcap eccentricity that we normally associate the Fourth Doctor with. Even the inserted jokes are rather poor, and frequently fall flat. This could be a result of Destination: Nerva being developed in a short space of time, but it’s very telling that Peter Davison or Paul McGann could have been given these lines, and we wouldn’t know much difference. In fact, even Leela’s basic character traits are reused here, such as holding up the first person she sees by knifepoint, beating up anyone who manhandles her, and trying to pronounce more complex modern words with difficulty. It’s likely that Nicholas Briggs was trying to summarise what the character was about for those who hadn’t encountered before, but there are moments throughout the story (not just in relation to Leela) that feel like Briggs was borrowing dialogue from existing television serials.

Although, it has to be said that Nicholas Briggs should be applauded for trying to make the relationship between Leela and the Doctor much warmer and more amiable. I wouldn’t normally approve of rewriting history in order to appeal to modern audiences, but here it is entirely justified, not just for the sake of the character, but also for Louise Jameson herself. During Leela’s time on Doctor Who during 1977-8, the Doctor and by extension Tom Baker also, had a clear and obvious disdain for the character. In fact, Tom Baker’s cold and grouchy mood swings during that period, particularly towards Louise Jameson’s character are occasionally uncomfortable, irritating, and frequently spoilt the positive upbeat feel of the Graham Williams era of Doctor Who (1977-1980), until he mellowed a year later after settling down with Mary Tamms’ Romana. More importantly though, Tom Baker’s attitude at the time was completely unjustified. If there had been a narrative reason for it, then I could have more readily accepted it, but thanks to Nicholas Briggs, the bad blood of the past can at last be finally put behind us, and we can enjoy the Fourth Doctor and Leela travelling together as friends, as they should have been all along.

The supporting characters though are paper-thin and any sense of personality and individuality is practically non-existent. Except perhaps Dr. Alison Foster, who in a rare moment of development is afforded a small backstory where we learn of her lost child, who died prematurely. With little left on Earth, Alison travelled into space to make a difference elsewhere. However, it only lasts half a minute, and the script quickly moves on. No other character is given any such development, and so the script seems to lack heart as well as the meatier story it needed to make it more interesting and enjoyable. Despite the intriguing opening sequence, the Victorian soldiers remain strictly the clich├ęd and upper class “tally ho” type, and absolutely nothing is added to them to counter that throughout the story. Meanwhile, Laura Craske is just a gullible and downtrodden technician, and Commodore Moreau seems to be around just to complain, exclaim, panic or state the obvious at nearly every opportunity, with such stock phrase classics as “good grief”, “what on earth”, and “this is ridiculous” to name but a few. A lot of the other dialogue in the script similarly comes across as quite dull and sterile; functional, but lacking in character. Also unusually for Nicholas Briggs, a lot of the script for the first part of the second episode succumbs to the cynical soap (and also occasionally Eric Saward) style of writing that seems to think that good drama can be made with endless arguing and shouting between characters. It’s a big shame that the story is cheapened like this, because the bad dialogue and false drama written here pulls you out of the adventure and actually destroys the artistic effect of any real drama that the script had successfully created or built up to that point. The lack of characterisation, could also be another hard to master symptom of the two-episode story format, although notably the resurrection of the Doctor Who TV series, as well as Nicholas Briggs’ own scripts for the 8th Doctor and Lucie Miller audios suggest that this is unlikely, considering that they also use a shortened story format (single 45-minute stories for the reinvented TV series, and 60-minute stories for the 8th Doctor and Lucie audios). Given that Nicholas Briggs has privileged Big Finish listeners with some amazing scripts in the past, I can only surmise that either the script was rushed for a tight deadline, or that Briggs really was having a big off-day.

