Audio Frequencies (DWM #515, September 2017)

Reviewed this issue:

UNIT – Assembled
Shadow Planet / World Apart
The Companion Chronicles: The First Doctor Volume 2


To the modern Doctor Who viewer, UNIT must look like the sleekest, sexiest, most finely tuned military machine. It’s got a flying aircraft carrier, an Area 51-style ‘Black Archive’ beneath the Tower of London, the President of the World on speed dial and an actual flipping Moonbase.

But it wasn’t always like that. Back in the 70s – or was it the 80s? – UNIT was an endearingly makeshift outfit that appeared to run to around half-a-dozen men, many of whom seemed less like crack commandoes than the cast of Dad’s Army: The Early Years. It was the only top secret military organisation in the world with its name splashed across a big sign outside its HQ, and a commanding officer who flip-flopped between dashing action hero and pompous buffoon, depending on the needs of the script. It was, quite honestly, the second-silliest black ops foo-fighting outfit in Doctor Who history (yes Torchwood, we’re looking at you). But oh, how we did love it.

And now, through the magic of Big Finish, the worlds of slick 21st century UNIT and homespun 70s/80s UNIT have come together in a common cause. UNIT has been reunited. Or reunified, depending on which version you’re talking about.

The pleasingly atmospheric setting for this meeting of epochs is a remote pub in the Lake District – proprietor, one John Benton. In UNIT – Assembled’s opening salvo, Call to Arms, Matt Fitton introduces the former Warrant Officer effectively mid-stand-up set, presumably in honour of John Levene’s cruise ship cabaret act. Then, during the course of a particularly eventful night, Benton is visited not only by his former CO, Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin), but UNIT’s current Greyhound One, Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and her scientific advisor Osgood (Ingrid Oliver), fleeing from a hive full of Silurians who’ve woken from hibernation on the wrong side of the bed.

This is the set-up for an effective base (or boozer) under siege tale, with UNIT past and present holding out against an army of reptiles presented as quick, lethal predators, a world away from the slightly tremulous men in rubber suits of the original UNIT era. That said, Richard Hope, one of TV’s recent go-to Silurians, plays the warmongering Jastrok as a delightfully camp theatrical villain, rather like a reptilian Harrison Chase. (Sample dialogue: “I’m not interesting in the chattering of apes, I’m only interested in fashioning a cloak from your hides!” Quite right – ape hide is so you, darling.)

Fitton’s story takes the listener on a full nostalgia tour of early 70s Who, from Wenley Moor to Devil’s End via Autons, Chronovores and Cromer. If you’re the sort of person who finds this offensive, and is prone to using phrases like “fan servicing” (or worse), then you’ve come to the wrong place, I’m afraid. (Also: you’re dead inside.) For the rest of us, scenes like the one in which Yates hands the injured Benton his old service revolver, so that he can take what might well be his last stand, can’t help but moisten the eye.

Guy Adams’ Tidal Wave welcomes another old friend to the reunion party in the form of Jo Jones, nee Grant, UNIT’s former top level secret agent-cum-work experience girl. She begins the story chained to the offices of a Big Pharma company during a protest against animal testing, during which she has somehow managed to lose the key to her handcuffs. Again, it feels like it’s written as much with Katy Manning in mind as Jo.

The great wheeze here is teaming Jo up with Osgood – who’s such a Pertwee-era fangirl she even provides her own velvet smoking jacket – to undertake a mission on board an experimental eco-sub. An experimental eco-sub that, naturally, gets hijacked, in this case by a brainwashed UNIT soldier. But don’t worry, Jo is across this: “In my day, not a week went by without someone being hypnotised, remote controlled or turned into an android,” she shrugs.

Osgood, for her part, is having trouble finding her sea legs, admitting she “once threw up on a pedalo”. And she’s not the only one feeling a bit green about the gills, as the sub disturbs a colony of sleeping Sea Devils. Though, as Osgood points out, it’s probably not very politically correct to call them that these days.

Adams’ script revisits the moral dilemma at the heart of Malcolm Hulke’s original 70s lizard men stories – in which humanity has to ask itself, like David Mitchell’s Nazi officer in that internet meme, “Are we the baddies?” – but adds further shades of grey by introducing conflict among the Sea Devil and Silurian factions. The story also offers a striking new terror in the form of genetic hybrid reptiles so monstrous their development had to be abandoned. And now, in the Sea Devil chief scientist’s chilling words, “the breeding pens have been breached”. Eek.

Katy Manning is at her irrepressible best here: warm, funny, scatty, lionhearted, she seizes the role of peace advocate in the Doctor’s absence, making an impassioned plea on behalf of the human race, warts and all, in a manner that would have warmed the Time Lord’s hearts, and Barry Letts’ too, for that matter. There is also a quite lovely discussion in which Jo talks openly of the pain of losing the Doctor – her Doctor, the man she loved.

In Retrieval, Kate and Osgood enter the lion’s den – or reptile’s nest, technically – in a bid to arm themselves against the killer hybrids currently torpedoing through the ocean towards the UK.

Guy Adams’ story feels a bit like a video game, as our heroes move through a cave network collecting the keys to secret doors, while fighting off snakes and dinosaurs and evading capture by the Silurian warrior Kalana, played by Neve McIntosh as a ferocious ape hunter with the smell of blood in her nostrils. Madame Vastra she ain’t.

It’s decent girls’ own adventure stuff, with no shortage of peril, but does suffer from an excess of characters reading out stage directions (“A display screen – now we’re getting somewhere!”) to explain what’s going on. I can’t help thinking it would have worked better on the telly, complete with action by HAVOC.

