UNIT: Nemesis 1 – Between Two Worlds (Big Finish Review)

The presence of UNIT in Doctor Who across the years has always been a reassuring one – the suggestion that, in the Doctor’s absence, there’s always an armed force capable of meeting alien threats with guns and bombs rather than compassion and cleverness. Their alliance of sword and shield has never been a comfortable one: the Doctor’s principled but inconsistent pacifism colliding with UNIT’s pragmatic, queen-and-country approach to terrestrial peacekeeping. Their soldiers are adherents to a code, too, but theirs is one which values order and continuity above all else. 

So it’s interesting to see human minds come up against an alien threat who usually faces off against our favourite Time Lord. UNIT: Nemesis 1 – Between Two Worlds, the latest box set in a series of adventures for Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and Osgood (and the first of four scheduled entries in the Nemesis series), puts The Eleven (Mark Bonnar) in the crosshairs of UNIT. The combination of a flamboyant, comic-book-esque villain and a straight-laced, no-nonsense military outfit is promising: but do the stories match up to the elevator pitch?

The Enemy Beyond by Andrew Smith

We open in a submersible vessel with Adam Merchant, archaeologist and marine biologist, drilling for minerals in an underwater rock formation – and our old friend Jacqui McGee (Tracy Wiles), journalist, drilling for information. The rocks are 60 million years old, and naturally they’re hiding secrets: a rock explodes, revealing a glowing stone arch. 

Jacqui promises to put Adam in touch with Kate Stewart, and we’re off to the races. We resurface in Scotland: Adam’s naturally sceptical when he finds that the arch has also been whisked away to UNIT’s facility under Edinburgh Castle, but settles down when he’s introduced to the team there, including tech wizard Osgood (Ingrid Oliver). 

Adam makes the mistake of touching one of the symbols on the arch, and he wakes up elsewhere with his vision gone. He’s ‘rescued’ by a new companion who regular Big Finish listeners will recognise instantly as The Eleven. He is, of course, a rogue Time Lord with multiple personalities, all of them total bastards. The scene in which we’re introduced to him and his unpredictable ways goes on a bit too long, especially as Adam – ostensibly an experienced scientist – doesn’t seem to twig that the multiple survivors he’s speaking to are actually one disturbed individual keeping him blindfolded. But that’s hypnosis for you. 

Adam and the Eleven are brought back to Edinburgh, but it’s not long before the latter kills a guard and escapes, leaving a trail of destruction. Meanwhile, Adam’s not doing so well, falling prey to an alien toxin that’s lethal to others around him. Jacqui calls Kate, who quickly surmises who’s really to blame, and why. 

Curiously, UNIT are not really the point of focus of this particular story: like many ‘soft’ introductions to sci-fi premises, we spend a lot of time with our human audience surrogate, Adam. But the Eleven is overrepresented, and his evil plot is both over-explained and vague at the same time. He does have a good moment with Kate, who reminds him that she’s met the Master, Missy, and the Doctor: she knows how troublesome Time Lords can be.

Otherwise, it’s an undeniably entertaining story, one which recalls cautionary sci-fi tales like The Quatermass Experiment (and of course, on a superficial Stargate). An airborne climax adds big-budget flair, and sets the stage for the remaining chapters of this story: from here, it’s off to Australia, to investigate an unusual alien sighting and a familiar enemy. 

Fire and Ice by John Dorney

In Australia’s Northern Territory, in the blazing heat, there are unfamiliar presences causing havoc – a rogue Ice Warrior, and the Martian death squad trying to track him down and eliminate him. Luckily, UNIT are there to cause some havoc of their own. John Dorney’s script at first cleverly crosscuts between two UNIT groups: Kate and Osgood in the air, and new agent Naomi Cross (Eleanor Crooks) and one Harry Sullivan (Christopher Naylor) on the ground. Both will soon be seen together in Series 13 of The Fourth Doctor Adventures, but here they’re in pursuit of their own mission. 

We find that the fleeing Ice Warrior is a scientist who hoped to improve his species’ tolerance of heat – but altered his own biology and is uncontrollably absorbing heat energy. The risk he poses as he gets sicker isn’t just to himself, but everyone around him. 

It’s a fast-paced, tense adventure which puts The Eleven into the background for an hour or so. The Ice Warriors are just as formidable and creepy here as they are in their best appearances, with their whispering, raspy voices adding to the chill factor. But there’s depth to them too, as we learn more about their society and their psychology. The voice of the Ice Warrior leader, played by Olivia Poulet, strikingly resembles that of Margaret Thatcher. 

