UNIT: Encounters

Posted in Audio by - December 03, 2017
UNIT: Encounters

Released November 2017
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Following a series of four-part epic adventures, the modern incarnation of UNIT fronted by Kate Stewart now returns for four individual stories relating encounters with both familiar and new foes alike as the very best and worst of humanity is exposed.

Matt Fitton’s ‘The Dalek Transaction’ opens the set as Kate and her team go undercover in the jungles of Central America to infiltrate a guerilla faction offering an alien artefact for auction. Though the title of the release makes no effort to hide the true nature of the artefact on offer, the script superbly shows just how dangerous and cunning a Dalek can still be even when isolated and strategically disarmed by its captors, able to escape and quickly turn the situation to its dangerous advantage by exploiting human fear with carefully crafted words that tap into the Daleks’ merciless reputation. Claiming to be a new type of Dalek Elite, this creature’s ability to easily move and strike without its battle armour and its uncanny ability to understand the thought processes of those around it make it one of the most unnervingly powerful Dalek individuals yet seen.

Yet as strong as the Dalek component of this story ultimately is, it’s likewise the spectrum of humanity on display that bolsters this tale. Aside from actually traveling in the TARDIS, Ingrid Oliver’s Osgood has always been written and portrayed as an ideal companion for the Doctor, and here her compassion for the damaged and imprisoned Dalek hearkens back to Rose in the seminal tale ‘Dalek’ even as the story wisely veers aware from mimicking that tale. As UNIT tries to contain the situation it inadvertently helped to escalate, this guerilla faction that claims to be fighting for freedom and for family is revealed to be a group whose once-noble motives have been undermined and corrupted by pure greed for the riches that alien technology allows in certain circles of the global market, exposing ties to a mysterious group of auctioneers that is almost sure to manifest again as this set continues. While the resolution is a bit rushed, ‘The Dalek Transaction’ is nonetheless a solid start to this set that makes great use of both its iconic foe and strong UNIT cast in a claustrophobic environment filled with so many secrets.

Roy Gill’s ‘Invocation’ shifts to Halloween as ghosts from the past haunt UNIT as strange goings-on abound. Foregoing any obvious narratives when Josh finds himself at a party where phantoms manifest, when Osgood hears strange incantations from an ethereal voice in the sky while working late, and when Kate goes missing in the Scottish borders, ‘Invocation’ instead relies on the unexpected threat of a mysteriously-transmitting satellite that has somehow come back online decades after its power supply should have exhausted itself. With the unexplained events seemingly corresponding to its times of strictly atypical activity, events take a much more dangerous turn as an answer to its transmission arrives and Kate and Osgood must turn to legends of old to devise a solution with the least possible collateral damage.

‘Invocation’ is another story that plumbs the darker shades of humanity, this time as an inability to let the past go due to the need for professional vindication manifests. The satellite and its surprising ability to weaponise sound hearken back to a programme that the Brigadier himself pulled the plug on because of its inherent danger and potential for abuse, but Lucy Fleming’s Alice Donelly refused to accept the merit of that situation, covertly giving into pride and ego by bringing herself back into a position to continue her work in the same location that has remained on the UNIT books despite its disuse before realizing too late that a whim of filler in her programming has had spectacularly unintended consequences. The uneasy relationship between Donelly and Stewart that squarely brings a personal history to the forefront is perfect and carries this atmospheric tale that avoids conformity at every turn.

Andrew Smith’s ‘The Sontaran Project’ offers a satisfying dual storyline that dovetails perfectly by the end as Colonel Shindi discovers more than he bargained for in the Forest of Ardennes while Osgood reunites with an old colleague back in England. Again, the title reveals from the beginning who the alien presence is, and it’s no surprise that the strange source of emissions being traced as well as the ultimate truth behind Professor John Torrence’s secret cloning research both relate to the Sontarans. Nonetheless, Smith is able to play with conventions to some extent within the short running time as Torrence plays to the compassionate nature of Osgood, slowly revealing more and more of his project to her under the guise of keeping UNIT in the loop despite express instructions not to do so from his superiors. Of course, as the demonstration shifts from kind words and a macaque to a strangely misshapen Sontaran and drugging to ensure Osgood’s cooperation, it’s clear that this scheme is anything but noble in its pursuits.

