UNIT: Brave New World – Seabird One (Big Finish Review)

Brigadier Winifred Bambera, created by Ben Aaronovitch for the 1989 TV Doctor Who story Battlefield and kinetically played by Angela Bruce, is an oddly little-explored character by the standards of the series.  Before 1989 and after 2012, Doctor Who seemed to see UNIT as closely tied to the family of its original Brigadier, Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) and in between times tended to introduce one-off commanders to take the ‘Brigadier’ role in any given story.  But Bambera is in fact the natural heir to this role, having had the baton passed from Alastair himself in the 1989 tale.  She’s a vast contrast to Lethbridge-Stewart but hugely engaging, given Bruce’s natural authority and her brilliantly profane-feeling but kid-friendly catchphrase, “Oh shame.”

Despite this, prior to 2022 the character had only had one subsequent appearance, in 2011 when Big Finish dramatised Animal, one of the story ideas tabled for the cancelled Season Twenty-Seven of the classic series.  She’s been curiously overlooked not only by 21st-century TV Doctor Who but by Big Finish‘s many other UNIT strands (it was bizarre, for instance, that she didn’t appear in 2012’s otherwise enjoyable UNIT: Dominion, a Seventh Doctor tale following on from the Season Twenty-Seven stories).  However, earlier this year Bambera finally resurfaced in the Kate Stewart-led UNIT: Nemesis – Between Two Worlds and now, at long long last, she’s back centre stage, given her own box set and a fresh supporting cast, courtesy of director Scott Handcock and unstoppable young producer Emily Cook – the force behind the wealth of online Doctor Who material produced during the 2020 lockdown.

Battlefield, though broadcast in 1989, was vaguely set in the mid-1990s and therefore UNIT: Brave New World follows suit, imagining a lightly futuristic version of the decade as much informed by TV and film SF of the time, as by factual history.  Appropriately, composer Borna Matosic takes the electric guitar elements of Keff McCulloch’s incidental music for Battlefield and lets loose, creating an immersive atmosphere that has a hint of 90s techno about it (as well as a touch of David Arnold’s score for the Pierce Brosnan Bond films) without sacrificing drama for pastiche.  The theme music, meanwhile, is the most exciting example of the form on a Big Finish series for a few years.

 

Rogue State

Rogue State, written by series scripted editor Robert Valentine, initially finds Bambera working with UN forces in a fictional European state, attempting to bring to justice terrorist Krojac (Wilf Scolding).  She’s getting to know her new sergeant, Frenchman Jean-Paul Savarin (Alex Jordan), when she’s summoned back to the UK and asked to head up UNIT on the strength of her handling of ‘the Carbury incident’ (the events of Battlefield).  While Bambera is mulling over the offer, Krojac resurfaces when a particularly nasty Soviet-era weapon is known to have come to the post-Cold War market, and she and Savarin mobilise to prevent Krojac from getting it.

Like any initial episode in a new series, Rogue State has the job of introducing the main players.  A year on from Battlefield, Bambera is just as splenetic and decisive as ever, and Bruce is great, attacking the role with an undiminished energy.  Her 2IC in that story was Sgt Zbrigniev (Robert Jezek), who’s sadly absent, but in his place is another phlegmatic European.  Sgt Savarin has many charming qualities – not least an admiration for Leslie Charteris’ the Saint and ‘the great Roger Moore’ – and Jordan’s rapport with Bruce is instant.

While Bambera and Savarin attempt to focus on their hunt for Krojac (an enjoyably slimy turn from Scolding), another major player is introduced: UNIT’s government liaison, Dame Lydia Kingsley (Liz Sutherland-Lim, one of Big Finish‘s stalwart players, having appeared regularly for the company since 2000).  The dynamic between the Dame (‘Call me Lydia’) and Bambera is interesting: two very different, commanding women, one seeming to represent old world authority (though the circumstances of her damehood aren’t specified) and the other forward-looking and individualistic.  Although in the first episode Dame Lydia’s purpose is largely to make the job offer to Bambera, and in subsequent episodes to act as a sympathetic sounding board for the Brigadier, it will be interesting to see how the relationship develops in future stories.

