Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.
And today, Tibère and Scribbles tackle the latest UNIT boxset. Spiritus abysso invocat te voco, and all that jazz. Spoilers after the read more tag – also, please do check out our partnership with Ruth Long’s Untold Adventures project if you haven’t!
SCRIBBLES: UNIT’s been a hard range to get a hold on, quality-wise, I think. At its best, it’s been exceptional. At its worst, downright baffling. But I’m very happy to say that the change of pace in Encounters, which could have just been an excuse to shove Daleks and Sontarans in, works a treat. This stands strong with the best of the UNIT releases and Big Finish in general, four very solid stories that go great lengths to evolve the characters and their world. If this is setting the tone for the next three sets, announced at the same time, then we’re going to be in for a treat and I’m very glad I pre-ordered the lot.
TIBERE: It’s a really solid set – the change of focus, away from big, multi-parts storylines, allows for some quieter storytelling and for a series of really interesting character vignettes. As good as the range has been before, and it has been really good, it mostly dealt in the realm of broad thematic strokes and political affairs; but this set fleshes out the different protagonists a lot more. Kate Stewart gets some of her finest material, whereas some previous storylines could rely a bit too much on her iconic status and Jemma Redgrave’s excellent acting; and Josh Carter, who we both considered until recently the weakest spot of these stories, makes a lot more sense as a character now. It’s a real return to form for the range, and it lays very solid bases for future developments.
1) “The Dalek Transaction”, by Matt Fitton
TIBERE: Matt Fitton has an history of very good Dalek stories, and that’s no exception. It’s not the most brilliant thing under the sun, but it has a genius hook and weaves around it quite well – it’s basically “Predator” with a Dalek. I mean, I tend to find the Dalek Destruction Porn genre, embodied by some of the early Big Finish audios, quite a tedious affair, but props to the story, it does work really well here. Fitton gets creative, and mixes the sense of threat with an impish, cartoonish fun and some inspired little reveals – the litany of “EXTERMINATE”s and the like can get a little bit tedious, so we end up with a casing-less Dalek for the whole of the second and third acts, a frankly inspired move.
SCRIBBLES: It does what it says on the tin, of course, UNIT vs a Dalek. And it does what you’d expect from its genre elements quite competently. I think the real treats here, though, are in the quiet moments between squid in tank mayhem (a conceit which gets delightfully extrapolated as the squid breaks out the normal Dalek and into a more conventional tank, in one of many good moments). My favorite aspect of the story by far was Osgood questioning the ethics of torturing a Dalek. Really, she’s always been the main character of this range, even if Kate might nominally be, and she’s the best character for interrogating the ethics of UNIT, something the most successful aspects of the range often stem from. I’m actually sad we don’t genuinely get to see Kate and Shindi follow through on their plan to torture the Dalek, just because the moral gray area is such a fascinating one to engage with. I hope it’s an idea the range returns to sometime, because it’s ripe for exploration and Fitton handles it deftly.
TIBERE: There’s definitely an interesting critique bubbling under the surface here – setting the story in South America and referencing the imperialist tendencies of Western powers in multiple occasions is everything but a neutral move, and I appreciate the tensions it creates as far as Kate and crew are concerned. The best UNIT storylines are the ones where they are in a morally dubious position and try to separate right and wrong. I mean, that story choice has for consequence a bunch of rather uninspired and caricatural accents, but still, lovely.
SCRIBBLES: Really, I do wish Big Finish would restrain themselves on the west coast of North and South America in general. As an inhabitant of that general region, the accents generally don’t succeed. It was the most uncomfortable part of “The Dollhouse,” as well. But I think overall it was a choice worth making here, to examine the politics of freedom fighters and how they might be exploited and driven from good ideals by corrupt systems, in tying to the arc of this box set. And, of course, we get a mention of one of the range’s best creations in those political terms, the lovely Jacqui now being complicit in the UNIT team’s system and forging their IDs. God, what a fascinating development that is.