John Dorney jabs at Instagram culture via the character of Roz Greene (also Poulet), a vlogger and tourist who risks the safety of herself and others for clicks and views. It’s a broad stereotype and the jokes are cheap, but it’s fun. It’s equally entertaining to learn that Kate and Osgood, despite their technical knowledge, are totally ignorant of social media. 

It’s a disappointment that the interesting setting isn’t explored so much, besides giving the characters a wide-open space and therefore an opportunity to cause large-scale chaos (and to introduce a very fun scene with a spaceship). 

Eleven’s Eleven by Lisa McMullin 

As the cheeky title acknowledges, The Eleven is back with burglary in mind. He’s inserting himself into a team of bank robbers, including Ava Drake (Maggie Service), who we meet bombing their way into a vault. After dispatching one of the unfortunate robbers, he notes “I’m the new Kevin”

Meanwhile, UNIT have hidden the stone arch in an abandoned (now upgraded) lighthouse on an island – Middle Mouse off Wales, to be precise. Osgood hopes to disable the arch, but needs time that they don’t have, as the Eleven is gunning for a mysterious alien gemstone – the ‘Idol’s Eye’, a 70-carat blue diamond – that will help him locate the arch and fulfil his plan. That plot leads them to Knightsbridge, global capital of expensive trinkets, with UNIT in tow. It’s all an excuse to introduce some very neat, Bond-esque technology, including infrared trip beams and a full-sized Osgood hologram, bringing a new meaning to ‘remote working’. 

“I need brute force and a cover story”

There’s a tense chase through a series of vaults, and an awful lot of misdirection from writer Lisa McMullin, who understands the assignment perfectly. The influence from heist films and crime epics is obvious and adds a lot of verve, and McMullin tips her hat to the group dynamic of previous UNIT stories – cutting back and forth between the goodies and baddies lends a real scope and scale to the adventure. 

The inter-group squabbling among the Eleven’s team is a highlight, as well as the relationship between the cunning London thief Ava and the Eleven – both of them fractious and seeming perpetually on the verge of a double-cross. Maggie Service as Ava makes a very good jewel thief, calm and collected but constantly being pushed out of her comfort zone by the unpredictable madman she’s allied with. 

The final moments set up a surprising cast addition for the next story: although the title itself might be a giveaway. 

The Curator’s Gambit by Andrew Smith

Tom Baker’s mysterious Curator has been slowly making understated appearances in the Big Finish catalogue, following a recent thumbs-up from creator Steven Moffat, and UNIT: Nemesis now joins the Stranded series – an exclusive club – in featuring appearances from this later incarnation of the Doctor. 

At once, this is the most involved in the action of a particular story that the character has ever been, and the most exciting the Curator has ever been: as the Eleven’s scheme lurches towards its conclusion, we get to see what the Doctor might be capable as they grow older and wiser. 

Equally, this is the best story in the quartet for Eleven: he gets the opportunity to be truly nasty, with actions backing up his words. Seen here hypnotising then remotely murdering a helpless UNIT member, his prior personalities also influence the shape and feel of the story. There’s an unpredictability factor in play. Mark Bonnar is as terrific as always: his steely resolve evaporates in an instant as one of his other selves disrupts each threatening monologue from The Eleven. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Andrew Smith’s story offers a tantalising possibility, which is that The Under Gallery which we know to be located in central London was preceded by an earlier vault underneath Hampton Court Palace: upon the order of Elizabeth I. The story folds in time travel, false realities and a history lesson on JMW Turner’s masterpiece The Fighting Temeraire, the latter courtesy of the man himself (Glen McReady), an exciting meeting of minds. It’s always fun when Doctor Who engages with lesser-known pockets of history. 

It all leads to a thrilling climax barreling through palaces, galleries and layers of reality (or unreality), the kind that can only be realised in the medium of audio drama, and terrifically well-realised by writer Andrew Smith and director Ken Bentley. 

UNIT: Nemesis is an excellent example of how Big Finish’s ‘rep company’ approach to storytelling can yield interesting and enjoyable results. Taking a handful of writers, a troupe of actors and scores of talented behind-the-scenes personnel, they look at the stories and characters which have worked well in the past (with just the right amount of novelty and invention to keep it fresh) and assemble some kind of order from the chaos. As a piece of long-form drama, this volume occasionally betrays the weaknesses of that approach: there’s no consistent momentum or tone, and the writers seem to avoid stepping on each other’s toes in telling a collaborative, incrementally-built story. 