A character alluded to a couple of times, but not present, is Bambera’s ex-husband.  The burgeoning chemistry between the Brigadier and extra-dimensional Arthurian knight Ancelyn (played by Marcus Gilbert, who would go on to be cast as King Arthur himself in Sam Raimi’s 1993 film Army of Darkness) is one of the delights of Battlefield, the ending of the story pointing towards their marriage.  It’s perhaps a shame to discover that their happiness was so short-lived at less than a year, if indeed Ancelyn was the person that Bambera married (the script is coy about naming him) and seems to regard with bitterness.  Nevertheless, it would be fun to hear from Ancelyn again if Big Finish can persuade Gilbert to return to the role.

Time Flies

Alison Winter’s story boasts the cleverest title of the box set, wrily encapsulating the key concept of the tale.  Geneticist Dr Winston Grange (Silas Carson) has, while searching for a cancer cure, engineered a type of caterpillar that not only lives backwards in time but is capable of reversing the ageing of any life form with which it comes into contact.  This faintly Douglas Adams-ish concept could be absurd but is played entirely straight, to often disturbing effect, as the UNIT team realise that such creatures could spell the end of all life on Earth should they ‘get into the food chain’.

The story also introduces Dr Louise Rix (Yemisi Oyinloye), Bambera’s new scientific advisor.  90s TV sci-fi boasted a fair few impressive female scientists – from Dr Beverley Crusher to Dr Dana Scully – but Dr Rix sounds like a more modern creation.  Defiantly Northern and commanding despite her relative youth, she clashes immediately with Bambera: here are two women both used to taking charge of any given situation.  Not unexpectedly, but believably, they develop a grudging mutual respect.  Oyinloye is entirely credible in the role.

It’s clear from the start that Dr Grange is the ultimate villain, but it turns out that his initial motives were more altruistic than usual.  Carson – the voice of the Ood on TV Doctor Who – is able to employ the customary preternatural calm of his voice to chilling effect.  With the UNIT team trapped within Dr Grange’s facility and literally fighting against time, the claustrophobic tension is maintained throughout, and with the addition of Dr Rix, the series’ regular cast is effectively rounded out.  Time Flies is a rather satisfying episode.

Dark Side of the Moon

The final story of the box set, by Alfie Shaw, is, sadly, the weakest, though it has a very intriguing start and some good emotional meat for Dr Rix.  A year ago, Rix’s childhood friend Helena – now an astronaut – died while taking part in a Moon mission by the British space programme.  Now, though, the spirit of Helena seems to be back, having mysteriously gained the ability to possess the bodies of the living.  She seems determined to sabotage an upcoming moonshot, believing those at the top of the British space programme to be in cahoots with the aliens that killed her.

The upshots of this The X-Files-ish premise (which is also somewhat reminiscent of Fallen, Gregory Hoblit’s 1998 ‘cop versus demon’ movie with Denzel Washington) are an atmosphere of gradually increasing paranoia as it becomes clear that Helena (or the entity taking her name) could be inhabiting anybody at any time, and that Oyinloye gets plenty of opportunity to emote as Rix is torn between her twin loyalties to the memory of her friend and to her new duty to UNIT.  There are also charmingly humorous subplots about the possible romance between Rix and new recruit Pte McManis (Lorne McFadyen) and the team’s increasing reliance on coffee to get them through the day-to-day weirdness of life at UNIT.

However, the intriguing backstory and hints towards possible future development are overly complex and somewhat overwhelm the story at hand (there is no room for any solid explanation for Helena’s ability to bodyswap, for example).  It has generally been accepted since the 1970s that in Doctor Who‘s universe there is a functioning space programme in Britain, but very few stories have taken the time to contemplate how it would really work.  Perhaps UNIT: Brave New World is just the place to do that, but Dark Side of the Moon seems to take too many steps forward too fast, showing the workings space programme to have been undermined before they have really been established, and setting up far more questions than it is able to answer.  Rather than a conclusion to the box set, it feels like Part One of a whole new story, and therefore isn’t a very satisfying listen on its own terms.

Some Final Thoughts

UNIT: Brave New World has begun in rather enjoyable style.  Angela Bruce’s boisterous performance as Bambera is a completely successful revival of the character, and in Jordan’s Savarin and Oyinloye’s Rix, her supporting characters are instantly well-rounded and engaging.  Dark Side of the Moon‘s hints towards a developing plot, presumably to be explored in future releases, about sinister forces operating on, well, the dark side of the moon bodes less well: there’s something overly 90s, in an unappetising way, about conspiracy plots involving shady government deals with aliens.  This is territory that is probably too well-mapped.  Having said that, Big Finish may be preparing to spring a surprise that takes the storyline in an unusual direction.  Largely because of the characters, though, Seabird One is a fun and promising start to a new era of UNIT adventures.  And it sounds fantastic.