Doctor Who’s 70s stunt team would certainly have had their work cut out in closing chapter United, which goes full-on Michael Bay, complete with aerial bombardment of London by genetically modified flying dinosaurs. (Chaps with wings… you can probably guess what they’ve got coming to them.)

With Kate and co pinned down elsewhere, it falls to Yates, Benton and Jo to come out of retirement and take command, like a UNIT version of New Tricks. “You three are the country’s last line of defence,” Kate tells them – at which point I was brought up sharp by the realisation that these characters were last in the same room together in The Green Death, some 44 years ago. Yes, I know.

They quickly revert to type, though: Jo is still the hippie idealist who thinks they can sue for peace, while Yates prefers to “play soldiers” (Jo’s words) and talk about ordnance. Benton makes the tea.

The final showdown takes place in and around the Palace of Westminster, now under Silurian occupation. That’s right: pitiless, cold-blooded reptiles have taken over Parliament. Fill in your own joke there.

Matt Fitton’s story makes for an exciting, action-packed – if slightly silly – climax to this box set, which over the course of its four stories has lovingly reaffirmed, and indeed expanded, the notion of the “UNIT family”. Sure, they may have more troops, and better toys, and did we mention the Moonbase already? But maybe, where it really counts, inside, 21st century UNIT isn’t that different after all from those foursquare chaps who saved the world from aliens every Saturday back in the 70s. Or the 80s or… you know, whenever.

Jonathan Morris’s brief for Subterranea was to send Tom Baker and Lalla Ward on a Journey to the Centre of the Earth. But while there’s a definite steampunk vibe to the story – in which vast, hulking mining vessels burrow beneath the surface of an alien world – it’s Jules Verne’s Victorian contemporary Charles Dickens who proves more of a touchstone.

This is most apparent in the splendid figure of Mr Maxwell Wilberforce Bell, top-hatted Chief Steering Officer of the Vermes, written by Morris as a cross between a northern mill owner and David Copperfield’s Mr Micawber, and played by Matthew Cottle in apparent tribute to Norris from Coronation Street.

Everyone, in fact, gives rather large readings of their roles – a Mummerset accent here, a comedy northerner there – and at first I found this rather irritating. Then I reminded myself this is Doctor Who, not Asmiov, and it’s the show’s job to whoop it up sometimes. Suitably unclenched, I decided there’s really nothing not to love about a riotous of mash-up of The Robots of Death and Paradise Towers. Yes, Subterranea may be short on profound insights but it’s long on high-octane thrills, and features some pretty decent jokes (including actual mother-in-law jokes). And we all know how much Tom appreciates a good joke.

In Shadow Planet, the Seventh Doctor, Ace and their sometime fellow traveller, Scouse staff nurse Thomas “Hex” Schofield, rock up on a – oh pur-lease – “psychic planet”, which scientists have harnessed in order to create a machine that literally strips away people’s negative vibes. And then grafts them onto a robot. Yes, really.

For some reason, Ace, entirely out of character, willingly volunteers herself for this highly dubious process, and ends up being physically tormented by her dark side, in scenes that play like a mix of Jekyll and Hyde and Manichaeism for Dummies.

AK Benedict’s story has its heart in the right place, serving as a pointed satire on the “wellness industry” – specifically the 60s West Coast “encounter” movement that promised impossible quick fixes for complex emotional issues. The problem is it’s just not very convincing – the “Shadow Collector”, points out Ace, sounds “like a fairytale villain; more like magic than science”. It’s hard to disagree. Still, it’s worth the entrance fee for the brilliant final twist, and for actors of the calibre of Nickolas Grace and, in particular, Belinda Lang, who plays the fabulously arch chief antagonist in the style of an 80s soap superbitch.

Shadow Planet comes packaged as a double-bill with World Apart, in which Ace and Hex are marooned on a frozen planet at the mercy of the elements… and something much, much worse. There’s an upside to this predicament for Hex, though, as he gets to snuggle up for warmth with Dorothy from Perivale, the object of his earnest, unspoken ardour. Seriously, has he never heard the Doctor’s speech about the horrors of unrequited love, and tyranny?

Scott Handcock’s story – a fine showcase for Sophie Aldred and Philip Olivier – is a reminder that the best Big Finish productions are often the smaller, character-led pieces. It’s a notion reinforced elsewhere this month by another quietly extraordinary two-hander, this time featuring Peter Purves and Nicholas Briggs as Steven Taylor and a badly damaged Dalek, forced into an uneasy alliance against a deadly common enemy.

Across the Darkened City is just one of the varied treasures to be found in The Companion Chronicles: The First Doctor Volume Two, an utterly delightful box set of semi-dramatised readings set during Doctor Who’s first blush of youth.

The inexorable pull of fate looms large over this collection which, through what we can only assume is a fortunate accident of timing, ends with the First Doctor walking willingly into the valley of the shadow of death, his date with destiny at the South Pole beautifully re-tooled as a noble sacrifice.

How wonderful it is to hear TARDIS veterans like Purves, Maureen O’Brien and Anneke Wills still sounding so fresh and vital – still thirsting for new adventures after more than 50 years, and still honouring the legacy of their brilliant, irascible, impossible co-star William Hartnell.

Of course, the First Doctor always promised he’d come back and now, half a century on, it seems his fans have more than one reason to feel all their Christmases have come at once.

Published in Doctor Who Magazine issue #515, September 2017 © Panini UK Ltd

All titles available from Big Finish