And yet it’s a strong start to a new cycle of stories, showing that Big Finish are committed to exploring new nooks and crannies of this infinite universe in exciting new ways. The short hiatus since the last volume of UNIT stories seems to have been worth the wait, and I’m looking forward to the next volume of UNIT: Nemesis, due in March 2022, with great anticipation.

UNIT: Nemesis 1 – Between Two Worlds is available exclusively at the Big Finish site here, and goes on general release on the 1st February 2022.

Extras

The set includes the standard insights from the writers, producers and stars of the show, which are as fascinating as always. Pulling back the curtain on the project is Emily Cook, long-time Doctor Who Magazine contributor and creator of Doctor Who: Lockdown!, now a producer on Big Finish. Cook, upon joining the project and reading the near-completed scripts, notes the fresh, brand new era for UNIT which the Nemesis sets are ushering in. 

James MacCallum, who appears here as Adam Merchant and is no stranger to Big Finish, compliments the medium for the diversity of stories which can be told – it’s a lovely tribute. He also praises Mark Bonnar’s versatility as an actor – Bonnar himself pops up, noting that despite his fearsome character there’s always comedy in the scripts (and that he adds it himself if there isn’t). Christopher Naylor as Doctor Who legend Harry Sullivan always watches “a bit of Ian Marter” to tap into the tone and feeling of him. 

Olivia Poulet, who plays Roz Greene in Fire and Ice, notes that she’s “unfortunately” met a few people like Roz and so had plenty to draw upon. Equally, she studied Adele Lynch’s performance in Doctor Who as another Ice Warrior to inform her own take. 

Meanwhile, we also hear from the stars of the show, Ingrid Oliver and Jemma Redgrave. The latter loves the scripts for the UNIT series and meeting the Eleven for the first time, and it’s a thrill to hear that the headline actors have such esteem and affection for the material. 

Synopsis

An ancient artefact, a stone arch anachronistically imbedded with electronic circuitry, is recovered following a rupture in an undersea stretch of the Mull lava group in North West Scotland, a geological feature dating from tens of millions of years ago.

UNIT’s investigation will unlock a link to another world and bring them face to face with a new and powerful threat…

1.1 The Enemy Beyond by Andrew Smith

In a UNIT facility beneath Edinburgh Castle, Kate and Osgood work to unlock the mystery of a stone arch discovered buried in a prehistoric rock formation.

When the arch takes one of their number away to a strange, bleak world, it leads to an encounter with a Time Lord. One with multiple personalities. Soon the Eleven is loose on the streets of Edinburgh and plotting to seize the arch from UNIT by any means necessary.

1.2 Fire and Ice by John Dorney

When Kate needs Harry Sullivan’s help with a threat from the Eleven, she and Osgood travel to Australia to meet him. He’s there with Naomi Cross, investigating footage of an apparent UFO crash that turned up on social media.

They find themselves caught in the middle of a conflict between Ice Warriors. And one Ice Warrior isn’t so icy – in fact, he’s red hot. And getting hotter…

1.3 Eleven’s Eleven by Lisa McMullin

A series of jewel robberies in London and the Home Counties draws the attention of UNIT when it’s discovered that some of the stolen gems are alien in origin. The robberies are the work of an organised criminal gang led by East End villain Ava Drake. But Ava has a new, ruthless partner. The Eleven has promised her riches, and for him the gems are a means to defeat UNIT and regain the arch.

1.4 The Curator’s Gambit by Andrew Smith

The arch is taken to the Under Gallery for safekeeping, under the protection of the Curator. When the Eleven penetrates the Gallery’s security, the Curator initiates an emergency plan. He and UNIT play a game of cat and mouse with their pursuers within the Under Gallery’s original location, Hampton Court Palace.

Cast

Jemma Redgrave (Kate Stewart)
Ingrid Oliver (Osgood)
Tom Baker (The Curator)
Mark Bonnar (The Eleven)
Eleanor Crooks (Naomi Cross)
James Joyce (Captain Josh Carter)
James MacCallum (Adam Merchant)
Glen McCready (J.M.W. Turner)
Christopher Naylor (Harry Sullivan)
Olivia Poulet (Ros Green)
Maggie Service (Ava Drake)
Tracy Wiles (Jacqui McGee)
Becky Wright (Clare Duvall)

Credits

Producer Emily Cook, David Richardson
Script Editor Andrew Smith, John Dorney
Cover Art by Tom Webster
Director Ken Bentley
Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery, Nicholas Briggs
Music by Howard Carter
Sound Design by Howard Carter
Written by Andrew Smith Lisa McMullin, John Dorney

Suggested Listening

Doctor Who: The Eleven

UNIT: Incursions

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