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.