UNIT: Nemesis- Masters of Time

Posted in Audio by - July 17, 2023
UNIT: Nemesis- Masters of Time

Released July 2023


The Vulpreen have successfully taken over Earth with only small clusters of humans outside of frozen time still putting up a fight, and now it appears that Missy has joined their cause to dominate all of space and time as the UNIT: Nemesis saga reaches its close in its fourth box set, Masters of Time.

Earth, of course, has been the subject of countless invasion attempts throughout the history of Doctor Who, but the Vulpreen’s ability to freeze nearly every significant population centre in time provides a unique and effective backdrop for John Dorney’s ‘One Way or Another’ and its ragtag resistance that eliminates the need to explain how vast swaths of humanity are persisting under enforced conditions such as imprisonment or labour. Aided by Bert Hockley, a retired postman with knowledge of the building that has become a Vulpreen prison camp who finds himself distinctly out of his element, Kate proves to be a wholly effective leader who can strategize, improvise, and command as she learns of and adapts to her familiar yet wholly alien surroundings. Jemma Redgrave emphasizes Kate’s authoritative and determined nature expertly, and her despair upon learning of Missy’s seeming involvement in the Vulpreen’s plan to create super arches to expand their influence is palpable. Yet as she looks to exert a semblance of resistance over the near totality of the Vulpreen control, Dorney employs a fascinating writing structure that simultaneously follows Osgood as she in the same location looks to turn the Vulpreen’s dominance of time to her advantage. With Kate unaware that Osgood and UNIT colleagues are being kept here, the witnessing of events through the two perspectives provides a tight cohesion to events here that is far more nuanced than a typical linear narrative allows. For her part, Ingrid Oliver is superb as Osgood also leans into a rather explosive plan, highlighting her character’s shrewd intelligence and willingness to take risks both for herself and others alike. Indeed, the entire UNIT operative in its somewhat fragmented state works quite effectively, and Harry Sullivan, Naomi Cross, Jimmy Tan, and Josh Carter likewise prove invaluable in bringing these disparate but unknowingly interlinked plans to fruition. The only area in which ‘One Way or Another’ stumbles is with the Vulpreen themselves, not because of anything implicit to this story but simply because they have never really developed into anything more than generic villains through earlier stories. Dorney does try to add some extra depth to their power structure through Jesden, but the vocal effects used for the Vulpreen continue to lessen any potential nuance of the race in order to accentuate a sort of brute power. That choice remains a little jarring within the context of this ambitious saga and perhaps hints at the obvious error in strategy the Vulpreen have made by using the Tower of London which Kate knows all too well as a control centre, but there is little denying the power of the Vulpreen and how effectively this opener sets the scene for the remainder of these concluding stories.

In “Traitors’ Gate” by Sarah Grochala, Kate and UNIT are desperate to find a way into the Tower of London to rescue Osgood whom the Vulpreen are hoping to use to gain access to the Black Archive. The latest twist to their scheme is to find a device Missy has described to make the arches respond only to the Vulpreen, but Osgood is steadfast in her resolve to fight back in any way she can, using the mind wiping aspect of the Archive exit procedure to ensure that Sorgan is none the wiser about her continually mounting visits. Unfortunately, the Vulpreen again prove to be the weakest element of this saga as it becomes increasingly clear that Lord Varliss is unwittingly acting as a pawn for Missy, the fact that he waited so many days to confront Sorgan about her prior entries to the Archive hardly showcasing a tactical prowess or sense of urgency. That he would then loudly proclaim to Sorgan that he watched her brother suffer an agonizing death on his command but then still entrust her to carry out her mission with Osgood even after she brought the wrong component for his arch is yet another glaring misstep that carries with it the expected consequences of Sorgan looking to seek the ultimate revenge on Varliss. While building up these villains by having them follow wholly generic plotlines filled with questionable logic to in all likelihood give way to Missy as the ultimate threat works in a fundamental capacity to provide a presence against which Osgood and Kate can individually work against, it sadly takes away a certain element of layered and personal drama that more nuanced villains who are not such overt caricatures could have otherwise created. The writing for the Vulpreen here is consistent with what has come before at least, and Alisdair Simpson and Harriet Kershaw give truly energetic performances that fully convince that their characters believe in their actions, but this is a threat that is very much bolstered by its tremendous advent of frozen and glitching time rather than by the individuals behind it. Much more effective, however, is the human element on display, and Ashley Bassett in particular is superb as Ashley Bassett, a Yeoman Warder who has survived within the Tower and who is keen to take the fight back against the Vulpreen once Kate and her colleagues arrive by submarine in order to subvert the walls of frozen time around the facility. Lorraine Forrester follows a more traditional path that will invariably connect to future events more explicitly, but Donna Berlin likewise gives an enjoyable performance as another non-military entity helping to guide UNIT affairs. While also expertly bringing back the Tower of London raven connection to UNIT, “Traitors’ Gate” makes the most of UNIT’s leading duo and the organization’s modern history wonderfully, but the shortcomings and inconsistencies of the Vulpreen characterization continue to lessen the overall effectiveness of these stories.

