Tony’s relishing the Silence.
The concept of UNIT Silenced makes an appealing amount of sense. In the first New UNIT box set, Kate Stewart’s team battled the Autons, a classic UNIT foe. In the second, they battled a brand new creation, the Tengobushi. In the third, they confront their part in the New Who universe, and battle a species invented for Matt Smith’s Doctor – the Silents.
And at least, unlike the Weeping Angels and the Vashta Nerada, both of which Big Finish is also bringing to audio, the Silents do speak actual words. Which, when you consider that their catchphrase is ‘Silence must fall’ is just a touch ironic.
But the challenge of making the Silents work on audio is one of audience patience and storytelling momentum. You forget everything about them the minute you look away. How are you going to construct four hour-long episodes around a creature whose influence specifically makes you forget them the moment you’re not looking at them?
What’s more, there’s a degree of motivational challenge to using the Silents as a Big Bad in the wake of where their on-screen storyline went. Frankly, they fizzled out as priests, taking confession from anyone who needed absolute secrecy (Just asking: how does that work? As soon as you complete your confession and look away, you forget you’ve just been to confession…). Clearly, if they’re still beggaring about on Earth and getting in UNIT’s way, we’re dealing with ‘bad,’ Kovarian Chapter Silents.
The issue of audience patience and narrative thread though does come up during the course of the four episodes here, not least because rather than a single four-part arc, UNIT Silenced feels like one three-part story, and an entirely separate, follow-up, one-parter – a sensation enhanced by events coming to a head at the end of Episode 3, and an entirely different scenario being used for Episode 4.
That said, the first three episodes are superbly satirical, in the best traditions of Robert Holmes back in his UNIT days. That’s especially impressive when you realise that UNIT Silenced was probably written before the Brexit campaign was actually run, and while Donald Trump was either still battling to become the Republican nominee, or had won the nomination but was being dismissed as the joke he actually remains. What makes it impressive is that the story builds to a UK election with a pompous, pointless blowhard spouting meaningless drivel to the British publish, challenging a sitting Prime Minister – and winning. Certainly viewed in hindsight, it’s a beautiful satire on the political process and the ability of unmitigated cretins to get elected to the highest offices in the land. At least, as is actually said by Osgood along the way, if it’s the Silents that are responsible, it means that the British people haven’t gone entirely mad.
Yes – UNIT Silenced actually finds a way to make you wish the Silents were real, because at least it would explain 2016.
The first episode, House of Silents, is a warm-up: before anyone storms the Bastille, there are secret meetings, conclaves, plans drawn up in safe houses. You’d think the Silents, with their very particular gift, would have no need of such safe houses, but that’s to reckon without the solution to The Year of the Moon. There, as punishment and safeguard, the Doctor arranged to implant a mortal hatred of the Silents into the psyche of everyone who watched the Moon landing – in a perverse twist of fate, these are Silents that are fighting for their lives, fighting for the right to live unpersecuted lives fifty years after that one small step.
The Silents are gathering in one house – the house of a blind philanthropist – to make their plans. The challenge of narrative when using the Silents is explicitly laid before us in House of Silents, because UNIT has the house under surveillance, Colonel Shindi (Ramon Tikaram) back on duty…but of course, nothing is ever recorded. The way that problem is eventually overcome is ingenious, and the Silent ‘cell’ is attacked, but it hardly matters. The Silents have come up with a plan, and it involves getting a cretin named Kenneth LeBlanc elected Prime Minister.
In Square One, the problem of using the Silents is baked right into the title – UNIT has forgotten it ever encountered the Silents, and only the persistence of an internet whistleblower, and of former journalist Jacqui McGee (Tracy Wiles reprising her role from UNIT Extinction), convinces Kate Stewart to investigate anomalies in her memory. Three box sets in, there’s a solid delineation developing among Kate’s top team, Captain Josh Carter and Lieutenant Sam Bishop (James Joyce and Warren Brown) more or less running down paths beaten out for them by Yates and Benton respectively – the posher, more gung-ho Carter (emboldened by his plastic skeleton) more reckless than the team’s military working class problem-solver Bishop. That difference comes to the fore in the mid-section of this box-set, as the Silents recruit Josh Carter for Team LeBlanc and he becomes the idiot politician’s chief of security, abandoning his UNIT role.
Throughout the course of Square One, we learn more of the Silents’ dilemma as a hunted species on Earth with no escape, and every human predisposed to kill them on sight. We also get a sense of what the Silents are truly capable of with their powers of suggestion, especially in the age of Youtube and viral videos. Just think about it for a minute – how many cute cat videos are out there? Are they all really that cute? But do you watch them anyway?
Ever wondered why?
Writers Matt Fitton and John Dorney shamelessly work the Silents into questions like that, using them to answer many questions about modern life. The rise in cute cat videos is part of a cunning Silent plan. Obviously.
The episode helps extend the powers we saw the Silents use on-screen, and perhaps more to the point, give them some sort of coherent plan, rather than just an urge to turn up now and again to scare the willies out of people and/or randomly lightning-zap them.
Silent Majority sees the nation lose its mind and elect LeBlanc as Prime Minister, a role in which he’s actually supremely disinterested in terms of actually doing the job. Both Brits and Americans will easily be able to pinpoint national figures who give off that vibe. But as UNIT struggles to retain the Silents in their minds through clever technological solutions (akin to the eyepatches from the TV series) and repeated briefings, handwritten notes and drawings, LeBlanc becomes Prime Minister and Josh Carter, like Yates before him, realises he has been given a part in something bigger and darker than he ever imagined. As Osgood asks: ‘What do the Silents gain from the election of LeBlanc? Surely there are plenty of politicians they could overpower without choosing someone so…’
Quite. The answer to that question, to the credit of Fitton and Dorney, makes more sense than anything in The Year of the Moon ever did. The Silents are fighting fire with fire, trying to overpower the message the Doctor laid into the human subconscious. UNIT’s solution is scrappy, but – and this is where the box set feels like it makes a miss-step – the Silents quickly abandon the battle for another front.
Months pass before the final episode, In Memory Alone, takes place. UNIT has defeated the Silents. Everyone knows that, especially UNIT’s leaders. The defeated Prime Minister has been reinstated, and there are shenanigans on an international space platform, Bishop and Osgood becoming astronauts to go and sort out the issues. Then astronauts start dying, and the two UNIT operatives flip switches that expose the spy satellites of all nations. The Silents have got one final gambit up their tailored sleeves – getting the hell out of Dodge and leaving us to destroy ourselves. It’s this complete storyline shift that makes In Memory Alone feel like a single-episode sequel to the main story here, a Moonraker in the James Bond franchise. And while there’s some good scary stuff with Silents In Space, the tonal shift feels like an oddity, like a bonus disc rather than Episode 4 of a coherent story.
UNIT Silenced has some mountains to overcome – the difficulty of fighting a villain you can’t remember, sustaining listener interest as you go round in the same loop a number of times, the motivation issue etc. For the most part, Fitton and Dorney, aided by some canny direction choices from Ken Bentley, and served by a cast getting better and better the more they work in the audio medium together, pull off what seems like too tall an order. Yes, In Memory Alone feels like an Easter egg, rather than a fully-fledged fourth part of the same story. But in the political satire, in solving the motivation issue, and in giving the Silents more coherence in audio than they ever had on screen, Big Finish does more than enough to declare this box-set a triumph.
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