Saturday, 14 January 2012

Destination Nerva written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: After saying their goodbyes to Professor Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago, the Doctor and Leela respond to an alien distress call beamed direct from Victorian England. It is the beginning of a journey that will take them to the newly built Space Dock Nerva… where a long overdue homecoming is expected. A homecoming that could bring about the end of the human race.

Teeth and Curls: I had to be the only curmudgeon in the pack but I really wasn’t terribly excited about Tom Baker joining the fold of audio Doctor’s a getting a range all of his own. When he threw scripts back in Gary Russell’s face and savagely took the piss out of being asked to do some Big Finish adventures and then had to be charmed by Nick Briggs and David Richardson into coming into the fold where the others were happy to do it without such ego stroking my respect for the man went right out the window. Not only that but with the advent of the Paul Magrs BBC audios that were available it didn’t even feel like a special event because the fourth Doctor had already been brought to life on audio. I have to say I went into Destination Nerva with a heavy heart and whilst I would say he captures the spirit of his era with far more success here than in the Hornets/Serpent/etc series’ that the fourth Doctor has never been one of my favourite Doctor’s anyway so even the thought of just having the character back I greeted with little more than a shrug. So whilst I’m sure I will get over my initial disdain for the actor (watching him swearing and bullying everybody in the behind the scenes snippets of his last couple of season of Who didn’t help) I hope the rest of you get far more out of having him back than I do. I am far more excited about Colin Baker’s return with a new companion and Davros this month. Saying all this I’m not actually sure that Tom Baker is a natural audio performer in the same way that Davison, Baker and McGann are anyway…there is something a little stilted about his performance here where he tries to annunciate a word to the nth degree in every sentence. You might say that the Doctor isn’t supposed to be naturalistic and the fourth is the most alien of the lot but I counter that by saying the dialogue has to at least flow – what else have you got on audio? I was also a little confused by how kindly he seemed to be to Leela because the fourth Doctor I remember at this point (and certainly Tom Baker’s performance) was quite vicious towards the character whereas here they really seem to be a team in progress. Are Big Finish going for a ‘this is 1977’ feel or like Colin Baker’s Doctor are they offering us a ‘this is what it could have been like…’

I’m not sure I like the idea of this picking up directly where Talons of Weng-Chiang left off either. Big Finish seems to be determined to fill in any gap in continuity even to the point now of finishing sentences that started at the end of televised adventures! He’s always had a soft spot for Butlers…in fact he once knew a Butler whose name was Butler – the dialogue needs to be smarter than that to capture the 4th Doctor’s acid tongue wit from the 70s. He often finds the mark of a good theory is that it doesn’t make sense. Can you ever imagine this incarnation of the Doctor walking in on an authority figure and saying ‘I’m sorry to interrupt your day…’ No, me neither. He’s said it before but human beings are quite his favourite species…yawn. It was interesting for the Doctor to see Nerva again for the first time so at least somebody enjoyed the story. He could travel in the TARDIS for a billion, billion years and still scratch the surface of eternity.

Noble Savage: Now Louise Jameson on the other hand is a different kettle of fish. She’s a fascinating actress who always has me mesmerised whether she is playing a part (go and listen to her in Pulling Faces, she’s magnificent) or talking about her craft and always seems very humble when discussing her career and glad to have been a part of such a television phenomenon. Louise picked up the character of Leela in the Gallifrey series (and now the Jago & Litefoot series) and ran with it and provided some of the best moments of drama for that spin off and increased the range of the character tenfold (her reaction to the fact that Andred is not dead and has tricked her is still one of my favourite ever audio scenes). Whilst I would have given my right arm to hear Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen back together again (but fate has a cruel way of getting in the way) Jameson’s Leela was probably the most interesting companion to have travelled with him so it is a fair compromise.

Leela understands that her words might sound strange but points to the Doctor as the man with the explanations because he is the ‘man of wisdom.’ Leela gets to experience space walking for the first time and her head cannot tell which way is up or down. It’s always nice to see Leela whipping up a revolution and she is determined to take on the entire planet with one ship if she has to. She wants to know why the TARDIS travels through time as well as space and nobody has ever asked that question before.