Indeed, while greed for money and the ability to further sales by cloning Sontarans is revealed as the motive as the mysterious auctioneers are again mentioned, it’s the Sontaran race that ends up being the more empathetic here. As Marshal Skar seeks for his missing Commander Merx, a strange bond based on the honour and bravery of soldiering is formed with Colonel Shindi, allowing for very human moments of discussion to peek through the usual unyielding bravado of Sontarans in combat. The Sontarans tend to skew to either overtly comedic or overtly serious, but the script and Dan Starkey’s performance as the clone warriors blur conventions and allow a surprisingly wide breadth of emotions from Skar and from Merx who has become the unwitting participant of scientific experimentation and who forms an easy alliance with the likewise-trapped Osgood. Though it is a bit unfortunate that Torrence reveals the scope of his plan in typical villainous fashion after assuring his compatriots that Osgood will not make it out alive, ‘The Sontaran Project’ is an excellent example of humans being the far worse species even on their own planet against usually dangerous foes, toying with storytelling norms to offer an effectively brutal and emotional story that progresses the underlying narrative of Earth’s black market for alien technology and specimens.

John Dorney’s ‘False Negative’ closes out this UNIT set with Osgood and Josh traveling to an alternate dimension after experimenting with technology left behind by the mysterious auctioneers. Of course, Doctor Who is no stranger to these sort of mirror universe stories, a fact lovingly alluded to as Kate eventually asks if her alternate counterpart wore an eyepatch a la the Brigade Leader in ‘Inferno.’ The script follows the usual route of presenting this world as a much darker and tougher version than the true one, one filled with propaganda, mistrust amongst its ranks, and a willingness to kill at a moment’s notice. Here the UNIT base is believed to be under incursion by alien forces when Sam Bishop is found dead and the strange pod that allowed the interdimensional hop to occur is found, nobody aware that the true culprits are their own versions of Osgood and Josh who are intimately involved with each other.

Probably because of the limited running time, Dorney doesn’t have too much time to offer much exploration of the true versions of Osgood and Josh, even through developments involving their alternate counterparts. Instead, a series of mistaken identities follows as the pieces slowly slot into place and the presence of two versions of the characters is discovered, in the process showing this world’s Kate to be less than fully invested in her work, Shindi to be harsh and ruthless, and Osgood to be much more authoritative and unafraid of throwing her weight around when needed. ‘False Negative’ is a funny and thoroughly enjoyable tale, and it’s admittedly a nice touch having both versions of Osgood work together to save the day in a surprising locale as repeated use of the interdimensional pod develops dramatic consequences, but it does unfortunately sacrifice some of the possible characterization that these types of stories allow in order to keep its sense of spectacle and quick pacing that traverses a lot of narrative ground.

All four stories included in UNIT: Encounters are very entertaining and offer disparate tonal looks at how the team so often comes together to save the unknowing world around it. While the box set as a whole does lack the epic sense that the interlinked four-serial nature of the sets before it contained, it’s nonetheless refreshing and sensible to experience these briefer experiences that would logically occur as UNIT confronts not only otherworldly foes but the inherent flaws of humanity as well. While it’s also fair to say that this set doesn’t advance its characters too much dramatically, it does provide the auctioneer throughline that will hopefully rear its head in the future and perfectly encapsulates the established interpersonal relationships in shorter bursts. Bolstered by the usual strong Big Finish direction and sound design, this fifth set of the modern incarnation keeps the UNIT momentum going strong for the known future sets to follow.

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