Blurb: 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.
Format: Full-cast audio drama starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson published by Big Finish Productions and released January 2012.
Setting: Earth: London, England in 1895 and Space Dock Nerva sometime around 2800 AD.
Continuity: This story takes place between the Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Horror of Fang Rock and sometime before the audio story The Foe from the Future (see the discussion for reconciliation on the Butler issue). The Doctor and Leela are still wearing Victorian clothing and the Doctor uses a box of matches that had been given to him by Professor Lightfoot (see The Talons of Weng-Chiang). The Doctor had been to Nerva in the far future and he remembers saying there that humans were his favorite species (see The Ark in Space). The Doctor also visited Nerva when it was functioning as a beacon (see Revenge of the Cybermen).
Canonicity Quotient: We kind of stretch credulity a bit that Nerva was used for yet another purpose even earlier in its existance. It also pushes us beyond the Doctor's estimate for when it must have started unless it was only used as a space dock for a few short year. Two things work in this story's favorite. First, the Doctor has never been the most reliable on dating things (see The Dalek Invasion of Earth). Second, Nerva's story is already beyond belief that people thousands of years in the future would use an old piece of outdated space trash as the ark to preserve the human race in the wake of solar flares. The Doctor is out of character for much of this story, wanting to run back to the TARDIS at every opportunity rather than setting things to right. 0.75
Discussion: As the first of the Fourth Doctor Adventures I was expecting a real treat from this story. Big Finish's advertisements pulled out all the stops, even having Tom Baker open the trailer with "it's Saturday, tea time 1977 all over again". Since I'm not British I've never experienced Doctor Who as Saturday at tea time, but I was still excited. The Foe from the Future had been an excellent story and while I wasn't much enamored with The Valley of Death I felt that it had some good qualities. It also seemed like much of the work that Big Finish was doing - Tom's "1977" comment on the trailers, linking the first story directly to Talons of Weng-Chiang, and by revisiting a familiar location with Nerva - was trying to evoke the Hinchcliffe era of the series. For those who don't know, the Hinchcliffe era is usually considered to be one of the greatest periods in Doctor Who, so it made me excited for new adventures in a style that I had really loved as a child.
I cannot praise the sound design on this story enough. The music is very much in the style of Dudley Simpson and the instruments chosen are all the kinds of things that we'd hear on Doctor Who regularly in this time period. The only part that seems to jar is a bit that they play when the Doctor and Leela are rushing to take off in the TARDIS. It's a heroic fanfare that feels a tad overstated for the period, but that aside everything sounds perfect. I was grinning like an idiot during the TARDIS scenes as well when I could clearly hear the sound effects for the TARDIS' secondary console room. It's a nice attention to detail as is the fact that they actually pick up the dialog directly from Talons of Weng-Chiang. Louise pitches her voice up to capture the inflection of her younger self and the whole thing just sounds incredibly marvelous.
The story also has so many elements that wouldn't have felt out of place in the Hinchcliffe era. The idea of Victorians conquering space in the name of the British empire feels like a Holmesian plot. There's a visceralness about the body horror that's inflicted on the people here. The idea of people melding together into a giant, amorphous being is the kind of gross effect that I could see the show really going for. You feel real disgust when you realize that the creatures attack with ribbons of flesh and the idea of being flayed and bleeding from attacks by sacks of flesh that want to meld you into them is properly horrifying.
