UNIT: Revisitations

UNIT: Revisitations – Starring Jemma Redgrave, Ingrid Oliver, James Joyce, Ramon Tikaram, Vineeta Rishi, Roger May, Glen McCready, Katherine Senior, Lizzie Stables, Richard Earl, Pik-Sen Lim, Jonathan Christie & Simon Hepworth (Miles McLellan / Pandora). Written by Chris Chapman, David K Barnes, Roy Gill & Directed by Ken Bentley – 5xCD / Download (Big Finish)

There’s a danger when you bring back villains who, for instance, only had a one-shot on TV, and who have become extremely well-regarded as a result of that story. You have to do enough with them so the long-term fans will be able to say absolutely ‘That’s them, that’s how they act,’ but you also need to be able to do new things with them or you’re just re-treading the glories of the past.

There’s a danger in writing UNIT stories too – because it’s a military organisation, it’s easy to fall into the trap of making the solution to every story a good-old shoot ’em up, the Earth defending itself with a gun in its hand.

Welcome to UNIT: Revisitations, a box set that knows the risks and sets out to tell UNIT stories of returning aliens anyway.

The first story in the set, the two-part Hosts of the Wirrn, is an interesting affair from Chris Chapman. Do the Wirrn do new things? Oh, absolutely – there are burrowing Wirrn, flying Wirrn, creepy, disrespectful ventriloquist Wirrn, even somewhat funny Wirrn, while still sticking fairly true to the whole ‘infect humans, turn them into Wirrn, ladel on the body horror’ plot structure of The Ark In Space. Chapman makes the Wirrn rather more insidious than they’ve been before, playing with minds and memories to get their agenda met, but there’s a certain degree of inevitability in the notion that UNIT’s newest recruit, renowned bug expert Shana, will be seduced to the Wirrn side. That’s fine as far as it goes, but where Hosts of the Wirrn stretches the patience is in the fact that the solution to the Wirrn invasion we experience in the story is rooted in a previous Wirrn invasion…of which we know nothing going in. A previous Wirrn invasion that left thousands of Wirrn car cases and a single Wirrn queen egg behind – of which we’ve never heard until it’s referenced here. That’s the thing: a Revisitations box set is fine and dandy as it gives the chance for previous Earth-invaders to try their luck against modern UNIT. But…if you’re going to use a well-regarded monster whose only encounters that we’ve already experienced are in the future from our point of view, you can’t really get away with telling us they’ve been to Earth before. It’s not right and it’s not fair to the listener. You can absolutely do that with a monster we haven’t met before (Oh, we’ll get to that), or a monster we have met before, in the chronological past as far as UNIT’s concerned, but if you’re going to use the Wirrn in a modern-day UNIT story, it feels like a cop-out to have had a previous massive Wirrn invasion of which we’ve known nothing, especially when the resolution to your current Wirrn invasion plot is to…erm…do exactly what they did last time. It would work perfectly well with any alien menace whose previous invasion we’d seen or heard coming chronologically before the days of modern UNIT. If you have to invent a whole previously unexperienced invasion to get your plot to work, the sad truth is you’re using the wrong alien menace forthat story.

There’s also a sense in Hosts of the Wirrn of leaning a little too heavily on the whole military necessity of slaughtering the Wirrn with guns and biological weaponry. Perversely, the reason that feels out of kilter is because of something Chris Chapman does very right here, bringing a clash of ideas about life cycles to the fore. The Wirrn are, from their point of view, just fulfilling their evolutionary imperative –breeding, growing and expanding their colony. UNIT soldiers like Colonel Shindi have a tendency to think of them as an infection, a plague, something that’s simply inimical to human life, and therefore needs killing. It’s a fascinating clash of views on life forms just doing that they need to do to survive, and while we understand that yes, they’re inimical as all-get-out, leaning heavily on the military solution tends to suggest that the viewpoint of human revulsion is perhaps more intrinsically valid than it is.

Having said all of which, along comes David K Barnes with Breach of Trust, which feels like the most complete, and completely satisfying, story in the set, featuring a race of aliens entirely new to us, and who, cursory checking in the archive reveals, have visited the earth before.

It’s really not fair to Chris Chapman, but that works so much better when we go in with an alien we’ve never met before.

Barnes’ story introduces us to the Kalvyri, an unusual and engaging race of aliens who communicate entirely through song. Sadly, they also make war through song –imagine a weaponised Kate Bush and you’re almost there.

When mother and daughter Vara and Norei (both voiced by Lizzie Stables) arrive on earth, fleeing from their warlord leader and, as it happens, husband and father respectively, they put Kate Stewart and UNIT in an impossible position. Give them asylum and endanger the whole human population, or surrender them up tothe warlord, who absolutely will torture and kill them in instructively instructive ways in front of the rest of his people.

Which atrocity do you want on your conscience? Which horrible decision, from the menu of horrible decisions, do you make? Breach of Trust pulls not the least punch in framing these as real, potent,important questions that have to be answered now, tonight, on a very long night for our UNIT team. And let there be no mistake – it’s a story with real, human consequences for the stability and unity of that team, the weight of command and the free will of the human heart very much at odds.

It’s an absolute blinder of a story, Breach of Trust, and it’s one you’ll come back to re-listen to time and time again.Barnes gives us a really interesting new alien race, a sackful of horrible, awkward, inescapable questions of our age and asks us what we’d do. What we’d wish to be done by those in whom we vest the power of life and death over us and those who seek to be among us.

It’ll keep you up at night, that one.

Open The Box, by Roy Gill does exactly that thing we mentioned with the Wirrn – takes a villain from a well-regarded story, updates them, evolves them, shows them to us doing what we know they do but gives them a little twist, a little something new.

If you want to know what old villain we’re dealing with here, it’s perhaps too much of a spoiler to mention that a character called Captain Chin Lee returns to the world of UNIT. Last seen in a particular Pertwee story, the Chinese soldier has had decades to add to her skill set, and we find her here as Director of a centre of that entirely nebulous concept – ‘wellness.’

Perhaps what’s most delicious in this story is that it takes a relatively domestic experience – the dire prospect of workplace wellness and corporate team-building exercises – and uses it as the basis for the return of a classic Doctor Who villain, in a new and expanded form. The monster in question is avery distinct evolution of the original, and Roy Gill uses what we knew of the villain’s abilities in the seventies to expand it into something philosophically interesting, poised between the differing sides of an emerging personality. The story also gives us a peep into the darkest fears of some of our UNIT team – particularly poignant by this third story, as at least a couple of them have psychological baggage from the first two stories – and uses the conceit of the villain to genuinely help them if not work through then at least overcome some of their new fears, barriers and second-guessing.

UNIT: Visitations is a good set, and it’s one you’ll want to listen to. There’s a lot that’s right and good and interesting about Hostsof the Wirrn. Sadly, using the Wirrn at all within the Revisitations concept was a fundamental misstep, leading to an ending to their story that stood no chance of delivering the impact it should have. Breach of Trust though might well become one of your favourite Big Finish stories of all time, and Open The Box is a clever, classy evolution of a seventies villain into a 21stcentury setting. Overall, the set delivers genuine consequences for several members of our UNIT team, and Breach of Trust in particular cracks them open as they’ve never been before.  Tony Fyler

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