Review by Michael Goleniewski
‘Threats to our planet come in many forms. Some are alien visitations, some lay dormant in Earth itself, and occasionally, danger arrives with a big gun and fantastic hair. Whatever the threat, whoever the enemy, UNIT is ready to defend the world.’
UNIT Series 8 (otherwise known as “Incursions”) is taking a very different place in the UNIT universe compared to its predecessor. According to Big Finish’s free magazine “Vortex”, this set is meant to bring the current era of UNIT to a close with a different primary script editor taking over after a longer than usual break between sets. With no current release date or details set for Series 9, this could be the very last we see of UNIT, Kate-Lethbridge Stewart, and this team for a very long time.
It’s certainly been an immense rollercoaster with this saga from its start in 2015 with ‘Extinction‘ all the way through to November of last year with ‘Revisitations‘. Some sets have been pretty perfect while others have been somewhat lacklustre but none of them have gotten to a point where I consider any of them to be outright bad. Series 8 promises the return of an audio-only villain as well as a two-part adventure involving Alex Kingston’s River Song making her first appearance in this range. It’s another interesting turn for Big Finish and part of me wasn’t 100% sure about how I felt about it and the company’s apparent need to throw River Song at everything to see what sticks. Does it match up to UNIT’s usual standard of quality or is this finally the one that drags the range down to the depths of mediocrity?
8.1 This Sleep of Death by Jonathan Morris
‘Abbey Marston. UNIT’s dark secret. A place where the laws of space and time, life and death, can be suspended. Where remembering the departed has consequences… When UNIT faces a threat from a dead man, Kate has no choice but to return to Abbey Marston once more, to disturb the sleep of death. But the Static are waiting…’UNIT’s eighth series starts off on an intense note with a nasty suicide forcing Kate, Osgood, and Captain Josh Carter to revisit an old site from the past that represents one of UNIT’s darkest secrets. But not all is as it seems and multiple traps are about to be sprung with our UNIT team caught right in the middle of an alien invasion from the dead. ‘Sleep of Death’ is a gripping sci-fi horror thriller that also serves as a spiritual sequel to 2017’s ‘Static‘ from the main range starring the Sixth Doctor. Whilst knowledge of the previous story does certainly help and enhance the experience, it’s not at all necessary to fully enjoy the adventure and it helps that writer Jonathan Morris also wrote ‘Static’. To that end, the plot is great, soundscape enveloping, pacing strong and the titular Static terrifying as they make a fantastic return that proves why they are one of Big Finish’s most intriguing creations to date. They really exemplify how the vulnerable and very human side of mortality can be taken advantage of for nefarious ends and having our heroes fight something literally akin to a parasite from beyond the grave continues to be a chilling idea. The cast are all once again fantastic but Andrew French’s Sergeant Calder stands out as a fantastic but yet very sympathetic antagonist who has understandable goals that prove to be an enticing lure for nastiness to enter our world. While there are some minor problems surrounding the climax and it does feel like some plot threads were deliberately left hanging needlessly just to leave things open for a future story, ‘Sleep of Death’ as a whole is a major win and a great way to begin the set.
9 / 10
8.2 Tempest by Lisa McMullin
‘When the planet’s weather systems start behaving strangely, Osgood is worried. Soon, she and Sam Bishop are heading to a remote Scottish island where an eccentric old woman speaks to the wind itself. Meanwhile, Kate Stewart visits a deep-sea oil-rig where strange things are afoot. A tempest is coming, and it could be disaster for the entire world.’
‘Tempest’ is a more global adventure as Earth’s weather is taking a major turn for the worse with winds, storms, and natural disasters all increasing and affecting the planet. As UNIT investigates multiple leads in different parts of the world, the situation rapidly turns into a search and rescue operation with a minor secondary conflict of the importance of human vs. alien life. It feels similar to “Breach of Trust” from last year and there is an interesting that is unexpected given what the synopsis leads you to expect. But the cast all struggle a bit more with this one and the side characters are all either generic or annoying with Alexandra Mathie’s Mother McCraken, in particular, being one of the most obnoxious voices I’ve heard in a while. It also doesn’t do much with the conflicts it’s been given especially with an extremely predictable climax that wraps things up in a nice little bow. Granted it is somewhat nice that a UNIT story doesn’t have lasting secondary repercussions for once. But in this case, it feels like the script by Lisa McMullin sacrifices realism for something warm and fuzzy negating many of the stronger and direr effects of the story that had been built up. It’s certainly not a bad story as there are a lot of good individual moments that have plenty of potential on their own. There are a lot of interesting social commentaries to be gleaned from it and Osgood and Sam get some fun moments working through the mystery in the Scottish islands. But when brought all together, “Tempest” just isn’t as strong as it could’ve been and is probably the weakest UNIT story we’ve had since some of the stories in Series 5.
