Destination: Nerva came out in 2012, and was a big deal because it was the first time that Tom Baker had reprised the role of the Fourth Doctor for Big Finish. (It turns out that it wasn’t the first time that he’d played the role for a full length audio drama, though, as he’d starred in a five part audio drama for the BBC itself, starting with Hornet’s Nest. I don’t think I’d ever heard of these stories until I was writing this post.)
(Hmm…obviously the title format I chose a while ago for my Big Finish Doctor Who audios didn’t take into accounts situations where the title contained it’s own colon! Sorry about that). Also, spoilers ahead.
Anyway, Big Finish executive producer Nicholas Briggs write and directed this story, which kicks off a six episode run of dramas featuring the Fourth Doctor and Leela, and a loose story arc about the Doctor teaching Leela about life. The plot features a group of Victorian military men who fight off some visiting aliens, steal their spaceship and go back to their world. The aliens are sufficiently passive enough to let the humans overwhelm their entire culture, even though only a few people make the journey. The bulk of the story focuses on how hundreds of years later, the aliens having finally had enough so they send a horrific disease to the earth to destroy the human race. It’s arrival in the solar system takes place at Nerva station, a location which featured in a couple of the Fourth Doctor stories from his first season back in 1975. This isn’t really relevant to the plot but makes for an interesting callback.
Destination: Nerva works largely thanks to the performances by Tom Baker and Louise Jameson. Though both actors’ voices have understandably changed in the roughly 35 years since they appeared on TV together, both of them bring the same sort of energy to the roles that they had back then and it’s easy to imagine that you are listening to a vintage adventure.
The story itself works, but is underdeveloped. The main guest character is Alison Foster, a doctor who works aboard Nerva, who is dealing with her own personal loss and how that’s influenced her decision to serve in space. She’s a fine character and well played by Raquel Cassidy, but the characterization doesn’t really go anywhere and ultimately doesn’t impact anything that is going on.
Similarly, there are some interesting political overtones to the script, as it’s really British expansionism of the 19th century that is to blame for all the problems, but there’s no room in the scope of the adventure (only two episodes long) to explore this idea or to develop the Victorian characters beyond a superficial overlay of personality. The idea is that they have been changed in their minds by the aliens to be carriers of the disease, but it might have been interesting if it was more clear that that change was somehow still in line with their basic societal flaws. This idea is present, but the story is over too quickly for it to have had maximum impact.
And finally the story itself falls victim to this lack of runtime. The climax is really just the Doctor and his friends just pleading with the aliens that what they’re doing is really bad. The aliens show no signs of agreeing, but do anyway, as they eventually take the disease away of their own accord. The Doctor speculates that they’ll probably never really know what was really going on with them, which is supposed to sound a bit mysterious but just really just feels like the producers ran out of time and had to wrap things up quickly.
When I first listened to this drama, I assumed that it was a four part story (like most of Baker’s actual adventures) and so this abrupt ending was hugely frustrating. As I re-listened to it recently with the knowledge of how long it wasn’t, my disappointment wasn’t so acute, but it still felt like the story featured a lot of unrealized potential.