Great Ideas: The transformation scenes are pretty nasty and are easy to visualise despite this being on audio.

Audio Landscape: Cocking weapons, kudos for getting the TARDIS console noises so spot on, lightning cracking the sky, rain falling and slapping an umbrella, sonic screwdriver, crackly radio, the Nerva Beacon scanning noises are peerlessly genuine, walking on the hull.

Musical Cues: Massive kudos to Jamie Robertson for ditching his usual cinematic style of music and going for something that sounds authentically Dudley Simpson. I have heard people try and pull off his style of music before with disastrous results (remember that dreadful Keff McCulloch score for Shada that was supposed to be aping Simpson?) but this is an orchestral delight with some lovely melodramatic stings. Its enough to make you feel as if you have been transported back to the seventies and are watching this tale in your front room whilst your mam is pouring gravy over your mash and the rain is lashing outside. I could have sworn I heard a xylophone in there somewhere – woohoo! All we needed was a glockenspiel and it would been the perfect synthesis of The Ark in Space and Revenge of the Cybermen! Love the up beat piano theme at the conclusion.

Isn’t it Odd: So let me see…the Doctor and Leela walk into a house where they meet a Butler and can see the carnage of a pitched battle between people and aliens and a star drive suddenly activates and almost disintegrates them and then find themselves on Nerva Beacon. No I’m sorry but I’m not following this at all. Is this being made up as it goes along? It bugs me that we are supposed to understand what Nerva Beacon is without any real explanation from the Doctor or the guest characters – anybody new to classic Doctor Who would come to this story thoroughly confused as to the setting. Is Nick Briggs expecting the audience to be entirely Who fanboys? Possession of a character, space station Nerva and a base under siege – this is more like a greatest hits of the Tom Baker years than a story in its own right. I would have rather they had trusted their audience and gone with something completely revolutionary for their first story rather than all this easing the audience in gently nonsense. What Big Finish should remember is that its the bold, intelligent, unusual stories such as The Holy Terror, The Kingmaker, A Death in the Family and Chimes of Midnight that score highly in the popularity polls and certainly far more than workmanlike stories that are spliced together from elements of classic stories like Destination: Nerva. Episode two progresses and soon you have both Tom Baker and Louise Jameson screaming hysterically – this really isn’t drama you know, its just shouting. What ever happened to the exploration of ideas on audio? There is a fantastic story waiting to be written about the effects of possession (or it might already be called Spare Parts) but in this case it all about reacting rather then discussing and that is the least intelligent approach you can take. Is it simply the case that nobody else wants to write for the fourth Doctor because the first line up seems to consist entirely of the producer and the script editor of the main range and new golden boy John Dorney and BBC Books creative editor Justin Richards? Is this just playing it safe again or did they all want a couple of goes first before letting anybody else play with him? Aside from Dorney whose name always excites me in the schedules it’s a pretty predictable line up. I would have liked to see some new names in there to re-energise the company on this new venture.

Standout Scene: There was a moment at the end of the story where the Doctor and Leela banter for a moment and he promises to teach her some more and leap off into a universe of unpredictable adventures. It’s optimistic and full of potential and almost succeeded in whipping me up in a frenzy. After the workmanlike adventure that has played out it offers a glimmer of hope for The Renaissance Man.

