The Perils of Nellie Bly

Posted in Audio by - September 12, 2021
The Perils of Nellie Bly

Released September 2021

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Over the years, the Fifth Doctor has become something of the face for Big Finish’s historical adventures featuring no science fiction elements. With his everyman demeanour and appearance and his oftentimes larger supporting retinue, he often allows the times and places of Earth’s past to come to life vividly with a proper sense of scope and intimacy. In Sarah Ward’s ‘The Perils of Nellie Bly,’ the TARDIS lands aboard the RMS Oceanic as the intrepid journalist enters the final leg of her attempted journey to traverse the world in under eighty days.

Nellie Bly, without question, is one of the more fascinating historical figures that the Doctor has not crossed paths with to this point, and although there is obviously no way that the story can properly explore all of her life’s highlights, at least mentioning her purposeful stay in an insane asylum to draw attention to the horrors within gives a sense of the incredible commitment to exposing the truth and proving others wrong she possesses. And while here simply beating the fictional constraints of Phileas Fogg’s journey in Around the World in Eighty Days is motivation enough, the sexist notions of her employer add extra fuel to her fire as she proves that a woman can survive with the barest of essentials alone. Sydney Feder imbues the proper amount of pride and determination to this strong woman, but the script falters by making Bly an incredibly egotistical and entitled person who here shows little regard for anyone around her. The Doctor explicitly says that she seeks attention, but all of her stated plans involve ingratiating herself to the loving masses and gaining fame with celebrities. Even when a plan to stop her successes is revealed in a sequence of events, there is little reason aside from her place in history to care about this woman as she is portrayed, and the abrupt change of character in which she pleads Tegan to provide her a moment of anonymity is so brief and unsupported anywhere else in the story that it comes off as a cheap means of setting up an obligatory and predictable cliffhanger rather than as a means of adding any sort of nuance to the character.

The other issue plaguing this script is the relative sense of pace between the two episodes. The first is entirely set upon the RMS Oceanic and necessarily takes the time to build up who Nellie Bly is while also slowing down enough to show Nyssa dealing with seasickness, setting up the saboteur looking to derail Bly’s plans, and the Doctor even beginning to pick apart that plan while also partaking in a bit of gambling with coins acquired from his deeds. Unfortunately, just as the first attempt to foil Bly is undone with a simple knot untying, the resulting sequence of attempts to stop her come far too quickly and are undone far too easily to ever impose any sense of genuine danger. Horse-drawn stagecoaches can catch up with speeding trains effortlessly and speeding trains are slowed with the simplest of actions, and a 72-hour cross-country train ride is essentially covered off-screen which marks a stark contrast to the first episode. This is a story based in reality, of course, but the overall experience and competency of the saboteur’s plot could have been much more satisfying if the story had stuck with either the maritime or train car setting rather than trying to develop both under such radically different circumstances.

The strength of ‘The Perils of Nellie Bly’ is assuredly with the characterization of the core cast, and Marc particularly gets a couple of truly heroic moments in which to shine. The Doctor does his best to say ahead of each subsequent trap presented and ends up putting the saboteur’s bribe to a much better use in the end, and Tegan and Nyssa both show a sense of genuine compassion and empathy that is wholly befitting of their characters. Likewise, the sound design does a great job capturing the different environments this story presents. Ultimately, however, Nellie Bly simply isn’t a likable enough character to centre these exploits around, and the jarring shift in pacing makes for an uneven experience that fails to truly capitalize on what Big Finish has shown the historical genre can still offer.

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