6 / 10
8.3 and 8.4 The Power of River Song by Guy Adams
‘UNIT has been assigned to monitor the switch-on of a revolutionary new power system – they know from experience such things can be tricky. Nearby, Osgood and Lieutenant Bishop investigate mysterious disappearances – and appearances of trans-temporal phenomena. Kate would like to ask the Director some questions, but she’s proving strangely elusive… until there’s a murder. There’s a dead body in the power station. River Song is the prime suspect. And Kate is most concerned by the identity of the victim. Meanwhile, Sam and Jacqui chase Vikings, while Osgood finds herself out of time. As deadly predators focus their attention on Earth, it seems activating the power of River Song could spell the end of everything…’
‘Power of River Song’ is obviously meant to be the centrepiece and drawing point of the set with Alex Kingston’s appearance being prominently featured in advertising and in the box art. This two-parter sees our team having one hell of a week with missing people, weird monster sightings, Cro-Magnon skeletons, and a strange murder of someone very familiar all taking up time on their docket. All the while, Kate is keeping an eye on another mysterious company as they work to push a new energy solution out to the world with a mysterious director whom listeners might very well recognise. As a finale to the set, ‘Power’ is an appropriately gigantic story. It feels like the ‘Pandorica Opens / Big Bang’ of UNIT audios with elements of “The Wedding of River Song” thrown in for good measure. Guy Adam’s script is fairly good with strong callbacks to the past, present, and future. But much of the story elements do feel like something we’ve heard before in other sets and where it all leads in the final moments is good but not 100% worth it. That’s not to say that it’s bad as there is a lot to love here especially for longtime listeners. The soundscape is fine and all of the cast is good but the two big standouts though are Alex Kingston and Jemma Redgrave. Kingston is fine as ever as River if not doing much other than being her usual self. Unfortunately, she does feel like a cipher for everyone to bounce off of, particularly with Osgood who gets the most amount of time with her. She doesn’t quite fit the mould of this kind of story as much as other characters do and I personally wouldn’t care to see her again in this world. But for what she’s given to work with, she is still enjoyable and it’s always good to hear her again. But the sticking point this time around is surprisingly Kate herself as Jemma Redgrave’s performance is absolutely stellar even for her. The script manages to push her character far past what she’s used to; to the point of absolute desperation though the reasons as to why would require major spoilers integral to the plot. It’s really a great entry for her that stands out and that alone is worth the price of admission especially for fans of the character. In terms of intersecting ranges and as a finale to this era of UNIT, ‘Power of River Song’ does a moderately good job and it’s a fun way to pass a couple of hours with a well-loved team. But with a weaker plot and boring alien monsters that don’t stand out whatsoever, a lot of the hype around it feels a tad wasted and the big draw of River interacting with this UNIT team isn’t quite enough to save this one from being more than good.
‘UNIT: Incursions’ concludes this era of UNIT in standard fashion with every story having something unique and different to draw you in. It doesn’t quite match the tightly knit tension of ‘Silenced’, the fan-service of ‘Cyber-Reality’, or even the surprising power of ‘Revisitations’. But it still works well enough on its own terms especially with a usual fantastic cast that you don’t regret the listen and the stronger moments are very well handled. Personally, I was hoping for something more given the pedigree and quality of some of the previous sets and River herself doesn’t quite match or fit the world of this team which shoots the set in the foot. But sometimes good is more than enough and most fans should be more than satisfied with what is delivered here. UNIT, Kate, Osgood, and co. have been a part of some of the most consistently good Big Finish listening I’ve ever had the pleasure of going through and I will dearly miss them as the series takes an extended break. But with these kinds of great stories behind them, I’m confident that they’ll return to the Whoniverse with an explosive and amazing bang soon enough.
7 / 10
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