Tony has a bunch of brief encounters.
Ooh – change.
The four previous box sets of 21st century UNIT have all had a consistent theme building to a big pay-off – either a battle or a scheme or a great big scary gambit that’s had the aliens finally defeated.
If you’ve taken the trouble to establish that as a format for a box set and a series, if you then cobble together four individual stories and throw an occasional reference in, in place of a properly underpinning story arc, the result is going to feel necessarily bitty and less grandly consequential than everything that’s gone before it.
This then is UNIT Encounters, four single stories, three of which are loosely woven together with mentions of the shadowy ‘Auctioneers,’ and one of which feels like it’s wandered in from another serial altogether – Countermeasures, perhaps – and deals with ghosts and summonings and calls put out into space.
As such, it’s hard simply from a structural point of view not to feel like UNIT Encounters is more or less UNIT Slow Days.
Big Finish fights against that sensation by throwing a couple of top tier alien villains into the mix, giving us a UNIT ghost story, and Infernoing the living bejesus out of us, and it’s important to understand that it succeeds more than you’ll initially think it does. It’s just that it succeeds in a different gear to all the previous, world-imperilling operatic scale of the other box sets.
The Dalek Transaction by Matt Fitton is an odd story, in that it more or less tells the same tale as Rob Shearman’s on-screen ‘Dalek’ and even makes so bold as to mention the events of that story, but then does everything it can do to disassociate itself from it.
A Dalek has fallen to Earth and been captured by a group of rather cod Latin American revolutionaries, who prise it out of its casing, hide its weapon really well, and auction the mutant to raise money for ‘the cause’ of their nation’s fight for independence. It’s difficult to really care for these revolutionaries even when they inevitably die, but the scenario does allow for some terrifically underhanded Dalek action, as the mutant, divorced from its casing, aims to set itself free and take enormously violent revenge on the humans who have imprisoned and tortured it. While the UNIT team make for a singularly unconvincing bunch of international mercenaries, Nick Briggs is on blistering form here as the Dalek, adding extra punches of vindictive, almost personal malice to its grating and ranting, and once the inevitable tipping point of Dalek supremacy is reached, things get interesting and catastrophic in a big hurry, leading to a conclusion that ramps up the body count and satisfies despite our lack of buy-in to the revolutionaries’ cause or personalities.
Invocation by Roy Gill is the story that could be from somewhere else entirely, dealing as it does with ghosts at Halloween. There’s a spooky old house, a scientist with a grudge against UNIT leader Kate Stewart’s famous father, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and a creepy ghostly grey man, possibly from the astral plane, possibly from somewhere rather more material. When the grey man begins to walk abroad and frighten the living daylights out of all comers, it’s time for Kate, and for UNIT itself to lay one or two of their own ghosts to rest. Doing that involves revisiting dark memories, a hefty handful of stone tape theory, and a necessary death. Listen out in this one for great spiky performances from Lucy Fleming as Mrs Donnelly, caretaker of an old UNIT facility, and Matthew Cottle as her son Ben, who used to play games with Kate when they were children.
The Sontaran Project by Andrew Smith raises the box set’s storytelling game, focusing on Osgood and bringing some convoluted science and a little personal betrayal to play.
Smith is rarely lacking a new take on the Sons of Sontar, and has added richness and complexity to their clone lives over the course of several stories for Big Finish. He manages that again here, with human scientists obsessed with the business of cloning a would-be slave race of warriors-for-hire, and a squad of honest-to-goodness Sontarans taking exception to what they see as the genetic desecration of their Sontaran template. Adding the 21st century’s Sontaran king, Dan Starkey, in to the mix as the voice of every Sontaran you could need just enriches the quality of the finished story, and makes it the fastest-feeling hour in the box set.
All of which leaves the final story, False Negative by John Dorney, all the more hard going. In essence, it’s a riff on the Jon Pertwee story Inferno, only told from a modern UNIT perspective.
Osgood and Josh have been transported to a parallel dimension, to deal with a parallel – and rather more fascist – UNIT, where their doppelgangers are lovers with murder on their minds. The toing and froing as each in turn meets and interacts with the parallel dimension’s other – our-Osgood-and-their-Josh, our-Josh-and-their-Osgood – becomes quickly exhausting, meaning you have little option but to disengage your brain from the intricacies and nuances of the story on the first listen, though it’s more enjoyable a second-time round, when you now how things turn out. It’s great as an homage to the weird fascistic universe of Inferno (though people might be forgiven for thinking it’s actually WE who now live in the Inferno-universe), but weirdly, it feels like a story better suited to TV than audio – the lack of any visual markers means the actors have to carry the identity of their each-universe versions solely with their voices, and a little too often for comfort, the strain of that, while delivering rapid-fire dialogue, seems to show, and to disconnect listeners from the drama.
Overall, UNIT Encounters, by choosing to break free of the single grand story-arc format, is a less committed listen than previous box sets. That should mean it’s easier going, but actually doesn’t, leaving you instead to judge each hour-long story entirely on its own merits. At least three of the stories here are up for the challenge, but by sprinkling references to the Auctioneers throughout the box set and not having them actually come to any conclusion, and topping the set with an experiment in sci-fi form with the Inferno-alike of False Negative, it makes UNIT Encounters feel like the weakest of the UNIT box sets so far.