Sunday, 25 December 2016

Sarah Jane Smith 1.3: Test of Nerve by David Bishop (September 2002)

I only know David Bishop’s writing through his Unbound audio Full Fathom Five, which - despite notoriously being rather disliked in some fan quarters for how far it pushes the Doctor - was nonetheless a well-controlled piece of drama, taut and tense and challenging. Coming to his first Sarah Jane Smith story with the knowledge that he takes over stewardship of the range for the entirety of the second season, I had high hopes that he could bring a punchy maturity, tight plotting and memorable threats to this currently languishing range, and to my delight he delivers all three. Test of Nerve is primarily London-centric, but far from the anaemic scenes we get in Comeback or the overdone histrionics of the ill-thought-through political organisations in UNIT, Bishop gives us a taut and mature terrorism thriller which is tense right from the start of its (just under an hour) runtime and never lets up, making strong use of iconic locations like the London Underground which both make the story feel more Whoish than the first two but also fit Sarah Jane’s ‘investigative journalist’ brief. Its very title - a far cry from the “airport potboiler” vibe of The Tao Connection and the simultaneously limp and irrational Comeback- is a step-up, conveying both the story’s focus on the nerve gas sarin but also the degree to which this is a tense listening experience.

Despite being outlawed in 1997, sarin has been never far from the headlines in recent years and thus Test of Nerve is eerily prescient; chemical warfare is one of the great modern terrors, and Bishop makes great use of the kind of threat it might pose. The opening gambit with a rat in a cage getting gassed to death is a striking, chilling way to begin as you mean to go on, and only gets eerier as the story goes on and we learn of the enigmatic Harris’ plans for gassing the London Underground. It might just be Mark Gatiss’ enthusiasm for The Web of Fear and his subsequent usage of the same setting in the Sherlock episode The Empty Hearse, but there’s a slight whiff of a Sherlock case about this - both the ratcheting tension and the modern trappings but also the concept of the villains playing a game with Sarah rather than it being something she stumbles across herself. Bishop also makes the wise choice of incorporating news broadcasts into the story, much as Russell T Davies does constantly during his tenure as the showrunner; the fizzy beat of such programmes serves well both as diegetic and extradiegetic score, and they succinctly but effectively sum up the state of affairs in a manner befitting a cheap but effective way of selling the scale of events. Gary Russell’s direction is strong; everything is uncluttered, pacey and easy to visualise. Moments like Sarah’s phone-call to Claudia with Carver listening in or the ticking clock at the climax cutting between all three tortuous scenarios are beautifully tense.

Central to the nerve gas plot is a single fantastic character, James Carver, who gets even better material than Sarah herself: a damaged former soldier campaigning for the rights of veterans used as medical guinea pigs by the government, Carver is a broken man, bereft of his job, home and marriage. He is, in other words, easy pickings for a professional manipulator like recurring baddie Philip Harris, and the way in which Carver is steered towards extremist acts is both plausible and frightening. A beautifully complex figure, Carver is tragic and scary, believable and moving, and his eventual suicide is upsetting and relieving at the same time as being inevitable. It’s an absolutely superb performance by Roy Skelton - the original voice of the Daleks - and without doubt the best thing about the Sarah Jane Smith series so far.
I’m still not sold on the series premise and construction as a whole, though, and Test of Nerve works mostly in spite of it rather than because of it. Jeremy James’ performance as Josh isn’t doing much for me, his line readings usually sound off, and everything about Sarah’s “gang” feels awkward and artificial in a way that the 13 Bannerman Road crew from The Sarah Jane Adventures does not. Despite awkwardness in the actors’ performances, Josh, Ellie and Nat do work a bit better here than in the first two stories, even if only because of the tense, threatening situations they find themselves placed in: being trapped inside a glass cage in an abandoned Underground station ready to be gassed is particularly nightmarish, but Harris’ torture of Nat, tipping her out of her wheelchair, is also distinctly unpleasant. The stakes here do, at least, feel real and gutsy in the way they did not in the first two stories, and the nail-biting tension means that the more hard-nosed, paranoid take on Sarah feels justified in a way it hasn’t thus far.

Harris remains something of a moustache-twirling enigma, though Robin Bowerman is a terrifically silky voice actor and his presence always enlivens a scene. The revelation, though, that behind Harris lies the pure VILLAINY of a minor character from 1975 who wants revenge on Sarah is … a tad underwhelming. Don’t we all want to see Sarah fighting off Axons and Draconians and things, not, er, Hilda Winters? I’m reminded of Gareth Roberts’ original idea for The Lodger, which is that the Doctor would meet Meglos, hell-bent on revenge, but wouldn’t be able to remember who Meglos is; you’d almost think Sarah wouldn’t have any memory of Hilda Winters when they eventually come face-to-face! Perhaps I need to re-watch Robot for a reappreciation of Patricia Maynard’s performance but, again, the TV show seems to get it right over the audios in this regard, boasting Slitheen and Judoon and Sontarans rather than forgettable human villains. Still, time will tell.

I’m still not sure that this Sarah Jane Smith series is really succeeding, but if we get more stories like Test of Nerve, then it may do yet.

Other things:
“I’m the one in the wheelchair!” - one of the few seriously clunky lines of dialogue. It needed the chop. There must be more elegant ways of reminding us of Nat’s disability (if indeed we needed reminding) than this.
“Terrific. A dead rat and a cryptic message, and it’s not even lunchtime.”
“Review all the news bulletins for the last few days. Look for anything strange, anything that might be relevant.”/“Could you be less specific?”
“Oh dear, it was switched off… thank God for texting.” This series’ use of mobiles remains light years behind Sherlock, doesn’t it? It feels very, very dated.
“That man is dead. I’m just a husk of what’s left.”
Nice nod to Porton Down (where Harry Sullivan might still be working?)
“My employers want Sarah Jane Smith to suffer. They couldn’t care less about her pet cripple.”
Even Darlington’s infernal bass riffs don’t seem quite so bad in this one; he tones them down a little and goes for a tenser score instead.
Nat’s dressing-down of Sarah for her having to see the “bigger picture” at the story’s end - reminiscent of many a similar moment between a companion and the Doctor - is well-done.
“A few years ago, yes, I would have come for you. No question. Every fibre of me would’ve screamed: save a friend! Let other people save the world! But that time’s gone. And I’ve come to realise that the world-savers… well, they’ve gone. And in that way I’ve moved up a rung.”
I’m going to guess the cover of the final story of this season, with what looks like an Indian mandir, signals that we will be returning to the "Asian project" in Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre

Next: Sarah Jane Smith 1.4: Ghost Town by Rupert Laight (October 2002)

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