Tony’s nerves are frazzled.
Fifteen minutes into episode 1 of UNIT Shutdown, you’ll find you’re breathing fast and shallow. Matt Fitton’s Power Cell blasts the box set off to a blistering beginning, with our UNIT stalwarts, Kate, Osgood and Captain Josh Carter (still boasting his super-strength after the events of UNIT Extinction) off to the running, jumping, what-the-hell, very nearly blowing up races against a creepy new threat. Where the Autons of Extinction were a known quantity re-invented for a new generation of audio stories, these aliens are fantastically inexplicable, insanely fast, very hard to kill and have some other skills besides.
Added to all that, you have the prospect of Osgood having a social life, and a boyfriend, plus shenanigans between a power company boss, Felicity Lyme, played by the Borg Queen herself, Alice Krige, and the higher echelons of the British government, in the person of Energy Secretary Sir Peter Latcham, played by Nigel Carrington. The scenes between Lyme and Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave, sounding more assured than ever before in her role) bristle with more danger and passive aggression than anything in Extinction, giving Lyme some solid dramatic weight and the ability to play the same game as Kate – the iron hand in the velvet glove - while Latcham is a throwback to the kind of politician the Brigadier used to deal with – personally weak, but having crawled into a position of power and allied himself with people and forces who’d have him for breakfast without gulping twice. That’s really what we’re dealing with in Power Cell – a combination of the old and the brand, spanking, blow-your-hair-back new. Fitton gives his opening episode some bull-at-a-gate energy, but makes sure to build the underlying story in proper, character-rich layers. There’s a MacGuffin in this story, the ‘Power Cell’ of the title, and that’s well seeded, but despite the science and the politics, the overriding feeling of Power Cell is exhilaration and intrigue. The aliens are Borg-relentless, but guided by a hidden, strategic hand, and they clearly mean all kinds of kickass business – the body count of episode 1 is surprisingly high, leaving you still breathless at the end of the first hour, as Kate and Osgood, seemingly compromised at the highest levels of their operation, fly off to Geneva to get authority to uncover leaks, links and anything else that’s hiding from them.
Andrew Smith takes the reins for episodes 2 and 3 and refuses absolutely to slacken the pace, ramping the tension up and up – when the title of episode 2 is Death In Geneva, you know you’re not in for an easy ride. The second episode, as in Extinction, establishes the worldwide scale of the threat, which calls itself the Tengobushi. Every encounter with these badasses has a tendency to leave human beings rather less alive than they used to be. They seem unstoppable, and they’re not the only danger to have followed Kate and Osgood to Switzerland – Fitton’s double-helix of alien kickassery and human greed twines through the second episode too, delivering a taut, fraught hour of wondering who our heroines can trust and ending with a good old-fashioned one-two of sucker punches that seem to spell the end for UNIT’s finest.
Smith is a sucker for a siege. From Marshmen and spaceships through to episode 3 of Survivors Series 3, Rescue, which pitted good people versus scumbags in the Post Office Tower, something about the siege format suits Smith down to the ground. In episode 3 of UNIT Shutdown, The Battle of the Tower, he gets to plan and execute the ultimate siege, as UNIT in the Tower of London comes under attack from the massed hordes of the Tengobushi, who still want their MacGuffin back, but now have elevated the threat they pose. Either way, we die – it’s merely a case of whether we die quickly, having given them back their property, or slowly and in agony, resisting to the last. Smith feels like he has enormous fun here – secret passages, secret doors, fresh batteries in the ravens, and a convoluted back-up plan should the Tower come under this kind of attack. What’s more, in the best traditions of everything from Seventies UNIT to Sixties Batman, there are classy additional vehicles, unthinkable contingency plans and exploding national monuments. The whole episode is utterly breathless in the best of ways, with Kate, Osgood, Josh, and UNIT’s ‘man in wherever-the-hell-he-needs-to-be,’ Sam Bishop (Warren Brown), all doing their various bits to keep the hope of humanity alive against increasingly squeaky odds. It’s half a kind of heist movie, with all the clever gadgetry and sneakiness you’d expect of it, and half Japanese impossible-odds ninja horde movie, a handful of good people against an awful lot of implacable foes who want them dead. Terrific fun, madly exciting and slickly delivered inasmuch as while you know there’s an episode 4 and further box sets to come, it makes you genuinely wonder if our team are going to get out of this one alive – and if so, in the name of sanity, how?!
Fitton returns for the final episode of this set, and the tone could hardly be more different. Expanding the scope of the drama again, we’re off to the Antarctic for Ice Station Alpha, the pace slowing right down and adopting a kind of Robot, episode 4 scale – not so much with the taut tight tension, much more with the gigantic masterplan that’s been behind it all. Lyme returns to front and centre here, showing off her ultimate aim, and it’s one of those moments which wrong-foots the listener, because she sounds persuasive. And indeed would be, if the ultimate masters of the Tengobushi weren’t about to kill us all. Oddly, this episode is where the wheels start to look a little wobbly on UNIT Shutdown, because after all the running and shooting and blowing things up, the ultimate solution to the unstoppable Tengobushi threat is diplomatic, rather than military. And while that chimes in tune with Kate’s UNIT – science leads, diplomacy follows, the dogs only run when they have to – there’s a certain feeling of deflation that so much implacably rising tension is popped with so little ceremony. In fact, Ice Station Alpha brings to mind the last ten minutes of The Eleventh Hour. You’ve followed the story as the odds got tighter and the stakes got higher, as usual solutions failed and our heroes had to improvise madly to save everyone – and then, at the end, they have a small, fairly uninspiring conversation with the aliens, and everything’s alright again for another day. The end of Ice Station Alpha feels like more of a sunken soufflé though, because we don’t even get a ‘Basically, run’ moment, so much as an ‘I’m sorry, we’re stupid sometimes’ moment. It all feels just a little bit too grovelly to pay off all the tension and the death that’s come before it, however valid the logic is.
That the logic is valid seems beyond dispute – Kate Stewart and UNIT come across here as parents apologising for their screaming toddler with the dreams of inflated importance, as Lyme demands the right to use the alien tech for humanity’s benefit. But the ending has that note of ‘Sorry – she needs a nap,’ and as such it doesn’t give the pulse-pounding rush of the previous three episodes anywhere to go but a sag of the shoulders and a saddened sigh.
Ultimately then, is UNIT Shutdown worth picking up? Oh gods, yes – the Tengobushi are terrifying, and a great new addition to the universe. They’re more effective in a single box-set than the Eminence were over a handful of stories where they were forced to the fore, and the Tengobushi’s masters remain interestingly enigmatic, meaning there could well be more adventures with them to be had. The first three episodes build, and build, and build some more, from seemingly inexplicable but devastating attacks to the full-on siege of a lifetime. No, the ending doesn’t have quite the oomph you’d like it to have, but it’s worth remembering that really, the full-on ending your system craves after being wound up for three episodes would probably result in a very big bang and no more box sets. Or indeed, planet. So on balance, the lesson that humanity’s not ready for some of the alien races and technology that are out there, while comparatively downbeat when compared to a Torchwood message of readiness, fits both the scale of the Tengobushi and their masters, and the priorities of Kate Stewart’s UNIT. You end the box set feeling like you’ve had a really good, life-affirming shower, and jumped out just as the hot water ran out. And you’re certainly ready and eager for the next UNIT box set when it arrives in November, with what promises to be an entirely different kind of threat, as the Earth’s best defence goes up against the Silence.
If it’s anything like as good as this one, bring it on.
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