UNIT: Brave New World – Seabird One is available at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 31st August 2022.

Extras

Each story is accompanied by a suite of interviews with the cast and crew.  As anyone familiar with the making of Battlefield will know, the on-set rapport between Angela Bruce and her co-stars was riotous (“The best job I ever had,” she memorably declared on the DVD commentary, “I had a lot of laughs and ate a lot of sweeties”).  It’s apparent that Bruce and her new supporting cast have developed a similar bond in double-quick time.

The segments interviewing Jordan, Oyinlowye and Lorne Macfadyen (epically pranked by Bruce on his first day at Big Finish) are full of banter, frequently dissolving into hysterics.  Elsewhere, several other cast members give more sober interviews, all three writers give the listener a guide to the inspiration behind the stories, and Cook and Handcock are infectiously enthusiastic about the project as a whole.  It’s a shame, though, that there isn’t room for a bonus track of Matosic’s superb music.

Synopsis

The Cold War is over, the Millennium is fast approaching, and Brigadier Winifred Bambera is the new head of UNIT.

But in this shadowy, unpredictable world of deadly threats and hidden enemies, Bambera and her new team – Sergeant Jean-Paul Savarin and Dr Louise Rix – will need to prove their mettle. The stakes are higher than ever.

1.1 Rogue State by Robert Valentine
In the war-torn republic of Valge Maja, Brigadier Bambera is hot on the trail of arms-dealing terrorist, Roman Krojač, when she’s ordered back to Geneva. Her old sponsor, Dame Lydia Kingsley, offers her a job as the new head of UNIT. Reluctant to accept, she nevertheless teams up with sarcastic UNIT officer Sergeant Jean-Paul Savarin to prevent a monstrous Soviet-era weapon from falling into Krojač’s hands.

1.2 Time Flies by Alison Winter
Bambera and Savarin are summoned to a secretive genetic research facility by Dr Louise Rix, UNIT’s rebellious new scientific adviser. Two scientists have vanished in mysterious circumstances, and despite the assurances of the sinister Dr Grange, UNIT suspects there’s something very wrong with the centre’s caterpillar population. Can they survive the fruits of Dr Grange’s experiments? And will Savarin survive Bambera and Rix’s rocky new relationship?

1.3 Dark Side of the Moon by Alfie Shaw
A new British space station, the Britannia, is due to be launched at the end of the week, but Bambera, Rix and Savarin fear that some kind of psychic entity is trying to sabotage it. Is it really the spirit of Helena McNamara, deceased astronaut and old friend of Rix? And does it speak the truth when it warns that something terrible is waiting for humanity on the dark side of the moon?

Cast

Angela Bruce (Brigadier Winifred Bambera)

Alex Jordan (Sergeant Jean-Paul Savarin)

Yemisi Oyinloye (Dr Louise Rix)

Silas Carson (Dr Winston Grange)

Simone Lahbib (Sylvia Brooks / DI Alison Lees)

Simon Ludders (Dr Andrews / Control / Colin Carter)

Lorne MacFadyen (McManis)

Debra Michaels (Dr Megan Hollands)

Wilf Scolding (Roman Krojač / Professor Ian Fenning)

Liz Sutherland-Lim (Dame Lydia Kingsley)

Homer Todiwala (Trooper 1 / Astronaut 1 / UNIT Medic)

George Watkins (Eyrie Six (Bragg) / Chuchuna)

Tracy Wiles (Trooper 2 / Astronaut 2 / Cleaner / Helena)

Credits

Cover Art by Ivan Arnerich

Director Scott Handcock

Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery Nicholas Briggs

Music by Borna Matosic

Producer Emily Cook

Script Editors Robert Valentine and Alfie Shaw

Sound Design by Jack Townley

Written by Robert Valentine Alfie Shaw and Alison Winter

Theme Music by Borna Matosic

Senior Producer David Richardson

Suggested Listening

Doctor Who: The Lost Stories: Animal

Doctor Who: UNIT: Dominion

UNIT: Nemesis: Between Two Worlds

TD Velasquez is a writer, film fan, author of the blog Life Is About Fiction (@LifeIsAboutFic), and a host on the horror-flavoured British podcast, --And Now The Podcast Starts!! (@AndNowPodcast)

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