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, starring the Cybermen and the Master. Grab your VR goggles, we’ve got a code silver. Oh, yes, and beware of spoilers after the “read more” tag!
TIBERE: Our enjoyment of UNIT sets, in the past, has varied quite a lot. It’s a range that has had some difficulties finding its feet, I think it’s fair to say. They have nailed the more experimental and political sets, but the more traditional fares of the even-numbered sets haven’t quite been perfect. Cyber-Reality is a definite improvement – it is very much a big, fanservice-filled product, that doesn’t reach the heights of Silenced or Encounters, but it manages to make the aesthetics and themes of the range cohere and seep through the traditional Who tropes. The Master and the Cybermen are not really here for a deep, nuanced session of thematic exploration, but even then, you can see that there are strong visions beyond them. This set “gets” it. It gets what the range is about, it gets what the Cybermen, especially in their latest, and arguably best, version, are about; and it gets, perhaps better than any other story so far, what the Jacobi Master is about. It doesn’t really push any boundaries or challenge the listener, but that’s okay. I feel like the range is allowed to just be breezy fun trad every once in a while, as long as it is intelligent about it. That’s really the best way to describe this set: intelligent trad. There are worse things to be.
SCRIBBLES: Cyber-Reality, as a whole, is an enticing cocktail of ideas, themes, and continuity elements. The selling point of Kate and Osgood going up against Derek Jacobi’s exceptional Master and the Cybermen is utterly tantalizing, and writers Guy Adams and Matt Fitton waste no time assembling a heady mix of themes and concepts to construct around it. I think it’s no reach to say that there are some of the most exciting ideas the Cybermen have ever had here, as well as what is for my money the best characterization Jacobi has yet gotten on audio. Furthermore, there is some delicious satire of data mining and exploration of VR gaming. Unfortunately, there’s a but. While the elements in this set are all exceptional, the plotting doesn’t always land, and the human element is often lost in a more cerebral landscape. If you adore the concepts, and there’s every reason to, this set will be enough. But if you want to be stirred beyond that, you will have slim pickings, though there is one startlingly good character-based exploration that I will get to in the full spoiler section. The concepts also don’t quite reach an intellectual payoff, despite all being exciting elements, leading to a delightful concluding episode with an unfortunately perfunctory resolution. This is a set I would absolutely recommend, but for the sheer wealth of possibilities it suggests with rapid-fire enthusiasm, rather than for the overall product.