Doctor Who: The Helliax Rift – Starring Peter Davison, Blake Harrison, Russ Bain, Genevieve Gaunt, Deborah Thomas, Anna Louise Plowman, Robbie Stevens & Jacob Dudman. Written by Scott Handcock & Directed by Jamie Anderson (Big Finish)
UNIT has always been a bit of a funny organization in Doctor Who. For such a long time, it formed the heart of the Doctor’s “extended family” on Earth. It was a time when he desperately needed not only a group of friends but a physical “home”, a place where he could retreat, work on the TARDIS in relative safety and know that he had the support of those around him. Although the likes of the Brigadier, Sergeant Benton, Captain Yates, Liz Shaw and later Jo Grant were not 100% versed in the Doctor’s past, his lineage and his physiology, they knew enough about him to know that there was a side of him that was intensely private, that he didn’t always want to share his alien heritage with those around him. They knew that sometimes he needed those around him to simply leave him be. In many ways they were a kind of protective “bubble” for the Doctor; on several occasions the Brigadier and others were seen to be deflecting nosy government officials and bureaucrats who were trying to find out more about the Doctor’s past. It was as if the Doctor had recognized what he had done wrong in those pre-Unearthly Child years, when he and Susan had tried to live quietly on Earth (and had failed spectacularly) and had resolved to find a modicum of protection for himself.
And it was interesting: even as the Doctor began to realize that he didn’t have as much use for this protective bubble anymore, UNIT slowly began to reinvent itself. There seemed to exist first a resigned recognition, then a growing excitement that the organization could exist separate from the Doctor’s interventions. In Planet of the Spiders we had a very celebratory tale that brought back Mike Yates, made reference to Jo Grant and utilized a previous plot device—the blue crystal from Metebelis Three—as a MacGuffin. By Robot, we were already being introduced to the next generation of UNIT personnel, in the form of Harry Sullivan, and we would see this next generation begin to coalesce in both Terror of the Zygons and The Android Invasion, the last “true” UNIT story.
Through both the Peter Davison and Colin Baker years, there was precious little reference to the organization; although we revisited the Brigadier a few times, saw the Doctor use his UNIT credentials in Time Flight and briefly met Colonel Crichton in The Five Doctors (who, interestingly, knew absolutely nothing of the Doctor’s past) it wasn’t until Battlefield, in the final season of the classic series, before we finally saw UNIT return with a vengeance, now under the command of Brigadier Bambera.
Even after Big Finish had taken over the mantle as producer of “new” Doctor Who in the early 2000s, we still heard very little from UNIT, other than the odd visit from the Brigadier and the occasional mention, such as in 2000’s The Fires of Vulcan. Even their original four-part UNIT series, released in late 2004 and early 2005, was not as successful as they had hoped It would be. They would not delve heavily back into the world of UNIT until 2011‘s Animal—part of their Lost Stories range and featuring the welcome return of Brigadier Bambara—and 2012’s UNIT: Dominion, a special box set that featured Raine Creevy as the companion, who had been introduced in the aforementioned Lost Stories series. Finally, once the new UNIT, under the command of the Brigadier’s daughter, Kate Stuart, became a staple of the new series, Big Finish jumped on the organization’s newfound popularity and has been releasing new series-related UNIT box sets ever since.
So why is this crash course in UNIT history necessary to truly understand some of the nuances in this month’s Main Range play, The Helliax Rift? Well, let’s start with the fact that there’s an interesting dichotomy that arises in the UNIT stories that take place between 1) the era of the classic and modern teams (Lethbridge-Stewart et. al. & Kate Stewart et. al.), and 2) those that bridged the two eras (late during the classic series, during the so-called “wilderness years”, and in the years following the TV Movie leading into the early years of the new series). Specifically, it’s during this latter era that the Doctor is very much treated as an outcast; despite the fact that UNIT personnel seem to know who he is, they usually seem to be working against him (rather than with him) and more often than not accuse him of dereliction of duty.
