UNIT: Incursions

Posted in Audio by - May 02, 2019
UNIT: Incursions

Released April 2019

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Through seven box sets that have easily and dynamically expanded upon the modern iteration of UNIT briefly highlighted in recent years of Doctor Who, Big Finish’s UNIT series has proven itself more than capable of interweaving classic and novel threats- both alien and human- with thrilling character drama. In UNIT: Incursions, the many forms that threats to Earth can take once more focus with a surprising tie to the Doctor again highlighting just how flexible this series can be.

Jonathan Morris opens this set with ‘This Sleep of Death’ in which the tensely ominous prospect of one of UNIT’s own stealing a sample of a Silurian plague and then killing himself before revealing its hidden location. As technologically advanced as this version of UNIT is, it is still very much built upon an intrinsic trust between its members, and that Sergeant Warren Calder is capable of so brazenly exploiting that trust with little regard for the consequences strikes at Kate’s very core much more than any alien attack ever could. As a result and not just because of the unaccounted for threat, Kate authorises the use of the dark secret at Abbey Marston, a place where remembering the departed takes on an entirely new meaning. Abbey Marston, of course, featured in the brilliant 2017 Sixth Doctor audio ‘Static,’ and the uneasy and strained atmosphere stemming from this mysterious location where all assumed facts about time and death can be suspended easily transfers to the UNIT banner, the inherent dangers known to be associated with bringing the deceased back from the moment of their deaths here sadly not enough to warrant a complete destruction of the site because of the continued possible advantages it could allow.

For a story and setting in which death is such an integral component, Morris wisely focuses on the intense emotions that the end of life naturally evokes in those confronted with the prospect. Calder is not a stereotypical villain intent on taking over the world or demanding a ransom; instead, he is a man facing a terminal diagnosis and willing to take whatever steps possible to avoid meeting his foretold death, in this case guiding events to ensure his colleagues travel to the stone circle interface and use their memories of him to bring him away from his explosive death. Unfortunately, no gift as powerful as this is without a cost, and as he proves the lengths he will go to in order to obtain a new body, he realises that his own assumptions based on his previous time stationed here have themselves been manipulated to exploit the natural fear of an impending death. ‘This Sleep of Death’ may not be quite as impactful as ‘Static,’ partially due to the shorter running time and because this story lacks the temporal mystery and central focus on a known companion confronting death, but it is still an intensely emotional and intimate piece that proves the Static have an enduring villainous capability and that expertly ties in a key piece of UNIT’s glorious past to show that the old ways can sometimes still be the best.

The Earth’s weather systems have been acting increasingly erratically in Lisa McMullin’s ‘Tempest,’ and as Osgood and Sam investigate the reliable claims that the wind itself is speaking to an eccentric woman on a Scottish isle, Kate must investigate strange going-on at a deep-sea oil rig. Through an evocative but fairly traditional setup, the UNIT team slowly uncover an incursion of an entirely different sort as unknown calls for help coincide with the natural phenomena ravaging the planet’s surface. Naturally, Kate is keen to rule out a more grounded reason for these occurrences during her own investigations, but with wind quite literally reaching out and catching falling objects and people alike, it’s quite clear that no human activity is solely responsible for the mystery at hand. Boldly but wisely, however, the threat is not part of a devious plan to destabilise the world for conquest or some other nefarious means, and the fragility of an alien race truly in need of help but whose pleas have inadvertently disastrous consequences lends a poignantly resonant backbone to the plot that will hopefully forever serve as a reminder to Kate and UNIT that there are exceptions to every rule given their recent spate of experiences.

Unfortunately, ‘Tempest’ is somewhat let down by some of the supporting performances and a few sequences of stilted dialogue even for the leads that does not seem or sound natural in any respect. While stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, the gruff oil rigger Joel Sanders and the elderly and dotty Mother McCracken skew much too far into an overexaggerated territory that detracts from the fascinating drama at hand. Big Finish typically excels at finding a leading and supporting cast that complement each other expertly, but UNIT and the actual plot are sadly overshadowed for the wrong reasons far too often, a fact that becomes all the more glaring once the aliens gain a voice with which to interact. High-pitched and undulating intonations may be designed to enhance the ethereal sense of these aliens, but in practice it’s a decision that makes the resolution a trying one to experience. As a result, ‘Tempest’ is something of an anomaly, a story that features many strong ideas and a genuine sense of increasing danger on multiple fronts but with a couple of narrative flaws and a few key decisions regarding portrayals that prevent it from reaching anywhere near its full potential.

