November 29th 2016 | Big Finish Productions | Audiobooks
Words: Martin Parsons
An exciting audio drama spin-off from Doctor Who, UNIT: Silenced stars Jemma Redgrave and Ingrid Oliver as Kate Stewart and Petronella Osgood, members of the Unified Intelligence Taskforce, facing off against the Silence, the race of evil aliens encountered on TV by Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor.
Consisting of four separate hour-long adventure stories, this boxset also sees UNIT dealing with the consequences of the Doctor himself, taking one of his actions at the time considered heroic and examining the wider implications it might have: due to the Doctor’s rather callous behaviour, the Silence have been hunted down and murdered by humans for decades. Now they are seeking an escape from Earth, along with a good dose of sweet revenge!
Viewers of Doctor Who will know that what makes the Silence special is that once you look away from them, you totally forget their existence. This might seem to make them an odd choice for a villain on audio, but the clever scripts from John Dorney and Matt Fitton focus on their ability to subtly influence people, putting them at the heart of a web of political intrigue.
In the first story, “House of Silents”, something strange is going on within the house of the elderly, benevolent and – crucially – blind Mrs Faversham, and UNIT are on the case. However, how effective can a stake-out be when the person doing the observation is constantly forgetting what they have seen? Creepy and dramatic, it’s a great way to reintroduce the Silence’s central concept to people who might be unfamiliar with them – and happily the humour inherent in such a bizarre situation is not ignored.
The writers also get good mileage out of using the plight of the villains to parallel contemporary politics. Casting the Silence as refugees desperately trying to escape persecution is very neat, and their escape/revenge scheme also involves garnering support for thinly-veiled Nigel Farrage stand-in Kenneth LeBlanc (Nicholas Day), allowing for some sharp jabs at right-wing politics. There is also representation for online whistle-blowers in the character of ‘the Eyewitness’, initially a potential threat to UNIT, but one who quickly becomes an ally when revealed to be journalist Jackie McGee (Tracy Wiles).
LeBlanc’s rise to power, supported by the whispery baddies, takes place across the second and third episodes, “Square One” and “Silent Majority”. It is here that the set really hits its stride, and it is huge fun listening to UNIT trying to get a handle on their nebulous nemeses. A laugh-out loud sequence sees Kate, Osgood and Sam Bishop (Warren Brown) constantly falling afoul of the don’t-look-away rule. Nicholas Day is highly memorable as the oleaginous oaf LeBlanc, capturing the essence of recent political successes from people who seem to have little clue about what their job should really entail. The line “you can say what you like when you have no chance of getting elected” from somebody tipped to be the next Prime Minister is so well delivered that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Having UNIT operative Josh Carter (James Joyce) brainwashed into working for the villains might not be an especially original idea, but it allows for some nice character moments as his friends try to draw him back to the side of the angels.
The final part, “In Memory Alone”, is more detached from the other episodes. Despite half of it taking place on an international space platform, where Osgood and Bishop have to deal with a murdered crew of international astronauts, some rasping-voiced uninvited guests and a spaceship wanting to blast them to pieces, this final part feels quite low key. The best moments are small exchanges between the characters, with Wiles’s McGee in particular getting some great moments.
The most impressive thing about UNIT: Silenced is just how real the characters feel. Redgrave and Oliver have been playing Kate Stewart and Osgood excellently on TV for a few years now, but they are even better on audio, the scripts adding interesting new dimensions to their characters. One thing the set particularly makes clear is that the leads are not invincible, which serves to make them feel all the more heroic.
The best spin-offs take ideas from the “mother show” and expand on them, examining old characters or situations from a new perspective; UNIT: Silenced does all this brilliantly. Continuing a great run of standalone UNIT releases while giving the Silence a new lease of life, it’s strong on all fronts, and leaves listeners impatient for the next adventures of Kate and her team.