Big Finish Review: UNIT - Incursions
Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) meet River Song (Alex Kingston) in the eighth main release in the New UNIT range. Following on from Revisitations, the team faces three new threats to Earth security, including Doctor Who stalwart character River Song.
Incursions was produced by David Richardson with direction from Ken Bentley. The four-story set is available exclusively from the Big Finish website here. The synopsis is as follows:
Threats to our planet come in many forms. Some are alien visitations, some lay dormant in Earth itself, and occasionally, danger arrives with a big gun and fantastic hair.
Whatever the threat, whoever the enemy, UNIT is ready to defend the world.
This Sleep of Death by Jonathan Morris
Abbey Marston. UNIT’s dark secret. A place where the laws of space and time, life and death, can be suspended. Where remembering the departed has consequences…
When UNIT faces a threat from a dead man, Kate has no choice but to return to Abbey Marston once more, to disturb the sleep of death. But the Static are waiting…
Tempest by Lisa McMullin
When the planet’s weather systems start behaving strangely, Osgood is worried. Soon, she and Sam Bishop are heading to a remote Scottish island where an eccentric old woman speaks to the wind itself.
Meanwhile, Kate Stewart visits a deep-sea oil-rig where strange things are afoot. A tempest is coming, and it could be disaster for the entire world.
The Power of River Song Part 1 by Guy Adams
UNIT has been assigned to monitor the switch-on of a revolutionary new power system – they know from experience such things can be tricky.
Nearby, Osgood and Lieutenant Bishop investigate mysterious disappearances – and appearances of trans-temporal phenomena. Kate would like to ask the Director some questions, but she’s proving strangely elusive… until there’s a murder.
The Power of River Song Part 2 by Guy Adams
There’s a dead body in the power station. River Song is the prime suspect. And Kate is most concerned by the identity of the victim.
Meanwhile, Sam and Jacqui chase Vikings, while Osgood finds herself out of time. As deadly predators focus their attention on Earth, it seems activating the power of River Song could spell the end of everything…
Series seven and eight of UNIT have been better off for being released from overarching continuity, instead allowing for a mix of stories to be told. In this set, we get a horror-influenced story, a sci-fi tale and a murder mystery-thriller.
This Sleep of Death
Jonathan Morris’ opener gets to business quickly and does not stray from the core ideas for the ensuing 50 minutes, making for a swiftly-paced, tightly-constructed plot with a small core cast. Kate, Osgood and Josh are the only regulars who appear in significant roles, giving them each more time for development and involvement in the action – of which there is a lot, due to the pace.
The episode probably works best as a sequel to the 2017’s Static, a release in Big Finish's Monthly Adventures range. As a sequel, some listeners may not have heard the original, meaning that Morris is placed in an interesting position in trying to balance two groups – those who have the background knowledge and wish to see a new spin on the aforementioned tropes, and newcomers who must be introduced to a number of returning concepts, plus any additional material, in less than an hour.
This Sleep of Death does not have the slow, building dread that Static employed so effectively. Instead, it takes a sharper approach to the ideas in play – such as the resurrection machine, possession, and the idea of an afterlife – which is helped in no small way by the swift pace. In essence, the former story is a compressed, greatest-hits version of the latter, with the new element of UNIT being the protagonist instead of the Doctor.
Ultimately, due to the quantity of ideas, hearing the episode probably works best having already listened to Static, although this does depend on personal preference. At the same time, much of what occurs is the same or very similar to the events of the previous release.
Highlights from the new content include Andrew French’s understated and chilling performance as Sergeant Warren Calder. The voice of the Static, although not appearing too often here, is also highly unsettling. (But the best Easter egg moment has to be hearing the dial-up internet tone!)
The end sequence again leaves open possibilities for the UNIT facility at Abbey Marston to return, with another mention of the ancient machine beneath the earth. If the Static or this machine appear again, it would be fantastic for it to be taken in a different direction to avoid straying too close to the plot of the first two stories.
Tempest is an atmospheric story with vivid visuals, but does not always give all its characters a lot to do. The reports of weather-related natural disasters across the Northern Hemisphere give the episode an international feel; however the drama is centred in two locations, specially a cottage in the Hebrides and oil rig in the Atlantic Ocean.
