We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Last week, we wrapped up series two of the Eighth Doctor Adventures; and earlier this week, we finished the Eighth Doctor’s second “season” of the Main Range. This week, we begin something (sort of) new, as we look at series one of the Fourth Doctor Adventures, starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson. Today we’ll begin with Destination: Nerva, picking up immediately after the classic serial The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!
Leaving London and the company of Henry Gordon Jago and George Litefoot, the Doctor and Leela barely have time to dematerialize before the TARDIS receives an alien distress call…from the year 1895?! They follow the signal to a house in England, where a battle has taken place. Human and alien dead can be found; the Doctor identifies the aliens as Drellerans—and they were not the aggressors. He also finds a Drelleran stardrive, which is faulty and therefore potentially deadly. They flee in the TARDIS and try to track the drive to the ship it belongs to, but the drive’s effect on the TARDIS nearly knocks them off course.
They arrive on a transport ship, the Chandler, some centuries in the future. The ship is carrying a construction crew to a space station under construction…and the Doctor is thrilled to discover that the station is Nerva Beacon, which he has visited before (here called Nerva Dock). With Leela, he has a brief run-in with the crew’s foreman and shop steward, Jim Hooley, who decides they are new workers. The Chandler is forced to divert to a different airlock, as their expected lock is unexpectedly occupied by a space pod from another ship called the Aeolus. Upon arrival, he orders the Doctor and Leela into spacesuits and onto the station hull with the rest of the work crew.
The Aeolus pod is of Drelleran design, as is its parent ship; but it’s a human aboard, one Sergeant Henry McMullan. He enters the airlock without authorization, and demands to be let in. Chief Technician Laura Craske calls her acting supervisor, Dr. Alison Foster for permission to let him in. Foster realizes something is not right, and declines, but her signal is cut off, and Laura lets Henry in. He shakes her hand, and she suddenly becomes compliant to him. She takes him to the Control Center, and introduces him to the station commander, Commodore Giles Moreau; Moreau declines to shake his hand. Moreau orders McMullan to medical quarantine as per standard procedure, but is interrupted by a system fault alert. Elsewhere, Hooley has escorted the Doctor and Leela back inside, and called for security; security arrives in the form of a hovering, robotic Drudger, and takes them (using mild force) to the Control Center. Hooley returns to the hull. Moreau, meanwhile, traces the fault to the airlock where the pod is docked. McMullan tries to control the situation, and appears to mesmerize Leela, but the Doctor breaks her free of it. McMullan wants to shake hands with everyone, but Leela realizes he is not what he seems. Moreau orders the Drudger to arrest them all, but it collapses in system failure. Laura, meanwhile, becomes suddenly weak and incoherent. On the hull, Hooley is behaving similarly to Laura; Foster orders him back inside.
The Doctor realizes McMullan is wearing the same uniform under his spacesuit as the dead soldiers they saw in 1895. He realizes the Aeolus is a Drelleran ship, and confronts McMullan about stealing it. A proximity alert sounds; the Aeolus has arrived, and will soon dock. Henry, it seems, is an advance troop, carrying some kind of fast-moving infection that affects not only people, but the station systems; it is carried on the skin, in the form of a separate, independently-acting epidermis; the Doctor dubs it an “Epiderm”. Laura quickly becomes a similarly-mutated creature. The commander of the Aeolus, Lord Jack Corrigan, contacts them. The Doctor, Leela, and the Commodore are forced to run.
Corrigan communicates with the Epiderms forming on the station, and says he and the crew will join them for the final unification of humankind.
As the Aeolus docks, the Doctor warns the others not to let the creatures touch them. Hooley enters the airlock, but the inner door won’t secure. He insists something is wrong with him, and Foster tries to intervene—but she is stopped just short of touching him by the Doctor and the Commodore. Hooley dies while they argue, and Foster is outraged; Leela is forced to hold her back. She sees Hooley begin to transform, and she flees with the others. Elsewhere, Corrigan comes aboard, and meets a security team—and absorbs them into the Epiderm entity. The Doctor’s group flees to the Chandler, but Moreau is touched by one of the creatures as the airlock closes; unknown to anyone, he is infected. They cast off from the station, breaking the airlock in the process. The Doctor sees, to his delight, that Nerva is orbiting Jupiter, as he once guessed.
