Review by Jacob Licklider
The original UNIT mini-series from Big Finish Productions brought back Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, but only for its opening and closing instalments and is generally regarded as a weak miniseries. It would be shelved and not picked up again bar UNIT: Dominion in 2012, but 2015 saw a long running revival bringing for the first time New Series elements were allowed to be used. The series ran for eight box sets from 2015-2019, ending, but being revived this month just a week before Kate Stewart returned to televised Doctor Who, Big Finish released the first of a four set miniseries subtitled Nemesis, beginning with Between Two Worlds, where the UNIT has to contend with the Eleven, trapped on an alien planet and scheming to gain power on Earth. He is the through line for these four stories and Mark Bonnar plays the role brilliantly throughout, the set using the time to flesh out the different personalities of the Eleven with many of them getting to shine throughout. Bonnar is a constant undercurrent providing a clear and present alien danger for UNIT to face, moving away from an older perception of UNIT as only fit to deal with threats like the Bandrils.
The first episode of the set is The Enemy Beyond by Andrew Smith which gives new listeners a chance to explore the scientific side of UNIT, Kate Stewart moving the team away from the military. There is an alien arch underneath Edinburgh Castle which leads to a planet where the Eleven has been stranded. When a UNIT soldier finds himself stuck through and infected with an alien fungus, the Eleven uses the opportunity to get through to Earth as well as using the fungus to spread across Edinburgh while demands are made to UNIT to allow the Eleven to take over the world. Smith’s script is full of homages to stories like The Web of Fear, yet still feels quite original and perhaps shines the most when it’s showing off Jemma Redgrave’s Kate Stewart and Ingrid Oliver’s Petronella Osgood, both characters whom I found to be weak on television, but on audio are allowed to shine as leads. Kate in particular has a selfless streak, being willing to give up her own life to stop the Eleven before he can do more damage to the world. There’s also something great about the Doctor not really being mentioned as it helps the set feel more removed from the Doctor Who name. Sure it’s a set steeped in the Doctor Who universe, but it doesn’t always feel like it’s in the shadow of the parent show. The second half in particular switches gears to a more focused espionage story, and while the distinct halves don’t blend together as well as they should, each does give the UNIT characters their chance in the spotlight, doing something which Moffat never did on television, starting the set off on a very high note. 8/10.
John Dorney’s Fire and Ice is the only episode not to feature the Eleven, instead switching gears to Australia where Kate and Osgood contact Harry Sullivan, who has not aged since his time with the Doctor and seems to be stuck with another companion of the Doctor’s Naomi Cross, played by Eleanor Crooks. This is the first time listeners are getting a glimpse at Harry and Naomi, both appearing in an upcoming series of Fourth Doctor Adventures not set for release until 2024, and both Eleanor Crooks and Christopher Naylor, who continues his excellent impression of the late Ian Marter, make an interesting first impression. There’s this interesting banter between them, not quite following the relationship of Harry and Sarah Jane Smith, but at least comparable, with Dorney not afraid to highlight the dated aspects of Harry as a character. He is definitely a man from the 1970s (or 1980s) transplanted into the modern day which makes for an interesting character. It’s not meant to be harmful or anything, but is something that makes the character interesting. We first see the pair in a bar, attempting to get an influencer, played by Olivia Poulet, to hand over footage of an Ice Warrior ship crashing. This being the Australian Outback the heat is unbearable for the Ice Warriors and the story proceeds like a disaster movie, with the mounting threat of an explosion due to Ice Warrior technology being there. It’s enough that there are evacuation orders in place for nearby towns in an attempt to save lives. Dorney is also responsible for another story where the Ice Warriors are not the villains, a recent trend which honestly feels like the proper evolution of the race. It’s kind of telling that the last time they were outright villains with no nuance was 1974, as 1972’s The Curse of Peladon set up such a brilliant system of honour that every subsequent appearance bar one adhered to. Fire and Ice is honestly the highlight of the set with Naylor and Crooks having their debuts done in the wrong order but making such a good impression because of it. 10/10.
The penultimate adventure is a heist story. Lisa McMullin’s Eleven’s Eleven as the title implies is a pastiche of Ocean’s Eleven with the ten other’s being the Eleven’s other personalities and Maggie Service’s Ava Drake, sort of a stock thief character who is a lot of fun. This is kind of the story that feels the least like a UNIT story, the gems being stolen being alien in origin is how they are called in along with journalist Jacqui McGee played by Tracy Wiles, another recurring character who caused some trouble in the opening instalment. Wiles is an interesting character, she has to be placated with some alternate answers that can make her readers happy. Wiles played the role in some other UNIT box sets. Eleven’s Eleven is actually quite enjoyable, but full of heist tropes, as this is more of a story meant to be building up to a scenario where the Eleven can win. This is where Bonnar shines the most and the idea of a scenario where the world is at stake which is good, but this is sadly the weakest installment simply because it’s all setup. McMullin does setup wonderfully but it doesn’t feel like there is really a conclusion to the episode. 7/10.
The Curator’s Gambit is the concluding installment of Between Two Worlds which brings Tom Baker back as the Curator, with the Under Gallery being threatened by the Eleven. Stranded 2 already established the Curator as much more of a trickster and Andrew Smith’s script also plays that up with several flashbacks to JMW Turner, played by Glen McCready, who is commissioned by the Curator to paint a very special painting. McCready while having a smaller part in the episode, is kind of a standout for his turn as Turner, an artist who was by all accounts an eccentric, and the way it eventually comes into play in the story itself is a lot of fun. This is a story where Smith gets creative by bringing several characters together in a base under siege style story, where the danger is coming from inside UNIT itself. Several of the players from the set return including Harry Sullivan and Jacqui McGee for another final round against the Eleven with the set building to a great conclusion. 9/10.
Overall, UNIT: Nemesis – Between Two Worlds was a very pleasant surprise for a story with some characters who on television never really got a chance to shine and Big Finish gives them that chance. Ken Bentley directs them beautifully and sets up the next three sets with plenty of intrigue. 8.5/10.
Check out the rest of our Big Finish reviews!