Just today I got my (virtual) hands on a copy of Cubicle 7’s Fourth Doctor Sourcebook, which I am still assimilating and may yet return to in order to comment in more detail. (As you might expect, given my vintage I am a sucker for almost anything with Tom Baker’s Doctor on the cover.) This is, putting it briefly, a guide for creating storytelling game scenarios either featuring the fourth Doctor, or imitating the style of his stories. It’s actually a little surprising that the book is either too vague when it comes to summarising what makes this era distinctive, or rather too specific. ‘Be knowingly derivative’ is about the limit of the book’s advice, which if you ask me is simply waving vaguely in the direction of the surface, let alone barely scratching it. Then again, perhaps I am being too harsh: but nevertheless, if you know what you’re about it is relatively straightforward to distill the essence of the Hinchcliffe-produced seasons, at least, and whip up some new ideas in the same vein.
Or perhaps I’m taking too much for granted, as convincingly recreating the style and atmosphere of this most celebrated, not to mention dissected, era of Doctor Who is one of those challenges which quite a few have taken on, with outright successes being notably thin on the ground. Quite by chance, I’ve also recently been listening to Destination: Nerva, an audio from 2012 which also has a go at synthesising the magic.
Written and directed by Nicholas Briggs, this story sees the Doctor and Leela drawn to the aftermath of a battle between British soldiers and aliens, which has – somewhat surprisingly – taken place in Kent, in 1895. The victorious Brits have stolen the alien starship and headed off to parts unknown, and the Doctor, as usually, feels morally obligated to go after them.
However, the TARDIS takes the duo hundreds of years into the future, to a construction complex in Jupiter orbit where a new space dock is under construction: the Doctor knows that eventually the dock will become the Nerva Beacon, repository of the most precious cargo in human history, but that all still lies in the future for now. (The story is charmingly vague about when Nerva was actually constructed, most likely because the exact dating of one of the TV stories set in its early history is still somewhat controversial. Personally I’d date Revenge of the Cybermen to the mid-to-late 25th century and suggest this story occurs anything up to a century before that. But I digress, as usual.)
No sooner have the Doctor and Leela made themselves known to the authorities on Nerva than an unknown spacecraft is approaching – and, not entirely unsurprisingly to the listener, it turns out to be full of the nasty imperialist toffs and their followers from the start of the story, mysteriously unaged, and now carrying a horrific mutagenic disease of some kind…
Now, I would have said that all you needed to create a properly authentic fourth Doctor story in a performed medium was the presence of Tom Baker. He’s still so iconic, and still inhabits the role so utterly, that you really don’t need anything else, do you? However, Big Finish seem to have thought different and, no matter what horrific contortions the victims of the virus go through in this story, they’re not quite as extreme as the way that the story itself bends over backwards to try and cement its place as a bona fide extension to Season 14.
It opens with a virtual reprise of the end of Talons of Weng-Chiang, for one thing, with explicit references to Jago and Litefoot and the leads’ mock-Victorian attire from that story. As if that wasn’t enough, the story goes on to revisit the spiritual starting point of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era, the Nerva Beacon (as seen in The Ark in Space), and serves up a body-horror-influenced story about possessed astronauts. Okay, okay, guys: we get the idea.
The really weird thing is that, despite crowbarring in so many references to the on-screen stories from this period, Destination: Nerva really doesn’t feel much like any of them. One can’t really blame Nick Briggs for not being Robert Holmes, hardly anyone ever has been, but this just feels like a fairly bland runaround, with no sense of the ‘genuine gothic’ so beloved of Philip Hinchcliffe himself. (The swipes from Holmes, by the way, extend to reusing a plot idea from one of his Blake’s 7 scripts, but I’m not entirely certain this has been consciously done.) It’s pretty much a wit-free zone, too: I may be doing the script a disservice, but most of the Doctor’s funniest lines sound like ad libs from Tom. And, for a story so intent on immersing itself in the spirit of 1977, there are signs of a modern sensibility at work: there are two significant female characters, which isn’t exactly evocative of an era where many of the stories had no guest roles for women at all.
(Man, there’s a big can of knotty worms – I would never judge the sexual or racial politics of a 1970s story by modern standards, or at least not too harshly, but on the other hand is it acceptable to criticise a period pastiche for being too diverse? In this case I would cautiously say yes, given that Destination: Nerva plainly has being a Hinchcliffe pastiche as its prime raison d’etre. The inclusion of a more diverse cast may or may not help the story as a story, but they’re certainly a mark against its authenticity.)
On the other hand, the story’s desperation to prove itself a genuine part, or at least a continuation of, this era of the series may be understandable given that neither Tom Baker or Louise Jameson sound quite match-fit in this story. Their performances aren’t quite pitched right – 2012 Leela sounds shrill and up-tight where 1977 Leela was matter-of-fact and sincere, while the Doctor… I don’t know, the dividing line between the fourth Doctor and Tom Baker himself has always been, umm, porous, but to me it sounds like there’s a lot more Tom than the Doctor in the performance here. The effortless domination of every scene, and that subtle alien aloofness – both of them are not quite there any more. Some of it may simply be down to the fact that, inevitably, Tom’s voice has changed as he’s aged, and it doesn’t quite have the richness or power it once had.
Oh dear, I’ve been almost entirely negative about a story for which I am, theoretically at least, the ideal target audience: I’m a die-hard fan of the series who started watching at the end of Season 14, which is exactly when this is set. Are my standards too high? I don’t know. I have to say that I’m not particularly a fan of Nick Briggs as a writer – his stories are always solid enough in terms of narrative cerpentry, but they’re almost never especially witty or inventive, or indeed pack much of a punch in terms of subtext or emotional content. All this is true of Destination: Nerva – it feels like a statement of intent rather than an actual story, with the realisation not living up to the ambition.