Written By: Matt Fitton, Roy Gill, Andrew Smith, John DorneyDirected By: Ken BentleyJemma Redgrave (Kate Stewart), Ingrid Oliver (Osgood), James Joyce (Captain Josh Carter), Ramon Tikaram (Colonel Shindi), Karina Fernandez (Captain Gonsalves/ Phoebe Breckenridge), Lucy Fleming (Alice Donelly), Matthew Cottle (Ben Donelly/ Overseer), David Jonsson (Corporal James Morley), Dan Starkey (Marshal Skar/ Commander Merx/ Sontaran Escapee), James Wilby (Professor John Torrance), Beth Goddard (Christine Colley), Barnaby Edwards (Satellite voice), Jot Davies (Guerilla/ AIDE/ Soldier) and Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks). Other parts played by members of the cast. Producer David Richardson. Script Editors Matt Fitton, John Dorney. Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
Having four series already under its belt, Big Finish bravely decided to try something a little experimental for the fifth series of UNIT. Whereas previous sets have relied on a single thread and usually a single villain (The Nestines, Tengobushi, Silence and Silurians/Sea Devils respectively) the novel approach was taken here to have each story a separate adventure with a new foe. Of course that’s not strictly true, as there is a loose thread concerning an organisation known as the Auctioneers, though this only really comes to the forefront in the third adventure and even then is never fully explored, leaving the possibility open for a rematch in a later set. Anyway! What makes UNIT Encounters so enjoyable is the experimental nature of it. All the team are present and correct (except of course for Sam Bishop who is off on another Bondian adventure) but the stories they are involved in vary from jungle espionage tales, to ghost stories, to out and out comedies.
Opening the set is Matt Finton’s ‘The Dalek Transaction’, which takes the team to the jungles of central America on an undercover mission to buy a captured Dalek from a group of guerrilla rebels. Action packed and with a breakneck pace, it’s a hell of an opener, highlighting the real genius of what makes the audio UNIT based series work; the ability to fly all over the world and feature humongous set pieces that a BBC budget simply wouldn’t allow. The team are all seen working together in this story, with Ramon Tikaram’s Colonel Shindi given a real chance to shine. However undoubtedly the show is stolen by Guest actress, Karina Fernandez as Captain Gonsalves. Her interactions with Jemma Redgrave are some of the most enjoyable scenes in the entire set as despite being from completely opposite ends of the spectrum, they understand each other as the commanders of their respective troops. Unfortunately the story isn’t a total success and that’s mostly due to it’s titular villain. Single Dalek stories have been somewhat out-played now and although Finton tries to inject a few hints of this Dalek being ‘something more’ it never really goes anywhere and the stories twists and turns never really go anywhere. However if you allow yourself to become lost in the action and character moments, there’s a lot of fun to be had here.
Invocation is the next story and see’s Kate investigating happening’s at an old house that still appears to be on the UNIT books, despite having no projects there for decades. Meanwhile a mysterious ‘Grey Man’ is sighted across London. Highlighting the tonal shifts that make this set so enjoyable, we go from an action packed opener to a ghost story in the classic vein. Featuring dark secrets from UNITs past and highlighting the darker side of Kates character, I found this to be one of the highlights of the set. Admittidly a lot slower than the other stories, Invocation takes time to explore it’s mystery and towards the end really puts Kate into the centre, stressing her family ties in a far more rewarding way than Moffat’s interpretation allowed for. Perhaps a little derivative at points for some, it was a welcome change of pace for the UNIT franchise.
The Sontaran Project on the other hand I found to be perhaps the weakest of the bunch. Putting the Auctioneer plot front and centre, what results is something of a mess. At the end of the story we still know decidedly little about them, which if they return in a later series I’m all for, keeping them enigmatic and in the background makes them appear a formidable foe. The problem is the story meanders and plods along, torn between a plot concerning experimentation on Sontarans in order to clone private armies (an interesting concept) and revealing a little bit concerning the Auctioneers. Neither of these plots are given particular emphasis and neither feel like there’s any real threat. The Sonatarans turn up, join forces with UNIT, confront a foe we discover more about and the story ends. Dan Starkey is once again given a chance to shine but really that’s the only highlight of what otherwise feels like an attempt to give some connection to the various stories.
However all is redeemed in ‘False Negative’. Far from the explosive finales of previous sets, Encounters ends with an all-out comedy, centring on the hilarity that ensures when Osgood and Josh are flung into a parallel world that may or may not be a version of the one from Inferno. With much made of the fact that the Osgood and Josh of that world are not only unashamedly evil, but also in a highly sexualised relationship, I found myself laughing out loud at several points. False Negative is certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste and I think individuals expecting an Inferno sequel or pastiche will certainly be disappointed but it is immensely fun. John Dorney has written a superb and highly amusing script that gives the cast (particular Ingrid Oliver and James Joyce) a real chance to shine and is another jewel in this sets crown. Choosing to end the set in this way was a brave and bold move and one that has to be respected.
With three highly enjoyable stories and one dud, UNIT Encounters took a lot of chances and for the most part they payed off. Whilst I may not have enjoyed the handling of their story in The Sontaran Project, I was certainly intrigued by the Auctioneers and look forward to any possible rematch between them and UNIT. However the real joys of this set came not from the loose overarching plot but from the experimental nature of the stories. A lot of brave decisions were made with this set and the production team have to be commended for willing to do something different.