TIBERE: The range in general is really big on the idea of faceless systems, an invisible world of agencies and secret powers hovering above our daily lives, and that’s something this set makes especially obvious. Really, there’s some rather inspired subversions at work here: we start by having the UNIT personnel pretend to be complicit in a phantom traffic of alien tech; and then discover that the freedom fighters, who could come off as the good guys, are themselves involved with the mysterious Auctioneers, are part of the system they pretend to fight. In a way, it can be a bit disappointing for the story not to truly examine the revolutionary politics of its characters and to truly challenge the imperialism UNIT can showcase; but at the same time, it’s a rather inspired move: not only because it has clear parallels to political and sociological events that take place today (there has been a lot of really interesting studies about how radical groups have been progressively adopting the same techniques and roles as organized crimes, about how the figures of the gangster and the freedom fighter have blurred), but also because it draws a rather pessimistic, but quite fascinating conclusion about the omnipresence and prevalence of those systems of control in the world of Doctor Who. There’s quite a pessimistic edge to UNIT, as a range, and it’s channeled in a very pleasing way here, behind the appearances of a fan-pleasing Dalek action fair.
SCRIBBLES: It’s clear, I think, that the freedom fighters in this story do genuinely believe in their cause, even as they lose their way with it squabbling over money and alcohol and becoming dependent on foreign independent powers, complicit in their exploitative experiments (and I do love how the story suggests that what’s done to the Dalek is wrong even though it is a fascist murder squid). Dreams becoming corruption against our heroic organization that brainwashes the populace, it’s certainly bleak as a world to work in, but one that’s building into some exceptional drama.
TIBERE: It’s channeling “Dalek” quite a lot, talking of experimentations, down to referencing it in the text of the episode. It’s an interesting parallel, I think – that episode was also very big on systems, Van Staten’s cultural capitalism and recuperation of alien tech, all that – except we don’t see the situation from the perspective of an outsider, but from, well, the personnel doing the dirty work. It very much has this 2016-2017 deconstructivist Who edge, trying to see the show’s tropes through the eyes of the little people, the red shirts, the Class kids. The story’s not perfect, and on the big spectrum of Fitton, I’d even say it’s on the weaker end (really, it’s a little action romp above all things, all the comparisons I made mustn’t lead one to forget that), but it’s very representative of recent, and utterly fascinating, trends we’re currently seeing across different forms of Who storytelling.
SCRIBBLES: And yet, it’s mentioned as much in the extras that while Fitton wanted it to sit alongside “Dalek,” he wanted it to stand as its own unique thing. He succeeds. It isn’t quite the triumph as his Dalek story from the previous month, but to put such tales out two months in a row with new angles on the same iconic monster is truly something special.
2) “Invocation”, by Roy Gill
TIBERE: When I said this set was more character-focused than the range ever was before, I think that’s the story that best embodies it. It’s an interesting one – mostly because it marks the Who debut of a new writer, and a new voice within the range.
SCRIBBLES: Roy Gill is a talent I’m so excited to have moving into Who. His Dorian Gray work, which I tweeted about listening to the other week, was quite exceptional, balancing the haunting, horror-driven framework of the range with some very sweet, slightly mournful stories about love among soldiers. It’s a shame we don’t get the same homoerotic content here (Josh and Sam, Sam and Shindi, Shindi and Josh, Kate and Osgood, I’m game for any of it! Make it gay!), but the same razor-sharp attention to character within haunting, militaristic spaces is clear. And it works, marvelously. We get so much of value, for every character. I really enjoyed the glimpses of Josh’s sleazy personal life (I cackled) and reminder of what he does best, breaking things at the behest of cooler minds like Osgood’s. There’s a lovely examination of Kate’s ethics and personal history that makes meaning out of the endless references to her father. And Osgood, of course, shines as ever. She’s been the most thoroughly examined character by this range, with stories as far back as the opener to “Shutdown” (and, unsurprisingly, the strongest story of that set) being focused on examining her, and she continues to be marvelous here. I loved the little details like her naming her laptops or moping over Sam’s absence.
