THE TRUTH SNAKE – Science Leads: Contextualizing and Interpreting UNIT: Extinction

UNIT: Extinction is a brave new start for Big Finish. Except, it isn’t. Except, it is.

UNIT: Extinction is unavoidably beholden to so much that has come before. For one thing, it’s the third attempt by Big Finish at a contemporary UNIT spinoff, all even woman-lead affairs. What’s more, one has a predecessor to journalist character Jacqui McGee and the other with its lead UNIT figure a scientific officer like the modern version. And the narrative to Extinction finds itself serving as a synthesis of several starting point narratives. Most prominently, heavy shades of Spearhead from Space, Rose, and Everything Changes can be felt hanging over the story, governing how it starts a new series, coupled with a general trend toward deconstruction and critique that is the defining modern approach to UNIT and similar organizations.

But it is a new beginning, as well. It’s the official start to Big Finish’s new series coverage. It marks itself with several entirely new characters and themes. The plot is built more than anything around the dual arcs of Jacqui and Josh, who are the core new characters present, with the plot shaped around introducing them and other new additions to the world (disc two, for example, is a sidestep from the main plot mostly built around establishing recurring character Sam Bishop). New ongoing conflicts burst forth, new themes. This is a box set self-consciously built around navigating tensions of classic fanservice and new Who storytelling ethos to try to be something fascinating and new. And, perhaps against all odds, it succeeds in being something not just enjoyable to listen to, but with fascinating implications by the dozens.

Full spoilers for UNIT: Extinction, as well as minor references to the events of Shutdown and Silenced, to follow.

First, it’s crucial to situate UNIT: Extinction in its context. The core figures that the audience is drawn in with are, of course, Kate Stewart and Osgood, two characters with a lot of thematic importance and iconic value in the Doctor Who mythos. Both are, of course, the modern descendants of classic series characters, building off the love for the UNIT era. But they’re a very specific recasting of that era, too. They’re both, of course, women, defined by an ethos that “science leads,” tremendously contrary to the approach to the classic show.

new unit

A while ago I made a Tumblr post (screenshotted above) that seemed rather well received and I believe encapsulates the core engagement of Osgood and Kate. They’re sort of an exorcism of the biggest ghost of the UNIT era. Liz Shaw’s departure has always been a bit of a scar on the show, and one the expanded universe and televised series both have been trying to reconcile for a long time. Gary Russell’s novel The Scales of Injustice is one such story, attempting to reconcile several major continuity “wounds” in the series, with her departure chief among them. Similar in concern are Big Finish audios for Liz like The Blue Tooth, which engages in similar continuity play by trying to get Pertwee to finally face the Cybermen while also trying to explain how Liz reached the decision to leave UNIT on her own terms. Even Russell T Davies got in on it, suggesting Liz was still working for UNIT well into modern times. In short, it is a tremendously tempting field that many writers have been unable to resist trying to make sense of. And this is Steven Moffat’s version, with the aid of Chibnall, subtly reinventing UNIT into a woman-lead world of science.

Secondly, it’s worth looking at the choice of a villain. It is, of course, the Autons. They’re a marker for a fresh start on several levels at this point, and demand UNIT: Extinction to be read in light of several past stories and eras. Most notably, it echoes the original UNIT era’s beginning in Spearhead from Space and the reboot of Doctor Who itself in Rose. How the audio uses them is a blend of all approaches, really, furthering Extinction‘s place within such a media landscape. For example, the early stages of the plot take the meteorite investigation approach of Spearhead from Space, as does the focus on building a Nestene body, while the design and the use of anti-plastic harkens to the modern era. But even the soft reboot of the UNIT era of Terror of the Autons, introducing the team that will feature in next month’s set, gets a reference, a fun little gag about Kate sitting in a potentially deadly plastic chair. There’s also fresh new touches, like the use of the Internet as a conduit for the Nestene and the focus on 3D printing. Overall, it stages itself as a modern take on these classic pleasures.

osgood

What’s more, it demonstrates a political ethos that governs the post-2005 approach to UNIT stories. It’s worth noting that UNIT: Extinction came out on November 9, 2015, which is to say two days after The Zygon Inversion first aired. Contrasting the two is a fascinating experience. Both are heavily invested in examining the heavily flawed institution that a modern UNIT is while also embracing the utopian potential in it, the latter aspect usually through the idealized fan figure of Osgood. Extinction and Inversion both include forays into the Middle East and political turbulence there in response to western imperialism, conversations about impacts of drone warfare, and, most strikingly of all, a core ethical debate built around choices to wipe memories. Using this as a ethical point of conversation is not just a fixation for the show in regard to companion treatment like in Hell Bent and The Pilot, but also a defining focus of the modern interrogation of alien investigating organizations, forming a major part of the reflective deconstruction of The Day of the Doctor and The Zygon Inversion, as well as one other thing.

It isn’t just the new and classic series that UNIT: Extinction contextualizes itself in. Everything Changes of Torchwood is also a prominent core influence, particularly in how memory wiping is used in conjunction with character work. In Everything Changes, being retconned, or drugged with an amnesia pill, is the major stumbling block in Gwen investigating and eventually becoming a part of Torchwood, all the while haunted by Suzie, an embodiment of the corruption innate in the imperialist force that Torchwood is. UNIT does a loose riff on this, with many of the different decisions in it fascinating creative directions. So let’s look specifically at what UNIT: Extinction narrows its focus on, and how it uses these many different existing narratives to build from.