Guy Adams closes out UNIT: Incursions with a two-part story that brings the always-beguiling River Song directly into this universe. Tapping into the growing public concern about energy production and utilisation in a world of dwindling resources and an increased desire for independence, ‘The Power of River Song Part 1’ sees UNIT tasked with monitoring the imminent powering on of a revolutionary new solar array that will see the UK able to sustainably achieve and produce everything it could want. Unfortunately, the appearance of Kate’s own corpse only further strengthens Kate’s fear that this system may be too good to be true, and with transtemporal anomalies and disappearances occurring with increasing frequency in the outside world as well, her desire to finally meet with the elusive Director takes on a wholly new level of importance and urgency.

By necessity, this first part is primarily about setting up the central mystery, and the unnerving ability of River Song to remain an enigma in a world in which secrecy and privacy are all but impossible to secure is a suitable conundrum for Kate to tackle when only an undefined red flag in UNIT’s system accompanies a search of her name. While it’s clear from her position of authority that this is not a typical River Song appearance even as she remains more of a hidden presence for the company, the sheer scope of just what is occurring slowly starts to come into focus as Osgood and Bishop undertake their own investigations and reveal that the unexpected presence of dinosaurs and Vikings just may be the least of their concerns. This is another story in which some of the performances go a little over the top which- whether a purposeful decision to do so or not- do spoil some of the subtle intrigue that is otherwise present, but the temporal fissures nonetheless provide ample opportunities for the second half to tell a truly epic story that takes full advantage of River as a character and Kate facing her imminent demise now that she has seen her corpse and thus solidified her fate.

‘The Power of River Song Part 2’ takes the rather audacious step of having River who is normally so in control of every situation by remaining several steps ahead reveal herself to have inadvertently been the cause of this latest incursion, her vortex manipulator allowing a three-pronged temporal attack on Earth. Allying with Osgood, the two head to the array in space to prevent its true nefarious use that will take rather than provide the needed energy. While the ultimate realisation of these foes here is somewhat underwhelming with little to distinguish them from any other more aggressive and carnal race, the notion that River has been used as a template because of her presumed status as the dominant individual on Earth is a brilliant one that neatly ties together the previous story’s differing eccentricities of Alex Kingston’s performances. Strangely, although River is every bit as heroic here as she usually is, she admits that she actually does not have an exit strategy for this bold mission, in the process putting more than just her own life at risk. Kate makes mention in her own plotline that, although she is a clever and intelligent woman, she often relies on hope for something unexpected to occur; though that insight may have been something of an odd meta moment for the franchise as a whole that doesn’t always adhere strictly to established logic, it certainly pertains to River Song in this context as well but again fails to fully instill a sense of trust in the leads with the entire planet under threat.

Almost inevitably, the resolution does come about fairly easily given the monumental stakes throughout time and Kate unsurprisingly is able to avoid her pre-ordained fate as potential timelines begin to fade around her, but the immensely visual nature of the story ensures a captivating experience from the start. Kingston quite easily enmeshes herself with the core UNIT cast to bring River’s trademark sense of bravado, frivolity, and charisma to the escalating danger, and the character’s sense of responsibility to help right the wrong she has brought upon her husband’s favourite planet adds needed elements of humility and obligation that allow her to work alongside Kate Stewart and Osgood in this instance. While she is not a character who could ever join the ranks of UNIT in a capacity similar to the Doctor, this brief interaction is an enjoyable one that manages to overcome the fact that River has become far too overexposed within the audio medium over the past couple of years. Given the brief time that this conclusory piece has to unfold and develop, the dinosaurs and Vikings end up being less crucial to the actual plot than might be expected, but the ambition and core performances holding that ambition together help to provide a unique experience that again proves how versatile UNIT on audio can be.

As always, the sound design accentuating these adventures is superb, creating an immersive experience that at times provides just as much of an emotional punch as the core performances. While the usual intelligent schemes that Osgood usually comes up with are instead funnelled through Kate in a couple of instances in this set, the camaraderie and sense of responsibility to the planet and to each other that the core UNIT members have shown from the start is once more prominently on display, allowing UNIT to tackle overwhelming odds with a unique approach that remains resonant even eight sets into its run. UNIT: Incursions doesn’t quite reach the highs of its predecessors due to some stumbles along the way and some issues that remain unexplored due to stories’ briefer running times, but this is still certainly worthy of a listen overall and shows the potential that the franchise still holds going forward.

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