As a result, The Helliax Rift operates on a fascinating dynamic, and one that was rarely—if ever—seen in the classic series: where UNIT’s involvement as a “good guy”, that is, a positive element in the story, is very tenuous. The Doctor is treated much more as an outsider than ever before, and his colleagues at the paramilitary organization see his involvement in the whole affair as suspicious at best. It’s a refreshing change from UNIT encounters in the new series where the Doctor is treated as some kind of all-saving messiah; this is a far cry from scientific advisor Bernard fawning over him in Planet of the Dead, or the 12th Doctor being promoted to “President of the World” whenever things got a little tight.
The Helliax Rift is the first in a trilogy of UNIT-based stories this year, but unlike previous trilogies that have featured different Doctors in each story—something we get every year (the collection of two-parters last year, the “Two Masters” Trilogy the year before that, and so on)—this consists of stories that will be spaced out throughout the year, rather than three stories back-to-back. The 6th Doctor will re-encounter this UNIT team in July’s Hour of the Cybermen, while the 7th Doctor will meet them—along with fan favourite Elizabeth Klein—in November’s Warlock’s Cross. In addition to introducing us to Lieutenant-Colonel Louis Price, the new commanding officer of UNIT, as well as Corporal Linda Maxwell, we also meet Lieutenant Daniel Hopkins, UNIT’s medical officer, who functions as a kind of pseudo-companion in this story.
The story begins with UNIT attempting to assess the level of possible alien activity in the wooded hillside that surrounds the Morden Clinic, a medical facility that seems more concerned with security and privacy than one would normally expect of a private hospital. But the strange signals that drew UNIT to these woods have attracted someone else’s attention as well; the 5th Doctor is here, also trying to determine the nature of the signals. Both he and UNIT agree to an uneasy alliance, and together they come across a “Fallen Kestrel”, a crashed shuttlecraft with no sign of its pilot or other occupants.
All in all, The Helliax Rift is enormous fun; Scott Handcock’s script is very well-plotted, revealing just the right amount of information at every twist and turn, so as to keep the listener guessing as to the true motivations of not only the mysterious Morden Clinic, but also UNIT itself. Russ Bain is brilliant as the erratic and unpredictable Colonel Price, pleading for the Doctor’s help one minute and threatening to shoot him in the back the next. Genevieve Gaunt’s Corporal Maxwell also delights, as she tries to navigate the bizarre world of alien incursions and secret organizations, all the while trying to maintain her tough-as-nails exterior. Both Anna Louise Plowman and Deborah Thomas are convincing as Dr. Jennifer Harrison and Annabelle Mordan respectively, the two masterminds behind the strange happenings at the Mordan Clinic, both working towards the same outcome, but with very different motivations.
But the real highlight when it comes to character interaction is the double-act between Peter Davison’s 5th Doctor and Blake Harrison‘s Lieutenant Daniel Hopkins, UNIT’s current medical officer. From their very first meeting, the Doctor seems to recognize a kindred spirit—particularly given that Hopkins steps in as the one man willing to stand between the Doctor and the volatile Colonel Price. Right off the bat there is a definite affection, a factor that is only reinforced when the Doctor chooses to take Hopkins on board the TARDIS to search for more alien signals. In many ways, the connection was just perfect between Hopkins and Davison’s mild-mannered fifth incarnation; it will be very interesting to see how the UNIT doctor reacts to Colin Baker’s more brass and in-your-face version later on this year.
In the end, director Jamie Anderson is the real star here, as he takes all this synergy and expertly weaves it into a fascinating character piece on one hand, and a tantalizing alien mystery on the other. The Helliax Rift keeps its audience guessing until the very last scene, but it also creates characters that we genuinely care about, a very important characteristic of “classic” Doctor Who. I, for one, am thrilled that we will be seeing this team again—if future stories are anything like this one, then boy, are we in for a ride! Peter McAlpine