The beginning of a story is often an encapsulation of everything it is about, setting up the most crucial characters or themes. Osgood and Kate both make a massive impact in the opening sequence, of course, it built around giving them cool enterances to exciting musical cues. But when it comes down to it, they aren’t who the pre-credits are about. They’re about establishing Josh, his leaping into the water the last action before the opening credits music comes blaring in. We’re shown how reckless and dangerous he is, defying authority but at risk, with Shindi and Osgood both showing concern and skepticism over his actions and having to step in to prevent a catastrophe. Josh is thus established as a key character in the UNIT series, and his recklessness the core concern. It’s also worth noting how he fits into the contextualized position of UNIT: Extinction. He’s a tool of Kate’s, but he also represents something very different from the idealized picture that Osgood represents, a woman-lead scientific organization inspired by Liz Shaw. He’s a man and a soldier, your typical reckless action guy bursting onto a scene where that kind of role is less embraced. There’s a core tension to his character, one which only becomes more prevalent over time.

On the other end of the pre-credits, immediately after, UNIT shows us its other key figure, juxtaposed alongside. Here, we meet Jacqui McGee, another authority-defying figure. She’s offset against him, however. She’s the outside figure, the Gwen, if you will. Like in Everything Changes, she’s defined in an outsider investigative role, engaging with the corruption of UNIT and, as it becomes increasingly clear over time, valuing an idealistic freedom of information over all else. Words and information are her tools, not guns like Josh. If anything, she’s the most Doctor-like of the characters in this series. She’s also an evolution of the character Arthur Curry from Big Finish’s original UNIT series, as can be heard in the free preview audio, The Coup. In that audio, Curry was used to examine themes of journalist suppression, and here, that sort of question continues. But unlike Curry, who is very much a background figure, Jacqui owns the narrative, up to the very last scene of Extinction, her evolution into a radical political force for freedom.

action man

Josh Carter and Jacqui McGee’s arcs juxtapose throughout the entirety of Extinction and beyond (a huge part of UNIT: Silenced explores the further corruption of Josh and the continual evolution of Jacqui into possibly the greatest hero of all). Parts 3 and 4 of the set in particular, Bridgehead and Armageddon, see the two characters pushed to their breaking point, both present in each other’s moments of transformation. Josh, for his part, becomes one vein of criticism of UNIT, an ironic parody of their worst excesses. The archetypal reckless, noble soldier becomes, as he calls an Auton moments before his conversion, an “action man.” This is a conversion, it be noticed, that Jacqui is positioned as a witness to, escaping moments before with Kate, the previous intended victim. Her role offset with his development is continually vital. For his part, he becomes a proper good little soldier, even remarking that life’s so much easier when just obeying orders. It takes a sciencey device from Osgood to bring him back to their side, the female sciencey side of the UNIT spectrum reining him in. But it nonetheless is an experience that leaves him fundamentally changed. He becomes invulnerable as well as reckless, able to save people or wreak havoc and face little in the way of personal consequences. He is, in essence, perhaps the greatest danger to the modern UNIT in addition to being a loved and valued ally, and that core tension drives later plots like UNIT: Silenced in inevitable ways.

Jacqui, meanwhile, has a different evolution. After losing everything in her world, she’s given the choice to stay and fight with UNIT, she rejects it. She runs. And in the process, she becomes the other end of the UNIT critique, from a perspective of human rights, framed through the issue of memory wiping. Memory wipes are a central motif to UNIT, playing a heavy role in the plots of all three sets thus far, and she transcends it after overcoming it in Extinction. Indeed, in Silenced, her remembering things UNIT doesn’t becomes a crucial plot point. Here, though, what’s crucial is that she finds a voice in opposition to UNIT as a whistleblower, the anonymous Eyewitness. It’s her voice, as mentioned before, that ends the set, her agency and her values what it chooses to leave us with. And she unambiguously identifies UNIT as a threat to human freedom, begging us not to drink the water that’s been tampered with. It’s a tremendously loaded sequence that serves as a tremendous punchline to every tension in UNIT, making a clear statement that, just as in The Zygon Inversion when Kate had to forget yet again, UNIT isn’t getting off lightly. There’s still militaristic, imperialist, and totalitarian forces in the bowels of UNIT that form a rot in its core comparable to the corruption that destroyed Suzie and other Torchwood members in the end, and Jacqui becomes the oppositional witness to it all.

That is the world UNIT: Extinction establishes. Not everything is resolved, because this is, of course, an ongoing series. But that is the struggle at the core of its narrative, an inherent tension that draws in every character and pushes the serial drama of the range. And that is what I love these audios for. On the surface, there’s sci-fi action adventure, but there’s a raging current of political ideological debate churning throughout, built upon a platform of metatextual reflection on a vast history of Doctor Who. As new beginnings go, they don’t get much more exciting than this. It channels a wealth of drama with a beating political heart than can be mined for many stories to come.

Next month, UNIT takes on one of the greatest sins of the classic era by the organization, the genocide of the Silurians, under the pen of two of my favorite Big Finish writers, Matt Fitton and Guy Adams. Though they get the guidance of an older and wiser classic UNIT team, they are now without the watchful eye of Jacqui McGee to guide their way. I can’t say for certain what direction things will go. But what I can say with the utmost certainty is that this wealth of ideological baggage will be pushed in some fascinating new directions.

unit assembled

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