TIBERE: There’s definitely an author quality to it, I think – the use of horror tropes and seasonal clichés to do some really profound introspection is something I wouldn’t have expected from the range, and yet, it feels right in. I also really enjoy the fact this is probably the most Kate-centric story we ever got since 2015: as you justly said, Osgood has been the heart of the range and the most progressive and interesting character within it; but in a way, Kate embodies the key paradoxes that make UNIT interesting, between the tradition of the Lethbridge-Stewart name and its associated tropes, and the dream of a better, female-lead, science-driven, forward-looking organization. Gill gets the range, there’s no way around it – centering the story over a memetic pattern of control that gets inside people’s heads is already a pretty inspired idea, but the way it parallels it with Kate’s own past and memories truly elevates it. I mean, the past, and the narratives you create around it, are in a way a system of control you make for yourself. It’s a very subtle script, full of lovely little details – I really liked Kate’s line about UNIT taking care of their own, which subtly echoes the fan-forged concept of the “UNIT family” ruling the Pertwee years. Really, I think that’s story is very much tied to the Pertwee era, but in a much more subtle, and more rewarding way than the previous set’s sometimes rather unsubtle attempts at metacommentary. The resolution is especially telling: it relies a lot on the aesthetics of the Pertwee era – “The Daemons”, of course, comes to mind; but it plays them in a completely different way. The infernal fauna, back in the day of the Third Doctor, was an epic, camp spectacle, but here really, Kate is wandering through the ruins of this past story, seeing the pathos and suffering behind elements which at the time seemed fun and went unquestioned. The person that invokes a demon is not an evil Magister in a goatee that gets captured at the end of the story, but an actual person, a mother, that gets dragged to hell and leaves a son behind.
SCRIBBLES: And I like how Gill ties the the haunting imagery to the scientific ethos of the range, in a way that certainly evokes “The Daemons,” but I’d say is rather more successful. Using the archetypal demonic horror imagery, the haunted house and the satanic chant, through science fiction grammar like sound waves and satellites, creates a tonally unique and aesthetically compelling blend that makes for a wholly unique and refreshing story. My main thought after hearing this story is that I really, really hope Roy Gill will be coming back to UNIT in future. That, and how excited I am for his “Tales of New Earth” story next year. It’s always an exciting feeling when someone newer steps into Doctor Who fiction (even if they have been doing Big Finish audio material for a while!), and I think this man is one talent to watch out for.
3) “The Sontaran Project”, by Andrew Smith
SCRIBBLES: This story sets itself up as two obvious things, really. One, of course, the requisite Andrew Smith Sontaran story that seems to be stuck on every new series range nowadays.
TIBERE: Smith’s interview in Vortex about this story seems to indicate the man has an truly uncanny fascination for the Potato Warriors of Doom, yes.
SCRIBBLES: And two, the Shindi story. We discussed above how every crew member of new UNIT has developed wonderfully. Jacqui burst with energy from the off, Sam quickly become a favorite of both of ours, Kate and Osgood have been wonderful always, and Josh has been strengthening as a character the more the heroic action man archetype he embodies gets twisted on its head. But Shindi hasn’t really had all that much. Ramon Tikaram is a very capable actor, and it’s easy to see why the Big Finish team chose to undo his death in Extinction, but they haven’t quite found what to do with him as a character yet. There’s been hints of something unsettling underneath that are intriguing, like his xenophobic skepticism of alien technology in “House of Silents” and his willingness to torture a Dalek in “The Dalek Transaction,” but it hasn’t quite been pushed to the forefront.
TIBERE: An uncanny side the next story will play on quite well, too. I mean, I do rather enjoy Shindi’s, mostly because Ramon Tikaram’s voice is like a bath of sweet, sweet honey, but that’s a more than fair assessment. He has gotten some nice material before, but that was down more to form than content – “House of Silents” is a great audio, but it doesn’t exactly need him to work properly.
SCRIBBLES: But the thing is, the two things this advertises itself as being a story about aren’t actually what it is. The Shindi and Sontaran plot, really, is the b-plot here, and the weaker aspect of the story. In particular, the moment of slavishly recreating torture beats from “The Sontaran Experiment” had me groaning– I don’t think the Sontarans have ever been particularly effective as a threatening, brutal force. But what does work here, and the focus is rightly on, is the Osgood plot, exploring cloning. While I must question whether the topic is as topical as Smith expresses he feels it is in the extras (science fiction had enough of a field day on clones decades ago), it does work well as a story about Osgood and her academic history. And really, who can complain about Osgood being adorable with a monkey?