Yet, ultimately the story doesn't hold up. One of the main reasons is that the Doctor is completely passive in the story. Other than one conversation with the Drellerans nothing that the Doctor does in this story influences the outcome. He's a passive observer whose constantly trying to get back to the TARDIS rather than an adventurer. It's almost as if someone was trying to write a story for Hartnell but Tom was shoehorned in instead. The directorial reigns seem to have slipped again as well. Tom ends up delivering an ad lib about meeting a butler named Butler because he encounters a Butler in this story. It's supposed to be a reference to Foe from the Future as Tom had recorded that story in just the prior week. Yet, it doesn't make sense because he says this to Leela as if he's giving her new information when she knows quite well who the Butler named Butler was if he's referencing that story. It doesn't help that either the editing is off and Tom just delivered the line in an awful monotone that just doesn't feel to be part of the flow of the conversation at the time. As Foe from the Future was written by John Dorney to occur after Talons of Weng-Chiang and based upon this information I consider Foe from the Future to occur at some point after Destination: Nerva and the Doctor is just referencing some other butler named Butler that he met on his travels. We also get some horrid dialog that's more the fault of the writer than Tom but having him quote his own lines from The Ark in Space seems like the story strays a bit to far into the realm of fanwank.
The story really doesn't make a lick of sense either. First of all, we need to accept that about a half dozen Englishmen even armed with advanced technology could conquer vast swathes of space by themselves. We then have to accept that the Drellerans infected them with a disease that would cause them to infect anything either technological or organic that they touch with a virus that would cause them to fuse with it and that this would not backfire on them. I understand also the virus was supposed to instill some sort of instinct to go home within them but what do the Drellerans think will happen once Jack and his crew get back to Earth and merge with all the people and technology there? Wouldn't that just create a more dangerous all-consuming planetary monster organism? Then even while willing to do all this, we have to assume that the Drellerans follow Jack and his crew in the hopes that something will happen to change their minds on the way. Thankfully they run into the Doctor who helps them in just that way but wow is that a paper thin plot. We also have to accept that despite this being the time of the Earth Empire that an alien ship would just be able to get to Jupiter without anyone raising an alarm? I find that hard to believe. Then there's the fact that there is a cure that doesn't just kill the infected mass but actually separates the unique individuals back out again and you wonder why there's even a story there in the first place as there's no cost to anything that has happened. Combine all of this with the Doctor constantly on the run and you have a really weak storyline. I'd say that Nick Briggs just didn't understand how to write a four-parter as the first episode is set up marvelously but is hamstrung by everything needed to resolve in episode 2, but Briggs had actually written Energy of the Daleks before this one and that one works fine as a 2-parter, so I have no idea what his problem was here.
Personally, I'd rather have had a story exploring the idea of the Victorians with hyperdrive trying to conquer space in the name of the Empire. That seems to be a story that could have a lot of interesting developments as well as a lot of interesting things to say. We hardly get that plotline developed though, we just get told that it happened and we've already moved into the realm of the scary and surreal by the time that the story starts, which is a real shame.
The other thing about this story is that it's really hard to tell what's going on sometimes. It seems like Briggs really did conceive this as if it were on television. The downside to that is that there's a lot of action with little explanation for what's going on. Even in non-action scenes it wasn't really clear what was going on. I thought for sure that Alison had touched Laura and the construction worker who had come in because she said things about their medical state and it seemed as if she was giving an examination. Yet, she's never infected in the story, which makes me think that she didn't touch them. It just muddles things up a bit which makes it a little difficult to follow the story.
The guest cast and characters are all fine but there's nothing really here to write home about. Louise as always gives a wonderful performance. She shows some real strength of will when she's able to resist the hypnosis from Henry McMullan. I also like that she's being given new experiences with her first spacewalk in this one. The conclusion where she decides that she wants the Doctor to teach her is great as it really hearkens back to the original intention of Leela being the Doctor's student and it gives them a wonderful relationship as the season develops.
Final Rating: 6/10
Recommendation: It's a slow start to the fourth Doctor adventures. It's a real pleasure to listen to Tom and Louise again and they invest their lines with the same energy that they'd had years ago. That combined with the period-accurate music can really give you a nostalgic feeling. Unfortunately this story relies a bit to much on nostalgia to prop it up. Nerva serves no presence other than to excite the fanboys and the storyline makes almost no sense, forces the Doctor to act out of character, and avoids the more interesting potential of the story set up. It gets an extra point for doing the nostalgia so well but this is a really average story. I only recommend it if you're planning on getting the rest of the first season of fourth Doctor adventures.