Tuesday, 29 September 2015

UNIT 1.0: The Coup by Simon Guerrier (December 2004)

Although I’ve dipped into oddities like the Unbound range and webcast audios, Simon Guerrier’s UNIT: The Coup is the first instance of non-Doctor Who Big Finish I have yet heard (hopefully the first of many). It’s still very firmly set in the Whoniverse, of course, boasting everybody’s favourite paramilitary organisation. But this is a truly Doctorless story, and more than that, it’s a prologue kicking off a fully-fledged UNIT range to boot. It is only a prologue; it didn’t need to be particularly good. It could have been an okayish-but-fun effort that would whet people’s appetites for Time Heals, the first proper story in the UNIT series. And yet, although it’s only 23 minutes long, it’s quite, quite wonderful: efficient, enjoyable and well-acted.

If you’re reintroducing UNIT, who else would return to help you out but the majestic Nicholas Courtney, coming back to the role he has by this point perfected over the decades, that of Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart? We see him here in the early part of the 21st century (presumably shortly after The Spectre of Lanyon Moor and Minuet in Hell), in what is by this point the default Lethbridge-Stewart position: that of UNIT’s distinguished elder statesman. There are not many roles in Doctor Who that see an actor growing old contemporaneously with their character and yet performing them at various stages in their life – indeed, I can only really think of Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen – but Courtney is a marvel, properly inhabiting the role with nary a hiccup. The Coup is very much his story, protecting UNIT from the latest conspiracy right to the end, and his centrepiece speech in the story’s latter half is well-done, allowing his return to be a major part of invoking the UNIT of old and of restating why it exists and why it does what it does so well.

Into the mix with the Brigadier’s return we get the Silurians, an apt choice given their clash with the Brig thirty years before (and the way the former story is tied to their wish for revenge on Sir Alistair here is smart). They don’t have as long to impress as they did in Bloodtide, but Matthew Brehner does a good job as the benign Orgath; the Silurian breaking into the Brig’s room as he practises his speech is a fun reintroduction for the species. Furthermore, this is a rare Silurian story that actually dares to do something different with them – as proposing a proper, peaceful deal that ICIS are seeking to undermine rather than as aggressors at the heart of a UNIT v Silurian war. The conclusion sees the Brigadier and the Silurians as friends, the wounds of 1970 healed. UNIT’s rehabilitation is complete.

Guerrier also introduces a major new character, Colonel Emily Chaudhry, who seems to be something of a PR person in UNIT terms (making a nice change from the usual stoic leader/eccentric scientist dichotomy). Siri O’Neal makes a strong impression in her first appearance, and I hope to see more done with her character in the future. Ian Farrington makes a strong debut as a director, too, giving us a highly authentic 21st-century London soundscape (complete with a helicopter action sequence as if arranged by Havoc) that bodes well for the rest of the series. A few plot strands are brought up that will hopefully pay off in the other four releases – how the humans and the Silurians will interact, for instance, whether we see more of Francis Currie, and whether ICIS will be back to plague UNIT once more.

It doesn’t have quite the wit or flair of Guerrier’s other works (The Pirate Loop, for instance), but all told The Coup is a great example of making a single 25-minute episode work at its absolute best. As a pilot episode for a fun, fast, contemporary sci-fi series about dealing with extra-terrestrial threats and human conspiracy, it comes highly recommended.

Other things:
Eh, the title music is passable but it doesn’t get you stoked up like the Doctor Who theme, does it? Appropriately, it sounds rather like a rolling coverage news station’s opening sequence.
“Tower Bridge is missing a tower!” THAT is how you begin a story.
Note the reference to Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood (Sympathy for the Devil). Presumably there’s a UNIT officer who looks like David Tennant in this timeline too.
“You were with UNIT at the beginning, weren’t you? It’s only fair you show up for the end.”
The pronunciation of ICIS sounds a little bit sinister when listening in 2015 – and although not on the level of global terrorism, Sergeant French does seem like a bit of a bad egg, bullying journalist Francis Currie and physically assaulting him to sign a non-disclosure form. Indeed, ICIS bring a rather nasty undercurrent to all the fun-and-games.
“In my day we dictated terms to the media…”/“…hence all the bad press.”
“I’m trying to finish my speech. Don’t you people knock?”/“Er, you don’t have a door, sir.”
In the past 40 years, UNIT were “directly responsible for preventing more than 200 attacks by alien beings.”

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