UNIT: Cyber-Reality

Posted in Audio by - May 13, 2018
UNIT: Cyber-Reality

Released May 2018
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

After encounters with old and new foes alike in this universe and another, the modern iteration of UNIT returns for its sixth series, UNIT: Cyber-Reality, to confront perhaps its biggest challenge yet as the mysterious Auctioneers continue to collect and exploit alien technology for maximum profit. Although Kate Stewart has vowed to take this secret network down, the Cyberman menace is closing in, and UNIT’s only hope may come in the form of one of its greatest enemies, the Master.

Picking up on the narrative thread ending UNIT: Encounters, ‘Game Theory’ by Matt Fitton opens with Sam Bishop missing, lost at sea and imprisoned with a valuable hostage, as Kate and Osgood must complete a deadly challenge to rescue their friend. This is very much an expository story of two concurrent plotlines with a common endpoint, and Warren Brown gives an immense performance as UNIT’s troubleshooter who must use his instinct and military training to piece together the mystery before him. Escaping his confines with fellow hostage Julia, the two must sneak through the facility filled with bodies with blank, featureless faces. With the danger of being caught always present, Sam is able to piece together that they have somehow ended up in the Bermuda Triangle, but the mystery becomes even greater when Julia reveals information she should not have and speaks of deserving an extra life. As the narrative resets and Sam once more finds himself trapped alongside Julia, a growing sense of familiarity and déjà vu begins to overtake him, and he is intelligent enough to know that the best way to bring the true enemy out is to create an emergency. Shrewdly deducing from the glitches and patterns in the environment around him that he must be in some sort of simulated reality even as faceless beings chant ‘Game over,’ Sam proves in this sequence to be every bit as capable as any other member of UNIT and once again helps to flesh out the true proficiency and aptitude of the organisation as a whole.

As this is unfolding, Kate and Osgood have decided to go it alone to rescue Sam much to the chagrin of Colonel Shindi, soon coming upon the mysterious Overseer who is aware of their task as proclaimed by the pleas of a desperate agent. Demanding that their weapons are left behind, the Overseer soon sets in motion a dangerous game with the highest stakes as Kate and Osgood must piece together the puzzle before them to prevent the ominous countdown with origins outside of Brighton from reaching zero. With the threat of an intelligent rust imminent and Krillitane systems to crack, the danger escalates rapidly and proves to be only the first of many as Kate realises that they are being set up to lose and the Overseer reveals that she wants Kate to feel helpless and pointless given the pain she has caused the profit-seeking Auctioneers during her previous exploits against them. With a great double act that exemplifies the more practical side of Kate and the more inquisitive side of Osgood, Jemma Redgrave and Ingrid Oliver are excellent as their characters come to realise and take advantage of the reality of the situation before them to emerge victorious, culminating in the portentous revelation that the Auctioneers planned for all of this to show that they do not need UNIT’s Black Archive because of the advanced technology they already have, offering a world where the two organisations coexist in benign neglect and where the Auctioneers can continue to make profit, here from the template of Sam Bishop’s soldiering in the burgeoning virtual reality business.

In ‘Telepresence’ by Guy Adams, Osgood learns that the technology at hand is not simply the entry point to a virtual world but a bridge to another universe through which their consciousnesses can travel. Leading Colonel Shindi and Josh Carter on a perplexing journey into unknown territory, the three must come to terms with the abilities of their avatars and the power of psychosomatic threats in a world that appears to be distinctly less advanced than their initial scans suggested. With strange dogs and mechanical worms that seem to be appendages of something even more fearsome pursuing them through the arid desert and ruins of a fallen society, the three learn that the power of thought is paramount in this realm, and logical bounds of strength and speed suddenly become meaningless as they learn to exploit their current situation to its fullest advantage to remain alive as they close in on the dark heart of this ruined world they discover to be an alternate version of Earth.

With Sam suffering from side effects stemming from prolonged exposure to virtual reality and Kate doing her best to monitor her colleagues within this untested environment, it becomes clear that the technology is doing all it can to keep Kate apart and unable to help when danger mounts and the links become ever stronger. As the team advances into dark tunnels lined with filled pods covered with some sort of plastic, Osgood senses an eerie familiarity that she can’t quite place, and the three soon uncover the imposing Hive that requires flesh for base material and energy. Even as avatars, however, UNIT’s members still have their use to this being, and they unwittingly become part of the signal and dimension seeding process that will continue its spread into lands anew. As they plead for Kate to pull the plug regardless of the personal consequences to them, the Colonel and Osgood begin to change alongside Sam with only Josh able to escape unscathed, and the addition of the Hive’s activated advance troops represent a fearlessly dramatic conclusion to a tale that until that point doesn’t quite manage to convey a sense of danger in the virtual reality world where so much of the action is set even with the knowledge that these two worlds are very much interconnected. After two stories heavily featuring the virtual world, however, the narrative shifts back to Earth and has finally revealed the pieces to the true threat upon which this series has been built and advertised.