Moreau sends a distress signal to the nearby supply ship from whence the Chandler originated, and requests a quarantine of Nerva, but is unsuccessful, as Jack blocks the signal. Jack tries to entice them back, and explains how he took the Aeolus in the nineteenth century and used it to try to build a British empire in the stars. The group discovers that the supply ship is already infected. With nowhere to go, Leela suggests using the TARDIS to get to Earth, but the Doctor thinks it won’t work—and it becomes moot, as Moreau transforms and blocks their way to the TARDIS. The Doctor locates spacesuits and gets himself, Leela, and Foster onto the hull. Outside, they see a huge ship coming—a Drelleran ship, centuries more advanced than the Aeolus. It teleports them aboard.
Two Drellerans meet them. They show the group a video of Jack’s initial conquest of a Drelleran expedition, and explain how he conquered the peaceful Drelleran society afterward. They explain that, in revolt, the Drellerans unleashed a virus which creates the Epiderm creatures. The infected Jack was compelled to return to Earth and infect the rest of humanity; it’s sheer chance that he landed on Nerva first. The Doctor argues that humanity has matured since then; Foster and Leela convince them of his trustworthiness. However, they have made up their minds, and they infect the trio with the virus. They then return them to the station, where the Epiderms wait.
When the Epiderm tries to merge with them, it begins to die. They realize they were infected with not the virus, but a cure. It spreads rapidly, and all over the station, people begin to recover and awaken. The exceptions are Jack and his crew; having used stolen Drelleran technology to extend their lives, they now cannot handle reversion to normal, and they die. The Doctor encourages Foster to take the opportunity to develop a serum against the Epiderm virus, because Moreau is still infected—and not only that, but his infection of the Chandler is separating them from the TARDIS.
Later, with the TARDIS recovered, Leela and the Doctor discuss their travels. He asks where she wants to go, and she takes him up on his previous offer to teach her about the universe. With that, they depart.
To be honest, I was under the impression that Big Finish had been doing Fourth Doctor adventures long before 2012, when this story was published. I don’t mind being wrong, however; and they’ve gone to great lengths to put plenty of Fourth Doctor material on the market since then. This story is a decent opener, though it feels very short. It begins, as I said, minutes after the end of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, as evidenced by the fact that the Doctor and Leela are still wearing the same clothes; and naturally, it references that story several times. Tom Baker’s age doesn’t show at all here; he puts in a great performance, as does Louise Jameson.
My usual criticism of the Fourth Doctor/Leela team still applies here, unfortunately: They have a very strange relationship, and it wouldn’t be such a stretch to refer to it as a master/slave relationship, or better, master/pet. I will grudgingly admit that it fits in with the established chronology in that sense; Talons is a very early story for Leela, and this one follows immediately after, so their relationship has had no time to grow. I wish I could say it gets better with time, but I don’t think it does, or at least not enough. Leela does get some character growth in other materials after leaving the Doctor’s company on Gallifrey, so there’s that. Here, she is very obsequious toward him, practically fawning over him when speaking to Dr. Foster; it makes for the only really awkward moment in the story.
Nerva Beacon, or Nerva Dock as it is known here, is a good location for stories, and I don’t mind revisiting it, especially as it’s already been established as surviving for thousands of years. The Doctor makes some reference to his previous visits (The Ark in Space through Revenge of the Cybermen, covering almost all of season twelve), but not in any great detail, which is appropriate for the rushed action of the story. (I say “rushed” in a good sense; it’s hectic for the characters, who are racing against time to escape the Epiderms.) Ironically enough, the Doctor doesn’t really do much to solve this crisis, other than a few moments of trying to persuade the Drellerans; it’s they who save the station crew, by administering the cure. That’s a strange turn for the normally proactive Fourth Doctor and the combative Leela, but it’s okay once in a while.
Most of the continuity references seen here are, naturally, from The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It’s worth mentioning that that serial’s Jago and Litefoot, mentioned again here, will eventually have their own audio series, and will appear in a few other Doctor Who audios as well (The Justice of Jalxar, Voyage to Venus, possibly others). The Drudgers, the station’s hovering security robots, originate in the Audio Visuals audio productions; for Big Finish, they first appeared in The Sirens of Time, and reappeared in Invasion of the Daleks (Dalek Empire I), as well as a Bernice Sumerfield novel (Benny and Louise). The Doctor mentions that he once knew a butler named Butler (The Foe from the Future). As well, there are the previously-mentioned references to season twelve.
Overall, there’s not much to complain about, other than the general relationship between the Doctor and Leela. It’s a quick story with no real loose ends, and no overarching story arc (at least, as far as I can tell at this point). It’s fun to listen to, and doesn’t require much investment of time or energy. Not a bad start to what I hope is a good series.
Next time: The Renaissance Man! See you there.
All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below. This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.