TIBERE: I do mourn the loss of a potentially interesting Shindi storyline, but I actually quite enjoy what they do with the Sontarans here. As a species, they’re not all that interesting, really – a warrior race archetype as we have seen many in many fictional universes; but they can shine through when channeled through specific individuals, and characters. That’s why Strax is such a lovely character – but even if you don’t get comedic, at least bothering to give your aliens a personality and the space to actually interact with your characters beyond the ordinary threats and “mwahahaha, nothing in the world can stop me now!” is nice. The torture scene which you just mentioned is indeed awful, and completely at odds tonally with the rest of the story (also, it seems to have no lasting consequence whatsoever on the rest of the plot, which seriously asks the question of what it exists in the first place, beyond faux-edginess and the need to servilely ape the Classics), but it does lead to a rather interesting moment when the Sontaran commander insists that he took no pleasure in it and respects Shindi more for his stoic demeanour. Really, the close-minded, militaristic, masculine society of the Sontarans is ripe for fascinating parallels and contrasts with UNIT. The story doesn’t quite go there, and really, it’s without the shadow of a doubt the weakest of the set, but it has at least good storytelling instincts, I think, which is honestly more than I can say for the immense majority of Sontaran audios (or indeed, Sontaran stories).
SCRIBBLES: The best idea Smith presents here is, of course, the Auctioneers, which I can’t blame Fitton at all for extrapolating into the connecting tissue of the box set. They lend themselves well to the politics of the set opener as we’ve discussed, but also provide the most compelling and meaningful material in this piece, with the concept of humans using Sontarans clones as private armies a very neat and logical extrapolation of the race’s premise that nonetheless feels entirely original and quite monstrous.
TIBERE: Of course, there’s a bit of a downside to it, in that in making the humans weaponizing Sontaran technology the real villains, it might side a bit too much with the actual Sontarans in the end. Are we supposed to find what the humans did more monstrous that what the Sontarans did to themselves? It’s a bit shoddy – not bad, mind you, but easy. There was potential for a great story in this, but Smith kinda skates deftly around it and ends up with “nice and serviceable” instead. There’s worse than that, really, and I’m quite happy to take it considering some of the previous storylines he contributed to the range – you had some choice words about the orientalism in his Shutdown contributions, if I recall correctly.
SCRIBBLES: I think it’s reasonable that that’s the tone Smith strikes, because that’s the most obvious way to play it and one that lets the Sontarans function as characters neatly in this story without overwhelming it. But you do ask an interesting question about the violence the Sontarans have done against themselves (and one I do believe Smith may have previously asked in “The First Sontarans,” come to think of it). I just don’t think this story ever considered asking it. One for another day. But there are certainly moments where this story coasts on a little too safe, far safer than is necessary. Perhaps that’s just what should be expected from Andrew Smith’s umpteenth Sontaran script. But hearing Shindi quoting the same “Kate Stewart in my pocket” gag that wasn’t funny the first time around in Smith’s Extinction scripts had me groaning. The daring new parts of this story work. The parts that feel like slavish recreation of the past, even the past Smith wrote himself, was not so successful.
4) “False Negative”, by John Dorney
TIBERE: Now, this – this is utterly brilliant. It’s not so much a story as an incredibly efficient diagnosis and exorcism of all the shadows and problems contained within the range. John Dorney proved, with his Silenced contributions, that he’s probably the best UNIT writer, and this might be his finest one yet for the range.
SCRIBBLES: I may not be a very big fan of the Pertwee era, but I am a huge, huge fan of “Inferno.” And what this story does is manage to take the conceit of “Inferno,” condense it into an hour, play it as a farce, and as a result come out with the most meaningful character work this range has yet done.
TIBERE: It’s just fantastic at truly exploiting the dark side, so to speak of the characters – they’re all rooted in flaws and features of their writing, really. The over reliance of the writers on Kate’s legacy when it comes to writing her makes her shadow double become a nepotist vapid bimbo that just hangs around in her office doing nothing (in a truly inspired bit of comedy). Shindi becomes a fascist goon. Sam, whose one of the main features is his irregular presence in the stories, gets brutally murdered two minutes in. And of course, the hints of romance between Osgood and Josh, something we weren’t really fond of (in that it’s a very heteronormative pairing that seems to not get that Josh is a problematic character that’s not supposed to embody the future of UNIT) become, well, really, the main source of threat within the storyline, and a true horror story both for the listener and the characters – Kate’s observation that she found their kissing “stomach-turning” is hilarious.
SCRIBBLES: I must admit I giggled when “Osbad” (without a doubt the funniest gag of the set, incidentally) referred to Shindi as the “cardboard colonel.” Because, at this moment, he is the lead with the least development beyond carboard action man (which Josh has increasingly subverted since becoming literal plastic, amusingly), and there’s something pleasurable in the story engaging with that. Lazy Kate was delightful as well because of the way Jemma Redgrave has always portrayed the character. I wouldn’t call it a lazy performance, she’s always been good, but she’s always had a weary, relaxed air to her that this pays off with gleeful irony. Really, of course, though, the crown jewel of this is Osgood and Josh, every bit as “stomach-turning” as that. If you’d told me before that Osgood and Josh, our Osgood and Josh, would be a genuinely fulfilling payoff to a story, I’d have laughed in your face. But sure enough, here it is. The story leans into the discomfort and reaps great laughs as a result.