Knowing all too well that they could be walking into a trap of Missy’s making, UNIT’s members find themselves traveling through various eras of Earth’s past as they follow Lorraine through a series of arches in Alison Winter’s ‘The Destiny Labyrinth.’ With the Vulpreen little more than a presence in pursuit, there is no issue with the inconsistencies that have plagued their characterization, intelligence, and even vocal effects to this point, and this absence allows the human element of the plot to come into focus all the more prominently. However, this is a plot that ultimately boils down to constantly looking for the next arch to continue journeying forth into the unknown, meaning that there is little true narrative or chance for a deeper exploration of any particular setting to occur. As a result, this is an entire story that could have easily been excised since it does so little to build any sort of momentum for the finale. It does further expand upon the time glitches that have sporadically featured in this set quite well to add a sense of unease to the whirlwind tour through the likes of Niagara Falls in prehistoric times, Nostradumus’s Paris, and World War II, assuredly setting the scene for an even greater prominence once Missy herself enters the picture. Unfortunately, the hypnotized and resultantly overtly villainous Lorraine simply is not a stand-in for Missy despite a suitably strong and engaging performance from Donna Berlin, and introducing another surrogate for Missy with the Vulpreen minimized is already an odd narrative choice with only one episode remaining, though one that could retroactively make greater sense depending on how events in the finale unfold. Winter does try to inject something of a more stabilizing foundation for the disjointed narrative through the inclusion of Nostradamus, the young healer who proves to already have an odd relationship with time, and his ability to see events to come while UNIT tries to discern what role the arches might be playing and how history may have already been changed is by far the strongest plot component here. It seems unlikely that this will have any bearing on future events either, though, putting ‘The Destiny Labyrinth’ in the odd position of being a story that cannot be listened to in isolation because of its framing device and constant impetus to keep moving but also one that in any other sense is a completely standalone story. Oscar Batterham is easily the standout star here and imbues an incredible amount of emotion and nuance to his performance as Nostradamus, but while Kate, Osgood, Josh, and Jimmy all receive their moments to shine amidst the intensifying pressure of finding each next arch before time runs out, this is by no means an essential story and fails to fill the void left by inconsistent villains with anything more substantive in the all-important penultimate position of sixteen in the UNIT: Nemesis saga.

Andrew Smith is tasked with closing out this sixteen-story epic with ‘True Nemesis’ and finally bringing forth Missy who has been teased for so long. Of course, UNIT and the Master are firmly intertwined in Doctor Who history going back to the Third Doctor era, and so it makes perfect sense in a UNIT series that this particular Time Lord should be deemed the true nemesis. And for her part, Missy is at her most chaotic and conniving, confirming that she is using the Vulpreen to establish a nascent empire that she can then seize as her own by eliminating her would-be colleagues through a modification to the arches. Strangely, though, while she seems to have put significant thought into how to achieve this as she instructs the Vulpreen to utilize the temporal component of the arches to attack alien races who will become powerful forces in their very formative stages, she has no ultimate endgame besides to wreak havoc on the timelines and to consider calling in someone such as the Sontarans or Cybermen to help her rule. Chaos for chaos’s sake is hardly the most satisfying motivation, especially for a villain who is brought in only for one concluding episode after so much time has been spent with the Vulpreen- and the Eleven- as the primary players. Still, Michelle Gomez is every bit as charismatic and powerful as ever, and she easily bounces off the established UNIT cast to create a high-energy and high-stakes confrontation. While the Vulpreen are sadly mostly relegated to Lord Varliss continuing to brag that he has the upper hand against Missy despite the opposite being so painfully obvious, Smith does manage to make Varliss at least a bit more multi-dimensional once Kate pleads with him to listen to her regarding Missy’s plot, showing him as a leader who does care about his comrades and what fate will befall them rather than simply using them as a means to an end. Though much of the actual conversation occurs off-screen, this tense meeting between Varliss and Kate is among this series’s best, and Alisdair Simpson and Jemma Redgrave expertly portray the uneasy tension and steadfast fortitude of each. Because this story does have so many elements to put into play, it’s perhaps inevitable that Osgood is used as something of a plot convenience as the time storms resulting from the Vulpreen efforts worsen, gaining access to and modifying the arch technology while also freeing Harry and Naomi with relatively little effort. This highlights Osgood’s ingenuity and intelligence extremely well, but it creates something of an easy resolution that is highlighted all the more later on when she discusses just how simple it has been for life to return to normal across Earth with nobody who was trapped in time remembering anything and the arch development facilities requiring minimal cleanup effort since they are in such remote locations. Ingrid Oliver, James Joyce, and Chris Lew Kum Hoi are all brilliant as UNIT’s core characters here and continue to highlight alongside Redgrave how much life this series could have, but the Vulpreen were never quite developed enough to sustain this sixteen-episode narrative, and Missy’s somewhat haphazard inclusion at the extreme end fails to fully elevate this to something more engrossing and deep. Whether this is ultimately the end for Big Finish’s UNIT series or not, there are plenty of strong and enjoyable moments throughout, but Nemesis as a whole comes nowhere close to meeting the staggering highs this range has previously achieved.

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