Guy Adams’s ‘Code Silver’ sees the Cyber threat manifest on Earth to continue its conversion and spread throughout realities. There’s no denying that the Cybermen present one of the most menacing dangers within the Doctor Who universe throughout their many variations and upgrades, especially given their chilling origins that seem so predictive for humanity and the body horror that their conversion process presents as all individuality is stripped away. However, the mind control of Osgood presents an altogether more cerebral approach to the patient logic and sheer numbers of the Cybermen’s usual advances. Allowed to keep her own personality while integrated into the Cyber mainframe, Osgood brings her knowledge of Earth, UNIT, and current technology into the fold to offer the Cybermen near-instant conversion of Earth’s population through its reliance on mobile phones and the use of an app that’s already been made for the virtual reality technology. Compared to the almost 8,000 years the Cybermen were willing to wait to see their predictive victory come to fruition as their invasion and conversion continued to bridge dimensions, the Cybermen- with the logical Osgood quietly dictating their course of action as she makes the most of her remaining time and confirms that individuality has its place within the Cybermen’s realm- prove to be one of the most immensely dangerous forces UNIT has yet encountered and again parallels the original Cybermen’s reliance on technology with humanity’s in the present.

Meanwhile, Kate and the Auton-altered Josh who seems immune to Cyber conversion do their best to keep the beachhead threat contained both through physical force and through a communications blackout. Again, ‘Code Silver’ does not deal with the horror of conversion to any great extent, but Adams dedicates quite a bit of time to pressured discussions about just how unknown and variable the Cybermen remain. Knowing that some are vulnerable to gold, some to acetone, some to radiation, and some to emotions, Kate postulates that there was once one Cyberman group that has fragmented into many throughout the eons with each developing its own strengths and weaknesses while fundamentally remaining the same, a process Josh likens to the many different cultures on Earth to again draw parallels between the two species. Confronting the unknown with the entire planet at stake, the two throw everything they have at the Cybermen, including brute force and the ever-reliable C4. Kate seems to understand that she’s fighting a losing battle with Osgood working for the enemy, but she never falters in her resolve even as the situation turns more helpless and dangerous as she becomes the primary target due to her very specific knowledge.

Help from the inevitability of the expansion of Cybercontrol under its new paradigm comes from the unlikeliest source as the War Master arrives at the hour of Earth’s greatest need in ‘Master of Worlds’ by Matt Fitton. Each of the many incarnations of the Master is always fascinating to explore given the subtle nuances that differentiate them as they flit between good and evil in their own misguided ways, and that sentiment perhaps applies most strongly to Derek Jacobi’s Time War version given the ultimate sacrifice for self-preservation he would come to make by shedding his entire biology and identity. Naturally, the Master and UNIT have a long history together, and it’s fitting to see the true respect for the Brigadier that the Master still holds after all of these years given just how frequently he found himself an unwitting guest of the Brigadier’s imposing but hospitable confinement. The Master here senses quite quickly that Kate is willing to take more extreme measures than her father, and he points out that the Cybermen would have been unstoppable had they converted her just as she wonders just what kind of man would run away from his problems rather than directly confront them.

The realms of UNIT and the Auctioneers once more collide as the Master passes judgment on humanity’s ever-present financial greed as a motivating force while realising that the Cybermen are implementing a plan he would approve of by using the planet’s networks already in place, and the fearsome extent of the Cybermen plan quickly becomes known with people willingly lining up for conversion and the process spreading across the globe. Perhaps a bit too conveniently, an element introduced in the first story that happens to be nearby comes into play once more and provides at least a temporary measure of offense for UNIT that allows its members to escape the clutches of conversion. With the Master inserting himself into the role of scientific adviser after learning that Earth has all sorts of hidden defenses including those effective against Time Lords, it’s always clear that his intentions are to survive and to reclaim his TARDIS and that he will only ally himself with UNIT as long as their aims intersect. The cunning and knowledge of a Time Lords knows almost no bounds, however, and the very bridge between dimensions that allows the Cybermen to spread becomes the beacon for Earth’s salvation as the race’s prior failures and successes gain prominence once more, allowing UNIT to make the most of the technology on Earth to help restore a sense of normality after so much chaos and change.

UNIT: Cyber-Reality is excellently acted and directed and features the usual sterling sound design that so normally accompanies Big Finish productions. However, the box set as a whole doesn’t quite live up to its potential and, though perfectly enjoyable, represents a bit of a backwards step for this range that started out so spectacularly strongly even as the sacrifice of Osgood becomes a serious consideration. Two stories out of four being dedicated to introducing a virtual world in order to establish the threat in the real world is simply too long before delivering on the promise of the Cybermen and the Master together in the exciting final two. Had the first two stories been condensed into one to offer a more concise three-part set or to offer space for another instalment on Earth, the overall pacing, tension, and danger could have been more even and altogether stronger throughout. Similarly, although Ingrid Oliver as Osgood proves to be completely terrifying when connected to the Cyber mainframe to efficiently bring about the end of humanity, the direct reference to the Master’s future plan to install himself as Prime Minister following his regeneration in ‘Utopia’ does take away from some of the novelty here while still neatly tying into established continuity. Derek Jacobi is as incredible as ever with the Master fully in his element as he forges alliances and pays respect to his past while still only looking out for himself, but the Master’s inclusion to bring about a resolution almost by necessity makes UNIT as a whole seem less capable in its own series. There is still plenty to recommend here, but those looking for a novel experience beneath the spectacle of two returning foes will be left to look elsewhere.

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