TIBERE: The balancing act the story manages between laugh-out-loud funny and quietly disturbing is really something to be praised. Because there is something quite unsettling at work here – we have mentioned time and again how compelling the darker sides of UNIT as an organization are, so seeing a parallel universe where they have fully leant into those and become a fascist secret police serving a dictator (or a dictator’s brother), does leave a carefully planned sour taste after you’ve finished listening. Same about the Third Doctor, in a way – who doesn’t feature in the story at all, except for a throwaway line by Kate about him being in the middle of “killing some pacifists”. It’s able to ridicule the both the range and its antithesis while still pointing out that both UNIT and the Pertwee era in which it takes root have their share of systemic problems and political failings. While doing some brilliant structural tricks – seriously, opening the story in medias res, within the parallel world, leaving the viewer completely confused and lost throughout a good five minutes, is just genius. While also adding some inspired arc teases in the mix, too – the way the Auctioneer’s technology informs the story is great, as is the way it makes, in its final moments, the absence of Sam into a plot point (and considering the next set is going to feature both the Jacobi Master and Cybermen, maybe parallel dimensions will come to play, too?). God, it’s just fantastic.
SCRIBBLES: And one of the best things about it is how it deliberately undercuts the buildup of all of that arc. Sam’s disposed of in the opening, only for us to realize it’s not even our universe. The auctioneers are taken care of between stories, the whole plot of this just being Osgood and Josh toying with their own spoils of war. Dorney described the story as a farce, and it’s apt. Actually, if anything, it reminds me of that essay about how Thor: Ragnarok builds up and undercuts egotistical beats to create greater meaning. They describe it as a deeply Maori storytelling strategy, a “comedy of deflation.” And while I very much doubt that’s what was on Dorney’s mind while writing this, it shows a similar instinct to deflate and undercut to create richer character meaning and humor, and it works magnificently.
TIBERE: I mean, it’s a rather apt point, what you said about their spoils of war – in a way, it’s UNIT’s own thirst for material and technological power that causes the whole situation to backfire. The range is fond of critiquing its characters, and has done it often, to great effect, but Osgood, because she in many respects embodies the message of the range, its progressive edge (and really, that ties into her storyline within the TV episodes, considering she ends up an unit of meaning, the conveyer of a message through her very existence, in the Zygon stories, as I pointed out in that essay), has escaped most of it. But here, you do get to see a darker side of her quest for knowledge – it can be twisted in the service of a system that craves material gain above all else. As hamfisted as the corrupt science beats were in the Andrew Smith story, I do think they have a nice pay-off here, especially considering we spend most of the story with an evil duplicate of Osgood. An evil duplicate who shows some signs of redemption near the end – a way to signal that while there’s some good in Osbad, there might be some bad in Osgood? Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but there’s quite a lot of really clever subtext here.
SCRIBBLES: I find it interesting that you mention her televised arc, but not the broader resonance it has: doubles. I almost wish they’d just called this episode “Operation Double” just to mess with people. But I find it impossible not to see the parallel universe twinning as a mirror to the Zygon work with the modern UNIT team. Every moment Osgood and Osbad were facing off, for example, reminded me of her confrontation with a Zygon in “The Day of the Doctor,” right down to how the sexy, dominating Osbad mocks Osgood’s mousey appearance, reminding me of the stuff about Osgood and her sister in “The Day of the Doctor.” At the very least, it’s nice to think that Osgood managing to work with Osbad to save the day hear helped her realize she could work with her Zygon duplicate in the future.
TIBERE: It’s just a brilliant tour de force of a story, really. I don’t see what I can add!
SCRIBBLES: I think it’s just safe to say that, after a stumbling around first four sets which ranged from exceptional to deeply uncomfortable, UNIT has found its footing. To new heights! I expect great things from Cyber-Reality.
TIBERE: The focus on technology, virtual reality and video games (from what the titles seem to hint!) sounds absolutely fascinating – this range is fascinated by control, and seeing it tackling the media has me incredibly excited. See you in May, Kate & Osgood & co!