UNIT: Encounters Review

Gustaff Behr gives his verdict on the latest audio boxset in the series.

After six long months, Kate Stewart and UNIT are back and they are ready to show everyone why they’re better equipped (and better written) than their TV series counterparts to protect the world from all kinds of alien incursions in UNIT: Encounters. This box set features a significant change from the usual format by adopting a Monster of the Week style of storytelling instead of the traditional mini-series format we’ve come to expect.

The Dalek Transaction

After more than a half a century with them, it is nearly impossible to do a creative, original Dalek story now that doesn’t feel like a generic ‘take over the world’ scheme. Big Finish obviously read that last sentence and retroactively decided to prove me wrong by giving us UNIT in the jungle with Daleks and guerrilla warfare. Yup. You read that correctly. Welcome to the Jungle folks!

The only negative about this story is the poor accents the guest cast adopt. They are cringe worthy to say the least. Everything else…awesome! This story in many ways feels like Dalek from season 1 meets Cold War from season 2. You have Kate and her team coming to the jungle in South America hoping to purchase some illegal alien technology only to end up facing some themselves.

It’s wonderful to have the whole UNIT team, save Sam Bishop who is off on another James Bond mission, working together. Fitton’s script balances the screen time and gives every team member enough to do to warrant their inclusion. Oh and did I mention the banter? Yes, we have some good banter here folks. The chemistry in this team is strong.

What this story does remarkably well is build tension. Regardless of whether you’re writing for a vigilante with a bow and arrow, someone who only uses their brain or an international organization with vast resources, there always has to be a balance between making the challenge of the week feel real without nerfing your protagonist’s abilities. The Dalek Transaction excels at this and at the same time brilliantly showcases just how dangerous Daleks can be in a way that the TV series has never really tried to explore to the overwhelming success that this story did. It’s a breath of fresh air that made this first story stand out.

Rating this story: 9/10

Invocation

I’m going to be completely honest here and ask why this story is even in the box set.

Seriously, Invocation is basically UNIT doing a spooky Halloween episode. Add some magical incantations and haunted houses, this story does everything it can to prove the existence of the supernatural in a series that has always maintained that magic is just some kind of advanced, yet to be understood form of science. In fact, this story cheekily acknowledges this fact and even lampshades it, but lampshading does not absolve you of your sins story.

Kudos though to exploring Kate Stewart’s past and integrating it into the story. While she’s UNIT’s leader, the character hasn’t always been first in line when it comes to peeling away the layers and revealing the secret character underneath. Invocation attempts this and it mostly succeeds, putting Kate at the forefront and giving Jemma Redgrave some wonderful material to work with.

Sadly however, the guest cast don’t measure up. A smaller cast than usual, Lucy Fleming who plays Alice Donelly and Matthew Cottle who plays her son Ben Donelly are bland and the titular ‘ghost’ this story tries to sell you on is utterly forgettable.

And while every story in the box set features some connection to the overarching plot, this story feels filler in comparison and amidst the diamonds in the series, it really hurts Invocation even further with the benefit of hindsight.

Rating this story: 6/10

The Sontaran Project

Nine years and counting. It’s been nine years since the TV series has given us a great, proper Sontaran story. For Big Finish, this is just a regular Tuesday. Once again, the things that made The Dalek Transaction so good is repeated here: Unfamiliar environment, unusual genre of story to insert a Sontaran in, exploring the mythos of a prominent Doctor Who villain. All these elements make for a strong episode and shows just how much Big Finish encourages outside-the-box thinking.

Part of what makes UNIT such a successful spin-off is the fact that the team are all likable. Some have more prominent roles than others, but at the end of the day, no matter who is speaking, you’re paying attention. Coronel Shindi finds himself working with the Sontarans when one of their scout ships crash lands on earth and the pilot is murdered. Naturally UNIT don’t want a war given that the Doctor isn’t around so to see a story where the heroes and villains try to work together, especially a villain like the Sontarans who are prone to shoot first and never ask questions, it creates an interesting dynamic that allows both sides a chance to shine.

Dan Starkey puts in a great performance as EVERY Sontaran as per the norm, but special mention goes to Commander Merx, who really allows the Sontarans to be humanized and dare I say it, sympathized with. Ramon Tikaram as Coronel Shindi is at the front lines in this story and the script does him nothing but good. He’s always been the less prominent member of Kate’s team so to have a story with him as one of the main character allowed The Sontaran Project to inject some fresh flavour into the mix.

Rating this story: 8.5/10

False Negative

Not gonna lie, while the series mostly fails trying to link the overarching plot running through these stories together, as a standalone, adventure of the week series, it does a fantastic job. False Negative is bonkers. Really. It’s hard to say anything more specific because it’s just one big spoiler waiting to happen so pardon the vagueness.

But boy did my head spin with this one folks. Confusing feels like an oversimplification. This story takes advantage of the audio-only format and uses it to great effect confusing listeners about what is really going on and this isn’t even limited to us. The characters in the story are just as confused and the fact is lampshaded multiple times.

Osgood and Josh have been my go to pairing ever since series one and False Negative explores their ‘will they won’t they’ relationship in perhaps the most creative and fun way imaginable. There is definitely some teasing going on and Big Finish acknowledges that they’re well aware of it. Why else do this story? Ingrid Oliver and James Joyce are the stars here and both of them do an absolutely phenomenal job with the rich material they have to work with.

As for the plot, I can’t say much about it except that it’s basically a whole plot reference to one of the most legendary Jon Pertwee stories and a successful, if not better successor if I do say so myself. Jemma and Ramon inject enough humour into Kate and Shindi and it’s really interesting to see them play…

Rating this story: 9/10

Going into this series I was incredibly incredulous of the format change and even after listening to it, I must say that my fears about changing from a flat out mini-series to a monster of the week were well-founded. Most of the stories are incredibly well written and peppered with loads of creativity and if you’re a fan of having your favourite monsters written expertly, this box set is for you. Unfortunately the aim to introduce and resolve an overarching plot in the style of Doctor Who just did not work. There is no big climatic pay off or answer to the questions that have been building throughout the box series. In fact, this series feels as though it’s only aim is to build towards the next box set.

Next May sees UNIT relying on the help of Sir Derek Jacobi’s Master to fend off alien attacks in UNIT: Cyber Reality. Yup. Can’t see any holes in that plan.