Brilliantly, amazingly, the answer to both questions is no and there can be no greater testament to their patience and the passion that’s gone into this new series than Tom mentioning in the big Doctor Who Magazine story that he regrets not having worked for them before and that despite having recorded a couple of year’s worth of material, he’s itching to do some more. Well done lads (and ladies). But the AudioGo series creates a secondary challenge of trying to produce new material that’s significantly different enough to make the project worthwhile. Paul Magrs’s scripts have been somewhat about fulfilling the listener's expectations of Tom’s apparent eccentricity, his Have I Got News For You and convention appearances distilled into drama.
Cleverly, Big Finish have decided to return to first principles and attempt to recreate the sound and style of the original stories. As Tom’s voice over in the trailers suggest, “It’s Saturday night tea time in 1977 all over again!" So we have the classic TARDIS team of Fourth and Leela, Tom consciously reproducing his earlier performance and Louise Jameson magnificently returning to the savagery of a role which has matured over a number of Big Finish’s spin off series across the years. Not only that, Jamie Robertson’s score pastiches and updates Dudley Simpson’s familiar studio ensemble and each of the hour long stories is being released in two half hour episodes with a proper cliff hanger in the middle (perfect for a BBC Four Extra broadcast).
This first story, Destination: Nerva, even breaks us back into the period gently by segwaying directly from The Talons of Weng-Chiang into a pacey return to Nerva Station from The Ark in Space and later Revenge of the Cybermen, at an earlier point in its history when it's still a space dock. Like all good Doctor Who, the story works best for the listener without knowing much in the way of a prior plot synopsis, so I won't say much more other than to note that Briggs’s script neatly updates the odd mix of Victoriana and bloody body horror that ran through the Hinchcliffe-Holmes period. It’s almost a surprise not to hear Dr. Matthew Sweet crop up in an extra interviewing a historian from the British Museum in order to investigate the underlying themes.
As the cover indicates, heading up the supporting cast is Raquel Cassidy, now properly ensconced in the franchise thanks to her appearance in nuWho and mostly recently reading James Goss’s AudioGo, The Art of Death. Cassidy’s always at her best with beleaguered characters and she gives the space dock’s doctor Alison her classic weary sigh and cynicism, with a tragic underpinning that's potentially one of the script's few breaks from its classic Who influences. Aided by his actors, Briggs is also able to create what feels like a realistic working environment in just a couple of scenes, though the focus is always on the Doctor and Leela, carefully balancing the need to produce a relatively unassuming story with a sense of occasion.
Because this opening story’s biggest success is how seamlessly it recreates the chemistry between the Fourth Doctor and Leela after all these years, Big Finish once again fulfilling our expectations then surpassing them. As those of us who pay attention know, Tom’s character changed considerably across his tenure and it’s interesting to be reminded exactly how brusque he could be with his companion in this period, and how alien the two of them could be despite one of them supposedly being human. But we’re still gifted with one of those rare moments when Leela giggles and we can’t help giggling too.
Doctor Who: Destination Nerva from Big Finish is out now on CD and to download. Review copy supplied.