Tony Fyler says plastic’s fantastic.
If you had to name the best Auton stories in 52 years of on-screen Who – well, let’s face it, there are only two real contenders, Spearhead From Space and Terror of the Autons. Most of the New Who Auton stories, bless ’em, haven’t really made full use of the Autons or the Nestene Consciousness.
Now, imagine you could cherry-pick the best bits from Spearhead From Space and Terror of the Autons, update the bejesus out of them, take out the necessity for the Doctor to be there, and set them against the thoroughly modern, Kate and Osgood UNIT.
Yeah – that noise you hear right now in the smiling, secret place inside your head where all your best dreams are kept? That’s UNIT: Extinction playing.
Right from the off, there’s a sense that the new UNIT stories mean business – the theme they’ve been given works entirely independent of any Whovian influences, and (not for nothing), it makes you believe in the potential of an on-screen UNIT spin off rather more perhaps than UNIT’s uses in Who of late have done.
Scripting duties for this ultimate Auton invasion have been split between Matt Fitton and Andrew Smith, both seasoned masters at delivering gripping audio, and there’s barely a foot put wrong between them here.
Fitton kicks us off with Vanguard, starting three major strands. Firstly, he shows us the day to day life of modern-day UNIT, with Osgood beggaring about with a piece of kit that neither involves microwaves nor is a ray gun, but does do something Doctorishly Clever. Kate (played as on screen by Jemma Redgrave – whoever suggested her for the Brigadier’s daughter, take the rest of the day off, you’ve given a gift that keeps on giving) is particularly excellent in this ‘everyday UNIT’ material. Secondly, the villain of the piece is Simon Devlin, reclusive multi-millionaire businessman who does NOT own a plastics firm, but does dabble in high-tech equipment, especially in terms of bringing it to the masses – he’s delivering the equivalent of the personal computer revolution, only with 3D printers. Yes, machines in every home and place of business that can create anything for which you have a template. When you really think about that idea, it’s fairly terrifying in and of itself. And, as ever in the battle between UNIT and creepy extra-terrestrials, there’s somebody in the middle, getting themselves endangered, in this case stroppy journalist, Jacqui McGee, played by Tracy Wiles. When Osgood, by sheer chance, spots a relatively tiny meteorite streaking towards the Earth, it’s all hands to the pumps to try and find it before anyone else does. Far from being the point of a spearhead though, it turns out that the first meteorite you spot isn’t necessarily the first meteorite to have fallen any more. It’s quickly clear that these are not the Nestenes you’re used to. They’re adapting and evolving their tactics, as firstly you’d expect of any credible alien species bent on conquest, and secondly you absolutely need to inject that spark of unpredictability into what amounts to a modern upgrade for a classic villain.
Smith takes over for the extended mid-section, giving us episodes 2 and 3, Earthfall and Bridgehead, and developing the threat of the Nestenes. A lot.
Smith in fact brings that sense of ‘Ooh, really, they can do this now?’ surprise to the action that you got the first time you watched Terror of the Autons and realised the Plastic Population were still full of tricks. Not only do Devlin’s printers start up automatically, all over the world, but the whole – always fairly nebulous – question of what the hell the Nestene Consciousness is actually made of comes under scrutiny, with conclusions that allow it to do some highly inventive and deeply scary new things. The most surprising thing about Smith’s two instalments is that while they’re actually full to bursting point with story and character – we head off to the Gobi Desert for a run in with more Autons, and so far from being a spearhead, there’s a worldwide asteroid shower, the Nestenes having learned not to concentrate their assets – there’s also a sense of blink and you’ll miss them; these episodes are paced within an inch of their lives, so you get the sense of time passing extremely fast, the threat always escalating, UNIT’s victories feeling almost insubstantial by comparison to the relentless march of the Nestenes’ plans. Especially in Bridgehead, there’s also an evolution of the classic ‘shop window dummies on the march’ sequence from Spearhead. Imagine that scene, but with as many Autons as your mind can conjure, taking place all around the world, all at once. That’s the sort of scope you need to do a modern Auton story justice, and the joy of audio of course is if you can say it, you can see it. Smith makes you see it clearly, while actually developing a kind of breathless tightness in the chest about the escalating scale of the cataclysm our heroes are facing.
Our heroes? Oh absolutely – UNIT doesn’t just consist of Kate, Osgood and a bunch of nameless grunts. Here, both Fitton and Smith get a chance to show UNIT exceptionalism in action – the reckless but effective Captain Josh Carter, played by James Joyce, the seriously good soldier Lieutenant Sam Bishop, played by Warren Brown, who frankly would get my vote for a spin off from the spin off, and the gruff officer with a heart, Colonel Shindi, played by Ramon Tikaram (who is, increasingly, in everything. This is a good thing – the world needs more Ramon Tikaram), all pad out the scientific and military organisation with layered characterisation and performance here, so it doesn’t just feel like ‘those two off the telly against the world.’
Episode 4, the suitably named Armageddon, takes us back into Fitton’s corner, and he’s charged with managing all the storytelling threads, while continuing to ramp up the tension to a level that makes your brain squeak, as our heroes fight a last, desperate battle – the world has more or less capitulated, the Autons are everywhere, and Fitton delivers a coup de grace in the Nestenes’ new abilities that amps up the body horror of the invasion plans. The solution’s just a touch of the cap to the Doctor, but there’s a real feeling of UNIT having established its own independent identity throughout the four episodes, different to everything that’s come before – different to Who, different to Counter-Measures, and crucially different to how UNIT has previously been. This is very distinctly Kate Stewart’s UNIT, not the Brigadier’s, and not Klein’s. Science leads, with grit, wit, intelligence and chutzpah, determined to do what’s necessary to keep the Earth safe.
As a proof of concept that the modern UNIT of New Who can work standing alone in Big Finish audio, UNIT: Extinction’s simply a triumph. But it’s actually more than a proof of concept. It’s the kind of audio you listen to once, then glow about for a few days… and then play again, simply because it’s a thrilling adventure, no matter whether you’re an unreconstructed Classic Who fan with a wardrobe full of frilly shirts (Nestenes! Autons! Done absolutely right!) or a wide-eyed, bow-tied New Who fan (Kate! Osgood being clever! Plus those weird plastic things, doing a load of cool new stuff!). Get it, play it, glow, play it again. The Autons are back and they’re at least as good as they’ve ever been. Meanwhile, the new UNIT in audio feels like the worldwide organisation it’s always supposed to have been, but leaner, brighter, and more capable (in the hands of both Kate Stewart and Big Finish) than ever before.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk