Test of Nerve

Posted in Audio by - April 01, 2018
Test of Nerve

Released September 2002

With the first two releases of Sarah Jane Smith hesitantly taking the beloved character into the modern day with a foot still planted firmly in the familiarity and intimacy of the 1970s, writer David Bishop delivers the first truly powerful instalment as all pretenses are dropped and Sarah Jane finds herself in the middle of a shocking political thriller after receiving a gift and message warning of an imminent attack on the London Underground during rush hour. In order to find those responsible before the fateful hour arrives, Sarah Jane must be willing to sacrifice everyone and everything she holds dear.

‘Test of Nerve’ opens in the trusted fashion of a news report getting listeners quickly up to date with the exposition without wasting any time, a technique that is perhaps overused in Big Finish’s early spinoff attempts but one that also expertly ties into Sarah Jane’s career as an investigative journalist here. Indeed, the quick arrival of a rat in a cage of nerve gas in her post is an immense visual that commands the attention of both the audience and the characters in an immediate fashion the series has been missing to this point. With the enigmatic Harris making his presence known throughout as he uses James Carver as a weapon against her and manipulates before promptly dispoing of her vital contact and friend, Claudia Coster, the developing threat of a shadowy force slowly controlling Sarah’s life works to immense effect here and bodes well for future events as well, and Robin Bowerman gives an understated but powerful performance to ensure his character is treated with the requisite respect and gravitas.

The bioweaponry test facility BioGuard is the focus of the investigation after a break-in, and the revelation that it has been continuing with tests started in 1963 where an inert bacterium was dropped out a Northern Line train and found to be present ten miles away within a matter of days helps to imbue a great verisimilitude to the threat that these many decades later now features Sarin gas. Bishop and director Gary Russell do a superb job ratcheting up the tension as rush hour nears, and Roy Skelton gives a profoundly stirring performance as a man who has been campaigning for the rights of soldiers used as guinea pigs for biological weapon experiments but whose life has been completely destroyed despite his good intentions. Featuring a robustly multi-faceted conclusion that shows no qualms with upending the psychological safety of the leads with an entrapping glass box into which Sarin gas is about to be released, a primed bomb at Sarah’s house counting down, and Carver willing to poison innocent commuters in the name of his cause, the momentum rises throughout as Sarah Jane must quickly choose whether to save the life of one friend or those of thousands of innocents.

‘Test of Nerve’ is a great instalment not only for creating a momentous and relentlessly gripping adventure from beginning to end but for proving that Sarah Jane’s paranoia that has been the source of so much consternation early on just may be justified. There are still very much fractures within the relationships of the leads, but Sarah’s life is put into a new context given recent events, and Elisabeth Sladen, Jeremy James, and Sadie Miller all give wonderful performances that bring these complex characters in heightened situations to life expertly and set the precedent for what should be a strong second half to this first series given the truths now known.

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