The small cast of Destination: Nerva though, do help to make the uninspired script and characters likeable, even if it is still very difficult to care about them throughout the story. The strength and quality of Louise Jameson’s performance in particular, stands out a mile ahead of everyone else, grabbing the extra empathy and abilities of her character with both hands, making the most of Nicholas Briggs’ positive revision of the Leela character. Tom Baker on the other hand is quite unusually understated for a change, which works brilliantly in the atmospheric opening in the Victorian house, but on Nerva, it means he lacks the charisma and comic timing that the story really needs to rise above the functional script. I wouldn’t say it’s a poor performance from Baker per se, but it does fall flat from time to time, and when gravitas is called for during the tense and higher stakes of part two, Baker takes his performance to the other extreme, overacting and hamming up a fair few of his deliveries. The trouble is, I can’t tell if this is because Tom Baker is tired, less enthusiastic about the script (understandable, but less likely when you hear his behind-the-scenes interview), or is being directed to react quite this oddly. The latter seems to be a strong possibility considering how almost everyone has a spot of overacting in part two, even Louise Jameson. Although to be fair, Tom seems to be back on form by the closing scenes. Raquel Cassidy also delivers a fine and enjoyable performance, and is probably the only supporting actor who comes away from Destination: Nerva without being dragged down by the flaws or simplicity in her character. Sadly the rest of the cast, while putting in decent performances, are still made rather forgettable by how non-existent their characters are.

The quality of production on Destination: Nerva is also reassuringly good, even though still far from perfect. Nicholas Briggs’ direction succeeds on some levels and completely fails on many others. The attention to detail in order to make the story and production faithful to the style, presentation and writing of the Doctor Who television series in the late-1970s is fairly successful, particularly in post-production. However, Briggs also sadly includes many of its flaws such as seemingly encouraging overacting in places, an endless run of futuristic set pieces that mostly amount to padding, and an overtly theatrical set of villains. Jamie Robertson’s sound design is much more successful with an impressively accurate recreation of a 1970s science fiction soundscape, sampling sounds from Nerva itself during the 1975 TV serial, Revenge of the Cybermen, as well as some original TARDIS sound effects too. His other sound design is also wondrous, including an eerie thunderstorm, an old house with creaking floorboards, a barrage of Victorian muskets and rifles, and the sound of a leaving spacecraft ripping through the air as it powers up. They all create and conjure up brilliantly vivid images in the imagination. The music Robertson composes for the soundtrack though is rather more mixed. I certainly applaud him for trying to return to Dudley Simpson’s incidental style, including using some of his favoured sounds like xylophones, glockenspiels and flutes. Robertson’s recurring themes are rather glorious, and also slightly David Arnold-esque as much as Dudley Simpson-esque in style. However, a fair amount of his incidentals are quite simplistic, and like some of the cast performances are quite theatrical in a slightly pantomime way. Some cues are so plodding that sometimes I feel that I can almost picture Jamie Robertson plonking his fingers on the keys as I hear the notes. I don’t intend to sound mean by saying that, but even some of Dudley Simpson’s own incidentals were at times rather uninspired in his later years on Doctor Who, so maybe, just as Nicholas Briggs picked up on the simpler, and perhaps more ropey aspects of late-1970s Who in his script and direction, so it seems did Jamie Robertson in his score.

The more times I listen to Destination: Nerva, the more it strikes me as being a big missed opportunity for Big Finish. Tom Baker’s much anticipated return to proper Doctor Who productions starts off with something of a whimper, instead of a bang, and already feels tired. I can understand Big Finish wanting to leave the bigger stories till much later in the run of this audio series, but the frustrating thing is that there is a decent story waiting to be told here. Nicholas Briggs’ intriguing premise of Victorian soldiers interfering with the societies and cultures of alien worlds tantalises us with the possibilities of what could have been. After a wonderful start, what we are given is a slow, very predictable build-up followed with endless running and escaping, and an unconvincing corny resolution, without any real drama or character development to help back it up. There’s simply far too much padding, and at times I felt like I was listening to an audio B-movie (if there can be such a thing). The post-production may help to create a more nostalgic and immersive experience than it could have been, but both the story and script are lacking too much in order to appear much more than perfunctory. Destination: Nerva may not be the weakest Doctor Who audio ever produced by Big Finish, but it’s certainly far from being what I would call a hit. Of course that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to enjoy in the production. There’s the fine entrance for one thing, but for me what positively stands out is the brilliant relationship being created between Leela and the Doctor; something that they always should have had, but are only now, thanks to Big Finish and Nicholas Briggs, beginning to experience. The closing scene in particular, offers hope that Destination: Nerva is merely a misstep, in what otherwise could be another superlative Doctor Who audio series by Big Finish.

Score: 6/10