‘UNIT: Assembled’ reviewed

❉ Osgood, Kate Stewart, Jo Grant, Yates and Benton, oh my!

In the two years since Big Finish Productions’ Doctor Who license expanded to include elements from the program’s 21st century episodes, there have been numerous crossovers with the older ones. However, outside of various pre-2005 Doctors appearing in the Diary of a River Song releases, this exchange has been much more weighted toward bringing “new series” elements into the “classic series” timeframe. The inclusion of these older Doctors was certainly fun but ultimately came across more as a narrative contrivance than a concerted effort to bridge the two eras. In Assembled, the latest release in Big Finish’s UNIT series, two of the writers of those meetings between River Song and the older Doctors   offer a much different and more satisfying approach to unifying the Doctor Who universe.

Simply put, Assembled is as strong a statement about Doctor Who being one show as Sarah Jane Smith appearing alongside David Tennant in School Reunion was in 2006. Teaming the surviving members of the Pertwee era’s “UNIT family” with the group’s current leader Kate Stewart and head scientist Petronella Osgood isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia, though, there are numerous “Easter Eggs” for longtime fans. It’s a dynamic storyline in its own right that uses that background as a starting point to dig into what makes UNIT such an important part of Doctor Who’s history. The end result is an appreciation that, while the group’s methods have changed, their fundamental mission of protecting the Earth hasn’t.

On TV the current incarnation of UNIT is very much aligned with Steven Moffat’s tenure as head writer, but the opening story of this set, Call to Arms by Matt Fitton, actually calls to mind both the work of Russell T. Davies and the Earthbound stories from the Pertwee era. This mix of the domestic and the dangerous allows for Kate and Osgood to meet Mike Yates and John Benton in a way that feels organic but also keeps the plot moving. Only a fight between Yates and another former UNIT member seems out of place, and even that earns a measure of forgiveness for allowing Osgood to ask the question “is that actually Captain Mike Yates being threatened by a barstool?”

The dark and stormy night proves to be the perfect opportunity for exposition of the threat posed by Grand Marshall Jastrok and his militaristic faction of “Silurians” as well as thoughtful references to past characters and events. The most affecting of these is a call-out to Kate’s father, the late Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, about 15 minutes in. As delivered by Jemma Redgrave, the line is likely to make all but the most hard-hearted Doctor Who fans a bit misty-eyed. Their reverie is soon interrupted by a group of “Silurian” warriors who’ve tracked Kate and Osgood to the former Sergeant Benton’s pub, but the requisite combination of cleverness and courage enables them to overcome the danger.

The next episode, Tidal Wave by Guy Adams, advances the larger narrative and continues the nostalgic fun by teaming up Osgood with Jo Jones (aka Jo Grant). Katy Manning’s portrayal of Jo is a bit broad (akin to her appearance in The Sarah Jane Adventures) but is still effective thanks to her undeniable sincerity. Though Ingrid Oliver’s performance as Osgood is pitched much differently, a similar description could apply. Throughout the set she conveys a genuine sense of amazement when interacting with those who knew and love the Doctor and still manages to cope with being menaced by “Sea Devils” and the like.

With Tidal Wave being something of a spiritual throwback to the Pertwee era, there’s unsurprisingly much more to the plot than just monsters attacking. The task of uncovering the true threat goes to UNIT’s current team who have the spotlight to themselves in Retrieval (also by Guy Adams). This episode has a few plot contrivances that push the bounds of plausibility, but is nonetheless suitably exciting and sets up the big finale nicely. Matt Fitton’s story United brings the whole team together to face exactly the kind of world-shaking threat that’s made for the audio medium. Even the best CGI would probably look less impressive than this feels.

There’s a temptation to say United feels like a Doctor Who story without the Doctor. That would be unfair, because the team is quite capable in their own right. Moreover, while the Doctor isn’t there in person, he’s clearly present as a guiding star for a number of characters. This comes through very clearly in the broader effort to achieve the peaceful solution that eluded Kate’s father so many years ago when UNIT first encountered the “Silurians”. The willingness to engage with the Brigadier’s long ago mistake is one of the key elements that makes this Big Finish’s best fusion of Doctor Who’s past and present to date. The sense of history and knowing references are wonderful, but the recognition that the past is valuable not only for memories of what went right but also an understanding what went wrong gives this set dramatic substance.

The conviction with which this comes across also speaks to the contributions of cast, under the direction of Ken Bentley. Many of the cast members have already been highlighted above, but it would be a shame to neglect Richard Franklin and John Levene as Yates and Benton. They truly have aged as well as the bottle of whiskey Benton brings out to toast enduring friendships at the start of the story. This is the pair’s first time working together for Big Finish but hopefully not the last. They and their cohorts have set a very high bar for themselves, and it could be very rewarding to hear them try to match it.

❉ ‘UNIT: Assembled’ was released on 23 May 2017. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until July 31st 2017, and on general sale after this date. 

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