Thursday, 1 December 2011

Test of Nerve written by David Bishop and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: Sarah Jane Smith receives a mysterious gift with a cryptic message. The London Underground will suffer an horrific terrorist attack during rush hour unless Sarah can find and stop those responsible. As rush hour draws closer, the terrifying reality of the threat becomes all too apparent. One friend is murdered and another abducted. Sarah must be willing to sacrifice everyone and everything she holds dear to save the city. This is one deadline she cannot miss…

Until Next Time…Miss Smith: When Josh suggests the dead rat must have been sent by somebody who has a grudge against SJ that hardly narrows the field because she’s made a fair few enemies over the years. Listen to her asking Claudia for help, she sounds desperate and snappy, a far cry from the easy going companion who used to travel with the Doctor. This might be ludicrous characterisation if the set up for this series hadn’t been so good and Lis Sladen wasn’t so damn compelling in the role and as a result it is a fascinating, rabbit in the headlights new take on the character. There is some real tension between the three regulars in this story and the uncomfortable thing is that Josh is right and Sarah’s behaviour is slightly erratic. She demands that they are secretive to the point of paranoia and then hands over their evidence against a terrorist attack to the authorities. She really is pricklier than ever, furious when Nat phones the police to protect them from Carver. There’s a feeling that something has to break in her life in order for her to find the fun again and the terror she faces in this story surely qualifies. Harris tells Nat that wherever Sarah had run and no matter how many times she changes her identity they know exactly where and who she is. Trapped in a nightmare Sarah has to make the decision to save her friends or thousands of lives and as tough as it might be she chooses the latter. Sarah apologetically has to face her friends once the danger is over and admits a few years ago she would have tried to have saved her no matter what but she has now realised that the world savers have gone and she has a responsibility to fill that role.

Jubilant Josh: Josh pretends to be a reporter working for Metropolitan infiltrating BioGuard and he would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for Harris greeting him at the door! Sick of being pushed around and getting involved in dangerous business Josh walks out on Sarah in a childish rant but Nat knows he will be back. Even Josh cannot wisecrack his way through this story and he tries to gently persuade Carver to give up his insane terrorist attack. Sarah is used to this kind of crap but he and Nat are scared, especially after this escapade. He tells Sarah that he isn’t going anywhere but she needs to remember that they don’t have her experience.

Natty:My employers want Sarah Jane to suffer. They don’t give a damn about her pet cripple…’ I don’t recall Nat’s disability being mentioned in either of the first two stories (and why should it? Its not as if disabled people go around talking about their disability all of the time!) but that could just be me missing the obvious but it is an essential ingredient to the climax of this story so Bishop slips that little necessity in early. When Sarah refuses to call the police after Carver’s terrorist threats Nat wonders if she has lost her grip on reality. I love Nat facing off against Harris, she’s got nerves of steel this one and shows astonishing strength by crawling from a building that is about to be destroyed despite her disability. She understands that Sarah left her to die for all the right reasons but she just can’t get over the fact and needs some space to work it out in her head. She’s not quitting but she does need a sabbatical.

Standout Performance: Now this was a casting coup that surprised me in several ways and taught me not to be so judgemental in the future. When I first saw that Roy Skelton was going to be one of the principals in this story I was expecting lots of silly voices like his Daleks/Cybermen/Kraals/Zippy from Rainbow days. What I was forgetting was to make those voices work you have to be a bloody good actor – you might just hear a Dalek shrieking ‘Exterminate!’ but without any passion and bloodlust behind the voice it would sound pathetic and with Skelton on board it never, ever did. Here all the modulation is peeled away and he gives a genuinely phenomenal performance as James Carver, a man who is campaigning for the rights of soldiers who were used as unauthorised guinea pigs to test biological weapons. He gives a heartbreaking turn as a man whose life has been destroyed by a campaign that has gotten him nowhere but he has to keep trying because he knows what he is doing is right. It was enough to make me take a look online to see what other work Skelton has done away from the voice modulator but I couldn’t find anything and judging by this performance that is a real shame. He’s so completely convincing during the scene where he reveals the Sarin gas pellet and suggests using it on the Tube at rush hour I had goosebumps. Massive kudos to Elisabeth Sladen, Sadie Miller and Jeremy Carver whose performances at the climax never fail to give me goosebumps all over.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The people I work for have a score to settle with Miss Smith. They’re playing a game with her. Humiliation, betrayal and then murder.’

