UNIT: Encounters – Starring Jemma Redgrave Ingrid Oliver, James Joyce & Ramon Tikaram. Written by Matt Fitton, Roy Gill, Andrew Smith & John Dorney. Directed by Ken Bentley – 4xCD / Download (Big Finish)
The 21st century UNIT box sets from Big Finish have so far all been single story-arcs that amp up the stakes to a final enormous showdown between the forces of alien gittishness and the forces of UNIT, dedicated to saving the planet.
Well…that was nice while it lasted.
UNIT Encounters, the fifth box set in the series, does away with overarching storylines, and gives us four stories that stand more or less on their own merit.
Which would be fine, except it then seems to feel unsure that they can stand on their own merit, and scatters references to a shadowy bunch of alien artefact-salesmen, the Auctioneers, here and there, without bringing them to any particular point within the course of the box set, leaving the set feeling neither here nor really, convincingly there.
To mitigate the feeling of bittiness that will necessarily come from switching to single stories after four overarching box sets, Big Finish brings out the big guns in a very literal sense, adding both Daleks and Sontarans to the roster of alien enemies against which UNIT is pitted this time out.
The Dalek Transaction by Matt Fitton brings a Dalek down to Earth, damaged and captured by a group of rather cod Latin American revolutionaries. They strip it out of its casing, hide its weapon and auction it to the highest bidder, raising money for ‘the cause’ of their nation’s fight for independence. The highest bidder is Kate Stewart and the UNIT crew, really vaguely disguised as international mercenaries.
It’s difficult to care for the revolutionaries from the word go – they seem written as ‘Dalek-victims-in-waiting,’ but the scenario is relatively straightforward: wounded, uncased Dalek on a Mission Impossible to regain its casing and its weapon and lead humanity to its inevitable extermination.
Once that storyline reaches its predictable tipping point, The Dalek Transaction gets interesting, in that the Dalek does some unusual things, and Nick Briggs is on blistering form here, adding extra punches of vindictive, almost personal malice to its grating and ranting, meaning you almost side with the lone Dalek more than anyone else in the story, be it the mercenaries who want to trade it like a slave, or the UNIT crew who want to isolate it and make it less of a Dalek. That said, you come to the end of The Dalek Transaction feeling like you’ve just heard a familiar story, with some extra bumps on – and that the extra bumps don’t add up to anything much.
Invocation by Roy Gill is a story of UNIT as ghostbusters, in both the literal and figurative senses. While on a mission to investigate an old UNIT facility that’s now defunct, Kate is scared witless by a ghostly grey man appearing from nowhere. Hundreds of miles south, Captain Josh Carter is out on a Hallowe’en date which is subsequently crashed by the same grey man, and everyone can see it but him.
Osgood meanwhile is startled by signals from a long-expired satellite, broadcasting what appears to be a demonic conjuration…in Latin.
To find out what’s really going on, the UNIT team have to lay one of the organization’s particular ghosts to rest, but to do that before the world goes squirly and ghostly and altogether ‘Creepy things from a dark dimension’y, there must be sacrifice, and there must be death. Invocation is a gorgeous creation in and of itself, and it feels entirely self-contained, with a pay-off that delivers. That it feels and sounds like nothing else in the 21st century UNIT box sets is fine as far as it goes – you’ll enjoy listening to it immensely, especially given some great spiky performances from Lucy Fleming as Mrs Donnelly, caretaker of the old UNIT facility, and Matthew Cottle as her son Ben. But sandwiched as it is between the Dalek and Sontaran stories, it’s a practically perfect oddity, the change of pace and tone making it feel like it should have been in a different box set somewhere and has sneaked aboard this one out of sheer impatience.
Andrew Smith is a writer who, above all, will always deliver some proper storytelling, usually with a hefty moral underneath. He’s also becoming quite the go-to writer when it comes to expanding the scope and scale of the Sontarans on audio. Usually, he’ll find a new angle, a new question to ask about the Sons of Sontar, and he delivers again in The Sontaran Project, with two entirely separate squads of Sontarans, a little personal betrayal for Osgood, and even some sympathy for the clone warriors as UNIT and the Sontarans work together to stop a monstrous human experiment. Adding the 21st century’s Sontaran king, Dan Starkey, into the mix as the voice of every Sontaran you could need just enriches the quality of the finished story, and makes it the fastest-feeling hour in the box set.
All of which leaves the final story, False Negative by John Dorney, all the more hard going. In essence, it’s a riff on the Jon Pertwee story Inferno, only told from a modern UNIT perspective.
Osgood and Josh have been transported to a parallel dimension, to deal with a parallel – and rather more fascist – UNIT, where their doppelgangers are lovers with murder on their minds. The toing and froing as each in turn meets and interacts with the parallel dimension’s other – our-Osgood-and-their-Josh, our-Josh-and-their-Osgood – becomes quickly exhausting, meaning you have little option but to disengage your brain from the intricacies and nuances of the story on the first listen, though it’s more enjoyable a second time round, when you now how things turn out. It’s great as an homage to the weird fascistic universe of Inferno (though people might be forgiven for thinking it’s actually WE who now live in the Inferno-universe), but weirdly, it feels like a story better suited to TV than audio – the lack of any visual markers means the actors have to carry the identity of their each-universe versions solely with their voices, and a little too often for comfort, the strain of that, while delivering rapid-fire dialogue, seems to show, and to disconnect the listener from the drama.
Overall, UNIT Encounters, by choosing to break free of the single grand story-arc format, is a less committed listen than previous box sets. That should mean it’s an easier listen too, but actually doesn’t. The lack of the square-jawed swash and buckle of Warren Brown as Sam Bishop, the tonal roller coaster from episode to episode, and the fact that nothing is made of the Auctioneer references by the end of the set leaves you feeling like you’ve listened to some pretty good stories, but that you’re missing the consequence of any of them. The non-arc arc, while striving to show business as usual at UNIT, actually leaves you wanting more in terms of escalation, of oomph from this set, and so while there’s little that’s actually wrong with any of the stories, UNIT Encounters ends up feeling like rather less than the sum of its parts. Tony Fyler