Apparitions in the wind and strange lights in the water around the oil rig add to the horror undertones of the episode. The plot similarities with series five’s Invocation – an elderly lady in a secluded country house where ghostly figures appear in the air – mean that Tempest becomes a blend of horror and sci-fi.
The human antagonist is oil rig controller Sanders, an archetypal arrogant and profit-driven man who has no compunction about treating alien visitors with respect or giving them the benefit of the doubt. He would rather save his company and rig – and blow up a trapped alien ship – than show compassion and work with the unearthly visitors. Chris Jarman plays him with the appropriate coarseness and rough edges that make for a generally unpleasant human.
Freeing the episodes from the plot-focused style of earlier releases brings a good opportunity for character moments, such as how Sam Bishop is given moments of humour and rapport with Osgood. This does mean, however, that the stakes may not feel as large given the single-episode format, with Tempest proving a ‘light’ story with a fairly uncomplex resolution.
The development Sam gets means other characters do not have much to do, including James Joyce’s Josh, who appears in a minimal, functional role that could probably have been replaced by any other military character and no differences would be evident. Osgood has a mostly expositional role, but as the focus here is on Sam, this works well considering how he does not always appear in UNIT stories.
The Power of River Song
The Power of River Song is efficient and confident storytelling from Guy Adams, and brings the Incursions set, and the current UNIT run, to a strong close.
Adams’ writing has wit and builds the mystery sequentially, with the fast-paced switching between scenes done effectively both for exposition and narrative leniency. The tale is presented in two parts, and the second part certainly heads in a different direction to the first half, with Vikings, dinosaurs and mind-twisting time slippages. Still, the episodes are cohesive enough to be judged as a single story, as the result is an exciting, dynamic and thoughtful two-parter.
This is the best Kate Stewart story in a while, considering the range Jemma Redgrave is given to play – the snarky Kate heard at the beginning is a fun change from the usual calm and in-control leader. Then, after she discovers a murder victim is actually herself, listeners feel her terror and fear at contemplating her own mortality. She drives the plot forward more than any other character, less because she is the head of UNIT and more because her quest for answers and low tolerance for nonsense.
Kate Stewart is probably the only woman who could match up to the audaciousness and of River Song, who is posing as the director of an alternative energy company. Alex Kingston sells the suspicious and slightly dodgy businesswoman, and although it is obvious there is more going on than there appears, there is enough to convince listeners that River herself could be up to no good.
Sam Bishop and Jacqui McGee team up to investigate eyewitness reports of strange animal sightings. The B-plot is straightforward and involves a lot of running around and close scrapes, and initially does not seem to have any connection with the goings-on at the power station. Nonetheless, the two share some quieter, personal moments and humorous interactions with a Viking warrior.
The narrative wrap-up is a glorious denouement – without spoiling what happens, the stakes are high and the character motivations are what drives the drama to its climax. The hints at River’s motif throughout help draw the story into Big Finish's broader universe (helped a lot by the fact that Howard Carter scores both UNIT and The Diary of River Song!), connecting the dots by having characters who never met on screen to finally be united on audio, gloriously.
Unfortunately, no suite of music is to be found with this release. A solid almost-hour of interviews does prove an adequate substitute, however, with highlights including Jonathan Morris delving into the rationale behind bringing back a monster of his own creation in This Sleep of Death and how he set up writing a sequel. Andrew French shows the depth to which he has thought about his character’s motivations, and waxes lyrical about the enjoyability of spending time in Big Finish studios, specifically working with John Hurt in The War Doctor.
Lisa McMullin also discusses the topicality of ideas in Tempest and her current obsession with climate change, whereas the cast of episodes three and four are very forthcoming in revealing the joys of working with Alex Kingston and having her character meet Kate Stewart and Osgood.
Being the final release in the current run of UNIT boxsets – until the range returns after an extended break – Incursions has the flavour of a series finale, particularly as the third story is so expansive and has such high stakes, not to mention its inclusion of an important and mysterious character like River Song. The eventual return of UNIT, set in the Twelfth Doctor’s era, will mean for a heightened reward for listeners after the longer-than-usual wait. This is no bad thing, as The Power of River Song finishes the current run on a strong and confident note with high promise for the future.