Result: I was shocked at what a non event this was. After a decade of bringing us top-notch audio adventures I was appalled that Big Finish could introduce their supposedly greatest coup (stroking Tom Baker’s ego enough to get him to agree to make a trip to the studios) in such a slapdash story. Destination Nerva fails on practically every count as far as I can see – it’s a confused narrative that is spliced together from other, better stories, the guest characters are one dimensional and vacant, the dialogue lacks sparkle and the jeopardy angle lacks any excitement. Even worse the one reason people will pick this story up so eagerly is the reason it bombs so spectacularly – Tom Baker gives the least convincing performance I have ever heard from him. People might bemoan that the Hornet’s Nest Doctor is a far cry from what we saw on the television but at least that was Baker giving a hearty, menacing performance. The way that Tom Baker inflects some of his dialogue you would think that he was the one that was possessed at the end of part one – some lines fast, some lines slow, some injected with madness, some deep and menacing. It is literally all over the place and needs a much stricter director to whip him into shape. I don’t think even McCoy who was until now the most inconsistent performer has ever been this incoherently schizophrenic in a story. When your main man can’t even say ‘Run!’ convincingly at the cliffhanger you are in trouble. He does settle down a bit in the second episode and at the conclusion seems a lot calmer so lets hope this is first story jitters. Louise Jameson tries gamely to salvage something and she is the one person who escapes this madness with her dignity intact. I think the advent of fourth Doctor’s return will be enough for everybody to give this a pass but if anybody can objectively say this is to the usual standards of Big Finish…well I would say they were wrong: 3/10

7 comments:

Fred Casden said...

To quote a certain penguin: Doc, we got a situation here...

Kidding :)

There seems to be a lot of bitterness towards Mr. Baker in your review that kinda over shadowed everything and made it seem like you were looking for reasons not to enjoy the story that was being told.

Now I have yet to listen to Destination Nerva because I started with the Lost Stories box set (Foe From The Future abd Tge Valley Of Death), you might find that a lot more appealing for what you expected from Big Finish, since They are bigger, bolder tales that really let Mr. Baker dive back into the roll fully.

Doc Oho said...

I think you are right and I am greatly looking forward to listening to The Foe from the Future because its co written by one of my faves from the audio series and one of my faves from the TV series! I found Baker extremely distracting in this play and I did explain that there was some bitterness there already although I hope these stories sell through the roof for Big Finish's sake. But I never look for reasons not to enjoy a story - in fact I went into this one hoping for the best because Nick Briggs has written and directed some of my all time favourite stories! But this was seriously below par for him which is fine because all writers/directors/actors have bad days. Put your hand on your heart and tell me that this was well written, characterised, etc... I wont knock something for the sake of it but I saw little of merit here.

Still perhaps Rennaisance Man will give the series a kick up the ass...

Imperial Heathen said...

Ouch!

After years and years of telling Big Finish "no", I too have lost respect for the actor. Despite my feelings, I am glad to have new 4th Doctor stories. I skipped the BBC series simply because there were not Big Finish productions.

Destination Nerva: I think the unnecessary use of Nerva coupled with The Talongs of Weng-Chiang clothing on the cover was tacky but brilliant marketing.

I love Nick Briggs stories, but this was not his best. I'm afraid the shorter stories are all going to follow this pattern. I enjoyed the 8th Doctor Series, but the stories were way too short to allow the plot to properly develop. The two part stories were always the best for a reason.

Despite the outrageous pricing for the 4th Doctor Lost Stories Box Set I took the plunge. The Foe from the Future was great. However, I'm looking forward to your review of "the other story". It needs a second listen but my first impression is that it should have remained lost. I'm kicking myself for paying that much for one great story.

Blueshift said...

The 'butler called Butler' bit is a reference to Foe From The Future

Doc Oho said...

Its still naff...

Unknown said...

I agree with your review. The story was a total mess and I am seriously concerned about having taken out a subscription for these stories. Tom needs a director to get the best out of him, not seemingly let him do whatever he wants. The story though is frankly all over the place and there's no real drama. Very, very disappointed.

matto79 said...

Agreed. I think part of the problem is that Nick Briggs is a bit too close to his subject matter to make a decent judgement on who is best to write these stories. He was obviously fulfilling a dream in writing for Tom but that doesn't mean it was the best thing for those buying these releases. Tom Baker is very hammy but as a lover of his Doctor that doesn't bother me in the slightest - and Leela is sublime. But why Nerva? Why making a point of them still wearing their Talons costumes? Referencing 'canon' TV episodes doesn't a story make! Rant over. Luckily, they gave the right writers to the Lost Stories which were fantastic. I'm seriously dreading Nick Briggs next 4th Doctor story - this time with Daleks. This could be fan-wank-tastic...