Tuesday, 29 September 2015

UNIT 1.3: The Longest Night by Joseph Lidster (March 2005)

UNIT does Aliens of London a month early! Dalton and Chaudhry are back in the capital – with several very loud bangs and a by now almost predictably relevant political storyline. I mentioned the 7/7 bombings in one of the previous UNIT entries but it’s even more astonishingly applicable here, a few months before the events themselves occurred, a truly remarkable capturing of the zeitgeist (“is this Britain’s September 11th, Prime Minister?” and later on the indication that this is payback for the Iraq War of 2003; elsewhere, the Europe question still hangs over us all). This is no dystopia; it’s now. The Longest Night is an obvious post-9/11 story, deliberately aiming to be more hard-hitting than the previous UNIT tales. If this wasn’t obvious enough from the fact that Hoffman’s date is brutally shot down before the ten-minute mark and Hoffman himself is offed before the fifteen-minute mark, it’s pretty clear by the story’s explosive end. Lidster’s audio is a story with consequences. This is definitely to its advantage, as it frees the characters from the safety which might otherwise cripple a familiar “gang” setup.

Even if, as is the way of such things, UNIT is starting to feel like it only has three people in its employ, Chaudhry and Dalton (or should we call them Emily and Robert, now they’re on first-name terms) have a fun rapport by this juncture in the series. O’Neal gives Chaudhry an infectious likeability without pitching too obvious a performance. She has a kind of cheeky charm that you can almost hear rubbing off on Dalton’s slightly more staid persona. Dalton himself is the only one with some kind of a character arc over this series so far, learning how UNIT works and ingratiating himself within their ranks. His final fate is an unforeseen but fitting end for him. Also of note is Steffan Rhodri playing the mostly ineffectual, mild-mannered Prime Minister, more of a Frobisher than a Brian Green for those of you who watched Children of Earth; and additionally, Sara Carver returns as Andrea Winnington from The Coup, now conveniently revealed as the daughter of this story’s guest villain, although given Winnington’s terrible dialogue, this isn’t great news.

Major James Kirby is a political radical, an isolationist, an anti-EU terrorist who’s somehow managed to become the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary; he’s a proud Middle Englander, disdainful of Northerners, eager to blame Muslim insurgents for the attacks he’s perpetrating; he’s a mass hypnotist, manipulator of brainwaves, an abuser of army prisoners, a benefiter of nepotism, a distant royal, a misogynist, a racist, a white supremacist. Simply put, he’s several villains rolled into one, just as the villain in the much-overrated The Kite Runner, Assef, is a Nazi sympathiser, a Taliban member and a paedophile at the same time. It feels a bit much: Kirby ends up as a caricature overloaded with generic unpleasant traits Lidster wants to throw in there. Being anti-foreigner is bad? Check. Being anti-women is bad? Check. But we know that. It doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s just rather obvious, and that’s what Kirby is: a terribly obvious villain (although I have to admit, as a Europhile, my first thought was something along the lines of, “the villain…is a Eurosceptic? Brilliant”). We get some interesting nuggets about media propaganda and manipulation, wherein government help-lines are actually turning people up and down the country into sleeper agents, but it’s a bit under-developed. So much more could have been done with this, and there is real promise; for instance, the racism angle ties into Snake Head rather smartly, particularly at the moment when Dalton triumphantly proves Kirby’s petty-mindedness by proving his awareness of his own ancestry, which he was told in the previous audio.

To be fair to The Longest Night, one of the most impressive things about it is the panache of the direction: Edward Salt coaxes tense, exciting performances out of the actors, and fills the soundscape with a terrific dose of explosions, gunfire, and sirens. The bomb at Vita Futura, a nightclub and melting pot of diversity, is a cracking way to begin the story, and Lidster plots the major beats well, meaning the tension builds reasonably effectively with some genuinely shocking plot twists like Meena’s suicide and the BBC studio blowing up live on air. The action scenes are very well-done and highly believable; in an audio that’s bigger on spectacle than it is on subtlety, this is undeniably a good thing. It also has a wonderfully dramatic cliff-hanger which really leaves one at a loss as to what will happen in The Wasting.

But as political comment, The Longest Night is…a bit lacking, just generically paranoid. Its depiction of evil and the motivations behind terrorism is both banal and ludicrously far-fetched; nightmare logic still needs to be plausible. This is tense and pacey at points and the direction is very strong. It’s just not a very strong political drama, which is what it is halfway towards being, nor is it a particularly gripping character drama. Ultimately, and damning though this is for an audio play, it is a lot of noise with little content…but it does conjure up a uniquely feverish, Children of Earth-style atmosphere and there’s something to be said for that.

Other things:
Drunk Hoffman boasting about UNIT – I’m surprised this hasn’t happened more often.
News headlines early on refer to the Euro Combine treaty (this story), racial tensions in Southend (Snake Head) and a flu epidemic. I’m betting the flu epidemic is the key plot point of The Wasting.
“That bloke goes through more women than I’ve-”/“-mentioned my illustrious campaign in Syria?”/“Touché!”
“Tonight’s a first for Will, he’s on a second date.”
The Met’s motto “working for a safer London” is put to sinister use here.
If there was any uncertainty of this audio’s similarity with the 2005 series, Lidster blows up 10 Downing Street and even namechecks Albion Hospital! This latter name must have been something deliberate Lidster borrowed from one of Davies’ scripts.
Currie’s brutal attack on Chaudhry in Westminster Abbey took me quite by surprise.
When suspecting alien foul play: “We could be looking at a ‘John Smith’ situation.”/“It’s OK, Emily, I don’t think the shop dummies are on the move just yet.”
“The female Indian deputy Prime Minister? If only you were a lesbian in a wheelchair, you’d fulfil all of Europe’s minority requirements.”
The “do something you believe in. Kill me…if you dare!!” type scene is so, so hackneyed now.
I’ll grudgingly admit that the recital of London’s Burning is quite chilling.
This set of stories really is pro-military organisations and anti-journalists, isn’t it? I mean, I’m no fan of our much-less-than-saintly media either, no sir, but the dichotomy here is a touch uncomfortable.
“Look at you, the trendy public face of UNIT, a woman with a foreign name! You’re not exactly old Sir Alistair, are you?”/“Britain has changed.”

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