❉ Silence will rise – again! The latest UNIT boxed set delivers “an effective investigative thriller” in four parts.
Even though it was the first of the “new series” ‘Doctor Who’ spin-offs to be announced by Big Finish last year, the ‘UNIT’ series spotlighting Kate Stewart and company was arguably the least exciting. Not to take anything away from Jemma Redgrave (yes, those Redgraves), however, she doesn’t have quite the same obvious appeal as Ian McNeice reprising his role as Winston Churchill, let alone Alex Kingston returning as Professor River Song. Plus, even with their current mantra that “science leads” in effect, UNIT without the Doctor runs the risk of getting bogged down in the military trappings.
Fortunately, the latest release in the series, Silenced, largely avoids that potential pitfall. As the title suggests, this set features the return of the Silents whose ability to affect people’s minds makes them ideal antagonists for a conspiracy thriller and allows for some knowing bits of dialogue (“Now we know what Edvard Munch was screaming about.”). Their presence also makes this the ‘UNIT’ series’ most direct tie-in to date with ‘Doctor Who’ itself. Where the first set, Extinction, simply echoed previous appearances by the Autons and Nestene Consciousness, Silenced explicitly follows on from the events of the TV episode Day of the Moon. While this momentarily raises the question of why (production and licensing practicalities aside) UNIT doesn’t ask the Doctor for help, it fits Kate Stewart’s character that she’d have confidence in the ability of her team to take care of most alien threats.
Along with established fan-favourite Osgood, the most active member of that team in this installment is Lieutenant Sam Bishop whose initiative and occasional earnestness are a bit reminiscent of “classic series” UNIT regular Captain Mike Yates. Many longtime fans will recall that Yates sometimes fell victim to mental manipulation, and that tradition is carried on here by Captain Josh Carter. Of all the UNIT officers, though, Colonel Shindi probably gets the best moments overall. Whether taking part in an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ at the start of the story, pondering the implications of having alien technology in his body or brushing aside a question about his health from reporter Jacqui McGee with the delightfully succinct reply “classified”, there’s clearly much more to him than his uniform.
Though McGee was introduced in Extinction as a thorn in UNIT’s side, by the end of Silenced she’s almost a de facto team member. Based on Kate’s observation (and nicely deployed “Easter egg”) that there’s precedent for UNIT recruiting journalists, that relationship seems likely to expand in future stories, which isn’t necessarily a positive. She certainly serves a valuable plot function, but her character is the weakest of the major roles other than maverick political candidate Kenneth LeBlanc. LeBlanc was likely intended to satirize some current US and UK political figures. However, he’s written and played so broadly that the jokes fall flat and the caricature distracts somewhat from a story that for its first three episodes is an effective investigative thriller.
Unfortunately, outside of the presence of the Silents, the fourth episode in the set’s events feel only tenuously connected to the previous parts. The set-up is promising, but the plot doesn’t mesh well with what preceded it.
There’s a memorable reference to David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes and a clever nod to UNIT’s most recent TV appearance. On the one hand, that’s disappointing because the first three parts were quite good, but it’s also a reminder that characters remain the key attraction in all the corners of the ‘Doctor Who’ universe. In that respect at least this release in the ‘UNIT’ series delivers nicely.
❉ ‘UNIT: Silenced’ was released on 24 November 2016. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until 31 January 3 2017, and on general sale after this date.