Great Ideas: David Bishop understands exactly how this series needs to feel and opening the show on a new report not only highlights Sarah’s previous career but gets straight to the heart of the story with absolute economy. No wonder Russell T Davies used this method time and again in the new series. Only our Sarah would receive a gift wrapped rat in a cage of nerve gas as a present and it is a great hook into the story. A note is attached saying that Sarah has one day to find out the truth otherwise all of London will suffer the same fate – unlike the first two stories that made me sit up and pay attention. A security was beaten during a security leak at BioGuard where bio weapons are tested. Harris seems to be everywhere in this story, manipulating Sarah’s contact Claudia at C19 and using James Carver as a weapon against Sarah. Tests took place in 1963 where scientist dropped a light bulb filled with an inert bacteria out of the window of a Northern line train near Tooting. Within days the bacteria was found ten miles north near Camden, all the trains and tunnels heavily contaminated. BioGuard have been continuing the tests ever since, cooking up Sarin, Anthrax and all manner of other nasties. The break in was a cover for Harris to steal the Sarin gas and set up his trap for Sarah. Claudia is shot to death by Harris’ cronies, now Sarah has no contact inside C19 and she has lost a good friend. Shockingly Carver throws himself in front of the train rather than the nerve gas pellets.

Audio Landscape: Gas seeping into a cage and killing a squeaking rat, phone ringing, there is a protest heard in the back of one scene, police siren, gunshot, coins going into a phone box, gun shots, window smashing, bomb counting down, I love the way Harris voice booms from the Underground with a little bing-bong, because of the build up the sound of the approaching train is one of the scariest sound effects ever, the explosion at Sarah’s house.

Musical Cues: I haven’t mentioned the series theme tune yet which is quite remiss of me three stories in but I rather like it and find it infinitely preferable to the Sunday afternoon adventure serial they slapped on the Sarah Jane Adventures. Like the Doctor Who theme tune at its best it has an air of mystery to it and doesn’t really tell what the range is about other than the fact that it is going to be contemporary and rather scary. The score for Test of Nerve is far superior to the first two stories, focussing less on the 70s porn stings and more on creating an atmosphere of fear. I love the quiet choral music as Carver reveals his Sarin gas pellet and Darlington has to be commended for keeping the ten minute climax moving with his furiously exciting music.

Standout Scene: Bishop sets up a three way conclusion that is audacious in its torture of the regulars. Firstly you have Josh and Nat in the Underground inside a glass box with lethal Sarin gas about to pour inside. Nat is at Sarah’s house with an explosive device primed and counting down to detonation. And James Carver is on the Underground platform at rush hour and willing to poison the commuters for his cause. Sarah has to choose whether to save the life of one of her friends or to save the lives of thousands of Londoners. Its an impossible, agonising sequence and the way Bishop cuts to each of the scenarios shows a gift for building a momentum of tension through the conclusion until you are left panting with shock.

Notes: The mysterious villain behind Sarah’s recent humiliation and terror is none other than Miss Winters, the sinister Nazi-esque head of the Think Tank organisation in the fourth Doctor’s debut story, Robot. What an awesome feat to bring back such a memorable character and to get back Patricia Maynard to play her. But more on her involvement in Mirror Signal Manoeuvre.

Result: This is exactly what the series should have been like from the off but I don’t know if I would have been able to handle a series with the tension cranked up to the nth degree like Test of Nerve! Terrorism is such an obscenely simple idea but it is one that can strike the fear of God into all of us so using that as a starting to point for a story is automatically raising the stakes high. What you also get here though is a triple jeopardy plot at the conclusion with a tight fist closing around Sarah and her friends and a real feeling that any one of them could be for the chop. After the general laxity of the last two stories the extended tension of the climax really winds you into recognising that Sarah’s paranoia might not be unjustified. A great plot is driven by great characters and they are all at their best here with some real anxiety causing tension between Sarah, Nat and Josh and there are times when the story seems to suggest our leading lady is growing slightly unhinged as her life is stage-managed into a hellish situation. All this plus a stunning turn by Roy Skelton as the obsessed war veteran Carver, a stirring score, lots more of Harris who is becoming one of my favourite Big Finish baddies (the way he sadistically enjoys tossing Nat out of her wheelchair is horrible) and a blinding revelation at the close that links this series with the Tom Baker era of Doctor Who in a very satisfying way. No wonder David Bishop was chosen to write the entire second season, if this is an example of how exciting it will be then count me in: 10/10
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